The Shepherds the Church Needs Now

COMMENTARY: Bishops need to make themselves daily guests in the living rooms (or prayer spaces) of their flock.

Pierre Mignard (1612-1695), St. Charles Borromeo Ministering to Plague Victims
Pierre Mignard (1612-1695), St. Charles Borromeo Ministering to Plague Victims (photo: Public domain)

Most Catholics understand the need to suspend public Masses, and many of us thank the bishops for following the directives of public officials. Not all of us, though. There are some who think it is never right to suspend public Masses, for a wide variety of reasons. It is not my purpose here to evaluate that decision but to ask our bishops to be the shepherds we need in the time of the coronavirus.

With few exceptions, the bishops seem to be “missing in action.” Many of them already use social media, particularly Twitter, to connect with their flock, but besides livestreaming their Sunday Mass and putting links to where other Masses can be “viewed” in the diocese, they have not stepped up their “personal” presence to their flock. It seems only Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, has begun to match what some of their priests are doing. Bishop Strickland (as quite a few priests have) has taken the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance out to the public. Why wouldn’t all of them be doing that and much more?

One would hope bishops would guide their priests in how to tend to their flock, but it seems now they need to learn from their priests.

Many priests are devising all sorts of ways to minister to their flocks: flying in a plane or helicopter with a monstrance over a whole diocese while people “adore” from the ground; hearing confessions and saying Mass in parking lots; and processing with a monstrance in a flatbed of a truck to take the Eucharist to all parts of town, in addition to livestreaming Masses, Rosaries, Stations of the Cross and retreats.

Daily communicants and the 30% of Catholics who believe in the Real Presence are bereft at being denied the Eucharist. I read of two girls, 7 and 9, who broke down in tears when their parents said there was no Mass to go to.

The sense of loss may be even greater for those whose belief is wobbly: One reason many Catholics are anxious about public Mass not being available is that Sunday Mass is their chief means of making contact with God in a church. With the Mass gone from their life, they sense God as being away from their lives. Their love for the Eucharist is beautiful and right, but perhaps this is just the opportunity needed to learn new ways of relating to the Lord. And who better to teach them than the bishops?

The decision made in most dioceses not to allow baptisms at this time totally befuddles me. I can understand not having large gatherings for a baptism, but I think there should be an open invitation to anyone wanting to be baptized or to have their children baptized to contact the chancery. Is not this one of the most important and urgent tasks a shepherd should want to perform in a time of crisis?

 My view is that the bishops need to be present to us like never before — to help us keep our faith alive and to have the virtue of hope for our benefit and the benefit of those around us.

I ask the bishops: Please use social media to keep constant contact with your flock. Teach us what we need to know about how to keep spiritually strong in these frightening times.

Here are some of the FAQs I hear that you should be addressing for your flock.

  1. Does there need to be a congregation for a Mass to be said?
  2. What efficacy does a Mass have if there is no congregation there to receive the Eucharist? (The fact that these questions are asked shows that many don’t have a proper understanding of the purpose of the Mass.)
  3. Is there any benefit to watching Mass on TV? Does it need to be “live”?
  4. What is a spiritual communion? Does it really “work”?
  5. What if I have a mortal sin on my soul but can’t find a means to get to confession? What should I do?
  6. Is it possible to go to confession over Zoom or Skype or some such service?
  7. Why did the Vatican put out a statement making various activities a means to gain a “plenary indulgence” during this time of isolation? What is a plenary indulgence, and what do I need to do to get one (or many)?

In our social isolation it makes sense that we should find spaces in our homes for game rooms and enjoy watching (wholesome) movies together: Some of the old classic movies such as Exodus, Ben Hur and Spartacus will be new to many, entertaining, informative and good fodder for dialogue. I think the new series Chosen is excellent. Some of us are turning to gatherings and parties on such platforms as Zoom to keep in contact.

More importantly we should be finding a way to make place for prayer in our own homes, a kind of chapel with an altar that can focus our attention and where we can put our prayer intentions. The fact is that the coronavirus has made monks of us all. We should be punctuating our days with Morning and Evening Prayer, a family Rosary, saying the Angelus and doing family Bible reading, study and discussion. Families and others should make use of the many online resources for good Catholic entertainment and instruction — the website Formed has incredible resources, and Magnificat is making its devotional aid free online.

Bishops should be providing online spiritual direction every day, and they should broadcast their own daily Mass; they should say at least one Rosary online every day, lead novenas and litanies; they should lead a reflection on Scripture daily, and teach people how to do lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture).

One of the terrible consequences of an attitude that followed Vatican II that discouraged devotions and various spiritual practices has been that whole generations don’t know how many really worthy devotions there are — and thus don’t have such resources at their disposal. Bishops should introduce the laity to various devotions — their favorite ones — and stories of their “friend” saints. Or at least some of these!

Bishops need to make themselves daily guests in the living rooms (or prayer spaces) of their flock. Imagine the impact if large numbers of the laity of a diocese logged on daily to pray together with their bishop.

Many Catholics, laity and priests, are already doing much to bolster their spiritual life with these faith-filled pursuits. At this point, our bishops will be leading from behind, but please lead in some way.

Janet Smith, Ph.D.,  is a moral theologian.