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Theological Institute hosts conversation on post-pandemic Church


Father Paul Soper and Dan Cellucci of the Catholic Leadership Institute discuss "The Church After the Pandemic," during a March 16 virtual gathering hosted by the Theological Institute of the New Evangelization. Pilot screen capture

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BRAINTREE -- After a year of pandemic restrictions and virtual gatherings, many have adjusted to a new way of parish life. But what will the Church look like after the pandemic has passed?

That question was taken up in a webinar entitled "The Church After the Pandemic," hosted by the Theological Institute of the New Evangelization on March 16.

The online event consisted of a conversation between Father Paul Soper, archdiocesan secretary for evangelization and discipleship, and Dan Cellucci, the CEO of the Catholic Leadership Institute, who has spent the last 10 years studying the practices and beliefs of weekly Mass attendees.

In December 2020, Cellucci gave a talk for Our Sunday Visitor Institute, entitled "What if They Don't Come Back?" His conversation with Father Soper addressed similar questions about the number of people attending Mass during and after the coronavirus pandemic, and how parishes have adapted -- and can continue to adapt -- their methods of ministry.

Cellucci addressed the fact that, although churches have reopened with reduced capacity, most parishes are not seeing even that low number of people attend Mass in person.

"I think that we should be adopting the mindset that whoever will return has already returned," he said.

He explained that he thinks the Church should "confront that reality, not with despair, but with a sense of opportunity." He said they need to spread the message "that there is always a future in Christ, but we have to ground it in where we're starting from and make sure we have a path that is intentional before us."

"I don't want this to keep happening to us, that we just kind of fall into whatever the next thing is. I think God is calling us to make some intentional choices about how we move into the next chapter of parishes' lives," Cellucci said.

Father Soper and Cellucci both talked about how the pandemic has led parish leaders to discuss the core mission of the parish and the true purpose of different activities.

They stressed how important it is for parish leaders to take time to pray together and, from the beginning, discuss their purpose, their scope of responsibility, and how they will function as a team.

"We should know why we're doing everything we're doing. That's what I think an intentional parish looks like," Cellucci said.

Father Soper, who is also the pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Westwood, asked those watching the webinar to consider what aspects of their parish are now stronger than they were before the pandemic. He pointed out that many parishes have learned how to share events and conduct activities virtually.

"That's one of the great blessings of what we've been through in this last year," Father Soper said.

Cellucci noted that the pandemic has taught parish leaders how many things are possible that they had never considered before. And having learned that, he said, they should consider what God is calling them to do "with a spirit of possibility, not just a spirit of despair or nostalgia for what was."

He spoke about the formats and methods used for parish activities, and how unwillingness may be mistaken for inability when a parish considers trying something new.

"The question was, were we willing to take the risk to try it that way," Cellucci said, adding that even before the pandemic, ministry leaders were "putting a lot of constraints on our parishes that don't exist."

One example Cellucci and Father Soper discussed was a practice that many churches have adopted: calling parishioners, particularly the homebound, to check on them, pray for them, and ask if they need assistance. Father Soper urged parishes not to stop that practice after the pandemic.

Cellucci also encouraged parish leaders to not put off starting new initiatives. Rather than wait until a later point when the government lifts restrictions and people feel more comfortable going out, he argued that they should begin the process of engaging people now.

He also spoke of how parish leaders sometimes set up "false choices" for themselves. With regard to whether or not to continue live-streaming Masses after the pandemic ends, he pointed out that there were already televised Masses before it began.

"It's not a choice that we have to make," Cellucci said, adding that "I think we should continue to do both, but know why we're doing each."

Father Soper pointed out that live-streaming technology can be employed for events other than the Mass -- such as Bible studies, Stations of the Cross, and prayers -- and that this is "projecting the parish into other moments of their day that we didn't know how to do before."

"Now we do know how to do it, and there's no way in the world we're stopping that. That has become an integral part of our parish's life right now," Father Soper said.

Now that parishes have learned how to send content out, Cellucci suggested that they might next develop "ways that people can put into the conversation and not just receive." For instance, in a Marian month like May, families could share pictures showing their devotion to the Blessed Mother.

"The dialogue is important," Cellucci said.

He also recommended holding "focus groups" to get parishioners' feedback on what has been helpful to them and what they want and need from their parish.

The conversation was followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by Patrick Krisak, director of faith formation and missionary discipleship. During the discussion, Father Soper went into more detail about live-streaming technology, and Cellucci described the Disciple Maker Index survey tool developed by the Catholic Leadership Institute.

Cellucci ended by sharing a recent personal experience: his seven-year-old son Peter was diagnosed with brain cancer just before Christmas. Cellucci said the way his parish supported his family reminded him "just how important a parish is."

Their parochial vicar came to give a blessing before Peter started his treatment, and told him to remember that he would never be alone.

Cellucci said he realized that "of all the emotions that our family is going through, the one that we have never felt is alone."

"Doesn't everybody in the world want that right now, to know that they're not alone? And we know they're not. We know that the Lord is very much present all the time. And the reason why we gather is to affirm that and to remind each other of that," he said.

A recording of "The Church After the Pandemic: A Conversation with Dan Cellucci" can be viewed at bostoncatholic.org/webinars, along with information about past and upcoming archdiocesan webinars.

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