The first reading from Sunday’s Mass (6thSunday of Easter) has a certain application for the Church today in this time of plague. Even though some dioceses are resuming public Masses on a limited basis, there are some practices adopted during the shutdown that we should maintain. First, let us consider the lesson from Acts 8 and then apply it.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles(Acts 8:1).
Note that the Lord permitted this “great persecution.” Why? It is not always clear why God allows His faithful to suffer. In this case, it seems likely that He was trying to kick-start the mission to the ends of the earth. Just before His ascension, the Lord commissioned His apostles, saying,
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age(Matt 28:19-20).
Despite this, here we are, eight chapters into Acts, and they are still hunkered down in Jerusalem. It was time to break the huddle and execute the play. It would seem that God permits them to be scattered like so much seed. The results are almost immediate:
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city(Acts 8:4-8).
Thus, the persecution, though tragic and deadly to some, had the effect of moving the Church to do what she should have been doing already. The Gospel was now on the move, north to Samaria and South to Ethiopia (cf Acts 8:27ff) and unto the ends of the earth.
What does this story tell us today? Clearly, we in the Church have been rocked back on our heels. The cessation of public Mass would have been unthinkable just a few months ago; when it happened, many Catholics were shocked and outraged. This worldwide crisis—which has killed many, sickened even more, and brought economic and personal difficulties upon millions—has also pushed the Church to do things in new ways. For too long, parish evangelization has largely consisted of opening the doors and hoping people will come. During the shutdown we have been forced to reach out as never before.
This outreach has included live-streaming liturgies and/or recording them. Our parish meetings have had to shift to virtual platforms and attendance has been quite good; there are no longer the concerns over traffic or being out late at night. We had long discussed adding a virtual option to our bible studies and catechetical instructions. When the shutdown came, we had to walk the talk: our twice-weekly Bible studies are now both live-streamed and recorded. This has increased our reach in both numbers and distance. The numbers who “attend” have increased and we have folks participating from all across the US as well as from a few foreign countries.
Even as we begin to meet in person again, the virtual option should largely remain available. One exception to this would be live-streaming Masses; I do not believe that this should be continued. Once the obligation to attend weekly Mass is resumed, the home-bound should revert to local televised Masses or Masses broadcast by EWTN. However, it still makes sense for priests to record and post their homilies so that others can listen to them outside the Mass setting. I have been podcasting my homilies since 2005. From my church pulpit I can speak to the 600 or so people in the pews, but my recorded sermons reach nearly 10,000 podcast subscribers (http://frpope.com/audio/recordings.php), and the written version I publish on my daily blog (http://blog.adw.org/) is read by approximately 15,000. The Internet provides a big megaphone, reaching to the ends of the earth; I have listeners and readers from every continent.
Not only should this sort of parish outreach continue, it must grow, despite that fact that many of the measures were adopted only because of the current emergency. So, the Lord has kick-started us into doing what we should have been doing more of long ago.
Another effect of the shutdown has been to make my parish more intentional about outreach. The sisters and I walk the large park in our neighborhood every day praying the rosary. We have also had Eucharistic processions, a May procession, and a hymn-sing on the plaza in front of the Church. In each of these, we followed the local civil norms, but we have been a visual presence in the neighborhood as never before. This must continue.
My parish church, always open for prayer even before the pandemic, has become a beacon of hope for many whose churches are locked. All throughout the day, people are in the church praying before the Blessed Sacrament. A locked church door is a countersign, and I hope that pastors who have opened their doors will never again consider locking them during the week. There are dangers to leaving the church open, but I hope that the care of souls will never come behind the care for buildings and things. Proper security has its place, but locked doors should be the last measure considered.
I have heard three times the typical number of confessions since the shutdown began; the word got out that the priests here offer generous availability for this sacrament numerous times throughout the week. This, too, must continue.
Persecutions and plagues are terrible things, but disasters force us to adapt and to come up with new ways of doing things. Do not allow the best practices that have emerged in your parish to die; continue them in the measure and manner appropriate as we return to public Masses and parish life as we once knew it. Don’t let it go back to the way it was. Make it better.