April 30, 2021

‘We need to be more mission-driven’

Pastors learn lessons in pandemic for future of parish ministry

Altar servers and Deacon Thomas Hill, left, surround a fire outside of St. Joseph Church in Shelbyville on April 3 while Father Michael Keucher, St. Joseph Parish’s pastor, prays at the start of the faith community’s Easter Vigil. (Submitted photo)

Altar servers and Deacon Thomas Hill, left, surround a fire outside of St. Joseph Church in Shelbyville on April 3 while Father Michael Keucher, St. Joseph Parish’s pastor, prays at the start of the faith community’s Easter Vigil. (Submitted photo)

Second of a two-part series

By Sean Gallagher

Easter this year was quite different from the great feast of Christ’s resurrection a year ago.

In 2020, churches across the archdiocese were closed on Easter at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. They were open for worshipers this year, even if the size of the indoor congregations was limited due to ongoing COVID-19 protocols.

All Saints Parish in Dearborn County wanted to welcome as many worshippers as possible during Holy Week and Easter, and celebrated all of its liturgies outdoors.

Nearly 1,900 people attended its four Easter Masses, more than any year dating back to 2015. Some 750 attended its 9:30 a.m. Mass.

“I literally began crying as I started to make the sign of the cross,” said Father Jonathan Meyer, All Saints Parish’s pastor, as he recalled the Mass. “It was so powerful to see my people respond. … I was a proud father seeing my people just do what they’re called to do as disciples.”

Some 180 miles to the west of All Saints Parish, Benedictine Father Luke Waugh had a similar experience at St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County, where he serves as administrator.

There, the congregation for its Easter Sunday Mass was at pre-pandemic levels, with some staying in their cars in the parking lot outside the church and listening to a radio broadcast of the liturgy through the parish’s low-wattage FM transmitter.

“It was absolutely wonderful to see people who were eager to come back, eager to be present for the sacraments, eager to worship the risen Lord,” said Father Luke. “It was absolutely phenomenal.”

Father Meyer, Father Luke and other parish leaders across central and southern Indiana have learned a lot about parish ministry during the past year of the pandemic.

Even as some parishes see their members coming back in larger numbers due to increased knowledge of how to protect people from the virus and the introduction of vaccines, pastors who spoke with The Criterion know from their experiences that they can’t go back to the way parish ministry was pre-COVID.

‘A two-fold encounter’

While some parishes attracted many worshipers for Easter, many pastors acknowledge that some of their parishioners who were active in their faith communities before the pandemic have not yet come back.

The priests note that ongoing health concerns keep some away. Others, though, have simply gotten out of the habit of attending Mass each Sunday.

“A lot of people in the past 12 months have changed their habits,” Father Meyer said. “So, they’ll have to re-establish the habit of Sunday Mass and the habit of the Church being at the center of their lives. That’s hard.”

“I’m a little concerned about the people who were kind of going through the motions before the pandemic,” said Father Michael Keucher, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville. “Then, when the churches were closed, religion completely fell off the radar.”

Dominican Father Patrick Hyde, pastor of St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, ministers to many young adults who are students at Indiana University. Many people in that age group had distanced themselves from the Church even before the pandemic.

But Father Patrick has seen a 20% growth during the past year in the number of young adults participating in small-group Bible studies organized at St. Paul by missionaries of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students that meet in a variety of ways: online only, hybrid and in-person only.

“There’s a desperate desire and need to have relationships and be known,” Father Patrick said. “One of things that we’re seeing, more than anything, is how people feel isolated and not known and loved.”

Knowing of this desire, Father Patrick and the staff at St. Paul now prioritize a “two-fold encounter.”

“The personal encounter we have with the people who are next to us, but also a personal encounter with Christ,” Father Patrick said. “The people who have had both of those things through the pandemic … have certainly grown. Whereas, the people who have struggled in one or both of those seemed to really feel disconnected from the community in many ways.”

Young adults, he said, desire not just community, but also connection.

“Unless they have a connection point, a person that they know and trust who invites them, they’re not coming [to St. Paul],” Father Patrick said.

This reality has determined the direction of ministry at St. Paul to its young adult community. It has led Father Patrick and his staff to “focus almost exclusively on that inefficient, awkward personal ministry so that people know that, no matter what, we know and love them” he said.

‘Strengthening the domestic Church’

Father Keucher has seen a similar experience in parishioners of other age groups at St. Joseph.

Since the parish re-opened in mid-May 2020, he has seen a growth in small prayer groups, most of them initiated by parishioners.

“A hunger for God has grown in people’s hearts during this COVID time,” Father Keucher said. “So now that we’re able to come back, it’s like, ‘Let’s do some things that are new in safe ways.’ ”

This is a positive change for Father Keucher, who made a great effort during the pandemic to keep St. Joseph’s ministry going through livestreaming and posting videos on a daily basis.

“Discipleship is often one-on-one. It’s community,” he said. “It’s face-to-face. In the last year, we did the best we could do with the online outreach. But, there’s no substitute for being together face-to-face. Especially as disciples of Jesus, we need community.”

Father Keucher said the key to keeping alive the spark of life he has seen since last May at St. Joseph is “strengthening the domestic Church.”

He and his staff, and other parish leaders across the archdiocese, did much to help families practice their faith at home during the shutdown.

They livestreamed Masses; posted catechetical videos; shared via e-mail faith activities based on Sunday Mass readings that could be done at home; and encouraged families to build in their homes makeshift altars where they could gather for prayer.

Seeing the families of his parish respond to those efforts during the shutdown was encouraging to Father Keucher. But he knows that the life of faith in the home needs to continue to grow.

“We have to keep feeding and encouraging the way the faith has grown in the home,” Father Keucher said. “If it’s in the home, then the spark will stay alive.”

‘We need to be more mission-driven’

A year later, Father Keucher is, in a way, thankful for the shutdown at the start of the pandemic, and thankful for the change in perspective on parish ministry that it helped bring about.

“There’s been a reawakening in a lot of us priests and parish leaders that we need to [focus on] mission,” he said. “It’s not enough just to keep what we have. We need to be going out, to be evangelizing and equipping families with the faith. We need to be more mission-driven.”

In the county west of St. Joseph, Father Todd Goodson had a similar experience.

“It sort of lit a fire in me internally for evangelization,” said the pastor of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood. “It forced me to see as a priest to stop looking at how I can get people in [to the parish], but how I can go out.

“That’s something I’ve been trying to hold on to as we’ve come out of COVID, to keep that mentality of how I’m reaching out to people, not just managing what’s going on here.”

That’s a challenge for Father Goodson, because enough members of his parish are coming back and seeking pastoral ministry that he is now finding himself working 12- to 14-hour days.

“It’s encouraging,” he said. “We’re not out of the woods, and we’ve got a long way to go. But there’s a lot more energy and excitement here at the parish and for me as a minister. You start to see all the possibilities and things we can do. We’re kind of starting from ground zero again. There are all sorts of possibilities of where ministry can go.”

(The first part of this two-part package, which appeared in the April 23 issue of The Criterion, can be found online here)

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