The effect of COVID-19 on religious habits

Church life will need to rebuild anew in the midst of a culture whose habits have been shredded by COVID 19. And God only knows where that will take us. But that’s the exciting part: we can discover it.

A retired priest friend of mine recently described how he’s coping with COVID lockdown, putting into practice habits he learnt while doing a 30-day silent retreat some years ago: When I went into COVID “lockdown”, late in March, I quickly took up something that I had learned at the beginning of the retreat – the need to have a fixed daily program. So, I got up at the same time, always shaved, put on clean clothes, spent time in the chapel, breakfast and so on. I included a 50+min walk each afternoon, immediately after lunch. I am very grateful that I was able to manage as well as I did.”

The maintenance or even resumption of habits is one way of coping. Habits when shared, of course, form a culture that people can share. It can people who are neighbours in a suburb or a village, friends who go to the same coffee shop or gym, people who go to the same church and turn up regularly for Mass at the same time.

Or not.

In an exchange of emails with a friend who has developed one of Australia’s leading online travel agencies and booking platforms for transport and accommodation, we agreed that whatever lies ahead for most of us is for God to know and for us to find out. That’s because we just can’t execute our lives and operations as we have till now and because it will be many years before whatever the “new normal” is becomes clear. The way we’ve done things is not the way we will revive them. We just have to start again.

Sharing habits can become unconscious, even involuntary. And much of Catholic parish life has been like that for a very long time. But, as the decline in the numbers who habitually have attended Mass in the last 40 or 50 years can attest, break the habit and the culture can disappear.

This is the unfolding reality facing much more than the Catholic Church in the post-COVID world that will eventually unfold. Just ask anyone working in retailing, the travel industry, hospitality or any number of related and employment producing industries. Their futures as obscure and they are vulnerable to the breakdown of habitual ways of acting and interacting.

For the conscientious, setting up daily structures and processes is one way to plan for the future. That’s what my elderly friend has done for himself. But he’s an individual and his approach is individualistic. Churches are community buildings and the sacraments are community events. Short of making the Church into a cadet corps where the membership submits to drilling procedures that have the members marching to the same drumbeat, an individual pattern will not be equal to the requirements of community revival.

When the Catholic Church was a much more tribalized community with bonds to it made as much by ethnic identities as a faith commitment, such mechanical approaches to communitarian life were easier to effect. In a globalized church where the ready links of nationality are not as forceful as they once were, the Catholic Church is covering new ground in following it mission to “preach to all nations”.

And it will have to reckon with some baggage it carries which appears to be all too evident still in some parts of the world and in the presumptions of some of its leadership that still persist despite the encouragement of Vatican II to discard them.

“Command and control” methods more appropriate to sergeant majors in charge of an army platoon have long been all that’s expected of Church leadership: issue the orders and the compliant troops will act on instructions. That may have worked when we had hierarchical, even authoritarian cultures that existed before the emergence of democratic cultures shaped more by the persuasion of advertising than the directions coming from “experts”, “authorities” and office holders in institutions and whole societies.

To discard that baggage, the Catholic Church will need to unlearn something that is still  evident enough  in its behavior all to infrequently. The lesson is that to communicate its message and deliver on its mission, it needs to attract and persuade people that the message and the mission are actually of benefit to them. Too much of the  Church’s public presence and long-winded utterances presume a captive audience, assume that people are ready to submit to the superior logic and the unqualified authority of its pronouncements.

The register of Church life needs to resume as interactive and conversational rather than as the didactic and directive mode that is well known to us all. Good teaching always depends on two things: the attentive listening of the teacher and the realization that all successful communication is predicated on a real and growing relationship.

Any and all experiences I have had of living Catholic communities have been based on and live out of that substratum interaction where values are shared and the deeper needs for nourishment in the journey of life and faith are met. The medium for that is the interactive and conversational style that invites belonging and rewards commitment.

How we do that is close to starting again. It will be done in the midst of a culture whose habits have been shredded by COVID 19. And God only knows where that will take us. But that’s the exciting part: we can discover it.

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Father Michael Kelly is an Australian Jesuit who directed the Catholic Church's news feature and commentary service, UCA News, 2008-2018. He is the publisher of the English editions of La Croix International and La Civilta Cattolica, the 170 year old Jesuit publication of the Italian Jesuits.

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