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Deacon-structing COVID-19: 5 things that shouldn't go back to normal

Deacon Pedro

Monday, March 21, 2022

Photo by Tama66 on Pixabay
I write this from inside an airplane – my first flight in over two years – as things begin reopening, restrictions are lifted, and things begin to return to what they used to be. The last two years seem a blur; it's hard to remember where we were in March 2020, when we first heard of some new coronavirus and a place called Wuhan. I remember news of cruise ships quarantining their passengers and our prime minister urging all Canadians to return home. I also remember news of the first COVID-19 death in Canada and how we thought a two-week lockdown would do the trick.
Over the last two years much has changed. The WHO reports that over six million people have died of the virus worldwide and some 463 million have been infected (confirmed cases only!). In Canada there have been more than 37,000 deaths and over three million confirmed COVID-19 cases. All of us know people who've had the virus and people who have died. Even today, as mask mandates are lifted in Ontario, there are still some 4,000 people in hospitals in Canada, and today, when I am writing this post, there were 52 COVID-19 deaths in our country.
I remember two years ago, we began a series of programs speaking to people around the world about what they were going through: Hope From Home and Faith in a Time of Crisis are still available to stream on our website. It's good to watch them and remember.
On one episode of Faith in a Time of Crisis, I spoke with Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, who, when asked if he thought the Church would ever go back to normal, said that he hoped that we would never go back to what it was like before.
Those wise words have stuck with me since.
And so today, as we rejoice in many things going back to the way they used to be at church and things returning to "normal" (I particularly look forward to seeing people's faces at Mass), I offer five pandemic adjustments that I hope we keep:
 
1. Greet people at the door
Many parishes have a robust team of ushers and welcomers, but quite often their role is limited to showing people where they can find a seat in a crowded church. Pandemic measures forced us to make our welcoming teams larger and forced them to talk to parishioners as they arrived at the door. Contact tracing required us to ask for their names.
This meant that community was being built as we got to know each other. Ushers began welcoming people by name, and often conversations began to happen. In many cases, as clergy had to assist, for the first time, clergy spoke with parishioners they didn't know before, leading to other, deeper conversations. I pray that all parishes continue to invest in developing their welcoming strategies, thus continuing to build up and strengthen the parish community.
 
2. Change it up every once in a while
Two examples: The first happened unintentionally in my parish when churches first closed and we began livestreaming Mass. We were only celebrating one Mass on Sunday, so we began rotating our musicians so that the responsibility didn't fall on just a few of them. As a result, not only did we discover new musicians and singers that volunteered to help, but it meant that our parishioners got to experience a variety of music and styles. When we reopened and our regular weekend five-Mass schedule resumed, in order to continue rotating musicians for the 10am livestreamed Mass, we had to more or less also rotate them for all the other Masses. Now we've settled into a pattern where each Mass has its set music group or singer but at least once a month it is someone else. This has made our parish less "cliquey" with people feeling like they are in a parish and not just belonging to one Mass.
The second example had to do with people not being able to sit in "their own pew" all the time. Having to sit in a different spot each week was very good and meant that people were more considerate of others and exposed to other people. I pray that parishes that are able continue to offer all parishioners (no matter what Mass they choose to attend) the fullness of what the parish can offer at liturgy and that people try to sit in a different spot, or go to a different Mass, every once in a while.
 
3. Parish outreach
I think we can all agree that this is likely the most significant benefit of the last two years as we were forced out of the church and into the streets. I heard that in Victoria, BC, during that first lockdown, Bishop Gary Gordon asked his priests to spend time each day phoning parishioners. A week later, many reported back to him how amazing that experience had been. Many long-time parishioners had never spoken to their priest.
This is all too common with our "go-to-Mass-once-a-week-and-get-out-as-quickly-as-possible" church attendance mentality. But it is also because many pastors and clergy are too busy with the self-preservation of their parishes and not able to invest in the mission of the parish.
In some parishes, priests and deacons doubled their home visits or simply went out for walks (as many of us at home did), making sure they waved at and greeted people as they walked. With fewer Masses, baptisms, marriages, and confessions, and with no first Communions and confirmations, and no meetings and fewer appointments, priests had time to do this kind of outreach.
When churches were closed, our parish was able to offer drive-by Communion. Each week we saw some 200 people who came. Many of them were not able to come to Mass even when we were open and now, with no restrictions, still have not been able to return. Their reasons are varied, and I wonder how many feel abandoned by the Church.
In our parish we also offered a New Year’s house blessing – a beautiful tradition on the Feast of the Epiphany where the home is blessed (from outside) and the initials 20+C+M+B+22 were inscribed in blest chalk on their doors (the year – 2022 – with the initials for each of the wise men – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but which also stand for Christus Mansionem Benedicat, or Christ Bless Our Home). We must’ve blessed 100 homes! It meant that we were out in the community, spending time with people. I hope we will do it again when it's warmer and maybe make a point of going to the homes of those who still have health-related concerns. I pray that all parishes invest in a team of home visitors and that clergy spend a little less time in the office and in the sacristy and more time out in the streets.
 
4. Media ministry
Having one Sunday Mass and maybe one daily Mass livestreamed has also been good for outreach. Perhaps not all parishes need to continue doing so (and certainly not at all Masses), as TV Mass is available through networks like Salt + Light TV and platforms like Salt + Light Plus, but recognizing the importance of media ministry is crucial. In our parish, we created a whole new media ministry, and many students from our local high school – who never came to Mass before – have joined. It's a great way for them to get their community hours and to connect with the Church. Many priests took to social media, recording and posting messages and sometimes even creating little videos or even series. This won't be for every priest or deacon, but I pray many continue doing all they can to reach as many people, in whichever way possible, wherever they can be found.
 
5. Solidarity with the sick and dying
We always pray at Mass for those who are sick and those who have died; in our parish, once a month, we have a requiem Mass (at the cemetery when weather permits) for those who have died that month, and as we heard of more and more parishioners who were sick or who had died, the list grew. It was not always possible, however, because of confidentiality, to know (and mention) whether the cause was COVID-19 related. But I think reading all those names out loud at Mass brought us closer to those who were deeply and directly affected by the pandemic. It's always important to be in solidarity with those who are suffering. It's easy to ignore it when their suffering is distant. Still, most of us were aware when parishioners were sick or had died (we celebrated many funerals!) and made a point to tell each other and ask for prayers. This meant that the suffering was never too far away from us.
We also knew and prayed for parishioners who were having a hard time, suffering from depression or other mental health issues or had lost their jobs or were facing financial struggles. A direct result was that our St. Vincent de Paul ministry grew, as did our collaboration with other Christian churches in our community. I pray that, as we long for all of this to go away and hope for no more sickness and death, we don't forget that there are still people getting sick, still people in hospitals, and still people dying from COVID-19.
 
Lastly, I’d like to sneak in one more suggestion that I pray is heeded by all employers, not just parish and diocesan managers and administrators. The last two years taught us that it is possible to spend less time in the office and more time doing the things that matter: Drive less, work from home, make time for baking, gardening, bird-watching, and board games, and especially for more prayer and more time reading Scripture. If you can, without affecting how you serve your parishioners, let your staff work from home or have a flexible schedule. Not only will this be good for the environment, but it will be good for our mental health and our general well-being and will improve our productivity. I pray that all of us, especially those who work for the Church and for Church organizations, will continue to put our employees' well-being and their families first. It will definitely help us all to improve our relationships with each other, with God's creation, and with God.
In his book, Let Us Dream, written during the pandemic, Pope Francis spoke of "canon-ball moments". In the book he calls them "personal 'Covids'". These are crisis situations that God allows in our lives. He wrote that they make “you suffer a lot, but if you allow it to change you, you come out better. But if you dig in, you come out worse.” It’s true. If they make us bitter, they are meaningless. But they always have the capacity to make us better. Let's let these past two years of COVID-19 make us better.
Let's not go back to the way we were before.
 
For more reflections and memories of  COVID-19 lessons, read the Deacon-structing the COVID Spring blog series from 2021.

pedroIn every blog post, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: pedro@slmedia.org
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