September 13, 2020 Essay: A New Paradigm of Church

Sep 13, 2020

A paradigm is defined as a typical example or pattern of something. It is a way of looking at something and easily identifying what it is. Paradigms provide a sense of normalcy to the routine of our lives. When there is an aberration in the paradigm or a disruption of it, we are disconcerted until a new normal is established and patterns once again provide the needed relief to our confused psyches.

The current pandemic is upending our usual ways of doing things, from greeting family and friends to shopping at the corner store, working, spending a day at the beach, or attending Mass. Challenged to adapt to a new reality, we have had to sort through what is truly important in our lives. We have discovered new ways to do those things that matter most to us and, in the process, let go of those things that at one time had meaning, but no longer do. We have seized the opportunity to be forward-thinking since the future that awaits us will be far different than the world that heretofore shaped our perceptions and guided our actions.

If nothing else, the pandemic has heightened our sensibilities about the world around us. More than face masks and gloves, we have taken a closer look at our environments – our homes, our city, our country, our doctors’ offices, our favorite restaurants, our schools, and our Church. Doors once shuttered are now open. In each instance, changes have been made to these environments for reasons of public health. Changes were also made in response to the uneasiness expressed by those who for too many months lived in isolation and yearned to walk in the light of day unafraid, breathing the fresh air of a new day, in a new reality. Such yearning was certainly expressed by parishioners when the doors of the church were closed and the only Masses available were offered virtually through YouTube and Facebook. Your voices were loud and clear; you wanted to return to your church, your spiritual home.

The question that has preoccupied my reflection and prayer for the past several months is what are we returning to when we express the desire to be back inside the church. Or stated in another way, what paradigm of Church do we have in mind when we think of the future of our parish in a post-pandemic world?

The pandemic has starkly laid bare the fissures and injustices woven into the very fabric of society in every country of the world, including our own. Sadly, the Church has not been immune from such tendencies. However, the Church, including our parish, must be prominent among those institutions that will help to resuscitate a consciousness that has become moribund, deaf to those who cry out for justice, compassion, and mercy, and blind to the destruction of our common home.  To be about our mission as Church in the post-pandemic world that awaits us, we must be a voice that resoundingly proclaims the words of Jesus Christ and act in ways that back up what we proclaim.

There is no doubt that we are blessed as a parish and have an illustrious heritage. However, reflecting upon what our parish is capable of doing as we venture forth into a different world than the one we experienced a mere six months ago, it became obvious to me that to return to the “old ways” of doing things may not be enough. Having good preaching, music, liturgies, and being a Jesuit Catholic parish: these are not ends in themselves, but the means through which we minister. How will we use our strengths and build upon them to respond to the needs of the realities of life identified during this pandemic? Embedded in the very mission of our parish is the responsibility to be a moral, compassionate voice amidst the din of competing voices whose only interest is often self-interest.

Returning to church means more than simply opening its doors and returning to its pews.  It will require us to acknowledge a new reality that will look to the Church for guidance on how to respond to the needs and issues that presented themselves during the pandemic and can no longer be ignored or left to future generations. And so, what are those needs?

The livestreaming of Masses has been a source of comfort for many women and men. Regular webinars with diocesan officials provided guidelines to priests and parishes as the impact of the pandemic required constant attention. Comforting and helpful though these electronic means of communication have been, they also put a spotlight on the absence of women’s voices. A male-centric response to the most significant crisis of our time was itself a source of pain and shame for many of the faithful, women and men. A post-pandemic Church must address necessary changes to give consequential roles to women at all levels of leadership.

Electronic media for the past several months have been for many people the sole source of contact with the parish. Such dependence on these forms of communication will likely continue to expand across all age groups. Going forward, this may be the only way in which parishioners will participate in the life of the parish. Using electronic media and creating content will be essential for catechesis, prayer, and worship. This is especially pertinent for the faith formation of youth. A new model will be needed, along with re-designed curricula that combine the traditional teachings of the Church with the issues of a post-pandemic world.

The pandemic is having a devastating impact on all levels of society. However, based upon all statistical analyses, people of color and the poor are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Structural poverty is a sin that can no longer go unnoticed. Its power is killing people in numbers that are shameful to a nation that boasts of its wealth and prominence. Similarly, structural racism can no longer be tolerated. The pandemic is putting a spotlight on the worst aspects of our nation. Sadly, racism insidiously entangles itself in all our relationships. To obliterate racism will require us to acknowledge that racism has been systemic to our daily lives since African women, men, and children were brought to this country on slave ships and auctioned as goods, as commodities. We will not be able to erase racism from society in all its manifestations until we unequivocally state that black lives matter. This is not a political issue; it is a moral issue.

The global impact of this pandemic must also be seen against the backdrop of what is happening to our common home, our planet. The effects of climate change are having dramatic and devastating consequences on all of us, most especially indigenous peoples and their fragile environments. We have all contributed to the harm of our common home. We over-consume at an astonishing rate. The drive to generate more and more profit out of finite natural resources has brought with it the phenomenon of factory farming that depletes the soil of its nutrients, pollutes water, fouls air, destroys forests, and introduces antibiotics into animals and crops, resulting in drug-resistant bacteria. Scientists have long warned us of the threat to the planet’s biodiversity, to life itself. Yet there are those who would denigrate science. Even our noble motivation to return to church and resume public Masses has exposed an unmistakable tension between faith and science.

To be Church is to bring a message of hope and healing to a broken world. We must be engaged in and with the world, in all its hustle and bustle, in its triumphs and its wounds. Returning inside a church building to attend Mass is only the beginning of what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ. Comforting and reassuring as it is, it is not an end in itself. We need to ask ourselves, what have we learned during this pandemic? Hopefully, in the midst of attending to our own well-being, we also heard those voices in our world crying out for help, for justice, and mercy.

Now that the doors of our church are open once again, let us recommit ourselves to work together for the greater glory of God. Let us be unafraid to imagine and fashion a new paradigm of Church that embraces its heritage and adapts itself to a new reality. To this end, I have initiated a strategic planning process among the parish staff and have discussed with them the leadership role our parish can take in thinking expansively about how we are Church in a post-pandemic world. Our goal will be to amplify and expound upon our recently re-stated Mission Statement. As we develop our planning, I will invite you to join us in this effort.

In our deliberations of what we want for the Church and our parish, as we resolutely plant our feet in a post-pandemic world, let us join in prayer that the Holy Spirit guide us with wisdom and compassion as we joyfully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, serve the Church, and love one another.

– Fr. Dennis Yesalonia, SJ, Pastor