Throughout the U.S., churches have suspended public worship, but for parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, closed doors do not mean the Church is closed. “Mission does not change, just how we go about realizing it does,” says Diahne Goodwin, pastoral associate and director of faith formation at St. Elizabeth and St. Isidore parishes in Acton and Stow.
“Creating a mission-driven culture doesn’t happen overnight, but it is what we’re called to do as Christians,” said Fr. Paul Soper, Cabinet Secretary of Evangelization and Discipleship.
Fr. Soper created that kind of culture on his own team at the Pastoral Center at the Archdiocese that serves 1.8 million Catholics. He explains that while parishes are tasked with managing faith formation, finances, liturgy, sacraments, and other dynamics all at that same time, he wanted to find a way for his team to better collaborate and help parishes realize their mission more fully. He did this by reorganizing his own staff for mission—his team includes parish financial consultants, evangelization consultants for both English-speaking and ethnic communities, family life consultants, and a communications arm. Fr. Soper said, "All team members share one vision. More precisely, they share one mission—the mission of Jesus Christ 'to make disciples of all nations'.”
“Having team members with that shared vision enabled us to act quickly and robustly to meet the challenges of COVID-19 because we had already positioned ourselves for mission and had built strong relationships with clergy and parish staff throughout the Archdiocese of Boston,” said Assistant Secretary for Evangelization and Discipleship, Michael Lavigne. “We were already forming people for mission, and we had our communications set up for the purpose of mission.
Within days of the first stay-at-home advisory in Boston, staff members mobilized to film and produce a virtual Lenten Retreat with Cardinal Seán that aired on CatholicTV, the Archdiocese of Boston’s website, and social media channels within days of the initiative being developed. Team members also created an Easter podcast and created social media to engage Catholics, now self-isolating at home, with graphics such as this Archdiocesan Easter image, asking them to post on their social media accounts.
“We developed programs and support materials to pivot under the kinds of conditions this pandemic imposed on us,” Lavigne said. “Within weeks, all of our workshops moved online,” he added. Workshops include almost weekly marriage preparation classes, theological certification classes, and evangelization workshops. Staff also created resources in multiple languages for parish leaders to help engage parishioners, weekly.
This mission-centered virtual evangelization is not just found at the Pastoral Center though, it’s found at parishes throughout the Archdiocese. At St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph parishes in Quincy, the pastor and his staff knew they needed to somehow gather people together for Easter to fulfill their mission. But how do you do that during a pandemic? They couldn’t meet in person, so they got creative. Every parishioner was given music to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and the staff created a music video featuring parishioners, clergy, and staff singing and playing instruments at home.
Since Jennifer Ryan, coordinator of children’s faith formation at St. Bridget in Framingham, couldn’t bring her children together to finish the school year, she had them make stained glass windows at home to share the joy of the Easter season with their neighborhoods. Parish leaders created hashtags for families to post religious crafts with kids, videos of children’s meal prayers, and family Easter decorations and traditions.
Tony Cabrello, assistant director of faith formation at the Catholic Community of Billerica, and his pastor, are always thinking of ways to keep evangelization top of mind for their parish, especially at a time like this. “Just like the paschal mystery of Christ—when things were different after Christ rose from the dead—so, too, will things will be different in six months. The keyword is, ‘ready.’ You have to be ready when people come to you,” Cabrello said.
Fr. Gerald Souza, pastor at Our Lady of Fatima in Sudbury, speaks about the difference between a purely “maintenance” mindset and a “mission-driven” mindset, saying it requires an evaluation of everything he does in parish life. “With everything we do we have to ask, ‘Will this make disciples?’ If not, we need to rethink it or let it go,” he said. Fr. Souza’s been able to transform his faith formation program; he’s changed what people experience when they go to Mass on Sunday; and he’s just getting started.
For Catholics, a mission is not reduced to a statement. Rather, it’s a call to action to form followers of Jesus Christ. Andrea Alberti, youth minister at St. John and St. Joseph in Quincy puts it this way: “Our world thirsts for the truth and for love. Jesus is Truth and Love. He is what they are seeking and we want to help bring the world to Him.”
Fr. Soper said, "while we don’t exactly know how the pandemic will affect the Archdiocese of Boston or society in general, we do know our mission and we know who we are; that never changes."