Maintaining Christian Community and Practice in our Parishes and Taking Care of the Needy During a Time of Pestilence

Maintaining Christian Community and Practice in our Parishes and Taking Care of the Needy During a Time of Pestilence March 21, 2020

Vox Nova is again pleased to welcome a guest post by Joe Georges

As the COVID-19 pandemic expands, one archdiocese or diocese after another has announced the suspension of all public Masses for at least the time being: Seattle, Boston, Oakland, Los Angeles, Washington, DC., Little Rock, Chicago, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, San Jose. The list has grown nearly every day. And even before Masses were being cancelled, and perhaps churches closed, the faithful were being dispensed from their Sunday Mass obligation.

Some of the consequences of these actions will deservedly take front stage:

Televised Masses are available in many or most areas and streamed Masses can be found on the Internet. These are not substitutes for live participation in the liturgy, but are better than nothing. For a long time the Eucharist has been delivered to the homes of shut-ins. The practice can be expanded. But how do you manage the sheer number of deliveries of the Eucharist when a shelter-in-place order is in effect, as it is in an increasing number of states?

And will there be an alternate means of participating in the sacrament of Reconciliation, particularly where churches are closed? Confession by telephone is not permitted. And the Church has historically been reluctant to approve grants of general absolution. According to Canon Law, a bishop must approve each grant except in case of emergency. I’ve heard the suggestion that appointments be made on the web for confession in church rectories. But it is difficult to predict how much time is needed for each confessant. This plan could easily be wasteful of the time of a parish’s priest(s). It also leaves open the question of the orientation of priest and penitent. Face-to-face confessions have been suspended in some dioceses in order to reduce the chance of transmitting disease. But interposing a screen between priest and penitent offers little more protection. Offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation out of doors might be safer than offering it inside a church or rectory, but provision would still need to be made for the privacy of the confessant. From his canoe, and legally barred from close proximity to non-lepers, St. Damien of Molokai once shouted out his sins in French to his confessor, who was standing at the railing of a ship just offshore. In whatever language, shouting out our sins to a nearby priest is not an option for most of us.

In the turmoil, I hope that other problems eventually receive attention. One is that parishes still need financial support. Proceeds from Sunday collection plates will either diminish or disappear, depending upon whether any dioceses still permit public Masses. If the COVID-19 pandemic continues for more than a month or two, parish finances will sometimes become precarious, especially where parishioners are not already given the option of quarterly, monthly or weekly online contributions via credit cards or electronic fund transfers. Parishes serving the poor are likely to be hit the hardest. Our parish institutions are not financially self-supporting.

And then there is the matter of parish groups like St. Vincent De Paul societies that provide services to the needy such as coupons that can be used for groceries or public transportation. I belong to one such group. We rely mainly upon special collections at Masses on fifth Sundays, though we have occasionally received grants from regular parish funds and larger gifts from individual donors. The last collection was at the end of December. The next would have been on March 29, but now it appears that no March 29 Masses will be held in our diocese. The next fifth Sunday will be in May. No one can say that regular Masses will be held by then. When funds are low, as they are now, we may dip into our own pockets to cover the cost of groceries for others. But the number of needy has already risen and seems likely to increase again as COVID-19 puts more and more people out of work.

I don’t know whether there are parishes that have set up separate online contribution plans for their St. Vincent de Paul groups. For the sake of accountability, this is something that should be done by parish offices that may already handle online donations, or perhaps by diocesan chanceries or their designees, rather than by each parish St. Vincent de Paul society. Arrangements would need to be made with one of the payment processors that currently provides this service to parishes. There are a number of them; some charge fees that may be too high for small monthly donations.

There may be an opportunity this spring to appeal for funds to sustain parishes and their charitable efforts. If Washington approves payments to each qualifying adult or household of one or two thousand dollars, this will be regarded everywhere as a windfall. Some people will desperately need that money – and perhaps much more – to pay their bills. But others may simply put the money into savings. For the latter, it’s worth considering that

we know from behavioral economics (for example, that people are likely to donate to charity a larger portion of money that comes in as a windfall than money from their regular earnings. Perhaps an appeal can be made to parishioners if and when checks from Washington are in the mail.

The coronavirus epidemic is not a challenge to our faith. But, in the absence of being present at the principal liturgy that binds us together, the Mass, it is certainly a challenge to our ability, to maintain Christian communities encouraging sacramental practice and also mercy for the needy. And it’s a challenge that may last for many months. In relation to God, we are never alone. But for the time being we will be relatively isolated from other Catholics.

“Only Connect,” the famous epigraph to E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End says. Yes, but we will need to devise new ways of doing this in our parishes. In the end, we could even find that at least a few of those ways are worth preserving after the COVID-19 crisis ends.



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