What will the Catholic Church look like in 2021?
Prophecy is a risky business, but I’m happy to have a go at describing what the Church might look like in Australia after COVID-19.
For starters, I’m wondering if we’ll ever see holy water in stoups at the doors of our churches again – although I’ve been really impressed at the contactless holy water dispensers I’ve seen in some parishes.
And I am one of those germophobes who is really happy with the way we’ve swapped out the handshake Sign of Peace for a simple nod of the head or a smile and wave.
But the biggest difference you’ll probably notice is that there’s fewer of us at Mass on Sundays. I’ve just completed a national survey on the impact of COVID-19 on Catholic worship choices, and it’s been very interesting.
For some people, church closures have ended their relationship with the sacraments, which is really sad. Now that churches have re-opened, they’re simply not going to Mass anymore.
But for others, church closures were an opportunity to discover just how much they wanted to be with the living God in the Eucharist, and to be with other Catholics.
So they got creative – and I think this is something we’ll see more of in future, if we have to go through church closures again.
I watched with delight on Facebook and YouTube as priests all over the world set up drive-through confessions, walked or drove the Blessed Sacrament around towns, and went into hospitals in protective gear.
And people came. People came out on their front lawns or verandas and did Adoration in public. People met their priests at a safe distance in the parish church’s rose garden and went to Confession. People contacted priests and asked to receive Holy Communion safely outside of Mass.
Parish churches hosted toilet paper amnesties and organised food collections for people hit hard by the pandemic. Courageous priests made careful and well-sanitised home visits.
And lay people welcomed them because this crisis has brought us closer together. Perhaps priests and people had been dangerously close to taking each other for granted before church closures came along.
You might notice that I’m focusing on real-life activities. That’s because the Catholic Church is a real-life church made of real-life people, who thrive when they do real-life worship.
We all tried the virtual worship thing, and it was okay for some of us. Livestreamed and televised Masses became a regular event in our homes. I kept meeting Catholics under 35 who were choosing to watch livestreamed Latin Masses as well.
Livestreaming has also been a great way for curious evangelical Christians to see firsthand exactly what we do in Mass and to realise that it’s not scary or secret. Some of them have become Catholics now, precisely because they love the other-worldly beauty of a Mass that’s really focused on worshipping God.
But virtual worship isn’t what gets people back into churches once they reopen. The thing that best predicts people coming back to Mass after COVID-19 is how often we were going to Mass in the first place.
The second-best predictor of coming back to Mass is how much real-life worship we engaged in while churches were closed, even if it was just praying in each other’s homes.
For most of us, what really got us through church lockdowns was real-life contact with priests and the sacraments and other Catholics.
I asked my participants what they’d like to see happen with real-life worship if churches have to close again. They overwhelmingly supported access to the sacraments with proper safeguards, so that everyone can stay healthy both physically and spiritually.
We know this is possible. It’s been done successfully in the United States, where there’s now a terrific set of guidelines for Catholics to use that meet World Health Organisation protocols for preventing the spread of infectious diseases.
So a future Church in Australia might be one where it’s possible for Catholics to receive the sacraments safely, even when our churches are closed and we can’t gather together.
My prediction for the future Church in Australia? A much smaller Church, and a younger Church, with more adult converts.
And it will be a real-life Church, not a virtual one – just like it’s always been.