It's no secret that the Catholic Church has been struggling to fulfill its mission of evangelization. For quite some time we've been a "defensive" Church that vehemently guards the deposit of faith. This isn't a bad thing. But we've protected our faith to the exclusion of the mission, which is to make disciples of all nations. In doing so, we've failed to be who we're called to be, especially when it comes to parish evangelization.
The good news is that in recent years we've made progress. The "new evangelization" has become a buzzword among Catholics, thanks largely to St. John Paul II. He worked hard to shake us out of our complacency. Catholic speakers, authors, priests, and parish leaders, have been emphasizing the importance of evangelization more and more. New ministries dedicated to Catholic evangelization have sprung up, and many experienced ministries have refocused their efforts on sharing the faith. However, there is one particular area of evangelization in which there's lots of room for improvement:
"Therefore, do not be afraid to pound the streets, to enter every corner of society, to go out to the city limits, to touch the wounds of our people... this is the Church of God, who rolls up her sleeves to go out to meet the other, without judging or condemning him, but rather reaching out to him, to support, to encourage or simply to accompany him in his life. May the Lord’s command always resonate with you: 'Go... and make disciples of all nations'."
Waiting for people to come to us is a strategy that has been proven to fail. We must go out and meet people where they are. There are many people who won't set foot in a church, but they yearn for the truth of the Gospel. How do we reach them?
Jesus provided us with a clear example of how missionary activity should send us outward to others to meet them where they live, work, and play. He did not sit down in the synagogues or the temple area and demand that others come to Him; rather, He traveled the countryside where all sorts of people were able to have access to Him. He made Himself available to sinners, lepers, people possessed by demons, adulterers, prostitutes, common fishermen, tax collectors, Roman soldiers, criminals, the scribes and Pharisees, children, and more. He spent a great deal of time in people's homes, like St. Peter's mother-in-law, Mary and Martha, the little girl He raised from the dead, and tax collectors.
Our Lord just couldn't sit still! He was driven to reach more and more people with the Good News. Whenever people would try to get Him to stay, He would tell them that He must move on because that was His mission.
"At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place. The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, 'To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.'"
Jesus was so extreme in His determination to go where the people were, He had no place to call His own: He was literally homeless (Luke 9:58).
The greatest act of "going out" Jesus showed us was the Incarnation (John 1:1-14). The Son did not have to descend from heaven as a man, but He chose to do so anyway. He came right down into the sinful mess of our world and became part of it. Every action of His public ministry was an extension of His Incarnation. He continually delved deeper and deeper into the sinful state of our lives.
There was nowhere He wouldn't go to reach us.
At the time of Jesus, lepers were not allowed to come near the Jewish people, otherwise they would make others "unclean." They were isolated and ostracized due to their physical condition. This was extreme social distancing at its worst. Now, with the rise of the coronavirus, we've become like the lepers of Jesus' time, isolated from our loved ones because of the great illness that is sweeping the globe.
COVID-19 is a great equalizer. While some are more at risk than others, ultimately, everyone is susceptible: old or young, rich or poor, weak or powerful. In what feels like happened almost overnight, every single one of us is experiencing this isolation, in one way or another. All of us have been brought low by this crisis.
However, this has paved the way for the Church to be shaken out of our complacency...
Masses are cancelled, events are postponed indefinitely, ministries are shut down, most sacraments are delayed. All the things we did to be the Church have been suddenly taken away from us. That left us with two options: stop being Church, or find another way to reach people.
We had no other choice.
We had to find a way to continue ministering to people. Suddenly the Church was thrust into a sink-or-swim crisis, in which innovation was no longer are novel idea, but a necessary requirement. If you've been paying attention, you've noticed that the Church has been striving harder than ever to reach people where they are... stuck at home.
For years, many of our parishes have talked about how great it would be to stream our Masses. Now Masses are being streamed every day since the faithful cannot receive the Eucharist. Some parishes have tried out "drive-through" confession. Priests and parish leaders are offering reflections, talks, and more on social media and streaming services. People are identifying vulnerable members of their communities and organizing efforts to check up on them.
Some parish ministries are still functioning, like my parish's youth ministry program. Our youth minister is still holding events via video chat, and my daughter faithfully attends. In fact, I was talking to our youth minister, and she told me that she's had a few kids get involved in the program for the first time ever because the video chats are a less intimidating, low-barrier way to get involved that wasn't available before we were all sheltering in place.
We might never have discovered these innovative approaches had COVID-19 not tricked us.
I'm not saying that we're thriving now better than ever. There's nothing like being physically present with others, participating in the sacraments, and especially receiving the Eucharist. But this virus has "tricked" us into exploring new and innovative ways to go out and meet people where they are. This is the same spirit of innovation and "newness" that St. John Paul II called for with the new evangelization. It's sad that it took a global pandemic to wake us up.
It feels unnatural, but this is the very thing our Church exists to do!
We must always be seeking ways of reaching the people we're trying to evangelize. We have to be honest about what doesn't work, and have courage to explore new opportunities and methods. We need to brave the confusing and malfunctioning technology, and find a way to make it work. We must think about what life is like for the people we minister to, wonder about how they're spending their time, and develop strategies to reach them where they are.
This is the Spirit-led commitment to evangelization that the Church is called to continually embrace every single day. Pandemic or not.
But now that COVID-19 has forced our hand, what are we going to do about it? Are we just going to wait until this is all over and then go back to normal? I sure hope not...
Right now these innovative methods are just about the only thing our parishes are able to do. But when we're able to get back to some degree of normal, what if that same spirit of innovation remained to enhance our parishes' evangelization efforts? We don't need to abandon everything we used to do. But we should also retain much of what we've learned during coronavirus. Here are just a few general ways we can keep what is good in our approach to ministry during this time, even after we're done sheltering in place...
I think one of the most basic and fundamental things our parishes have done - often without even realizing it - is discerning the unmet needs of the people we're trying to reach. The most obvious example of this is when people couldn't physically come to Mass any more, so we started streaming Masses online. Typically our parishes operate from a "we've always done it this way" mentality. But as time passes and culture changes, so do the desires and needs of people.
“When you see a cloud rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain—and so it does; and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"
Jesus expects us to "interpret the present time." Almost without thinking, the Church began this process of "interpretation" once we realized the unparalleled changes our society was experiencing thanks to COVID-19. Once we're able to open the doors to our churches again, let's not lose this gift of discernment. Our Lord insists that we always keep our eyes to the skies. Let's continue to follow the command of the Lord by interpreting the current state of our culture, discerning unmet needs, and developing strategies for meeting those needs.
Considering how far technology has come in such a short time, we shouldn't have to discuss this one. But so many of our parishes are still behind when it comes to utilizing technology in ministry. We're afraid of it, we have too many unanswered questions, we're annoyed when things don't work like they're supposed to, etc. But once coronavirus hit and everyone was stuck at home, we ignored all our fears and doubts about technology and just dove in... because we had no other choice! Sure, the video stream may not work perfectly, but we had to try, right?
It's about time!
"When they [social media and mass communications technology] are put at the service of the Gospel, they are capable of increasing almost indefinitely the area in which the Word of God is heard; they enable the Good News to reach millions of people. The Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means that human skill is daily rendering more perfect. It is through them that she proclaims 'from the housetops' the message of which she is the depositary. In them she finds a modern and effective version of the pulpit. Thanks to them she succeeds in speaking to the multitudes."
Pope Paul VI from Evangelii Nuntiandi
Now we're actually getting pretty good at streaming, holding video conference calls, interacting on social media platforms, updating our websites, and more. Once we're able to physically gather together again, let's not abandon the technology we're now adept at using. Let's continue to use it as an effective tool for reaching deeper into the culture to the places the Gospel hasn't yet taken root.
I've heard it said that if the Church was a corporation, we'd have gone bankrupt long ago. We don't follow many of the best practices of groups and organizations in our society. We don't work hard to avoid the common pitfalls and strive to always be ahead of the curve. It's a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit that we're still here today.
I'm not saying the Church just needs to "get with the times." Let our doctrines and dogmas remain intact. But the way we approach parish evangelization must change drastically. In these current times, countless businesses are developing messages, products, and services tailored to a culture in lock-down. Many business are already developing their post-coronavirus marketing campaigns. And our churches have launched into fervent brainstorming sessions to figure out how we can still function and provide effective ministry.
"A radical conversion in thinking is required in order to become missionary, and this holds true both for individuals and entire communities."
St. John Paul II from Redemptoris Missio
Like a corporation desperate for survival, we must always seek to develop innovative approaches to ministry. Why did we wait for a pandemic to start asking ourselves, "What's the best way to do ministry today? What are some new approaches we could take? How can we better reach people for Jesus?" Isn't this what our parishes are called to do every day in order to fulfill our mission of bringing the Gospel to all people in every age?
History will not look back on the scourge of the coronavirus fondly. So many people have suffered and died because of COVID-19. But the Lord is the best at bringing good out of tragedy. I think He's using this time to wake our parishes up! Let's accept the lessons He taught us and carry them through into our approach to ministry once we're out of this time of separation. Imagine how powerful and effective ministry could be if we integrated our newfound skills and ideas with the tried and true methods we've honed for centuries?
This is our new evangelization wakeup call.
"Today, as never before, the Church has the opportunity of bringing the Gospel, by witness and word, to all people and nations. I see the dawning of a new missionary age, which will become a radiant day bearing an abundant harvest, if all Christians, and missionaries and young churches in particular, respond with generosity and holiness to the calls and challenges of our time."
St. John Paul II from Redemptoris Missio