Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, has told the Catholic Church in Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains that the COVID-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to rethink what we are called to be.
Bishop Vincent spoke during an online webinar of 50 participants from across the Diocese of Parramatta, encouraging them to share openly and honestly about their experiences during the pandemic.
“It is a strange time for all of us,” Bishop Vincent told the group. “COVID-19 has been a real disruptor. It has pushed us out of familiarity that we are naturally inclined to.
“Yet it is also an opportunity to rethink our aim, our vision, our goal of who we are called to be.
“Liturgically, when celebrating Mass, I had a distinct sense of vulnerability, that somehow you’re not in control, you don’t have a sense of the people being with you.
“And yet, in a strange way, it also gave me a sense of being in communion with the people beyond the walls of the church building. It’s a strange feeling, but it reinforced for me this sense of being present and being the presence of God for others,” Bishop Vincent said.
Fr Paul Roberts, parish priest at Our Lady of the Way Parish, Emu Plains and Director of the Institute for Mission, chaired the webinar.
To begin the session, Lisa Bright and Richard McMahon from the Pastoral Planning Office lead the group in prayer, which reflected on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.
Members of the clergy, parish support teams, and parishioners were given time to share their perspectives, with Bishop Vincent given a chance to respond.
Claudine from Christ the King Parish, North Rocks, spoke about how the parish offered online Masses and explained that the lockdown may provide an opportunity to livestream Masses in the future for those who are housebound.
“Each week, I received very positive feedback and gratitude that we were able to put together something for our parishioners. The constant feedback I received was that parishioners loved seeing the familiarity of the church space, they loved seeing familiar faces of parishioners that they probably hadn’t seen for weeks because of the lockdown, and lastly, they especially loved seeing Fr Ian celebrating Mass and seeing that he was ok,” Claudine said.
“Everyone has been able to access many different parishes online during this period, but seeing Christ the King Parish allowed our parishioners to remain connected,” she said.
Fr Peter Blayney, parish priest of St Patrick’s Parish, Guildford, said that he faced a steep learning curve in celebrating Masses online, but stressed the importance of making the ‘virtual’ parishioners feel at home.
“It was a bit awkward, for me, just speaking to a camera and looking at an empty church, but I quickly decided that I would imagine that the church was full of people and of faces I recognise,” Fr Peter said.
“Something that was important to us was to have a view of the sanctuary, the tabernacle, the altar and the sanctuary lamp, which our parishioners are familiar with, and I thought that point of visual and verbal contact would make people feel a little bit at home, even if they were doing it all virtually.”
Across the diocese, Fr Andrew Fornal OP, parish priest at St Joseph’s Parish, Kingswood, discussed that the religious community in Kingswood tried to give people “a sense of openness, belonging, and that the church is with each one of them.”
At Kingswood, Fr Andrew explained, the parish office remained open at its regular hours, it printed the bulletins every week, and that their livestreamed daily Masses and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament were a point of reference for people in the parish.
“Looking back, I would’ve liked to visit more parishioners at their homes during this time. I know there were restrictions, but just to see their faces and to see their joy when the priest came to see them was priceless,” Fr Andrew said.
For Chloe from the Granville Catholic Community, the pandemic provided her an opportunity to reflect on her own faith.
“A highlight for me was having the ability to still attend Mass from my own home. Fr Andrew [Bass] was amazing with his livestreams, the constant reflections being posted on Facebook and Instagram, and being able to still connect even though you’re not physically there [in the church].
“One thing I am looking forward to, is to be able to attend Mass and have our altar servers back on the altar, having music back in the church and be able to experience Mass.”
In his reflections on the pandemic, Fr Ian McGinnity, parish priest at Christ the King, said that parishes might have to utilise technology due to an ageing demography.
Deacon Tony and Annette Hoban, the leadership couple at St Luke’s Catholic Community, Marsden Park, used Canadian Christian author Carey Nieuwhof’s concept of ‘pivoting’ to explore seven key factors that they needed to reflect on as a new community
In his concluding remarks, Bishop Vincent used the biblical metaphor of the chosen people being forced into a strange land as a sign for the church to adjust to what Church means.
“It would be an understatement to say that the Church is in ‘a strange land’, to use that biblical metaphor, with ‘strange land’ being outside of their familiar promised land and following the destruction of the temple and the deportation of the people into a foreign land.
“I think we have to adjust, adapt and, more importantly, align ourselves and our ‘being Church’ to what God intends for us in this new phase.
“There is a sense that we have to be more than a structure, a building of church, we have to be that sense of presence, we have to be that living temple of God, not bound by territory or demographics, but bound by common concerns, by shared Gospel values of justice, integrity, creation and the common good.
“It’s a great space, even though it’s a difficult space, that we find ourselves in this ‘strange land’, this exile, but just as the exile shaped the people of God into what they were called to be, I think this period of ‘being in a strange land’, if we could respond with fidelity to the Gospel, but also with courage and creativity, it will be a great opportunity for us to be the church for the common good.”
“I thank you and look forward to having you as partners of seeking a new way of being church that we are called to be.”