The coronavirus pandemic is changing just about everything. That is clearest in the people who sicken, those who die, those whose lives are upended, those whose livelihood has disappeared. These are some of the direct effects of the disease. There are many other effects not directly related to the illness that are manifesting themselves in the context of the pandemic. One major one is the proliferation of anti-scientific “theories” of the “truth” behind the scourge. So, some people convinced that spread of the virus is aided, if not caused, by telecommunications equipment have burned internet transmission towers in the UK. An archbishop in Sri Lanka without presenting any evidence has advanced the “theory” that the virus was created by researchers. Conspiracy theorists are working overtime to find any unreason at all that in their minds refutes what research and expertise have repeatedly demonstrated.
Other trends that had already been moving through societies at various speeds have accelerated while those societies are preoccupied. Racist and anti-democratic movements in societies and governments have advanced their objectives in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. The Catholic Church, too, is undergoing a great change under pressure from the present situation. Some of that change was already underway but may now accelerate. It remains to be seen where it leads. For decades, the decline in the number of priests has been obvious to us all. The answer until now has been for leaders in the Vatican, where there is a surplus of priests but a shortage of laity, to call for more prayer and sacrifice. Clearly God’s answer to those prayers and sacrifices has been, “No.” In the meantime, in much of the world, Catholics do not have access to the Eucharist. Is that God’s fault, or is it ours for not heeding God’s answer? Now, because the pandemic has required the cancellation of liturgical gatherings in much of the world, we are experiencing what many Catholics, such as those in Amazonia, have experienced for years and which is the obvious future for the whole world. We are no longer able to gather in presbyter-led liturgies as we have known them for centuries. Ordaining married men, allowing ordained men to marry, ordaining “second-career” persons, importing clerics from other countries, ordaining women — none of these steps, whether possible or not, will stop the inevitable future of a Church without priests as we have known them. We are beginning to find ways to celebrate our faith without being together in a building, forced to that creativity by the pandemic. The least creative response has been to either livestream or videotape Masses, turning them into spectator events like football matches or the unrestored pre-Vatican II liturgy. Even if it might satisfy some, months (as seems likely) of tuning into the “Father So-and-so Show” will eventually produce a drop in the ratings. Liturgy is not a spectator sport. The word itself means “activity of the people.” People will find other programs and tune out. Unplanned for, unexpected and perhaps even undesired, the approaching end of the cultic priesthood has been accelerated by our present situation. Catholics are beginning to find new ways to share faith with each other, a search we must believe is inspired by the Holy Spirit who will not leave us bereft of the opportunity to gather in the name and real presence of the Lord. It remains to be seen what forms that will take. The longer the present situation lasts, the more likely it is that the Spirit will provoke various responses. Our new digital age of communications offers ways for communities to gather across vast distances. Someone in East Africa can worship with others in Scandinavia, South America and Oceania. Obviously, sharing the Eucharist will mean something different from what has been the norm. Breaking bread and sharing the cup may take place simultaneously, though not in the same location. In that case, the declaration that the bread and wine are the Body and Blood of the Lord will take place in the “gathered” community, not relying upon a cleric who may not be “there.” The vocation we have known as priesthood will, whether we like it or not, fade. That is one thing we must learn, however reluctantly, from God’s refusal to give us the sort of cultic figures we either beg for or demand. Covid-19 may be accelerating a process that has already begun in various ways in various places. That process is unlikely to be completed before this pandemic becomes history and things return more or less to status quo ante. But it has been accelerated. Attitudes, expectations and experiences will have changed. So, what would have taken two or three generations may do so in one or two. I am not advocating this, nor bemoaning it. I know that my opinions and wishes one way or the other have no effect upon the inevitable. So, my wishes and your wishes one way or the other are irrelevant. The future will happen whether we like it or not. That is one more thing the new coronavirus is reminding us. Father William Grimm is the publisher of UCA News and is based in Tokyo, Japan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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