I don’t think anyone really knows, but I suspect it will not be business as usual. For many it will be a joy to return to the Masses they have missed so much, for others it may be a little more complicated. Our lives have been turned upside down and we will have had months to think with only streamed Masses to accompany us. There is much to rethink and rebuild. There will be questions that we will only slowly come to appreciate.
That is why I believe that it is fortunate that the first session of the Plenary Council has been delayed. We will need time to come to grips with our new reality.
Two issues which we will need to consider are the role of priests and the practice of liturgy. One thing this period of isolation has taught us is that historically we have been a too priest-centred church and this has left us unprepared for our present reality. Even our solutions are priest-centred. We stream Masses. These can be beautiful, encouraging and nourishing but they highlight a number of weaknesses in our Catholic practice.
The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian lives but for many, it is their only way to encounter God. We have no second or third strings to our bows and lay people feel a little lost. They were not trained to lead worship either in their parishes or at home with their families.
In a Church where, for most people, liturgy is not really liturgy unless they receive the Eucharist; it will require a lot of patience and catechesis to train people to share the scriptures, to appreciate the Divine Office, to practice Lectio Divina and to develop family celebrations of the Word of God that will sustain them in times like these. Perhaps even today, besides streaming Masses we should also trust our people’s sensus fidei [instinct for God] and encourage them to find creative ways to pray.
One problem with streamed Masses is that it reduces us to spectators. Whereas liturgy is essentially a community event and participation is critical. I am writing this in Holy Week and I must say that watching has brought back many nourishing memories but I wonder if when we return to our parishes we will not want to participate more.
The first two stages of the Plenary Council process have already raised significant questions about the role of priests and the involvement of laity in ministry and leadership. The coronavirus crisis should give these questions special urgency and poignancy.
For years now, we have experienced a shortage of priests that have tried to solve in all kinds of ways except training our lay people to take more responsibility for worship and leadership. I know of no diocese where there is a concerted plan to train lay leaders and ministers to take over despite it being obvious that in around ten years it will be the only solution.
Despite the suffering and tragedy of the COVID-19 crisis, it may still be a graced moment for us in the Australian Church. It has highlighted some important issues we do need to discern. Our isolation and the closure of our churches have given these issues special urgency. The Plenary Council provides us with the process and tools to discern and discuss and the delay in the first session gives us the time to make sense of what is presently happening to us. May the Holy Spirit be with us.
Columban Fr Noel Connolly is a member of the Adult Formation Team with Catholic Mission Australia and is a member of the Facilitation Team for the Plenary Council 2020.