Perhaps one of the hardest hit institutions in the present times is the Church in its entirety – the clergy and the congregation. Till now, it has been a watch-and-wait situation where church goers as well as the authorities continue to be in a state of denial, and cling to the hope that this pandemic will pass on like a bad dream, and everyone will wake up to a normal world where mass celebrations, retreats and all other activities will go back to the comfort zones they were in.
And yet, there is a growing sense of uncertainty, not only about how long this will last but also about the repercussions of this forced distancing, that has left the churches empty, and regular religious practices wane for want of alternate solutions. Undoubtedly, the time has come to take stock of the situation and carefully plan the way forward so that church leaders, from the parish priest to the Pope, continue to be effective in their roles of shepherding God’s flock.
The first step towards finding effective alternatives could be do a SWOT analysis of the situation as it is. This acronym, borrowed from business parlance, represents an analysis of the innate strengths and weaknesses of the Church as well as the external opportunities and threats that the Church faces, in the context of its interaction with the laity. On the basis of the results, each parish, diocese and indeed the entire Church can chart out a course of action that will not only tackle the present problem of bridging a widening gap, but will also find novel ways to network with a wider audience circle, enabling them to spread the seeds of God’s Word in hitherto uncharted territory.
To begin with, we will look at the strengths of the Church in Kerala especially in the context of its clergy. They command great respect and are highly influential among a prosperous and well-educated Catholic congregation who take religious practices very seriously, and feel spiritually and socially bound to attend Church-related acts of collective worship, functions and meetings. Added to this, priests are acknowledged as the sole authorities to administer sacraments, especially the Eucharistic sacrament and regular confessions; all of which are very important aspects of congregational religious practices. A third area of strength is the well-ordered hierarchy of the organizational structure of the Church that connects the Holy See in Rome to each member of the Church, starting from the family unit, to the parish, the diocese and so on.
If we were to pinpoint the weaknesses in a nutshell, we could say that the Church is traditionally slow in its response to a volatile environment, and this limitation has given rise to two others, namely that digital modes of interaction are still at a nascent stage. Thus, it is still largely dependent on the two-way face-to-face communication channel. Barring some sporadic instances of the use of digital media, mostly for retreats by world renowned preachers, other forms of worship still operate within time, space and brick and mortar constraints.
With the global pandemic, the Church was caught unawares as all traditional communication tools have become dysfunctional, as a result of which the strong bonds built up between the clergy and the laity seem to be loosening. And yet, this challenge has thrown up a number of opportunities to reinforce these ties and create an impact in a much wider arena. The laity are insecure, worried and badly hit by the Covid crisis. Their response to Christ’s message of hope would naturally be more forthcoming if they are encouraged by priests and religious, the acknowledged mentors of the community. The traditional forms of entertainment-pubs, restaurants and holidays – are non existent, leaving the laity with more time for what the Church has to offer. The time is ripe for the Church to become a very influential digital force if they can put into practice innovative ways of retaining their visibility and clout.
The imminent threats faced by the Church is the decreasing impact of traditional church services. Opening up the Church for services to a drastically reduced congregation without servicing the rest, maybe a very shortsighted solution. It may mean that the rest of the faithful stray away and are attracted to competitive and convincing preachers and other forms of worship on the virtual platform. Physical distances result in social distances, and the Church is now in the difficult position of quickly finding solutions to carry out their primary objectives.
It is now left to the Church to formulate a strategy that takes into account these and other factors that fall under the SWOT; one that is in line with the Master’s vision for the Church: “He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. After He has gathered His own flock, He walks ahead of them, and they follow Him because they know His voice. They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice” (John 10:3-5).
May the Lord guide the shepherd to lead the flock in the post Covid world, and may every member of the flock know and follow the voice of their shepherd.