People attend Mass at St. Matthew’s Church in Surrey, B.C., under new guidelines. How will this new reality affect the Church’s ultimate mission, asks Fr. James Mallon. CCN photo/Matthew Furtado, The B.C. Catholic

Fr. James Mallon: Now is time to seize the moment

By  Fr. James Mallon
  • June 18, 2020

“Even the priest and the prophet forage in a land they know not.” This is the New American Bible translation of Jeremiah 14:18, a line of Scripture that will be familiar to anyone in North America who prays the Liturgy of the Hours

But there are many other translations of Jeremiah 14:18, and this reveals the difficulty in capturing the full meaning of this text, found within a passage that speaks about the devastation that has fallen upon Jerusalem and all of Judah because of illness and famine. 

Through my work within the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth and within Divine Renovation Ministry, in recent months I have been in touch with parish priests all over the world, as well as those in my own back yard. The differing translations of Jeremiah 14:18 capture the essence of the mood of the majority of priests at this time. 

It has been a time of confusion, disorientation and denial for many, and a time of foraging and innovation for some. For all, it is a time of uncertainty, for the world has changed as we know it and even when things do go back to “normal” it is clear that the new normal will be unlike the normal we knew just a short time ago. 

A friend recently sent me an article published by the Praxis Journal entitled “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization is Now a Startup.” The authors ask Christian leaders (in the Church and in business) to assess their perception and presumptions about the present crisis. 

Are we going through a blizzard? Will this pass in a few weeks or months? Do we simply hunker down and wait out the storm? What if this storm is but the beginning of a winter, an entire season in which we must adapt our way of being and doing? What if a long winter leads into a mini Ice Age, analogous to the one that struck Europe in 1816 and had long-term impact on the climate and economy? 

As each day passed and we confronted the global pandemic, some in the Church began to grapple with what these lockdowns would mean in the long-term. The extraordinary insight of the article, which seemed strange at the time, is becoming more obvious. How have we responded?

While some priests simply waited for the blizzard to pass and others realized the lockdown would likely last well into June or July, it began to dawn on Church leaders that we may be facing a kind of mini Ice Age. Even as stay-at-home orders are lifted in some places and people slowly start back to work, there likely will remain some level of restrictions and even cycles of full lockdowns that may last 18-24 months. 

“Normal” may not return until the majority have caught the virus or bought the vaccine. For a Church, defined as being the gathered people, what will be the consequences of being unable to gather for such a prolonged period? What will be the long-term economic impact on our parishes and dioceses in the years to come?

The prophet Jeremiah was often accused of being a prophet of doom. It made him unpopular. On his part, he claimed to be a realist, openly proclaiming as false those prophets who foretold a quick liberation from the Babylonians and a return to normal. 

Jeremiah was proven right. The city and the temple were destroyed and many of the people of Jerusalem and Judah were taken into exile in Babylon. If previously we could not imagine what this would have been like for the Jewish people, perhaps today we can begin to understand how it feels to lose city and temple and to find ourselves in exile.

How will we respond? One option is portrayed in Psalm 137, a psalm of lament very familiar to us. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept remembering Zion.”

It is an anguished psalm about what has been lost. The author declares that the people have hung up their harps because they cannot sing in this alien land. They rage against Babylon the destroyer, and give voice to one of the most shocking expressions of violence found in the Scriptures. 

This is certainly an option for us as a Church: to hang up our harps, to sit and weep remembering what has been lost and to allow our hearts to fill with bitterness and anger. However, there is a better way. 

We must grieve for all that has been lost: our ways of doing things, our relationships and closeness to one another, our hopes and plans, our security and even the actual loss of loved ones to illness and death. In the midst of our grief, however, we are called to realize that even though the WHAT and the HOW have changed, the WHO and WHY have not changed. 

We are still called as pastors and as the People of God to feed sheep and catch fish. We are still called to care for one another and to reach out to those beyond our faith communities to serve them, love them and share with them the reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). 

Why do we do this? Because Jesus has commanded us to go and make disciples, to baptize and teach. He has commanded us to love the Lord with all that we are and love one another. He has commanded us to “Do this in memory of Him.”

Nothing about WHY we exist as a Church has changed, nor about WHO we are called to reach.   

This distinction has been a pressing concern for the Church in the Western world for many years now. The question is: Are we more connected to our method or our mission? Perhaps the grace of this moment is that we no longer need to let go of outdated methods (the WHAT and HOW), as they have been ripped out of our hands.

Beyond being frozen in fear and anger by the rivers of Babylon, we now have the opportunity to step forward to implement new methods that will allow us to better fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ. The model of Church in which we minister to those who gather once a week is gone for now. The only way we will be able to gather and minister is if we become a Church that goes out. 

What a grace it will be for the Church to develop this missionary muscle as we anticipate being a Church that one day gathers people in again. 

(Fr. Mallon is the Episcopal Vicar for Parish Renewal and Leadership Support for the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth.)

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