What will we do when we finally get back to our parishes?

Fr Noel Connolly SSC

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.

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Comments (8)

  1. Merv Kiley:
    Apr 15, 2020 at 01:45 PM

    What a brilliant article . Thank You Fr.Connolly ! I can’t help but recall the prophetic words of Sr. Irene McCormack at this time , the first Australian Catholic to be martyred overseas in the remote mountains of Peru “ there is no power or authority on earth that can convince me that Jesus is not personally present . I feel grateful that these months on end without the ‘official mass’ and in a culture where I’m experiencing new symbols, has gifted me with a new appreciation of the Eucharist “. Keep safe , God Bless , MK


  2. Patricia Ryan:
    Apr 15, 2020 at 03:14 PM

    Fr Noel

    If at 9.00 am Sunday you go to All Saints Albany Creek Catholic Parish, Michael and Anne Mangan lead a Liturgy go Word from their home. Great Domestic Church Leading prayer


  3. Paul Sheeran:
    Apr 15, 2020 at 03:35 PM

    Dear Fr. Noel, your comments re the possible increase or need for greater participation by th laity in the celebrity functions of our liturgy leads me ask your opinion of part of a discourse by Archbishop Julian Porteous as follows:
    Plenary 2020: the creeping clericalisation of the laity
    Archbishop Julian Porteous
    April 1, 2020 (Part of discourse)
    Usurping a sacramental role?
    Pope St John Paul II warned that the involvement “by the laity becomes a form of clericalism when the sacramental or liturgical roles that belong to the priest are assumed by the lay faithful, or when the latter set out to accomplish tasks of pastoral governing that properly belong to the priest”. While recognising that lay people do assist the priest in the local parish community he stressed that “It is the priest who, as an ordained minister and in the name of Christ, presides over the Christian community on liturgical and pastoral levels.”
    He said that “The commitment of lay persons is politicised when the laity is absorbed by the exercise of power within the Church. That happens when the Church is not seen in terms of the mystery of grace that characterises her, but rather in sociological or even political terms.” The clericalisation of the laity and laicisation of the clergy occurs when “it is not service but power that shapes all forms of government in the Church, be it in the clergy or the laity.”
    What say you.?
    God bless and keep well.
    Paul Sheeran.

    Last Edit: 16 Apr, 2020, 08:44:44 by Columban Missionaries


  4. Kit Dollard:
    Apr 15, 2020 at 08:54 PM

    This Easter whilst priests and bishops have argued over concelebration at streamed masses, there has a blossoming of the domestic church. In abundance, on every level, perfect for the time and place. I see very little need to go back to the old ways.


  5. Joe Barr:
    Apr 16, 2020 at 12:12 AM

    On the subject of parishioners possibly becoming 'spectators', I remember the Latin Mass days when the congregation was reduced to being spectators, albeit they followed the mass in their own missals if they had them. When the changes came, after Vatican 2, they were welcomed and followed relatively quickly as the vernacular came into use. I don't think it will be long before people get back into participation.
    Lay leaders may be an answer to some of the difficulties resulting from a shortage of priests. In small groups I have heard a number of inspiring and moving views expressed by thinking lay Catholics. Certainly training and guidance may be needed but the leadership of men and women with a long experience of lay life may fit more easily into the minds and lives of many parishioners than the rarified homilies preached by some pastors and prayers may get closer to the average Catholic than the prayers of the current missal. Dom Hubert van Zeller once wrote that young people would not be inspired by 'fluttering wings and gardens of cucumbers'!


  6. John mc Laughlin SSC:
    Apr 16, 2020 at 06:38 AM

    I put some of it on my FB
    It quedtions just how equipped Cstholics In zirelsnd sre


  7. Mary:
    Apr 16, 2020 at 08:42 PM

    Thank you. Great to read.


  8. Greg:
    Apr 21, 2020 at 06:49 PM

    It would be interesting to see what effect the crisis has on the local neo-traditionalist fundamentalist movement, the attempts of some Bishops to stall vital reform in the church and hang on to 'business as usual' (as the Porteous article quoted above shows) and practices such as trying to compensate for the local shortage of priestly vocations by importing priests from other countries. It is likely a lot of these 'solutions' to current problems are unlikely to work, since more elderly Australian priests will need to stop ministry to protect their health and 'importing' priests from overseas or relying on immigrants to prop up parish numbers and finances will work so long as our borders remain closed, which is likely for at least another 2-3 years. The virus will have a huge knock-on effect on parish and diocesan finances so a lot of 'pet' projects like expensive restorations of old buildings or ornate and expensive liturgies will have to go. Reform can no longer be delayed.


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