For nearly two months the faithful in China have been in isolation and cannot participate personally in the Sunday liturgy. In this period many priests and faithful are trying to carry out online catechesis, reading the bible through social media, on a mobile phone, etc. The urgency of moving from “rural” pastoral care to “urban” pastoral care.
Uby P. Joseph Bai
Beijing (AsiaNews) – “Online Masses”, “virtual communities” that go beyond parish boundaries; catechesis and readings of the Bible via social media: these are some ways in which Catholics in China are facing the situation of the coronavirus epidemic that has forced them to isolate themselves for almost two months now. According to Fr. Joseph Bai Jianqing coronavirus is “an opportunity” for a renewal of pastoral care in the country. In particular, he says that appropriate pastoral methods must be found for cities, given that urbanization in China has grown to the point of depopulating country churches.
1. Pastoral work during the epidemic
The current epidemic broke out suddenly. Not only did it make this Chinese New Year special, but it also produced many difficulties in pastoral services. However, this challenge has invited us to reflect on new ways of doing pastoral work. Recently, a priest shared his experience: a young man asked him to hear his confession over the phone. The priest understood the stress and pressure this young man felt during the epidemic period, so he is eager to receive the spiritual care that he has not been able to have so far. The priest explained to him that confession requires physical presence and its secret must be kept, therefore it is not possible to do it by mobile phone or via the internet. The priest also invited the young man to pray and confess with his heart before Jesus Christ. The Lord will forgive him. In the future, he may eventually become a priest.
To control the spread of the virus, each of us must stay home. All public activities are suspended, including masses. In this case, the priests stay in their chapels and pray for the faithful, ask the faithful to pray in their homes, to read the Bible and to take advantage of this opportunity to be close to family members.
However, some priests have instead chosen to get in touch with the faithful through modern means of communication, accompanying and training them: for example, through the Internet they guide the faithful in studying the Bible, catechesis, in conferences, to pray together, giving homilies and live broadcasting, and pastoral work etc. In fact, not only the priests but also many nuns and faithful are actively moving with the new means of communication to take care of the faithful, taking advantage of this opportunity to accompany and comfort the faithful, guiding them on the path of growth in the faith.
In this case we can see two very different pastoral attitudes and methods: the first is the so-called traditional pastoral attitude and method that has remained that of a few decades ago, handed down from priest to priest, or the pastoral method based on “indoctrination of the faithful” : believers come to church, and priests perform a service to the faithful. This type of pastoral ministry asks only the faithful to observe the commandments and sacraments, without paying much attention either to the concrete living conditions of believers, or to social changes.
The second is instead an attitude and a pastoral method in continuous renewal. This second type of pastoral care pays close attention to the concrete conditions of the faithful and to social trends and changes, and on the basis of this tries to modify and renew the pastoral method, using the same modern tools and maintaining a lively contact both with the faithful and with society, so as to offer a real time pastoral service.
2. The elasticity of pastoral care
Pastoral care is like the care that parents have for their children; it means taking care, in the name of the Lord Jesus, of the needs of the soul and body of man with the mercy of the Father and with appropriate and updated methods, ensuring that man can meet Jesus and return to Father.
Every era and every environment has its own pastoral method. We can learn on the other hand a different pastoral method, but we cannot copy it as it is a method, without any adaptation or change. Pastoral care is therefore to help, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the people of every parish, village and city to find “Jesus Christ”, find the teaching, comfort and accompaniment of the Father, guiding them on the path of Truth.
Society is experiencing a rapid evolution and development, the pastoral methods of our Church must not only know how to abandon what is obsolete, but must also put themselves in the forefront of trends by guiding the faithful and society to move forward on the path of the Good News. Parents of a child do not have to imitate grandparents to raise the child, nor do they have to ask for permission each time from grandparents to change the child’s food or cooking method. In the same way, the parish priest, as the parent of the soul of the faithful, has the “natural power” to choose suitable methods for the time in which he lives, the environment and his own situation to guide, form and serve his faithful. As far as faith is concerned, we remain united in the universal Church and in the diocese itself, while as regards pastoral methods we must know how to find new and appropriate methods for our reality.
In some places, pastoral methods have remained the traditional ones based on “indoctrination of the faithful”. Moreover, the priests did not in turn continue to study and pay attention to social developments, without being able to bring any renewal to pastoral care. The consequence is therefore the monotony of parish life and the absence of evangelization activities. There are some priests who always offer the same service to the faithful; others who, do not give a homily during mass; others still who “scold the faithful”! Every parish, every age and situation needs new pastoral methods. An example: the food and clothing that the elderly like, certainly not the young and the children, and they are not suitable. The same goes for pastoral methods of the past that need some updating. A disturbing reality is that the priests who now hold important roles in their parish and diocese are in turn trained by elderly priests, using methods and thoughts characteristic of the era in which they lived. If our priests stop updating on new knowledge of the Church and society, and on the present situation, using only the knowledge and methods of 10, 20 or even 30 years ago in serving the faithful, then the crisis and the stiffening of the Church follow in turn.
Times have changed, and our faithful have also updated themselves on new knowledge and on social life, therefore, their expectations are also very different, prompting us to follow current trends and update the pastoral methods of our Church.
3. Pastoral care in the urbanization process
Thirty years ago, the elderly bishops and priests, who had participated in the reconstruction of the Church, were faced with a very different type of faith and social context than today. The society of that time was an agricultural society and the Church was mainly based in villages; moreover, the level of faith and the cultural level of the faithful were rather elementary. The urbanization process of today’s Chinese society is almost completed, the level of faith and the cultural level of the faithful have risen, especially among young people who live mainly in the city. The small chapels in the villages of that time have now become large churches; conversely, large churches in cities have now become small chapels. Once I went to visit a priest who has lived in the same parish for 20 years now. The latter exclaimed that the faithful are decreasing day by day: only 200 elderly people attend Sunday mass, while only a few faithful attend ordinary masses; the young people have all gone to the big cities.
In every moment and context, what we have to discuss is always “how can we do it” and not “how we must do it”. Everyone knows “what must be done”, while ” how can we do it” has just embarked on a new path in order to better serve the faithful, bringing salvation to more and more people.
In a rapidly developing society and in the face of these unpredictable events, we priests need a firm faith, a broad vision, a careful look and a lively creativity to be able to modify and readapt our pastoral methods. The methods used 10 years ago need further updating today; those used in the [country] parish need renewal if you want to use them for service in the city. Likewise, the pastoral experience acquired in the previous parish must also be renewed once you arrive in a new parish!
4. An unceasing renewal
Since the epidemic has not yet subsided, students have begun to study through “online study”. Internet communication has now become the main tool of study and modern life. At this particular moment, we have seen that the Church is moving forward with a new face, with moving pastoral and evangelizing methods. This epidemic has given rise to many new phenomena, such as for example the pious “groups of faithful”, the “online classrooms”, the “online prayer rooms”, the “live broadcasting”, etc. All this shows us a parish, a diocese and a Church that go beyond borders and contexts. This lively pastoral method, based on the internet, “by will of faith” has united all people far away from each other, allowing communication and sharing between the faithful who do not have the opportunity to go to church and people who seek faith, allowing them to feed on the gospel message. This new pastoral method “has expanded the parish, without it being limited by distance and environment”, bringing pastoral care to each of us. This new pastoral method allows to bring pastoral care to all the dispersed faithful, despite isolation. This new pastoral method allows hundreds and thousands of faithful to be cared for, although there is only one faithful in the parish.
Pastoral care means seeking the flock of the Lord Jesus, serving the flock of the Lord Jesus and bringing the flock of the Lord Jesus back to the fold of the Lord. This new pastoral method formed during the time of the epidemic also pushes the faithful to cross the limits of the parish and diocese, forming new “online groups” and “online churches” which, in turn, push us pastors to continue studying, adapt and change our methods of pastoral service. Faced with this situation of new “online groups” and “online churches”, and of faithful scattered here and there due to urbanization, if a pastor forgets to take care of the flock, this hungry one will move away from the pastor going in search of a wider and fresher field, a more passionate shepherd and capable of offering different services.
Of course, there are always rumors for and against these new pastoral methods. If we just bury the “talent” that the Lord Jesus has given us, not only will we not receive anything, but most likely we will also lose that one “talent” that we possess; if we try to strive in the present, trying, venturing, we will get at least some gains (Matthew 25, 14-30). Saint Paul warns us: ” And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8, 28).