Father Bob Sullivan | Images by Getty Images/FatCamera

'Parish Life is About People, Not Programs'

Moving Forward in Our Faith After the Pandemic

Saint Junipero Serra was known to say, “Always Forward, Never Back.” That motto of his is very appropriate for all of us, especially as we develop our life of faith after the COVID-19 pandemic. We must move forward. We cannot go back to what existed before the pandemic. We are not the same, and our world is definitely not the same.

The rhythms of our lives that we took for granted are no longer the same. Just because they are not the same, does not mean they are wrong. They are just different. But the pandemic has posited a big question to all of us — what is the point of church anyway? After all, we have experienced that we can worship online, so why go back?  

The answer is Communion and communion. I say it this way because there are two aspects to communion. First, as Catholics we believe in the Real Presence of Our Lord in Communion (Eucharist). We long for His presence in our lives. I witnessed firsthand many of the faithful in tears as they were able to receive Our Lord Jesus in Communion after the restrictions were lifted. Our souls long for the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Second, to paraphrase the philosopher Aristotle, man is by nature social. We desire communion with one another. Physical presence with one another is an important aspect of our growth as human beings. Something happens when we are physically present to one another, which does not happen when we are gathered online.

So, we go forward. We cannot return to “the way things were before” and we should not desire it. Now, deep down we long for the familiar and the comfortable, but that is one aspect of our Liturgy. The consistency of our ritual helps us to “settle in,” but it would be wrong for us to desire a return to what was before. We have changed, and that very change is, and must be, expressed in our expression of faith. We cannot just press the “reset button” and return to a worship experience prior to March of 2020.

So how do we move forward? We must all recognize, clergy included, that parish life is about people, not programs! We must move away from the mentality of “if we build it, they will come” that crept into our psyche (especially in the United States). Our faith is about people, not buildings. During this past year we have come to the realization that it is about relationship, not only our relationship with one another, but our relationship with Christ. That relationship with Christ is nurtured and nourished primarily in the parish where one receives the sacraments. But it is much more than just the sacraments. Our parishes must be places where relationships can grow and be fostered not just in adult education classes, but in small groups gathering in homes (as well as in parish facilities). These small groups are meant to enhance our celebration of the sacraments, not to replace them. As people return to Mass, they want not only to be nurtured and nourished themselves, but they want to, in turn, nurture and nourish others. They desire to share the experiences of faith they have had over this past year. We must find ways for that to take place.

It has long been said that Jesus Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question. In these times, people long for truth, order, stability, meaning, and direction. That is the responsibility that we, all of us, not just clergy, have as His followers. We are called to participate at Mass, to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist, and to share His presence with others.

Father Bob Sullivan has been a priest for over 27 years and is pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Birmingham.