Following six months of social distancing and of working on the “frontlines, at the grassroots, in search of how to maintain communication with, connections with, and being of service to the people,” parishes and groups from across the diocese reconnected Monday evening, Sept. 14, for a virtual gathering via Zoom. Far from resigned to the many challenges they currently face, participants came together to share their experience of difficulties and successes during this time of pandemic, and for mutual support.

“I give thanks to God for having kept all of us in the mission, with our weaknesses and our limitations. There are still many unknowns, but it is already significant to have this firm conviction that we are on this mission together, animated and carried by the Holy Spirit,” said Archbishop Christian Lépine in his address to all of the diocesan, pastoral and ecclesial personnel in attendance.  “How can this be?” he asked,  recalling the words of Mary to the angel and reminding his listeners that God is walking alongside the Church in Montreal, the entire world, and all people.

The objective of the evening was not only for participants to feel less alone, but to take stock of the current situation, to present a rereading of recent events, and to outline how to continue on the mission, despite the unknowns ahead.

The past six months in nine minutes :

Father Raymond Lafontaine was given the task to summarize in nine minutes the situation that was experienced in the past six months, including all of the disruptions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. He underlined that the Church in Montreal had made the decision to close churches “in view of public health and the common good,” even before the government issued directives to do so. He addressed the difficult financial problems that parishes have endured and how, without government aid, several parishes would have closed. He also recalled the elderly, who were severely affected by this crisis. Father Lafontaine said he was also impressed by the parishes and missions that viewed this “pandemic as a way to do differently” — to communicate, and to  foster communion differently. 

Since July, there was the impression in the Church in Quebec of a return to normalcy. But “there’s a catch,” said  Father Lafontaine. “There will be no turning back to ‘business as usual.’ The pandemic invites us to think differently, to work in teams differently, to live community and communion differently.” 

“From now on, we must get used to another pedagogy, that is, hybrid pastoral programming, where in-person meetings will complement digital approaches.” 

Father Lafontaine concluded by recalling that the Church is not separate from society, and he encouraged parishes to participate in their local communities, with their neighbours, with other parishes, with municipal and governmental authorities, etc.

To read Father Lafontaine's entire text, click here

‘I know God is there’

Archbishop Lépine offered a spiritual rereading of this time of pandemic and uncertainty, which the Church in Montreal and the entire world is experiencing. “How can we understand what people are living and be close to them on the pastoral level?” he asked. The issue is certainly not simple but, “a little like the tip of an iceberg, what we see is very little compared with what is happening (below the surface). Many things are going on in people’s hearts,” he said. 

Amid the unknown, he recalled the importance of clinging to Jesus Christ and of allowing oneself to be guided by the One who knows all things. “It is a time when efforts must be made without knowing too much where they will lead, but always keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ,” he said. 

The word “presence” was key in his view of how to continue with the mission. “One of the  hardships often expressed (during this time) is this need for physical proximity, for some physical contact. How do we respond to his very human need for physical presence? How can we be at the service of people who suffer from loneliness, at the service of the poor?” he asked in his reflections shared with those gathered virtually.

Referring to Carl Jung, he described a beautiful reality that each believer is invited to live: “It’s not that I believe, it is that I know God exists, he is there, Jung said. God alone is close to everyone. I know that he has the power to make us instruments of his presence and of his support. He sends us to accompany others.” 

Past and future challenges

During a 20-minute sharing in small groups, participants expressed the challenges and emotions they experienced since the pandemic. 

Bishop Alain Faubert reflected and took stock of the numerous challenges experienced by the Church in Montreal, and named some of the challenges still ahead. “The first big challenge is not to give in to fear. Move forward with confidence, especially in the face of adversity. I do not believe we are just simple clerical employees; we are disciples of faith,” he said.

He then provided a summary list of the diverse realities people experienced.  

In the pastoral setting:

  • Liturgical challenges: How should we respond to all of the pending requests for the celebration of the sacraments and for funerals? People would need to give up certain things they were used to, such as singing or the way of receiving Communion. It is important “to be together in welcoming this reality.”  
  • The challenge to discern and to be creative: As to whether or not to restart certain activities, notably catechism, “it will take discernment and working together as a pastoral team to assess what we are able to do, the families, the volunteers, etc.,” Bishop Faubert said, noting the new reality of hybrid pastoral programming, underlined by Father Lafontaine.
  • The challenge to be flexible: The temptation to do everything as before — except online — is very strong. However, “maybe not. There is a call from the Lord to step back, to say to each other, ‘Well, how can we act so as not to lose sight of the people who have less access to churches?’” The big challenge here is to be sensitive and attentive, but to have great flexibility, “so as not to put the weight of a ton of bricks on our shoulders.” 
  • The challenge of realism: “We should not deny knowing how to prioritize, especially in finances,” he said.
  • The challenge of mobilization and motivation: “How can we help everyone — our collaborators, our volunteers — to take seriously the reality of the pandemic, without giving in to panic? It is essential to exercise a lot of mercy,” for there is a lot of newness in this situation.

At the level of the diocesan church, accompanying each other is a formidable challenge. It involves supporting 190 parishes, as well as religions congregations, etc. Bishop Faubert raised several points:

  • The challenge of more effective communication at all levels: Between the chancery and the various communities, among parishes, among parishioners.  “I would say (communication) in a multidirectional way, each one communicating with the other. How can we use the right words at the heart of our messages?”
  • The challenge of communion: Flowing from the challenge of communication, communion requires rediscovering bonds of solidarity, despite the varying points of view on the pandemic, on how to act, etc. “How do we stay together?”
  • The challenge of not losing sight of the diocesan project of missionary transformation: “We were in the midst of this process and we continue to be. I have the conviction that the pandemic will not stop it. On the contrary, may it set us free, may it incite us to continue. We need patience, mercy once again, but the diocesan project is moving ahead, and we will not give up. It is a profound call.”

At the level of the Church in Quebec, Bishop Faubert also underlined the huge challenge of “taking our place in a society, faced with a government that no longer knows how to manage the religious phenomenon and religious groups very well, or how to recognize the spiritual needs of its citizens, especially with regard to the most vulnerable.” He underlined in particular the support of grieving families, the sick, and of those who are isolated. 

Concrete actions

“Words must be accompanied by action,” said Bishop Faubert. He gave examples of some of the many initiatives that were taken at different levels of the church.  The intention was not to create an honor roll, but simply to inspire others to “find a way to take part in these initiatives”:

  1. The creation of a Diocesan Reopening Committee that remains updated on government directives.
  2. The Service aux Fabriques adopting a more proactive approach during the pandemic and increasingly organizing to inform parishes about all sorts of financial issues. 
  3. More noticeably, proactive communications.
  4. An easing of regulations in parishes, such as a decree that permits priests to give the sacrament of confirmation. 

Upcoming initiatives include :

  1. A webinar from the Service aux Fabriques on digital tools that will help fabriques survive and thrive.
  2. A webinar in the fall from the Diocesan Reopening Committee on how to organize celebrations, given that the cold weather will no longer permit outdoor gatherings. 
  3. Several formation events on hybrid pastoral programming, focusing on how to accompany young people and the entire community in this new way of doing things.
  4. To honor the challenge of being together on a mission, meetings for renewal and reflection are foreseen for the fall and throughout the year that will help us to grow in a missionary spirituality, which is one of the objectives of the diocesan project.  
  5. In each of the boroughs and cities within the Archdiocese of Montreal, parishes within the same neighbourhoods will enter into greater collaboration.

“It is not the coronavirus that fundamentally detracts us from our desire or our commitment to become a more missionary church that is close to the people… Rather, the pandemic leads us to have more determination, to do things differently, perhaps with more freedom, to take courage once again, to support each other, even though it has certainly slowed us down,” said Bishop Faubert. He concluded with confidence: “My conviction: The Lord acts mysteriously in the midst of our weaknesses. ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong,’ says St. Paul.” 

Archbishop Lépine concluded the diocesan gathering by imparting his blessing on all of the participants. 

To watch a recap of the diocesan gathering 2020, please click here.