As the country begins to crawl out from under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches around the Diocese of Nashville are looking forward to a better and stronger future.
“I can remember when everything was locked down, there was a sense of disorientation,” said Father Jean Baptiste Kyabuta, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Madison. “I feel like now is the new hope, a new beginning.”
Pastors have watched as their churches have been filling up in recent months.
“We really long for that time we can be together,” said Father Austin Gilstrap, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville and the Vocations Director for the diocese. For Holy Week and Easter, Father Gilstrap preached “about the gratitude we all feel to be together,” he said. “We don’t want to take the faith for granted, especially after last year. That was the general consensus among the people there.”
After every liturgy and service during Holy Week, someone would come up to Father Gilstrap to tell him it was their first time back in person in a year. “There was such joy,” he said. “You sometimes don’t realize how much you miss it until you come back.”
“It’s been difficult for people not to be able to gather” as a parish community, noted Father Justin Raines, pastor of St. Christopher Church in Dickson and the dean of the Northwest Deanery for the diocese. “The people are very happy to be back.”
“In this pandemic, they have found faith,” Father Kyabuta said of his parishioners. “Through this we have learned the love of God. We sometimes take it for granted.”
Now that people are starting to return, pastors are looking to the future.
Father Gilstrap and his parish staff have been talking about what the church will look like after the pandemic. “We look at this as an incredible opportunity for evangelization,” he said.
“It’s not just that people are grateful for their parish and the community they have,” he said. “We know what we’ve been missing. There’s a huge number of people who have really suffered in a way they’ve never suffered before. They’re missing meaning in their life.
“We have an obligation to witness to the joy we have for the benefits of being Catholic,” Father Gilstrap added. “As we do see people coming back, we have an obligation to witness to the world there is joy here, there is community here. … Everything you long for, it’s here.”
Father Michael Fye, pastor of St. Ann Church in Nashville, is also looking to the future. “I want to be better than the way we were before. And in many ways, we’re achieving that,” he said, noting that the parish added about 100 new families in the last year, during the pandemic.
“Unlike other churches in the area, we’ve been here for generations and will be for many more,” Father Fye said of St. Ann, which this year is marking the 100th anniversary of its founding. “We’ve got the long view.
“St. Ann is a beautiful place,” Father Fye said. “We want to attract people through beauty,” both through the beauty of the parish’s liturgies and the beauty of its community, he added.
He has been encouraging people to form relationships with other families in the parish, to reach out to others on their own, rather than wait for a formal parish event, Father Fye said.
The pandemic has held lessons for us, Father Gilstrap said. “It’s taught us what’s important: my relationship with people. That’s what I want. That’s what I need.”
It also provided lessons about new tools churches in the diocese can use to reach out and stay connected to their parishioners, including using social media platforms, livestreaming Mass and other events, and posting faith formation videos on their websites.
“Over the course of the pandemic, we realized we had to do it more and do it better,” Father Gilstrap said.
At St. Christopher, Father Raines, like many other pastors and churches in the diocese, turned to the internet to post faith formation videos during the pandemic.
“I definitely did more of that during the lockdown time,” he said. But after the public celebration of Mass returned and more people started coming to Mass rather than watching online, the need for the online videos wasn’t as great, Father Raines explained.
Most of the religious education classes at St. Christopher have remained online for the entire school year, he said, while the classes preparing for their First Communion and Confirmation were able to meet in-person for the spring semester.
Going forward, Father Raines said, “I think people are more open to having more faith formation online.”
Our Lady of the Lake has brought on a new part-time communications coordinator to work on the parish website and social media platforms, Father Gilstrap said. “Putting out communications in a more effective way, we see that as the next step, whether the pandemic had happened or not,” he said. “It will be important into the future.”
Some churches have begun planning parish-wide gatherings to welcome people back as they become more comfortable in crowds. The staff at Our Lady of the Lake have had tentative discussions about such a gathering in the late summer, Father Gilstrap said. “I am very optimistic.”