Priests must build a post-pandemic missionary Church, says Vatican clergy chief

News: Coronavirus

The Vatican cardinal with responsibility for clergy has said that “nothing will be the same again” for pastoral life after the coronavirus pandemic.

Paying tribute to priests who risked their own safety to continue their ministry, Cardinal Beniamino Stella said that many have rediscovered the heart of their vocation during the past year and will now have to rethink the basics of pastoral life in the aftermath of COVID-19.

“There are priests who have truly given their lives to the last moment [during the pandemic],” Cardinal Stella said, in a May 3 interview with the Italian news agency SIR.

The cardinal, who has headed the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy since 2013, told SIR that by offering themselves for ministry in hospitals and other high-risk environments, priests have been “seizing the opportunity of the pandemic to fully live their [promise] ‘Here I am at the call of the Lord,’ pronounced on the day of their ordination.”

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As Italy and other European countries continue to struggle to roll out vaccination programs, Stella noted that the work of priests was an essential service and played an important part in society.

“A priest who is faithful to his vocation and mission, and who therefore spends himself exercising his ministry in the parish, in prisons, in hospitals, could be considered as part of a 'category at risk', for carrying out a 'socially useful' service.”

The cardinal singled out the example of young priests in different parts of the world who have volunteered for hospital ministry, work in prisons and similar assignments as a special kind of fidelity to the care of souls. 

Recalling a recent conversation with a Latin American archbishop, Stella said that because of the dedication of volunteer priests and the collaboration of local government, “no one in his diocese who so desired died without the sacraments or was hospitalized without even receiving spiritual assistance. Here, this seems to me a happy example of cooperation between civil and ecclesiastical authorities.” 

Stella, whose congregation has oversight of priest personnel issues for the universal Church, also spoke about the emotional and spiritual toll which quarantine and isolation conditions have taken on many clergy.

“The pandemic has undoubtedly caused situations of psychological suffering even in shepherds, physically separated from their flock,” he said. 

“Perhaps the pandemic has mercilessly laid bare areas of shadow and personal fragility that previously were in a way ‘anesthetized’ by the frenzy of pastoral commitments and activities. Not being able to do this anymore, we saw ourselves in the mirror and probably some have felt too burdened by the weight of their situation.”

At the same time, the cardinal stressed that it would be wrong to “generalize,” and noted that many priests had found the changed conditions of the pandemic year a chance for spiritual development.

“If for all priests it was a time of suffering, not a few have been able to live it profitably, seeking new forms of closeness to their faithful, perhaps praying more and strengthening their intimacy with the Lord, as well as cultivating fraternal relationships with the confreres with whom some share the roof,” he said.

Stella said the pandemic had made the Church find “the courage to dare new actions” in order “to bring closeness and help to the most needy and to encourage the lost” during the height of the virus’ spread and offer “a word of hope and courage to say to the whole world, as Pope Francis did on March 27, 2020, in a physically deserted St. Peter's Square, but perhaps never so full of attention, emotions, expectations and the need for answers.”

But he also acknowledged the limitations of stop-gap solutions implemented by many parishes during the pandemic, including online broadcasting of liturgies.

“Although video conferences and computer supports have been of great help, for us Christians, for priests, closeness and interpersonal relationships are irreplaceable, lived in aggregation, in service and in common prayer,” he said.

“Everyone has been able to experience how human constructions and projects are fragile and at risk of being wiped out in an instant, the pandemic has shown us,” said the cardinal.

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“As a consequence of this, perhaps, more people will begin again to ask questions about the meaning of their life, about the priorities that should be given, the value of human relationships, of ‘being’ over ‘having,’ so to speak.”

Stella went on to acknowledge that, in the aftermath of the virus, many Catholics who had previously had an engagement with the faith only as a matter of routine would not return to church automatically, and priests will need to find new forms of pastoral outreach in order to fulfill the mission of the parish. 

“Pastoral practices that were supported only by habit and were no longer able to nourish the faith of the People of God will likely fall,” he said. “At the ecclesial and pastoral organizational levels - to use a cliché - I believe that nothing will be the same again.”

“The task of the shepherds will be to not rush to cut off ‘almost dry branches’ without having first thought of new ways with which to replace them, suitable for their concrete community and not the result of abstract theological-pastoral ruminations.”

“Faced with growing questions [by people about the fragility and meaning of their lives], pastors have Christ's ‘treasure,’ his Word to proclaim and his love to bear witness,” said Stella.

“Now that the deception of man as ‘master of the world’ has been exposed again - it is an illusion that re-emerges from time to time in the course of history, from [the Tower of] Babel onward - the rediscovery of being children of the one Lord remains; He does not abandon us and gives us strength to live even the most dramatic events in His peace.”

In the aftermath of the pandemic, the cardinal said he “would like the clergy to be aware of this, to refocus their life and vocation in Christ, and to find with ever greater strength the missionary impulse to go and announce the joy of the Risen One, bringing his light to a world overwhelmed by the shadow of death, which the virus has made more evident.”