Dear Priests: It’s Time for the Biggest Outreach in Church History

The shepherds have to go out and find the lost sheep again. Here’s how.

Worshippers gather for a Mass on Dec. 23, 2020, in St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Worshippers gather for a Mass on Dec. 23, 2020, in St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava, Slovakia. (photo: Robert Barca / Getty Images)

The past few weeks have witnessed more bishops restoring the obligation of Sunday Mass in their dioceses, but if the expectation is that everyone will return just as prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, they should prepare to be disappointed. Some Catholics feel like they have been mistreated and ignored during the past 16 months, and they are in no hurry to return to the pews. At this stage, it is not enough for priests to sit idly by and hope for their return. It is time for the shepherds to go out and find the lost sheep. I offer three ideas for helping to accomplish that.

First, the clergy must admit that many members of the laity have been mistreated since March 2020.

One Sunday last year, I showed up for Mass only to be told that the church was already at “full capacity.” (This policy was the result of an executive order from Virginia’s governor. That same governor, by the way, had seen fit to sign grisly pro-abortion legislation — on Good Friday.)

After being told there was no more room, I expected to at least watch the Mass from outside, yet I was told that the doors must remain shut during Mass. (This directive, which had the effect of limiting fresh air inside the Church, still has me stumped. Then again, the year 2020 was not a great year for logic.) So I stayed outside instead, and read the day’s Gospel on my iPhone and listened for the sound of bells, in order to kneel on the concrete during the consecration.

Unpermitted to even be on the outside looking in, I was on the outside listening in — or at least trying to do so. That effort might describe the situation of many Catholics in 2020. 

Of course, things became far worse. 

In 2020, many Catholics suffered from the uncharity and callous indifference of prelates. Some churches were closed for months. I have friends who had to wait many months for their firstborn daughter to be baptized. Even after Holy Communion was again allowed, a friend of mine asked the priest if she could receive Communion on the tongue, and was criticized for her request. All this was justified with vague appeals to “prudence,” which meant — as it turned out — not turning out for Mass.

Second, the clergy should express sorrow that many members of the laity have been ignored during the pandemic.

Many members of the laity have wondered why their parish priest never called them on the phone to see how they were doing. During a time when the sacraments were in short supply while fear and confusion were in large supply, why not call parishioners? For everything that was shut down, the phone lines were open. Every parishioner should have received a phone call. That did not happen.

Dear priests, as part of post-COVID outreach program, please pick up the phone. If you can’t think of anything else to say, say you’re sorry. It is a built-in irony of Catholicism that members of the laity often say to priests, “I am sorry,” or “I am deeply sorry,” but rarely does the reverse occur. This is a perfect opportunity to do so. Be prepared to listen to some very frustrated parishioners who have felt abandoned for the past 16 months. Please be prepared to be empathetic, because that empathy might make all the difference both in this world, and in the next.

On this note, may I make another suggestion to the priests reading this? Please stand in line for Confession. I am a 50-year-old devout Catholic, and I’ve never seen a priest in line for Confession once. My children see me going to Confession, and it makes a powerful impact. Why not stand in line and make an even greater impact for your parish?

And this leads to my next point.

Third, we need to learn about the importance of the sacraments again.

During the past 16 months, we have seen the sacraments not only withheld, but with an appalling nonchalance that made some particular situations far worse. For weeks or months or over a year, babies went without Baptism, teenagers went without Confirmation, nearly everyone went without Holy Communion, nearly everyone went without Confession, couples went without Matrimony, young men went without Holy Orders, and the sick went — and departed — without Extreme Unction.

We need to regain a love for the seven sacraments that were instituted by Christ for eternal life. Please help us. Please teach us about the beauty and joy of the sacraments.

One last point to priests. I know that many of you have been heroic and extraordinarily charitable during all of this, and many of you have been tirelessly creative. (The idea of drive-through Confessions comes to mind, and I will always remember going to Confession in a Camaro.)

There are many priests in my life I am privileged to call friends. The importance of the priesthood is unfathomable. If I had my entire life to try, I could not come close to repaying the priests whom I have encountered in my life. So please do not take the above as anything other than constructive advice from a sinner in the pew. I am sincerely trying to help, with as much charity as God will grace me. Please be assured that each of you priests are, and will remain, in the prayers of a rather large Catholic family in Florida. Please keep us in your prayers as well.