The Catholic Church’s New Normal Is Forward, Not Back

We need to emerge from the challenges of the last year with a new set of goals to live as stewards of the Great Commission.

Parishioners at Mass amid the COVID pandemic.
Parishioners at Mass amid the COVID pandemic. (photo: Shutterstock)

As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to come under control in the United States, many Church leaders are eager to restore the Sunday obligation to attend Mass and to go “back to normal” in our parishes. At this moment, every bishop, priest, deacon, religious and layperson needs to keep front and center St. Junípero Serra’s motto: “Always Forward, Never Back.” Now is the time to work together to create a new normal — mining the lessons to be drawn from a year of severely restricted worship and badly disrupted communal life. Our return to church can’t be a return to the status quo.

By every statistic, pre-COVID “normal” was failing our Church. A March 29 Gallup poll shows church membership in the U.S. is now below 50%, a sobering collapse driven heavily by Catholics over 20 years — people who grew up with a Sunday obligation who no longer see the point of belonging to a Church. Both secularism and the Church’s abuse and cover-up scandal have greatly fueled this departure. 

Our pre-COVID normal saw droves of churches and schools close each year across the nation, but especially in urban and rural areas, where the Church’s presence often plays an outsized role in the stability of the community. The Church’s missionary effort was collapsing domestically, weakened over time by dispirited members and dwindling resources. Catholics gave 1.1%-1.5% of their income to the parish, an average of $9.43 per week, or half the amount that Protestants gave to support their churches of equivalent size. 

To put this in perspective, Catholic churches, schools and ministries would have $9 billion more to support them each year — around three times what Catholic entities received from the Paycheck Protection Program — if Catholics had the confidence like Protestants to give 2.1%-2.5% of their income to their Church. 

While transparency and accountability in decision-making and governance, as well as lay co-responsibility in energizing parish life and engaging the wider community, are indispensable, they are most effective when people have confidence in the mission.

We need to emerge from the challenges of the last year with a new set of goals to live as stewards of the Great Commission. To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, the end is last in the order of execution, but always first in the order of intention. 

The Catholic Church has to stop planning for a future of closing churches and schools, or more churches and schools will close. We need to plan ways for the Church to grow parishes and plant new churches and schools — even as it must generate many more priestly, diaconate and religious vocations to sustain growth. 

The Register has chronicled solutions from parishes recently found to be real-time “laboratories of evangelization.” In these places, parishioners and their leaders are fueled by embracing the “costly grace” of discipleship that is the heart of Catholic faith. 

Our story about the St. John the Baptist-St. Joseph parish collaborative in Quincy, Massachusetts, makes it powerfully clear that we must “lead with Jesus.” When the pandemic hit, the parish, located in the Archdiocese of Boston, had just 10 to 36 months of savings; doubling down on “normal” could have led them to become another statistic in a new round of parish closures. 

But the pastor and his lay team used it as an opportunity to alter the course of their parish by refocusing it in discipleship of Jesus Christ. With their “JOY” movement, they put discipleship at the center of their church’s mission and collaboratively and creatively offered Jesus Christ in word, sacrament and fellowship. 

Feeding the faithful this way by leading with Jesus has completely changed this parish’s future. This New England parish, which celebrates Mass in the ordinary form and is located in an archdiocese that was the epicenter of the 2002 abuse scandal, has defied so many popular narratives about the Church’s future. Even as the Sunday obligation remains suspended and the pandemic is ongoing, the parish is growing in membership, paying its bills and sustaining its ministries, and even tithing 10% of its parish income to charity.

If this Catholic parish can undergo such a transformation through discipleship, why can’t all our parishes? 

The fact is: They can — because Jesus Christ’s Gospel has the power to change lives, communities and nations. 

We give too much credit to the darkness in our narratives about the power of secular culture, when Jesus Christ has given his Church everything we need in the sacraments and in Catholic teaching to triumph with him over the darkness. The key is to deepen our faith, to act with greater love for God and others, and to foster around us the true hope that conquers all fear. For this we need great courage and energy!

Right now, dioceses and archdioceses have an opportunity to take the lead in inviting the People of God, both clergy and laity, to work together to envision and accomplish this new normal. One way is to form core groups of disciples in each parish to literally invite parishioners back through personal phone calls or visits as a start to the reevangelization of neighborhoods. The formation of small groups is another proven way to make disciples of parishioners, who then often increase the Church by testifying to others about their faith in Jesus Christ. 

Such witnesses can become forces not only of revitalization in parishes but also an inspiration for the planting of a new mission community or a new school. Our “Small Is Beautiful” series (Part I and Part II) from 2020 illustrated how visionary and effective this can be. 

We should not dismiss this possibility because of the seemingly dire circumstances of the last year. Instead, we must respond like Mary, our Mother and the disciple par excellence, and ask the Lord in prayer, “How shall this be done?” Then we must be prepared to follow Mary’s final words in the Gospel about Jesus: “Do whatever he tells you.”