NEW YORK – At the end of April, Father Kevin Gillespie and the staff at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., will hold a special meeting. Their task: Figuring out the right balance between pre-pandemic and pandemic ministry right now, while the world waits for an elusive post-pandemic future.
Gillespie isn’t alone in this proactive approach. Other American Catholic Church leaders too are starting to consider the importance of the months ahead, with some viewing it as an important opportunity for evangelization and reinvigoration.
“It’s really important that the church over the next three, four weeks, five weeks, as we start to think post-pandemic more intensely, and even more over this summer period, doesn’t just get back to business as normal, but thinks very carefully about the strategy for cultivating and enriching this communal life right now,” Timothy O’Malley, director of education at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life told Crux.
For Gillespie and those at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, they’ll consider how to move forward with programs that thrived online. He remembers that pre-pandemic, 20-30 people would show up for a daily Mass. Now, they have 300 people tuning into a daily homily online. The same is true for religious education, where they get more students on a weekly Zoom than they did in-person.
In a conversation with Crux, Gillespie said that through these platforms parishioners are being “evangelized in new ways” that are “nourishing their faith.” For that reason, he said, a combination of in-person and virtual programs – a hybrid format – may be the best way forward.
“That way people get to see and get to know one another physically and it meets the needs and practical circumstances of our parishioners,” Gillespie said.
Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of St. Paul and Minneapolis, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, however, views the pandemic as a double-edged sword.
Cozzens recognizes the creativity that’s led to new ways to evangelize, but also has a sense that the pandemic sped up a pre-existing decline in church membership. A recent Gallup Poll found the percentage of Catholics who say they’re a member of a church dropped 18 points, from 76 percent to 58 percent, from 1998-2000 to 2018-2020.
“There are real questions about whether people will come back to Mass after COVID vaccines are common and that kind of thing,” Cozzens told Crux. “We can’t sit around and wait for the answer to happen. We have to actually turn ourselves into missionaries now, so we can begin to try and reach out to people.”
“What we’re seeing, and this is I think what the Gallup Poll numbers show, is that the time for cultural Catholicism is dead, and even cultural religiosity. It’s just dying, and unless people are intentional disciples, as Jesus actually calls us to be, people won’t come to church.”
That idea of people becoming missionaries, or intentional disciples, is part of a shift from “maintenance to mission” that Cozzens believes needs to happen to get people back in the pews once the pandemic ends.
“The only way the faith is going to grow today is by one person sharing their faith with another person,” he said. “Helping our people come to understand the gift of our faith, and the people who survived well through COVID understand it, so they become, in a certain way, our missionaries to go forward.”
When Bishop James Powers of Superior considers the membership drop identified by the Gallup Poll, he’s sad but not surprised. He noted the nation’s been moving away from Christianity for some time now. That, he said, is where evangelization comes into play, “because of how easy it is to just fall in line with society.”
At a time he calls “paramount” for church evangelization, the bishop announced last month a new diocesan Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship. He too has a firm belief that a shift from “maintenance to mission” is needed.
The place to start, Powers said, is inspiring Catholics to further evangelize themselves – for example, reminding parishioners of the importance of the dismissal from Mass.
“That dismissal is so important in our understanding of going forth and taking that body of Christ,” Powers told Crux. “That’s one of the places where, as we come out of this pandemic as a community, we really need to be able to focus on and that’s at the heart of evangelization: That going forth.”
As the ability to reintroduce the in-person church community becomes more and more of a reality, Elizabeth White, who heads a new Office for the New Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship for the Archdiocese of Chicago, wants parishes to remember that people are not in the same place they were a year ago, so it may take time for some to acclimate. Thus, she suggests maintaining the technology that’s worked through the pandemic and slowly reintroducing programming.
“It’s a slow on ramp, and we can’t assume we flip a switch and then everybody’s supposed to just come back,” White, who’s leading the archdiocese through a “Renew My Church” evangelization initiative told Crux. “I think it has to be very intentionally reaching out and letting people know we really want them back.”
For O’Malley, who is also the academic director for the Notre Dame Center of Liturgy, it’s not just inviting people back to church, but also building a culture – neighborhoods where people feel a sense of community, supporting local schools and paying attention to younger people. Part of that process will be discerning where technology fits into the future of the church.
“Screens are for me, triage,” he told Crux. “The answer to our problems is not more screens, but mission. That means that the task ahead of us is thinking about how we are going to use these resources to draw people together, not the other way around. [The idea] is not to use the resources to replace the gathering.”
To get concrete, O’Malley is dubious about dependence on livestream Masses.
“Should it be happening at a parish every week from now on? I don’t think so,” he said.
Powers suspects by the middle of summer his diocese will be largely back to normal, but anticipates livestreaming Mass, for example, will stay. That’s in large part because of how it benefits the percentage of the population that’s unable to attend Mass in person.
Cozzens isn’t sure if online Mass should continue, but he said it shouldn’t be the new normal.
“We definitely need to help people understand that going to Mass in my living room with my coffee cup when I can go to church is not the same, and it’s not as good,” he said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg