In his book, Models of the Church, Avery Dulles listed five models of the Church. (Eventually, he added a sixth one as well.) I want to take a look at these models in light of the pandemic. How did the Church do in fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ during the pandemic?
1. The Church as the Body of Christ--Mystical Communion
The Acts of the Apostles talks about the followers of Jesus being one in mind and heart. This model of the Church emphasizes community. We are united to God and to one another. What did you experience when the churches closed their doors? Did "livestream" Masses give you what you needed to feel like part of the Body of Christ? Did loved ones die without having human contact beyond a hospital or nursing home employee? Were you denied the opportunity to grieve effectively if a funeral only allowed ten people to be present?
Virtual reality was an attempt to keep us united, but in my opinion, it fell far short of the Gospel reality. It felt more like being sheep without a shepherd. What could be done differently in the future?
2. The Church as Sacrament
There is no easy way to put this. We were denied access to the sacraments during the pandemic. The Church is a visible sign of Christ in the world! Maybe we should have added a disclaimer to our purpose and our mission. The Church is a visible sign of Christ in the world except when the government tells us not to be. Our religious practice, if not our faith, was deemed nonessential. The part that breaks my heart the most is that we allowed this statement to be made for the whole world to see, and we did almost nothing to refute the proclamation from government bureaucrats. The Church will suffer the repercussions for generations to come. Think about it. We ceased to be the "Church as Sacrament" when society needed us the most.
3. The Church as Institution
How did the Institutional Church fare during all of this? Are we stronger because of supposedly showing compassion for others by closing down?
4. The Church as Herald
People have told me that the Church continued to proclaim the Gospel via technology. This is true, and I am glad we use the resources available to us. However, was it as effective as people actually gathering for Mass? Furthermore, what was the indirect message that was actually proclaimed? This is what I heard. The Gospel message is not as important as your attempt to stay free of a virus. In the midst of societal chaos, people needed to hear the Good News of Salvation proclaimed. What did they get? Locked doors!
Let's take this a step further. We are called not to simply hear the Good news. We are called to be "Doers of the Word." What type of role model were we, who are in Church Leadership, for other people to be "Doers of the Word"? We went into hiding. How can we ever justify our actions when we place it under the microscope of being Heralds of the Gospel of Christ?
5. The Church as Servant
Where do I even start? We can try to justify our actions, but it will be a hard sell. This is the answer I have been given multiple times when I have questioned shutting down our churches. "Shutting down was in the best health interests of all." I then ask follow-up questions:
A: How are we meeting the spiritual needs of the people--especially those who are struggling?
B: How are we meeting the emotional and physical needs of those trapped in their homes in abusive relationships?
C: Did we enlist more mental health counselors to serve those who are struggling because we took away every avenue of support when society shut down? What role did Catholic Charities and other such organizations play in picking up the slack? (The blank looks I received when asking this question told me all I needed to know.)
D: How are we supporting law enforcement? Domestic violence calls rose dramatically in some areas when society shut down. Once again, we took away avenues of escape. We have spent a lot of time talking about the effects of COVID on hospital workers, and that is a valid issue. However, we never gave half as much attention to the spiritual, emotional, and mental health impacts on a multitude of individuals and professions impacted dramatically because of the shutdown of services.
This list of questions could get lengthy. I will simply sum it up with one more question. Was the Church an effective Servant during the last 22 months? If so, how? If not, why not?
6. The Church as a Community of Disciples
This model was the last one that Avery Dulles added. The Church is a community of people that follow Jesus. In what ways did we do that during the early part of the pandemic? In what ways are we doing that now? In what ways have we failed to do that during these last 22 months?
The anniversary of the death of Cardinal Avery Dulles prompted me to pull out the list of the models of the Church and give thought to how we can improve moving forward. As we continue to prepare the way of the Lord during our Advent journey, may we be filled with the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit!