An Irish priest has urged the Church to learn lessons from the “dress rehearsal” of COVID-19-related suspensions of public liturgies, warning that “in a decade or so Sunday Mass will not be celebrated in every parish”.
The coronavirus crisis must serve as an impetus “to start thinking at last” about how to sustain the life of the Church in situations where priests and Sunday Masses can no longer be taken for granted, Fr Eugene Duffy, a lecturer in Theology at Mary Immaculate College Limerick, wrote June 2 in a piece in The Irish Times.
Duffy was writing when the date for the resumption of public liturgical life in Ireland was still at the original forecast of July 20.
Although that date has now been pushed up to June 29 – and many priests and faithful are celebrating that fact, with the Irish Bishops preparing a checklist for parishes to return to Masses safely – Duffy’s reflections on the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis still ring true.
– “Gathering in church is not the only way we can sustain Christian faith and practice”
Aside from the “daunting” and “very challenging” task of ensuring churches are public-health-compliant in the long-run – a job made even more complicated by the fact many volunteers will be sidelined due to being in the elderly “high-risk” category – there are thorny “pastoral and theological issues” involved in the post-COVID-19 period for the Church, Duffy wrote.
Especially but not only if there is a second wave of coronavirus infections – and in a worst-case scenario churches “cannot be opened for a year” – “we will have to think differently about how the life of the Church will continue”, the academic cautioned.
Duffy said that the starting point for reimagining the Church after COVID-19 must be the realisation “that our gathering in the church is not the only way we can sustain the life of Christian faith and practice”.
“We could also remember that possibly a majority of Catholics in the world cannot access weekly Sunday Eucharist, even if they wanted to”, he added.
Indeed, Duffy wrote that the COVID-19 crisis contains parallels with the fall of the Jewish Temple in 70CE, even if “their loss was permanent, [and] ours is only temporary”.
After the Temple fall, “Judaism did not disappear; the people adapted to the new reality and Judaism then became deeply embedded in the life of the family, which has become the principal agent in the transmission of the Jewish faith”, the academic recalled.
– The Irish Church: prepared for a ‘Temple moment’?
But is modern Catholicism in Ireland – and beyond – ready for COVID-19 to turn into a ‘Temple moment’?
To create Catholic resilience, Duffy urged the Church to “seize this opportunity for some profound reflection on how we relate to God in significant ways, apart from the sacramental moments, and nurture these so that when we do reassemble on Sundays our celebrations will be richer and more profound”.
Pillars for a more authentic Church post-coronavirus, Duffy suggested, include more emphasis on preaching in the context of the sacrament – not just on the sacraments themselves – more work on digital evangelisation and online services, more encouragement for prayer in families and more “imaginative and useful” opportunities for practising charity.
“We have limited much of our Christian identity to attendance at the Sunday liturgy, while neglecting to foster the life of daily prayer, reflection on the scriptures and the works of charity that are at the heart of the life of discipleship”, Duffy lamented.
– “We might just be missing an opportunity for profound renewal”
The priest and academic questioned whether the “anxiety” on the part of some Catholics to see their churches open for Masses again might not be feeding into the “superficiality” that, in his opinion, has characterised Irish Catholicism in recent decades.
To counter that frivolity, Duffy called for Church leaders to pay more attention to the wisdom of pastoral ministers on the ground on their experiences of the spirituality that truly sustains people in times of crises, and not just expend energies “on the technicalities of sanitising spaces and crowd management”.
“We might just be missing an opportunity for profound renewal”, Duffy warned, urging Irish Catholics and their priests and bishops not to squander the same chance with COVID-19 that the Church had after Vatican II.
After that modernising Council, “we did the mechanical things, like reordering sanctuaries, but did not take on board the theology that underpinned the structural alterations and have reaped the harvest of that neglect for decades”, the priest lamented, warning against “attending to the practicalities rather than looking at the fundamentals” in the context of the Church’s own COVID-19 crisis.