St. John XXIII Parish is 15 years old this summer. I have been pastor throughout that time. There was the initial planting of a new parish, the growth that followed and many challenges with finding places for worship, building a parish center and eventually opening a new church building.
Yet none of those experiences was as challenging as dealing with the closing and then gradual reopening of the parish because of COVID-19.
We were blessed with up-to-date technology that allowed quality streaming of liturgies. What’s more, many of the means for connecting with parishioners by way of social media had already been established.
We were even fortunate that a high percentage of parishioners had already chosen to give electronically or online. Thus financial concerns were lessened.
If so much was already in our favor, it is reasonable to ask why responding to this pandemic was so hard. The answer is that none of these technological assets could replace what was missing: the body of Christ.
By using that term I am certainly referring to the reception of the Eucharist. I am also choosing the Pauline use of that phrase to represent the community of the church.
Our parish was built with an understanding that the assembly for Mass is a constitutive element of liturgy. Even our new church building was designed to invite and enhance communal celebrations. The pain of not gathering physically with other members of the body of Christ has been striking.
Of course, church is more than the Sunday celebrations. For 15 years we emphasized that the rest of parish life flows from the Eucharist just as all our efforts and ministries lead us to those weekly gatherings.
That is the reason a group of parishioners took on the task of phoning all the others whose names are in the new parish directory — what great timing — just to make sure that no one felt forgotten.
Our cautious and deliberate reopening of the church has underscored the need for community. As I told someone after the first Mass after strict quarantine, no one can see you smile when you have a mask covering your mouth. We felt disconnected.
At the same time, if absence makes the heart grow fonder, many in the parish have rejoiced just to see each other and to be part of a bigger body. Although people may have stayed connected through social media, physical presence still matters a great deal.
Without the ongoing sense of community, people can become isolated. What’s more, their relationship with God can become single-dimensional. That is, they can seek oneness with the Lord and lose the social aspect of our faith.
Even the role of priest can be seen differently. He becomes the primary face of the parish instead of being truly a part of the people who make up the church.
Paul, a member of the parish who contracted COVID-19, spending weeks on a ventilator in the hospital and another month in a rehab facility, told me he learned the real meaning of community.
Even when he was in isolation, he knew others were praying for him. He discovered how people had reached out to his family. He even said members of the parish youth group are maintaining his yard, which he is still not strong enough to do.
He ended the conversation by saying that community means to him that he belongs and can trust that the holy words we say are not simply words. Because of his faith community, those words have taken on flesh and blood. The church becomes the body of Christ.