Efforts to control the spread of Covid-19 have included halting liturgical gatherings in many parts of the world. What will happen when Catholics once again can gather to share the Eucharist and do all the other things that mark them as Christians? I do not have a crystal ball that enables me to see the future, but I have been speculating upon what our communities may look like after months of being closed.
In 1995, Professor Jonathan Mann of the Harvard University School of Public Health in the United States predicted, “The history of our time will be marked by recurrent eruptions of newly discovered diseases.”
A quarter-century ago, Mann was speaking in the midst of the new AIDS epidemic, and since then the world has seen several other epidemics, with the coronavirus pandemic we are living through now as the latest and possibly most extensive (though not yet the most deadly) so far.
Are we in the early stages of this pandemic, or is it coming under control? Will a cure or a preventive vaccine be developed soon, or will it take a year or more? What will the mortality ultimately be? In the meantime, will the virus evolve beyond the power of our medical interventions? What effect will it have on the world economy? How long will it last? Will it touch me or those I love? We do not, and cannot, know the answer to any of those questions.
Mann was obviously correct, and this pandemic shall not be the last we must face and deal with. The economic, social, and religious upheaval we are experiencing today may be part of an ongoing pattern of new viral and bacterial epidemics girdling the globe, especially as climate change causes varying degrees of ecological, social, agricultural, demographic, political, and epidemiological chaos. What we are facing now may become a new normal.
An immediate impact of the coronavirus on Catholics has been the cancellation of Masses with a congregation. A measure intended for a few weeks has now been in place for months. In Tokyo, we have not had Eucharistic celebrations with a congregation since just after Ash Wednesday, and their resumption may be months off.
What might we expect when after a quarter of the year or longer we are once again able to gather in our churches?
The first thing will be joy at once again being free to gather, to share, and to belt out favorite hymns.
That will be followed by mourning and coping with immediate changes. The community may have lost members to Covid-19, including key members. Surviving members may have lost family, friends, and employment. Not a few people will come out of the crisis with a shaken faith. After months without collection income, parishes may have to cut staff and programs.
It is likely that the most noticeable change will be a large reduction in the size of communities.
To oversimplify, there are two or three basic categories of people who make up a large number of parishes.
On one hand, there are people whose participation in liturgy and other activities is part of and subordinate to their individual and individualistic piety rather than participation in a communal event. The gathering just happens to be the locus for their prayer. Every community has some of these.
Another group are those who seek and find a community of faith, worship, and service within the framework of the Church community in a particular place yet see themselves as the pilgrim People of God. The size, or even the existence of such a group depends upon the degree of encouragement and formation it receives from the leaders and structures of the individual community.
The third group, and undoubtedly the largest, are people who “go to church because they have gone to church.” Their involvement with the local community is generally limited to attendance at weekly liturgies and occasional special activities. Churchgoing is a habit. Their faith may be strong or tepid, but gathering with fellow Christians is not an essential part of it.
In many churches in Asia and elsewhere, there is also a parallel community of non-natives who are in the country for work or other reasons. The church provides an opportunity and place for them to meet compatriots, speak their native tongue, and celebrate their own culture. Within those gatherings, the same two or three groups are present.
The third group is the one most likely to not return in great numbers. Having gotten into the habit of not going to church and probably not engaging in whatever alternatives might be available during the shutdown, they will simply not bother to resume their old Sunday morning routine.
If their previous liturgical community had an active group of the second sort, it may draw some back, curious about what they may have been missing before the pandemic. But, if the community had been marked by general mediocrity in liturgy, preaching and service, it is doomed. Parishes that had not fostered a real sense of community in prayer, liturgy and service and thus had a weak or no “second group” are likely to be worst hit.
So, the situation of local church communities when the restrictions imposed by the pandemic pass is likely to be one of decreased attendance as great numbers of people who got out of the habit of going and into a habit of not going do not return.
The post-pandemic parish will be the “report card” of the pre-pandemic parish. The percentage of those who return will grade the life of the parish before any shutdown.
What a community does about its grade will be its first challenge upon reopening.
Father William Grimm is the publisher of UCA News and based in Tokyo, Japan.