March 17, 2021 // Perspective

How badly do we want to return?

What if you were a Catholic who had not seen a priest in 60 years? What if you had not seen a priest in one year?

Jesuit Father Anthony Corcoran was visiting an old folks’ home in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan when he met a man who had waited six decades to see a priest.

“Priest! I’m Polish,” the old man yelled excitedly when he saw Father Corcoran. For those six decades, he had no contact with the Church. He had prayed the rosary on his fingers. Now, he was begging for the sacraments.

A lot of us today in this country may not have seen a priest or attended Mass in person in almost a year. What will our level of excitement be when we have the opportunity to return? Will we return?

As our country considers what a post-pandemic society will look like, many priests and bishops are worried that their people might not all come back.   

In a recent survey of a sampling of bishops, Francis X. Maier found that they predicted a 25% to 40% “permanent falloff in Mass attendance and parish engagement” after the pandemic recedes. If true, over time, this will mean less lay involvement, fewer marriages and baptisms, declining school enrollment and of course a decline in revenues supporting Church ministries.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reported recently that all sorts of sacramental and religious education efforts in Catholic parishes were very impacted by the pandemic, ranging from baptisms to funerals to Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

Many parishes livestreamed Masses during the pandemic closures. It was a blessing then, but it may have a downside now. One priest told me that if people have grown used to sitting in their bathrobes and drinking coffee while watching Mass livestreamed, they might ask, “Why go back?” If the homilies are better on TV and the timing is flexible, it could be easy to justify.

Worse still, in the privacy of one’s home, it might be easy to skip one week, and then two, and then more.

But all should not be doom and gloom. The Church has had two opportunities to break the mold with this pandemic. The first was the opportunity to respond creatively to the shutdown itself. Drive-by confessions, parking lot Masses, outreach to families in need, the quick reopening of schools — all are examples of parishes responding to challenging situations.

The anecdotes suggest such efforts varied from parish to parish, but I’m willing to bet that the parishes that made an effort to respond creatively will be rewarded by a better-than-average return of parishioners.

The second opportunity is coming up. We have all been starved for community and fellowship in this lost pandemic year. Our Catholic parishes can now respond to this hunger, but only if they make an effort.  

The moment is arriving when parish and diocesan staff must use all the tools available to them to create a welcoming community, giving people a reason to come back as soon as they feel safe to do so.

It is also likely that people will want to retain parts of the pandemic lockdown that appealed to them: more time with family, more quiet and prayer time.

The Church can speak to that need, too. From the pulpit and in its media, at the door of the church and in encounters with parish ministries, the Church has a rare moment for a reset.

We need to embrace a new normal, one in which parishes don’t just talk about community but live it.

Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].

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