On April 12, Catholics in the United States observed Easter Sunday mostly alone. With churches closed and Masses canceled in the midst of a global pandemic, community celebration was limited to live streamed Masses. Most Catholics had already gone without the Eucharist for over a month, and to many the absence of the sacrament on the holiest day of the year felt particularly painful.
The pandemic is “fundamentally changing how we do and be church,” as a series at the National Catholic Reporter puts it. We have to worship, socialize, and serve differently for the time being, and already individuals and institutions have begun to adapt to this new way of life.
Certainly, we’ve had to get creative about seeking communion and gathering in prayer. Without the routine of Mass, laypeople have had to be more intentional about their prayer lives in their own homes. This integration of church and home, although temporary, could help us reimagine for the future how faith informs our daily lives and commitments—a counterbalance to the temptation to “keep it in church.” One diocesan official in Florida observed, “The coronavirus did in a weekend what it has taken the Second Vatican Council almost sixty years to try to get Catholics to do, which is get out of their church buildings and talk with people about Jesus.” Without our usual schedules to fall back on, we can ask ourselves what practices draw us closer to each other and to God, and how to share these with the people closest to us.
Likewise, Catholic institutions have been exemplary in finding new ways to care for people in urgent circumstances. “Parishes, schools, dioceses and social-service agencies are attempting to carry out their missions in a vastly transformed culture in which we cannot wait for men and women of faith to come to us and our churches,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego told NCR. Health workers and chaplains, putting themselves in harm’s way to accompany the sick and their families, have devised new ways to hold prayers for the dying by phone. Groups like the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities have adapted to serve the most vulnerable—reorganizing serving kitchens into takeaway-meal stations, for example, or providing extensive ethical guidelines for the treatment of patients with the virus. With creativity and care, these groups have embodied Pope Francis’s image of church-as-field-hospital, seeking out those in need wherever they are.
Now that our old habits are at least temporarily suspended, it’s time to be imaginative and inventive about how we can bring God to others. Many have remarked on the paradox of somehow feeling closer to others now despite the distance. We are quickly discovering that physical separation can present an opportunity to express love in new ways. The challenge is not to miss this opportunity now, but also to remember these new ways once we can gather again for the sacraments. The church should emerge from the pandemic more resourceful and flexible, more alert to new possibilities for ministry, and less dependent on routine.