April 2, 2020
Dear Pastors and Parish Leaders,
In some ways, the world feels like it is spinning out of control. And yet, at the same time, it may feel like everything has ground to a halt. Such a fraught time, filled with fear and anxiety. And yet, even in the midst of this, there are appearing green shoots of kindness, solidarity, courage and faith. These green shoots will continue to sprout even as the pandemic worsens, for the human spirit God created is strong and the human inclination toward hope is tenacious.
We will not come through this pandemic the same. That may sound stark, but it is not a dire warning. We will come out the other end of this global crisis either worse or better, depending on how we respond. Each of us will have a say in the outcome. In this lies hope, I believe…especially if we can learn to radically surrender our lives (and sense of control) to God.
The practical reason for this message is to share thoughts that have developed for me on how parishes might optimally respond to this crisis, for the short and long-term good of each of our people and our parishes. These thoughts are continuing to evolve for me and they are not comprehensive. And, I have no doubt that you and others have or will have different and better pastoral ideas for how to optimally respond to the situation at hand.
Opportunity. It is a key word for me in all of this. We have a pastoral opportunity unlike any other in our lifetime, far more than even the scarring tragedy of 9-11. The pandemic is of global scale and will likely be with us on some level for a year or more. And this “event” will have a lasting impact, leaving upended much we thought before to be true.
The opportunity is to pastorally respond in such a way that furthers the mission of Jesus Christ, that people experience meaningful conversion, that the structure of society is fundamentally altered to reflect more the Kingdom of God than a secular, post-modern, utilitarian marketplace.
What does this opportunity feel like? I equate it to a principle that has influenced me deeply: People remember who was there for them when their mother died. I think that says it all. People also remember who was not there for them when their mother died. How will people look back and remember their parish in these weeks and months?
A tremendous vacuum has been created in our lives. Never has there been such a mass dislocation to our rhythm of life. And it may be only beginning. The dislocation is, in varying degrees for people, economic, religious, social, familial, and ultimately, existential. Our sense of well-being is strained; for many it will be to the breaking point and beyond.
What will fill this vacuum? What will people let in? What will people reach for to try to find a new equilibrium? This, I believe, is happening in each of us more and more as this crisis plays out. Many will sink into depression, many will act out in troubling ways, many will turn to or deepen addictive behaviors. And yes, many will find personal resources from within that will cause them to rise to generously meet this moment.
Beyond desperation and alienation, kindness and courage, another reality can enter into the vacuum being created: Grace. Grace is God’s alone to give, but God wills that we be conduits of grace, in each encounter and at every turn. And that is truer in this crisis than ever. We can help to facilitate the conveyance of grace that is pent up and waiting to flood into people’s hearts, minds and souls. And grace will be a game-changer for people’s lives and for society, infinitely more than a Netflix account, a well-stocked liquor cabinet, or a still-adequate retirement savings. We have what the world needs more than anything else, at least existentially: The Good News of Jesus and the joy of experiencing God personally, intimately, salvifically, and yes, also communally.
In practical terms, what might the pastoral response look like in this time of dislocation and opportunity? While trying not to be too detailed, here are elements I offer for consideration:
Primarily Pastoral, Not Financial The first outreach should not be related to offertory or finances in any way. Or, if the initial contact has already mentioned money, then the primary parishioner experience of the parish should feel pastoral and not financially-focused
Actual Phone Calls As time-intensive as it may seem, every parishioner/household in the parish should be called (or video-called). In large parishes this might be done not only by the pastor but by staff and perhaps parish leadership (such as parish council members). Consider who has the gifts to be able to navigate these calls well, with some manner of informal training perhaps conducted. Active listening will powerfully bless parishioners. No talk of online giving or other stewardship themes in this pastoral call. Questions could include:
o How are you doing?
o What do you need (both spiritually and temporally)?
o How would you feel about us praying together?
o How can we be of ongoing support to you (and your family) in this difficult time?
o Is there something you would like our pastor to add to his book of prayer intentions that he has created for when he says daily Mass…and/or add to the list on our website for us all to pray for?
o And administratively, if not already available…Can we have an email address to stay in better contact? (Encouraging social media connection is also apt here, where applicable.)
Deepened Relationships The quality of these calls will help to determine the sense of affinity between parishioners and pastor/parish that will exist during this interregnum (when we can’t gather for Mass, etc.) and well beyond. Parishioners will always remember that you (the parish) cared enough to call personally to attend to them. Find ongoing ways to continue to relationship-build through both large-scale means and individual outreach.
Input for Action Compile the valuable input from parishioners to help develop a sense of what is most needed in your parish and develop an action plan accordingly. Follow up on requests as possible and appropriate, including follow-up calls and virtual visits. And consider how you might be able to digitally resource parishioners, broadly and specifically, in this period when many people will have greater discretionary time and openness to theological content and spiritual practices. Email and social media make regular resourcing not only possible, but free (or inexpensive) and easy.
Financial, Too If a sense of pastoral concern has been adequately experienced by parishioners, then the question of offertory can be broached even soon after and with less of a chance that it will be viewed cynically: “All they care about is our envelope.” Done well, a call to continuing offertory (stewardship) support, including a tutorial on the mechanism of online giving, might well prompt a temporary increase in giving for some and add some parishioners to the offertory rolls. The messaging here needs to be sensitive but also honest, direct and transparent.
Evangelization Look beyond your parish data base. Consider how your parish can reach and serve people in the community who are not parishioners, per se. This is the great evangelizing moment of our time, in the dislocating vacuum we all find ourselves. Prayerfully explore, as parish leadership, how to bring the light of the Gospel to those in varying degrees of darkness and consider all interfaces, both by happenstance and design, as a chance for grace to bless others. Most importantly, consider how to encourage parishioners to be emissaries of Christ Jesus in this crisis, so that they embrace their baptismal identity and activate their gifts to evangelize. Imagine the power of our parishioners taking up the great commission to reflect the love and mercy of God, gently and confidently sharing their hope and their joy in Jesus! Especially in such a time as this! We can call parishioners to this and it will inspire in many a sense of purpose in the midst of fear, sadness and loss. We can mobilize the baptized now to help foster a contagion of grace and conversion that will long survive the pandemic!
We all are in unchartered waters. It can feel scary on a personal, visceral level. And yet we are a Church that pretty much has “been there and done that” in 2000 years. We must not be paralyzed, nor daunted. We have, after all, Jesus promising that we shall not perish on the roiling sea. And we have the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit as our sure inheritance from Jesus.
If this crisis is revealing anything, it is our interdependence as a world and as the Body of Christ. Your personal modeling and strategic leadership in this very moment will define the future path of the entire Catholic Church, not just your parish. There are no borders that can contain grace! We can and must be committed to channeling the Holy Spirit, who is sowing the seeds of New Pentecost, which, if Paschal Mystery can be believed, is ready to burst forth from this seemingly barren Lenten soil.
Jesus, we trust in you. Come, Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!
Director, St. Joseph Educational Center