Fr Chris Townsend: Don’t Manage – Inspire!
On that fateful afternoon 82 days ago, before going home to start the Level 5 lockdown, I was anxious—and a bit excited.
I was very proud of the stance our president and team had taken to fight the coronavirus. I was ready to take on those 21 days of lockdown!
As I locked the office to drive home (I don’t stay at the church), I had a very distinct sense that the Lord Jesus was saying to me: “Inspire, don’t manage.”
In these almost three months of lock-down, I’ve had a lot of time—too much sometimes. I have continuously reflected on what this could mean.
I know that I have had to rethink so much of how we are Church, how we do Church, and how we are a Priesthood.
By chance, I was introduced to a man and his wonderful family. Jan Venter helped us set up livestream Masses and gave this parish priest a crashcourse on how to be both priest and techie.
A deeply faith-filled man, Jan quickly became a mentor for our online church. His sage advice and calming presence really helped my anxiety.
I’m always happier behind a camera, and now I had to be coherent, cognisant, non-flustered, and be both in front of the camera and behind it!
I had also generally avoided Facebook and other social media—it’s a time and soul trap and it’s too much like a parish, filled with a mixed bag of fruits and complete nutters. Quickly, though, the parish Facebook page became a critical point of contact and the place where we not only came for information but also for Mass— and community.
I had to once again see social media as a place to which the Church had retreated—and the place from which the Church will rediscover herself and grow.
Except for one day, when the laptop crashed and we couldn’t celebrate Mass online, our parish community has expanded to embrace a daily Mass that often has more than 200 viewers. The physical daily Mass has never been so full!
Many parishioners (in this time, anyone who joins us is a parishioner, even if they are in the US or UK or even PE) have attended Mass every day—about 50% of our viewers! That’s an incredible response.
It was a deep joy to journey through the Easter Season reflecting on the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John and how that spoke directly to a new Church—a Church where we returned to our Homes.
So many have commented to me how the experience has deepened our spiritual lives. Many also commented how the regular celebration of a Spiritual Communion with the family before or after supper has saved their mental health. This is grace!
The pain of exile
Sundays and solemnities were much harder. I cried through that bereft Holy Thursday Evening. At some points it was too emotional to celebrate around my dining room table. It hurt to be in exile.
Sunday Masses have also been technically challenging (and sometimes quite fun!). I tried to make Mass as normal as I could. So my incredible readers organised themselves and recorded the readings and sent them through daily.
Music was a bigger challenge. What a complex reality to deal with copyright and lack of resources. And as always you have to please everyone, from the Latin Mass Choir to the “Vernacs” to the Hillsong worshippers…
It also had its hilarious moments, such as when my very brave deacon recorded his homily—and ended up preaching on the ceiling, due to a projector mishap. Priests shouldn’t be technical controllers!
We have over 2 200 people participating in our Sunday Eucharists.
Daily, I have tried to do a “Pastor’s Log” on Facebook. I thought it would be just a quick reflection. Surprisingly, it has become a very popular space for a quiet coffee reflection daily. I’m no Bishop Robert Barron, but I can see how powerful this space is!
So where does this lead, if we ever get back to a normality. In my parish, the overwhelming sense is that we will remain an Online Parish as well as a Physical Parish. This is a space that we need to use and cultivate.
Yes, there will be those who might not come physically to church as often. But we might well find that with a regular, dependable and well-presented daily Mass online, we may reach way more people than we can physically.
I also hope that our bishops and the bishops’ conference spend a moment thinking about how media and technology have kept the Church alive during lock-down—from The Southern Cross to Radio Veritas to the incredible offering of Mass every hour of every day online.
Many parishes are not livestreaming but are sharing reflections and thoughts and homilies on WhatsApp. We have to realise that media (social media, like social communication, is a tautology) is not an add-on to the Church but where the Church is at. Train our clergy and laity in media!
Our faith is always open to new functional realities. The apocalypse of Covid-19 forced the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the Church. Like all revolutions—embrace it or be left behind. After this crisis, watch how this new space for the Church will see it grow.