Thinking About Ministry After Covid

Based On Ecclesiological Insights of Pope Francis

The opening paragraph of Lumen Gentium states, “Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.” (LG#1) The mission remains, but the modality of the mission remains to be re-discovered and reformulated in each successive era. The present essay deals with some possibilities of reformulation after Covid-19 and suggests issues that need further research.

Pope Francis remarked in Fratelli Tutti (2020) #7: “As I was writing this letter, the Covid-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities. Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident. For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.”

Centripetal Outreach to Centrifugal Outreach

In the recent past, the functioning of ministry has been church-centered, or, one might say, centripetal. The celebration of the sacraments and breaking the Word in many forms has been for the most part in the churches. So also catechism classes and other outreach ministries. Even during Covid the Eucharist, celebrated in churches, has been disseminated through the use of technological means. But the question is whether that alone is sufficient after Covid. What about other sacraments? What about pastoral care, that encounter with truth, which sets people free?

Several gestures of the Pope (inviting homeless people to have breakfast with him on his birthday, taking a boy with Down’s Syndrome on a ride in the Popemobile, laying hands on a man with a deforming skin condition etc.) reflect the pope’s personality, but they are also consciously crafted symbols of the Church he wants to lead. It’s a Church that doesn’t sit around waiting for people to walk through the door but goes out to meet them where they live.

Perhaps we need to begin thinking of the ministry as something of a centrifugal activity, like a cartwheel — the spokes radiating from the center to the periphery. The periphery would represent those in need. The outreach would be, to use the imagery of Pope Francis, like a polyhedron. A polyhedron is a solid of three dimensions with flat faces, straight edges and sharp corners or vertices. The polyhedron lacks the harmony and proportions of a sphere but retains the unity of a solid. Not only that, it has variable distances from its center and not a single way of being related to it. It may be an awkward type of unity, but still the solid holds together. Pope Francis believes that the Church of the third millennium must be synodal, an “inverted pyramid,” like a polyhedron where uneven surfaces meet.

Centralization and uniformity of church structures, and the desire to mould believers into a single pattern, kills it. Conversely, if it celebrates diversity, individuals flourish and make their contribution. The center of this polyhedron is the common humanity that all human beings share while the different faces represent the cultural particulars (with its influence by the different religions) that cannot be squeezed nor overlooked by globalization. The purpose of the outreach from the center (the deposit of faith and the common humanity) is to reach out to the periphery, heralding the possibility of union with God and the unity of the human race. It is a question of relationships, basically the outreach of agape, Christian love, the Church as sign and instrument of intimate union with God and the unity of the human race.

Technology, Many Centers, Building Relationships

The means for this activity is through the use of technological means, but operating from different centers or focal points, and therefore with many “flavors.” The parish church has been a focal point up to now, and still is. But has the time come to have other focal points as well, e.g. spontaneous groups (blogs) to discuss various issues? Another focal point could be on the family, the domestic church — first of all, inviting families to assist from their homes/places of work at the live streamed mass together and then discuss the readings and homily as they pertain to life. It could start with individual families and then spread to other families.

With technology, linking with families in the country itself and in fact, anywhere in the world is possible. Perhaps the ministries could thus have their own outreach, as will be discussed below? What about other real needs — the care of the sick and housebound, the bereaved, those in need of counseling after a trauma, those thinking about to what they wish to dedicate their lives? Fostering popular devotion in the interest of promoting relationships — a joint cry to God, our only refuge as in the psalms? These groups need to focus not merely on connectivity, but more importantly, on building and fostering relationships — what Pope Francis calls fraternity and social friendship.

Technological means brings people into connectivity, but it does not build them into relationships. Building relationships involves more than “flash in the pan” effects, but the overcoming of fragmentation. As Pope Francis points out in Fratelli Tutti, besides social and political inertia (#71) and indifference (#73), even deeper is selfishness right across the board.

“In some countries, a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of the social sense under the guise of defending national interests.” (#11)

“As couples or friends, we find that our hearts expand as we step out of ourselves and embrace others. Closed groups and self-absorbed couples that define themselves in opposition to others tend to be expressions of selfishness and mere self-preservation.” (#89)

“Every society needs to ensure that values are passed on; otherwise, what is handed down are selfishness, violence, corruption in its various forms, indifference and, ultimately, a life closed to transcendence and entrenched in individual interests.” (#113)

“The bigger risk does not come from specific objects, material realities or institutions, but from the way that they are used. It has to do with human weakness, the proclivity to selfishness that is part of what the Christian tradition refers to as ‘concupiscence’: the human inclination to be concerned only with myself, my group, my own petty interests. Concupiscence is not a flaw limited to our own day. It has been present from the beginning of humanity, and has simply changed and taken on different forms down the ages, using whatever means each moment of history can provide. Concupiscence, however, can be overcome with the help of God.” (#166)

The issues the Pope raises have to be faced and gradually eliminated by moving in the direction of the church as “sacrament” — sign and instrument of intimate union with God and the unity of the whole human race.

This mission involves caring for the sheep and experiencing the smell of sheep, which is not very pleasant. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward,” and since he does not put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks.

This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad — sad priests — in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with “the odor of the sheep.” This I ask you: be shepherds, with the “odor of the sheep,” make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men. Pope Francis has called the overestimation of the importance and prestige of the clergy the “cancer of clericalism.”

Covid as Call to Renewal

Covid has highlighted the fragmentation in the world. The roots of fragmentation are basically selfishness, which is itself rooted in concupiscence. Hence, the practice of the ministry of word and sacrament as done hitherto needs to be extended so that these celebrations touch people where they are at. The charge addressed to ministers of the word in the Uniting Church of Australia can well be reflected on: We are ordaining you

  • to read and interpret those sacred stories of our community so that they speak the Word to people today;
  • to remember and practice those rituals and rites of meaning which, in their poetry, address people at the level where change operates;
  • to foster in community, through Word and Sacrament and pastoral care, that encounter with truth which will set people free to minister as the body of Christ.

Instituted Ministries

Besides the renewal of ministry of word and sacrament by the clergy, the laity need to be assigned their rightful place in the mission of the church. In the context of the institution of the ministry of catechists, Pope Francis has said in Antiquum Ministerium (2021) #7: “To be sure, “there has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church. We can indeed count on many lay persons, although still not nearly enough, who have a deeply rooted sense of community and great fidelity to the tasks of charity, catechesis and the celebration of the faith” (Evangelii Gaudium #102). It follows that the reception of a lay ministry such as that of catechist will emphasize even more the missionary commitment proper to every baptized person, a commitment that must however be carried out in a fully ‘secular’ manner, avoiding any form of clericalization” (emphasis added).

When Paul VI by Quaedam Ministeria (1972) established the ministries of Lector and Acolyte supposedly as lay ministries, the majority who received them were clerics en route to the priesthood. With Pope Francis opening these ministries and that of catechists to persons of both sexes, there is the possibility of conferring these ministries as part of the outreach of mission spoken of above. What is wanted is not clericalization of the laity but the laity being in the world, but bearing witness to being not of the world (cf. Letter to Diognetus 5–6).

In a Pew survey (August 2019) it was discovered that seven in ten U.S. Catholics believe that the bread and wine consecrated in Mass are mere symbols of Jesus’ body and blood. This is a serious deficiency in faith. Perhaps this is the time for laity specialized in various areas to be available to help their fellow Christians grow in faith. Those who are acolytes may be trained in understanding the Eucharist and its various dimensions; those instituted lectors in the understanding of the scriptures especially the texts contained in the lectionary and read at the Eucharist and other liturgical rites; catechists with a good knowledge of Christian doctrine and morality and able to assist in discernment. Would this be the appropriate time to search for and institute a means for the formation of laity in this world, which is indeed fragmented and given over to selfishness?

Mitchell Stimers, Ryan Bergstrom, Tom Vought and Michael Dulin, in “Capital Vice in the Midwest: The Spatial Distribution of the Seven Deadly Sins” undertook the task of statistically representing the seven deadly sins at the county level within the Midwest region of the United States to determine what, if any, spatial coincidence occurred. Each of the seven deadly sins was given separate treatment based on sociological and economic characteristics and available data. What they discovered is the wide spread of capital sins.

Addressing Our Issues of Selfishness and Fragmentation

In Querida Amazonia (2020) #93, Pope Francis says that it is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist. “That would be a very narrow aim, were we not also to strive to awaken new life in communities. We need to promote an encounter with God’s word and growth in holiness through various kinds of lay service that call for a process of education — biblical, doctrinal, spiritual and practical — and a variety of programmes of ongoing formation.”

In Synodality: This collaboration with laity needs to take place in a spirit of synodality. In a hierarchical Church Pope and Bishops are privileged listeners to the Holy Spirit and are mandated to teach the people of God, whereas in the Synodal church the magisterium listens to the Holy Spirit speaking to them through the people of God (LG 12) as well and, thus, includes a two-way process of common listening to the Spirit and communal discernment (sensus fidei) by the entire people of God who journey together to evangelize and bring about the Kingdom of God.

For the Church engaged in this mission, four principles are outlined in Evangelii Gaudium (2013) #217-237:

(1) Time is greater than space: A constant tension exists between fullness and limitation. Fullness evokes the desire for complete possession, while limitation is a wall set before us. This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces.

We need to be concerned about generating processes of people-building, as opposed to obtaining immediate results which yield easy, quick, short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fullness. This criterion also applies to evangelization, which calls for attention to the bigger picture, openness to suitable processes and concern for the long run. The Lord himself, during his earthly life, often warned his disciples that there were things they could not yet understand and that they would have to await the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:12–13). The parable of the weeds among the wheat (cf. Mt 13:24–30) graphically illustrates an important aspect of evangelization: the enemy can intrude upon the kingdom and sow harm, but ultimately he is defeated by the goodness of the wheat.

(2) Unity prevails over conflict: Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed. It has to be faced. But if we remain trapped in conflict, we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart. In the midst of conflict, we lose our sense of the profound unity of reality. When conflict arises, some people simply look at it and go their way as if nothing happened; they wash their hands of it and get on with their lives. Others embrace it in such a way that they become its prisoners; they lose their bearings, project onto institutions their own confusion and dissatisfaction and thus make unity impossible.

But there is also a third way, and it is the best way to deal with conflict. It is the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process. “Blessed are the peacemakers!” (Mt 5:9). Christ “is our peace” (Eph 2:14). The Gospel message always begins with a greeting of peace, and peace at all times crowns and confirms the relations between the disciples. The message of peace is not about a negotiated settlement but rather the conviction that the unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize every diversity.

(3) Realities are more important than ideas: There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric. So a third principle comes into play: realities are greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom. Ideas — conceptual elaborations — are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis. Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action.

Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God” (1 Jn 4:2). The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization. It helps us to see that the Church’s history is a history of salvation, to be mindful of those saints who inculturated the Gospel in the life of our peoples and to reap the fruits of the Church’s rich tradition. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centeredness and gnosticism.

(4) The whole is greater than the part: An innate tension also exists between globalization and localization. We need to pay attention to the global so as to avoid narrowness and banality. Yet we also need to look to the local, which keeps our feet on the ground. Together, the two prevent us from falling into one of two extremes. In the first, people get caught up in an abstract, globalized universe, falling into step behind everyone else, admiring the glitter of other people’s world, gaping and applauding at all the right times. At the other extreme, they turn into a museum of local folklore, a world apart, doomed to doing the same things over and over, and incapable of being challenged by novelty or appreciating the beauty which God bestows beyond their borders.

We can work on a small scale, in our own neighborhood, but with a larger perspective. Nor do people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need to lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth. The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren. Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the center, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. Pastoral and political activity alike seek to gather in this polyhedron the best of each. There is a place for the poor and their culture, their aspirations and their potential. Even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked. It is the convergence of peoples who, within the universal order, maintain their own individuality; it is the sum total of persons within a society which pursues the common good, which truly has a place for everyone.

To Christians, this principle also evokes the totality or integrity of the Gospel which the Church passes down to us and sends us forth to proclaim. Its fullness and richness embrace scholars and workers, businessmen and artists, in a word, everyone. The genius of each people receives in its own way the entire Gospel and embodies it in expressions of prayer, fraternity, justice, struggle and celebration. The good news is the joy of the Father who desires that none of his little ones be lost, the joy of the Good Shepherd who finds the lost sheep and brings it back to the flock. The Gospel is the leaven which causes the dough to rise and the city on the hill whose light illumines all peoples. The Gospel has an intrinsic principle of totality: it will always remain good news until it has been proclaimed to all people, until it has healed and strengthened every aspect of humanity, until it has brought all men and women together at table in God’s kingdom. The whole is greater than the part. Pope Francis is not too concerned about the evolution of new concepts to back change. He is rather interested in recognizing and working with people who bring about change.

In Discernment: Listening in this way and implementing the principles above involves a training in a process of discernment. There is the well-known adage of Augustine: “God does not command the impossible; but by so commanding, he exhorts you to do what you can and to seek what you cannot, so that God may assist to make it possible for you.” Today’s version of that adage could perhaps be what Pope Francis states in Amoris Laetitia #303. The primary responsibility in this situation of seeking what God is asking, or to discover the “do what you can,” is on the person in that situation. But there is a secondary responsibility or co-responsibility, that devolves on those who assist that person to come to a decision in conscience. This could be the pastor, the priest or the counselor, who assists the one who falls short of gospel ideals. The primary player and the “assistant” together engage in a process of discernment. When meeting a group of Jesuits in Poland (2016): “Certain programmes of priestly formation run the danger of educating in the light of very clear and specific ideas, and indeed of acting within limits and criteria and are a priori definitively defined, while prescinding from the concrete situation. . . . (Translation mine)”.

In my experience, not too many priests know much about discernment. There are perhaps even fewer who understand the demand of walking in synodality and discernment. Discernment is not connected to orders. Hence lay people can be trained in it very effectively. In discernment some convictions are basic.

  1. The degree of responsibility is not the same in all cases (Amoris Laetitia # 300). There are mitigating factors that reduce imputability (Cf. id. #302).
  2. The principle of gradualness: John Paul II said in Familiaris Consortio (1981) #34: “And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law’. . .” Pope Francis repeated in Amoris Laetitia #295 “This is not a ‘gradualness of law’ but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law.”
  3. The pastor/counselor assists, but it is only the individual who can take responsibility in conscience before God for the decision. His/her conscience is the proximate law of morality for the individual — not necessarily for anyone else. It is not a question of doing something because the pastor/counselor gives permission. The individual needs to come to a decision in conscience before God — a decision for which he/she is responsible before God.

As Pope Francis has indicated, “there will always be men and women of the Church who are [. . .] social climbers, who ‘use’ people, the Church, their brothers and sisters — whom they should be serving — as a springboard for their own personal interests and ambitions . . . [they] are doing great harm to the Church.” Such attitudes undo the mission of the Church.

Searching for Possibilities

The two supreme instruments which the Church possesses are the Word and the Sacrament. There are limitless possibilities in regard to the Word. But there are limitations in regard to the sacrament. On 06.08.2020, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith gave a negative response to the validity of baptism conferred with the words “We baptize you . . .” The manner in which this came into the social media was that it touched upon the case of Matt Hood (who had been ordained priest on 3 June 2017) and was exercising his ministry in a parish. By chance, his father sent him a video of his baptism and he discovered that the presiding deacon had used the words “We baptize you . . .” His baptism was declared invalid and so were the other sacraments that he had received. (The error was rectified when he was subsequently baptized and re-ordained in August 2020.)

In that same case, the underlying principles were explained. 1. “When celebrating a Sacrament, the Church in fact functions as the Body that acts inseparably from its Head, since it is Christ the Head who acts in the ecclesial Body generated by him in the Paschal mystery.” 2. In the celebration of the Sacraments, in fact, the subject is the Church, the Body of Christ together with its Head, that manifests itself in the concrete gathered assembly. Such an assembly therefore acts ministerially — not collegially — because no group can make itself Church, but becomes Church in virtue of a call that cannot arise from within the assembly itself. The minister is therefore the sign-presence of Him who gathers, and is at the same time the locus of the communion of every liturgical assembly with the whole Church. In other words the minister is the visible sign that the Sacrament is not subject to an arbitrary action of individuals or of the community, and that it pertains to the Universal Church.

But what are the possibilities within the existing structures, without raising doubts about the validity of sacraments. As regards the sacrament of reconciliation, the obligation to confess kind and number of sins applies only to mortal sin. Such mortal sin can be forgiven with imperfect contrition together with the sacrament. But there is no such requirement for those guilty only of venial sin.

Thomas Aquinas says about the Eucharist (STh III, 79,4) “Two things may be considered in this sacrament, to wit, the sacrament itself, and the reality of the sacrament: and it appears from both that this sacrament has the power of forgiving venial sins. For this sacrament is received under the form of nourishing food. Now nourishment from food is requisite for the body to make good the daily waste caused by the action of natural heat. But something is also lost daily of our spirituality from the heat of concupiscence through venial sins, which lessen the fervor of charity.” Innocent III understood that the devout reception of the Eucharist “blots out venial sins and wards off mortal sins.” Both effects are made possible by the infusion of charity. There is therefore certainly the possibility of hearing the confession of venial sins on the phone or by some other secure mode of communication. Can sacramental absolution be given? That needs to be studied.

In addition, there is the third rite of general absolution. Perhaps that can be used more often. Together with that can be considered the question whether those who are to receive absolution are to be gathered physically in one place or whether they can be gathered virtually through technological means. Board meetings of multi-million dollar companies are held online; many heads of state chose to participate online at the recent UN General Assembly (September 2021). Why not something similar for the sacraments?

As regards live streamed masses, in his Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), Benedict XVI recommends the practice of making spiritual communions. He states: “Even in cases where it is not possible to receive sacramental communion, participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful. In such circumstances it is beneficial to cultivate a desire for full union with Christ through the practice of spiritual communion, praised by Pope John Paul II and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life” (no. 55). This is a participation by desire. As Thomas Aquinas (STh III, 80.1) says:

“There are two things to be considered in the receiving of this sacrament, namely, the sacrament itself, and its fruits, and we have already spoken of both (III,73 and III,79). The perfect way, then, of receiving this sacrament is when one takes it, so as to partake of its effect. Now, as was stated above (III,79,8), it sometimes happens that a man is hindered from receiving the effect of this sacrament; and such receiving of this sacrament is an imperfect one. Therefore, as the perfect is divided against the imperfect, so sacramental eating, whereby the sacrament only is received without its effect, is divided against spiritual eating, by which one receives the effect of this sacrament, whereby a man is spiritually united with Christ through faith and charity.”

Can there be further development in regard to the consecration of bread and wine during live streamed masses? Again a matter for study. In a Mass celebrated by the Pope John Paul II (1995) in the Philippines, there were hosts to be consecrated kept as far away as 2 kilometers from the altar. That was in physical space? Could virtual space extend that distance indefinitely? In days gone by, the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi blessing would carry the plenary indulgence (attached to that blessing ) to all those who heard it via radio.

As regards marriage, there is a possibility provided by law in cases where a priest cannot be found (canon 1098). What about the possibilities in the case of the anointing of the sick? All these are matters that need study and research in an age of virtual reality.

Finally, a word needs to be said about finances. Most parishes find a drop in financial resources especially when Sunday Masses cannot be held regularly. The issue is not to increased fund-raising. The issue is whether the institution (parish, monastery, lay organization or whatever) provides a useful service. Monasteries in the middle ages were centers of intellectual, literary, artistic, and social activity. In return, they received huge donations. In Chaucer’s time (fourteenth century), the church owned over one fifth of the arable land in England. Service that is useful and benefits people will engender donations. Once donations come, there is the question of accountability and transparency. “Ill fares a land to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay” (Oliver Goldsmith, Deserted Village). Pastors become hirelings who prey on the sheep and forget the smell of the sheep.

Promoting and Encouraging a New Evangelization

After Vatican II, there were individuals and groups that went around disseminating the basic insights of Vatican II. Who is really engaged in this dissemination today? In fact, based on anecdotal evidence, it would seem that some are even openly opposed to movement in synodality and discernment. People are still expecting Yes/No answers to their questions as was the case with the dubia submitted to Pope Francis about his encyclical Amoris Laetitia by a group of Cardinals.

A ministry envisaged according to the outline above means both a change of mindset (conversion) and a renewal of existing ministry of word and sacrament, without fear of venturing into new territory together with laity in a spirit of mutual listening in the face of reality; discerning together the movement of the Spirit and walking together in synodality. An exercise of ministry along the lines and more importantly, the spirit of what is suggested above will inevitably lead to the re-thinking and re-formulation of reality, a new evangelization.

Fr. Nihal Abeyasingha About Fr. Nihal Abeyasingha

Fr. Nihal Abeyasingha has degrees in civil law, philosophy, Buddhism, and Catholic sacramental theology. He has experience in pastoral work and teaching at universities and seminaries.