Teaching Our Faith — 'When things get back to normal…'

Dr. Karen Shadle

In this set of teaching editorials, Church leaders in the areas of worship, formation, service and administration will reflect on what we have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and how that might inform ministry going forward. 

I’ve so often begun a sentence with those words over the course of the past year. In our churches as in our lives, we may long to pick up with routines as they were in 2019, committing the many months of this pandemic to a dark memory. But Archbishop Kurtz has challenged us to consider a more ambitious goal: Rather than returning to normal, let us strive for something better than normal.

With regards to liturgy and worship, I affirm this goal of “better than normal.” According to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), “normal” is a steady annual decline in sacramental celebrations such as baptisms and weddings.

“Normal” is the well-documented “graying of ministry,” in which the ranks of church committees, choirs and volunteer corps experience stagnation, low turnover and aging out.

Finally, “normal” is barely one-third of Catholics who say they believe in transubstantiation, a core teaching of our faith, which affirms the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

I mention these pastoral and catechetical challenges not to dwell on the church’s failings, but rather to ask the question: Is this the normal to which we long to return?

Vincent van Gogh once said, “Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”

As we look with hope to the future, we have the opportunity to eschew a comfortable normal and reach for something even better. It could be that we are on the brink of a golden age of liturgy, a great flowering of the church. I offer here some thoughts on how we might accomplish that.

Re-centering the Eucharist

In the coming months, at the archbishop’s direction, many of the restrictions on physical gatherings will begin to ease. We will be faced with choices about what things should return, when and how.

The celebration of the Eucharist is not merely one of many activities offered by the parish. It is the core of all parish life. The outrageous beauty of the Sunday Mass is the fuel that powers everything else; it inspires, nourishes and focuses our efforts.

The post-COVID parish needs to examine the relationship of every activity to the Sunday Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life. The good gardener prunes the garden. Flourishing is only possible when there is adequate room. For any organization, pruning might mean doing fewer things better. This process takes courage on the part of leaders because the paved road of “normal” is always easier.

Coming off-line

One happy byproduct of the pandemic is that many parishes have taken a giant leap forward in learning and adapting new technologies. These have the potential to enhance some ministries in the post-COVID era. However, like all tools, technologies must be critically evaluated so that they are used appropriately. “Virtual” liturgy impedes intimacy. The routine livestreaming of Mass risks distancing us from the Body of Christ, which longs to be truly in the presence of the living God. Furthermore, the sick and homebound who cannot attend deserve to receive pastoral visits and have the sacraments offered in the flesh rather than mediated through a screen. Our faith is necessarily incarnational and communal.

As we come out of the pandemic, we must take a critical look at the practice of virtual worship and consider limiting its use to special events and high-volume liturgies when the church will be overcrowded.

The domestic church

Finally, the pandemic has allowed us to build some momentum in marking the domestic space as a place for worship. The creativity of this time has sparked a renaissance of popular piety and devotional practices. Some are praying rosaries and the Liturgy of the Hours for the first time as a way of maintaining a spiritual life in the absence of Mass. As we return to the pews, we must continue to highlight the rich blessings of devotional practices and support families in their efforts to live liturgically at home.

This is a critical time for our church. Many are experiencing a renewed desire for the sacraments, but others are considering whether they want to return at all. We could view the pandemic merely as a detour and start back where we were when the shutdowns began. Or, we could take this unique opportunity to repudiate “normal” and ignite a renewal.

What steps will you take to be “better than normal” and to call even more back to our beautiful faith?

Dr. Karen Shadle is director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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