COVID-19 restrictions mean a virtual format for the 2020 Plenary Assembly of Catholic bishops

The Catholic bishops of Canada will not be able to gather in person for an annual Plenary Assembly this fall because of ongoing restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic -- instead the pared-down 2020 plenary will be held via video-conference. (File photo: CCCB)

[Article updated Sept. 15, 2020]

By Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

[Ottawa – CCN] – The impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic on the Catholic Church in Canada will be a key theme of the first-ever online Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops when the annual meeting of the CCCB gets underway on Sept. 21.

While the global pandemic has driven the Plenary Assembly online this year, the move by the church’s leadership to meet and do its business over the Internet is only one of the ways that the international COVID-19 health crisis will change the church forever going forward, CCCB president Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon told the Canadian Catholic News in an interview in advance of the assembly.

“The situation with COVID has obviously had a large impact on the church and we will be definitely be talking about that and about how the church moves forward in these unprecedented times,” Gagnon said in a telephone interview from Winnipeg.

“All the regions in the country are going to give a report on how they have had to deal with the pandemic on their operations and what their experiences have been and how these experiences may be able to help the church move forward as this situation continues and hopefully eventually we get back to a form of a more normal way of doing things,” he said.

One thing Gagnon thinks will now become the “new normal” for the Church across Canada is the move towards offering more and more services online. This was born of necessity when places of worship were closed to parishioners during the height of the pandemic, which has killed just over 9,000 Canadians so far in 2020.  As part of efforts to limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, public health officials severely curtailed the number of people who could gather together in public.

The public health measures effectively shutdown all places of worship of all faiths in Canada for a few months until some of the restrictions were eased and Catholic churches could open again to limited attendance. Restrictions on how many people can attend a place of worship presently differ across the country, depending on the rate of COVID-19 infection in each province.

“There has always been some level of online presence of the Church,” Gagnon said, but now those in the Church who may have been hesitant to use modern technology to its fullest can see the possible benefits of offering some services online.”

Archbishop Richard Gagnon, President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. (CCN file photo by Deb Gyapong)

“This technology was used before, but never to the extent that it has been now,” Gagnon said. “I think any of that past opposition to having online services is not there any more because of the situation and the experience of having to do it,.”

While the use of modern technology by the Church has been needed to get through the pandemic, and may have long-range implications for how the Church operates in the future, there is still a deep commitment to in-person worship and face-to-face interaction between clergy and parishioners.

“While we have heard of the positive experiences that going online has offered our churches and parishioners, we have also heard how important in-person gatherings and the personal connection that has for people and how important that is in people’s lives,” Gagnon said.

The decision by the CCCB to hold its annual Plenary Assembly as an online event this year does mean some of the features of past assemblies that have been held in Cornwall, ON, in recent years will not be part of this year’s event that runs from Sept. 21 to Sept. 25.

Unlike in past years, there will be no keynote speaker in 2020. Representatives of Catholic lay organizations and ecumenical partners who usually attend the assembly as observers will not be participating this year.

Gagnon said that Canada’s bishops will meet during the week of the assembly for two hours a day via the Internet for discussions, which he said is a reasonable amount of time to be staring at a computer screen before  participants start to suffer screen-time burnout. Keeping the online discussions to short intervals each day is “an act of mercy,” Gagnon joked.

New format affects agenda of bishops’ annual gathering

By Lisa Gall, CCCB Communications

This summer the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) announced that the 2020 annual Plenary Assembly, to be held from Sept. 21 to 25, would move from an in-person meeting of bishops to a video conference in light of the existing health and safety restrictions regarding COVID-19.

In order to allow for fruitful dialogue and meaningful deliberation by the bishops during the Plenary, this year’s timetable and agenda have been streamlined to focus on the most essential ecclesial and administrative matters for the conference.  For the same reason, this year’s Plenary will not include ecumenical observers from other churches nor any of the traditional observers representing a number of national Catholic organizations.

Within the virtual setting, Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, CCCB President, will preside over daily meetings welcoming more than 80 bishops signing in from dioceses and eparchies across Canada.

Topics to be discussed during the week include: national priorities for the upcoming year (2020-2021); responsible ministry; pastoral care of Indigenous peoples; an update on the organizational changes involving the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace as well as recommendations from a joint CCCB-CCODP review of the latter’s international partners; and various concerns regarding initiatives and proposals by the federal government.

In keeping with the practice of previous Plenary assemblies, one day will be set aside for the meetings of English sector and French sector bishops allowing for discussion on liturgical, catechetical and other pastoral matters which are closely tied to language and culture.

Another topic of particular importance for bishops centres on COVID-19, its impacts and the present-day realities of the Church in Canada. This session will be both a sharing of lived experiences and an opportunity to exchange hopes, concerns, wisdom and challenges as bishops, together with clergy, consecrated persons, lay people and Catholic faithful continue to live through these most extraordinary times.

Following the Plenary throughout the week

For many years, and with the collaboration of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, the CCCB has offered coverage of the annual Plenary Assembly through television and, most recently, social media channels. Regrettably, the alteration to the format for this year’s meeting does not include the topics of general interest that are customarily broadcast for a wider audience.

To assist the public in keeping informed about the discussions taking place throughout the week, the CCCB offers a number of options to choose from: