Church malaise runs deeper than virus

  • October 10, 2020

Thank you to Winnipeg’s Archbishop Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, for daring to state that that a malaise is affecting the Church in this country because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes, even the obvious does not become real until it is named, and Archbishop Gagnon has done that in comments published in last week’s Catholic Register.

The president says that the lives of bishops have undergone “strain and stress, difficulties and hardship” over the past seven months. He points to lower morale among clergy because they have been unable to carry out their ministries. Further, he notes that parishes have taken a financial hit because of a significant decline in Sunday collections. Finally, Archbishop Gagnon observes that parishioners are longing for greater contact with each other. Their parishes have become less of a meeting place than previously.

However, the malaise goes deeper. A poll in Ireland found that, while most regular Church attenders plan to return to Sunday Mass after the pandemic, almost a quarter will not do so or are unsure whether to return. That many people believe participation in the life of the Church is no longer necessary gives evidence of the Church’s feeble response during this global crisis.

The recent laying off of large numbers of Church pastoral workers has also revealed the malaise within the Church’s institutions. Every crisis brings opportunity. Why was the Church so ready to dispose of those employees who could lead a united response to the crying needs among the faithful and in the wider community?

Why has a decline in Sunday collections led to a knee-jerk reaction to cut staff? Can we not seek new ways to invite parishioners to fund and participate in ministering to those suffering during this time? Do parishes not have the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of parishioners? Are we afraid to adapt to and innovate in a new situation?

The Church needs its pastoral workers more than ever to animate a lay response to the suffering in society.

(Full disclosure: My wife was permanently laid off from her job as a pastoral worker in our parish.)

In his new encyclical, Pope Francis calls us to respond to the current crisis just as the Samaritan responded to the man beaten and left by the side of the road. “Living indifferent to pain is not a possible choice; we cannot let someone remain ‘on the edge of life,’ ” the Pope wrote. Those who remain indifferent are “secret allies” of the thieves who beat and robbed the man, he said.

Pope Francis is also critical of those who feel Christian faith leads them “to support various forms of closed and violent nationalism, xenophobic attitudes, contempt and even mistreatment of those who are different.” Another malaise. The growth of race hatred, fed by bizarre conspiracy theories, can be seen in marches in several Canadian cities and in the perplexing refusal of many to wear a simple face mask in this time of global crisis.

The pandemic has exposed rational and irrational fears in the populace. Perhaps we all feel insecure and uncertain about the future. But we should know that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Only God’s love is perfect, but the growing fears in society witness to a decline in love.

Archbishop Gagnon was correct to assert that the Church should speak more strongly on public issues. He wants “to ignite a new fire among the lay faithful (and])to encourage the prophetic mission of those in consecrated life.”

Human life should be promoted in the face of all the threats it faces, he said. He cited threats such as abortion, euthanasia and racism. The failure to address these and other issues also testifies to a spiritual malaise.

Who will ignite that new fire? The fire in the laity and those in consecrated life can be stoked by encouragement from the pulpit and organized by pastoral workers familiar with Church social teaching. Without leadership, no fire will be kindled.

The pandemic did not create the malaise in the Church; it exposed a malaise already present. We are suffering from a failure to grow in faith and love as a community. Now is the time to address this weakening of the Church’s witness. Thank you, Archbishop Gagnon, for issuing this challenge.

(Argan lives in Edmonton.)

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