COVID-19: This is the disruption we have been waiting for

By Brett Powell, Archdiocese of Vancouver 

[Originally published in The B.C. Catholic – used with permission]

A couple of weeks ago, Carey Nieuwhof, a popular Christian blogger, wrote, “By now you’ve realized that the coronavirus pandemic is not an interruption, nearly as much as it’s a disruption.”

He never explained the difference, but his words echo in my mind.

We are in a season of suffering no one could have predicted two months ago. God is not the author of human suffering, but the lockdown must be within his permissible will. The Lord Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). If God is allowing this, what does he want us to learn? What is the Spirit saying to the Church in this moment? Where are we as a Church in responding to the coronavirus?

One of the big lessons to learn right now is the difference between interruption and disruption. Interruptions are mostly an inconvenience, whereas a disruption is more significant.

A child asking a question interrupts a conversation, but a child gone missing disrupts everything until being found.

Interruptions are accidental; a tree falls across our usual path through the woods, so we are momentarily diverted. Disruptions are intentional; they have a protagonist, a catalyst creating the disruption for a specific reason.

The coronavirus has been an interruption to the celebration of Mass, but it has been a disruption to the missionary dimension of the Church.

Many Catholics think, and feel, that the biggest impact of the pandemic is the interruption in celebrating public Mass, but I don’t think that’s true.

Our participation in the Mass has been significantly impacted, but that’s only temporary. It’s painful, as our souls ache to receive Communion and our hearts long to be with our communities, but the fasting is temporary. Mass itself has not changed, nor will it in the months and years to come. Livestreaming will not become an acceptable means of fulfilling one’s Sunday obligation. Even in the case of shut-ins who have no possibility of participating in Sunday Mass, livestreaming doesn’t fulfill their obligation. Rather, they are under no obligation when through no fault of their own they can’t participate. In short, the temporary pain we feel not attending public Mass won’t become status quo. It will go back to normal.

What cannot return to normal is the unintentional approach we have had toward missionary activity. The pandemic has caused our parishes to become quite innovative in their approach to connecting with their people. Livestreaming Mass is only part of the picture. Parking lot confessions, drive-up adoration, prayer groups meeting on Zoom, pastors creating YouTube channels and sending bite-sized messages to their congregations, youth taking groceries to elders …

Some parishes have started a telephone tree through which every parishioner gets a phone call from a volunteer who just checks in every two weeks. That is beautiful, even heroic.

What is animating that creativity? Love … love for Christ and zeal for souls.

Love motivates a pastor to figure out how to download a video from his phone onto YouTube. Love drives him from the comfort of his rectory to hear confessions in the parking lot even when it’s raining. Love animates all kinds of creativity to stay connected to the 99 sheep.

That same innovation and zeal to reach parishioners during the pandemic needs to animate our missionary outreach after the pandemic is over. We need to shift our energy and zeal from those we are trying to keep (parishioners in the pews) to those we are trying to reach (non-church goers).

This is where the real disruption is taking place. This is where the Spirit is speaking. This is where I see his permissible will, his protagonism, his catalytic and prophetic presence. The Lord is allowing us to learn how to “outreach” effectively with our own people so we become passionate and capable of reaching those not yet in our parish communities.

When Winston Churchill said, “Never waste a good crisis,” he wasn’t speaking about temporary adaptations to get through a tough time. It’s about leveraging the momentary crisis as a burning platform to bring about deep, transformational, organizational change. The coronavirus has created this kind of crisis for the Church. The lockdown has been an interruption to the celebration of public Mass, but a disruption to the missionary dimension of the Church.

Opportunities like this are rare. The crisis is forcing us to innovate and adapt our strategies and tactics in a way that is aligned to the spirit of what was envisioned when St. John Paul II called for a new evangelization – “one that is new in its ardor, new in its methods, and new in its expression.”

Come Holy Spirit and fill us with a renewed commitment to the mission of Christ, which is still very far from completion.


Brett Powell is the Archbishop’s Delegate for Development and Ministries in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.