Matthew Gambino

Remember where you were a year ago when you learned that life as you knew it had changed?

I was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike driving home from Christ the King Parish in Northeast Philadelphia after giving a talk there. The radio informed me that the NBA season was canceled. My wife called me (hands-free phone) to say our high school was closing and our daughter’s senior year had, in effect, ended. She wouldn’t say goodbye to classmates, wear her beautiful prom dress or cheer on the basketball team in the cancelled PIAA tournament.

A national emergency had been declared amidst the global coronavirus pandemic. So many things would end, if even temporarily; but as our Catholic funeral ritual reminds, “life is changed, not ended.”

As we said goodbye to too many departed loved ones and friends from complications of COVID-19 caused by the coronavirus, we bent to the winds of change: millions of masks, lots of hand sanitizer, very little toilet paper, absolutely no handshakes.

You can list the losses and changes in your own life in Year One of the pandemic. As it stretches into a second year, this moment is an opportunity to consider what we’ve learned from facing the changes of this era.

Socially, we’ve learned to keep our distance, stayed masked and don’t touch another person. The price of that distance is the mental stress of physical isolation, one of many insidious effects of COVID. When we reach heard immunity sometime later this year – and the sooner everyone is vaccinated, the better – we’ll never again take for granted how much we need the physical presence of one another.

Technology has become both a tool and a tyrant. It enabled many people who still had jobs to work at home and collaborate through video platforms, and necessary for students and teachers to continue education as they could not have done in any other era.

Yet who did not overload on bad news 24/7 via phone, computer or TV, or sense they were missing plenty by not seeing and speaking in the flesh with family and friends? While some parents have told me their children actually are more successful academically in virtual education, most students report that it is harder to learn through a screen than a classroom.

Catholic schools in the Philadelphia Archdiocese pioneered a hybrid approach starting last fall for in-person learning in which cohorts of students stay together throughout the day in their classroom, and joined by some classmates virtually from their homes.

Other schools have used an A/B model in which half the student population attends in person and spreads out for safety while the other half joins from home, and the days alternate through the week.

Not ideal conditions, but these smart, well-planned adjustments have become a model for other school systems.

The same creativity can be seen in Catholic parish life. Even as public liturgies ceased, private Masses and daily prayers began to be livestreamed via parish websites and Facebook. At first a handful of parishes offered virtual liturgies. Then most others followed, and today online church events remain a staple for parishioners.

Everyone worked together: archdiocesan leaders provided guidance and resources, and parish pastors and leadership reached out to parishioners to listen to their needs and provide for them. It’s a model that will serve the church well in the future, even as things return to a kind of normal later this year.

But “normal” will need a redefinition. Perhaps it is our expectations that need changing, and have needed it for a long time, but now are forced by COVID.

We expect Mass every day, and several convenient times on Sunday, by ever-fewer numbers of ever-more stressed priests. We expect the “professional Catholics,” such as religious sisters and lay catechists, exclusively to teach children the faith. We expect our occasional $5 donation, or a little more at Christmas and Easter, to bear the parish’s costs and feed, clothe and care for thousands of needy people in our communities.

Expectations, like our daily ways of life, must change. And there are signs they have. Along with greater-than-expected acceptance of virtual worship, there is a renewed hunger for in-person communal worship of God through the Word publicly proclaimed in the unity of the Eucharist – gift of Christ himself present – a communion of souls longing for one another.

Parents of Catholic school children and those in Parish Religious Education Programs have had to take an active role in their kids’ lessons and activities, working alongside those Catholic catechists. It’s a necessity that’s always been called for, and it is becoming a new reality.

Charitable efforts in the archdiocese are seeing positive responses by Catholics who want to serve the needy among them. And while normal parish collections are reduced because of lower church attendance, the pinch is not as severe where parishioners realize that one must support what one values – and they are giving as they are able.

Doing some things “the way they’ve always been done” in the church may be coming to an end. But life as we know it has changed, and change indicates growth, and growth in the Spirit always bears new life, in any era.