Chris Lowney

“The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B.”

Those wise words, from distinguished mathematician James A. Yorke, weren’t directed toward the Catholic Church. But they could have been. The coronavirus is confronting the church with its ultimate Plan B test, and, up to now, we’ve been failing. But we can get back on track quickly, as one intrepid parish shows us.

Professor Yorke’s quip reveals something insightful about the nature of our world and something more insightful about the nature of we humans. Anyone who has ever planned anything has learned that Plan A almost never works out perfectly. The big company plans a hiring spree, and, wham, a recession hits. Or the family plans a festive birthday party in the backyard, and, ugh, a thunderstorm rolls in.

In such cases, it’s time for Plan B. That’s where human nature comes into play. When Plan A falls apart, some of us manage to pivot resiliently toward uncovering alternative solutions. Some folks relish the opportunity to flex their creative muscles by brainstorming new approaches.

For others, the pivot toward Plan B doesn’t come easily. We become paralyzed: disappointed that Plan A no longer works, but unable to concoct alternatives.

As a church, we’ve long been masters of Plan A. Nothing wrong with that at all: In normal times, it’s a great strength.

Our common life, for example, revolves around the Eucharist, the source and summit of Catholic life. And we’ve long followed a well-established, smoothly functioning Plan A for celebrating the Eucharist. Multiple Masses take place each Sunday, all scheduled to accommodate the local community’s needs (including, in some places, the need to empty and refill parking lots with clockwork precision between Masses).

Our Plan A of Catholic life has been rich with communal devotions like Stations of the Cross and Benediction; and we pursue a marvelous array of ministries: youth groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Holy Name Society, Bible study and more.

But the coronavirus has temporarily shattered Plan A for Catholic life. Church doors remain locked; community Eucharist is impossible.

So now what? So far, our responses have been sluggish, even passive. Consider two parishes near my New York City apartment.

Parish one’s website listed various sacramental offerings not happening during COVID-19 but didn’t mention anything that was happening. Parish two likewise seemed to have nothing going on locally but at least referenced the Sunday Mass livestreamed from the archdiocesan cathedral.

That’s it? Parish life will basically hibernate during the coronavirus? Social distancing restrictions will continue for weeks. Doing virtually nothing cannot be our theological and pastoral solution for so long! Time for Plan Bs to blossom all over the Catholic world.

A third parish near me shows how easily we can get going. Their website prominently promotes a link to their Sunday Mass. My wife and I attended virtually. To be sure, a Hollywood producer would have panned the shoddy production. The sound was tinny, no choir sang and a single camera remained focused on the altar (no elegant panning shots of the stained-glass windows).

But it was nonetheless a deeply affecting liturgy. Even though we were physically separated from the priest and other parishioners, the liturgy was far more intimate than many I’ve attended in person.

If this under-resourced parish, located in one of America’s most impoverished counties, can figure out how to lead its local community in prayer, so can any other parish. If some pastor is befuddled by the basic technology required to pull it off (as I would be), I have no doubt that every diocese has dozens of volunteers with enough tech savvy to help.

Now more than ever, each parish must convey a crucial message: We’re a community, and we’re still here, and praying together is more essential than it ever was.

Only one thing was missing from this parish’s initiative. Livestreaming a Mass has limited impact if no one knows it’s happening, which leads to another essential element of our Plan B strategy: proactive outreach.

Relying on parishioners to read the bulletin or find their way to a website is Plan A Catholic life. We can’t wait for folks to come to us now, we must go out to them — by phone, text or email. And we must reach out to everyone, to those who drop envelopes in the collection basket every Sunday, and even more so to those we never see on Sunday.

We’ll let all these folks know about our Mass celebration and how we are making the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing available. We’ll invite them to pray with us, and we’ll ask if they need our support, whether a fellow parishioner to shop for them or merely for someone to call and check in every few days.

The good news? By taking a few proactive steps, we will become a church that is good at Plan B. Even better news: Those same few steps will make us a more effective church when the coronavirus scourge lifts.

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Chris Lowney is author of “Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church.” His website is www.chrislowney.com.