IN SEARCH OF THE PASTORAL “NEW NORMAL”!
Fr Kevin Dring
“There is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3:5)
The quote from Ecclesiastes, part of that litany that we are all familiar with, is very apt for these times through which we are living. The whole package of social distancing measures and restrictions has drastically affected how we interact as human beings, no hugging or embracing and not even an inter-bubble handshake allowed! It has also affected drastically people’s experience of Church and participation in public worship. The Ecclesiastes reading says simply “there is a time for everything under the sun” … even for a pandemic!
The whole theme of pastoral ministry in face of the pandemic has stirred up an interesting debate, or series of debates. I appreciate that as a priest in a seminary setting it’s difficult to claim to really experience the reality that pastors (priests, deacons and those in lay ministry) are facing on the parish front line, the “coal face” of pastoral ministry. Having said that I have been trying to listen, albeit it one step removed, to how people have been adapting to the challenges. Listening to the experiences of seminarians, and reflecting with them on those experiences, listening to the testimony of many priest friends, and parishioners, plus all the soul searching and reflecting via the media, Catholic and otherwise.
I can remember that when the first lockdown began in March there was both a sense of hoping that everything would pass over quickly, that it would be a “short sharp shock”, but also a sober hope that we would somehow take hold of the crisis moment as an opportunity to learn good and important lessons about life and faith. In other words that we could somehow become better people, a better Church, through this experience of crisis.
Who can forget on March 27th, if they saw it, Pope Francis standing in a rain and windswept St Peter’s Square almost alone in the darkness of the evening, reaching out to the Church and the world with a message of challenge and hope as he reflected on the Gospel of Jesus calming the storm: “In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters”. Words inviting us all through crisis to a profound and deep conversion. This call to human solidarity that became the core message of his recently published encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti” (“All Brothers & Sisters”) on human solidarity. Then just days ago he addressed the 75th Meeting of the UN General Assembly with similar words: “The pandemic, indeed, calls us ‘to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing, a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not’. It can represent a concrete opportunity for conversion, for transformation, for rethinking our way of life”.
Parishes, and particularly parish priests, have had to deal with a mountain of unenviable practical tests, from creatively trying to connect with parishioners through “lockdown”, keeping an eye out for the most needy, to celebrating liturgies with all the restrictions on numbers and hygiene requirements.
We’ve seen such good use made of media and IT, reaching so many who otherwise can’t (or won’t) physically enter the church door. Inevitably, though, as the months have rolled by, and with no guaranteed clear end in sight, more and more people (myself included) have begun to express a weary frustration, an understandable wanting everything just to “get back to normal”.
But as we do move towards “back to normal”, let’s not lose sight of moving forward to something better, to be better people, and a better Church: reimagining how we can better build community, how we can include people who traditionally may have been “beyond our radar”, how we can and must build stronger bonds of solidarity with the wider community, and how to help people to a simpler and purer experience of prayer and relationship with God that is unburdened by unnecessary clutter.
I always remember one of our annual Seminary retreats many years ago in Rome, given by Hugh White, a Scottish priest and Biblical scholar. He took us through the Bible, from beginning to end, looking at the crises faced by the key Biblical characters. His constant “refrain”, as we worked our way through the Bible, was “in the face of a crisis you either break down or you break through, and those with faith will always break through”. May we, in the strength of faith, break through to help build something better for the benefit of all.