Cue the cliché: We are living in unprecedented times. Actually, in some ways we aren’t. The world–and specifically here I’m going to address the situation of the Catholic Church–has faced pandemics before and much worse ones at that. We’ve seen lockdowns and separation from the sacraments and all and I don’t want to retread that familiar ground.
But what’s unprecedented this time is the ability to connect with one another despite our separation. Since the the beginning of the US lockdowns in March (and before that in Italy and other places in Europe), we’ve seen how we can still connect, do our work, go to school, order groceries and takeout, entertain ourselves, and most importantly, pray together through our computers and phones and tablets. It’s especially gratifying to see how our priests and parishes have responded in an almost entirely grassroots manner to provide us with live-streamed Masses when we were cut off from our communal celebrations in our churches (sometimes to hilarious, Facebook-filter effect). Kudos to the men of the collar for stepping up, often in areas they weren’t comfortable in, to figure out to get connected and online and streaming, almost instantly.
But as the weeks drag on and we receive increasingly dire predictions for how long we’re going to be like this, questions arise. Yes, even as some states have started to ease restrictions, many lockdowns will last into June at least. And even then, we are warned, life will not go back to pre-February 2020. We will continue to have restrictions on gatherings and requirements to maintain distance and/or wear masks and more. We are also warned that a second wave of the coronavirus will probably hit us in the fall, perhaps even worse than the first wave. This is our life for the time being.
So what does that mean for the life of the Church? At some point, we need to figure out how to get the sacraments to the people, not just the Eucharist and confession, but baptism, Confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing of the sick. We need to figure out to continue faith formation for both children and adults; to foster a devotional faith life of the community, like the Rosary and Adoration; to train our priests and deacons in seminaries; to just do what constitutes the daily life of the Church.
What does baptism look like in the pre-vaccine coronavirus world? Does it make sense to take a newborn out to a church, even if it’s just parents, godparents, and the priest or deacon? Should we ask parents to baptize the child themselves and wait until they’re older before brining them in for conditional baptism and anointing? What about first communion and first confession? Confirmation? Do we even have large ceremonies like we’re used to?
What will Sunday Mass look like when gatherings are still limited to 25 or 50 people? Do we have a lottery ticket system? You put your family’s name into a virtual hat and then hope you’re on of the lucky ones to get a coveted slot and show up at your appointed Mass and otherwise watch this week on live-stream?
What does marriage look like? The couple, the witnesses, and the priest in the church? Do the witnesses even have to be physically present or can they watch over Skype?
I wonder if dioceses have even begun to think about these questions. I hope they have. I know that if I were still working for the Archdiocese of Boston’s Office for Catholic Media, I’d be knee-deep in developing standardized training and best practice guidelines for priests and parishes for things like what equipment they need to have a quality live-stream, how to get an internet connection in the church, how to set themselves up for audio. Or how best to conduct faith formation classes or Bible studies or the like via Zoom.
There’s a lot to be done on the communications and technology front by the Church in order to ensure that the life of the Church continues as we slowly make our way back to something resembling normal life. The time to start planning it is now. I hope they’ve begun.