Pastoral Care in the Post-Pandemic World

Being Church is going to be about healing and rebuilding individuals and communities and restoring hope in humanity and people's trust in the love of God and his mercy.

May 15, 2021

The Pope pauses to speak to a group of Covid volunteers and nuns

By Rev Fr Dr Clarence Devadass
In ordaining eight new priests for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Archbishop José H. Gomez reminded these young men, "you are the first priests of the pandemic generation. And you will play an important role in the Church's healing and rebuilding of our society in the wake of this deadly disease that has swept away so many of our certainties and securities".


Being Church is going to be about healing and rebuilding individuals and communities and restoring hope in humanity and people's trust in the love of God and his mercy. Despite the opportunities that the internet and social media offer you, it cannot merely be achieved through a virtual presence alone. While we live in a revolutionary age, virtual engagement can never completely replace the value of in-person interaction and engagement. Some things can only be learned through face-face, first-hand experience. We do not communicate merely with words, but with our eyes, the tone of our voice and our gestures" (Pope Francis, World Communications Day 2021).

At the beginning of the global pandemic, in Italy, home to a large and devout Catholic population, clergy turned to technology to support some of the communities worst hit by the rapid virus spread. Younger clergy were quick to opt-in, while those who were not so tech-savvy lagged behind by no fault of their own. From live masses with just mobile phone to more sophisticated means of remaining relevant remotely – even Tik Tok became the desired challenge to embrace among the clergy with the religious communities joining in, not wanting to be left out. 

There is no doubt that the digital world offers a free and open network that the Church can use to expand the reach of its message to better shepherd its people.  Technology provides borderless access, and social media offer a space for clergy and congregation to engage actively in ways they have never been before. Today, thanks to new technologies, clergy and parishioners have access to each other no matter when and where in the world they are. That's an incredible gift of this era. 

This level of connectedness fosters deeper ties that can dramatically improve our faith experience, increase Godly encounters and create a more integrated faith family. That said, 24/7 digital connectivity can be a double-edged sword – it can be used for the greater good as well as great harm. 

As we have seen, it can quite easily feed misinformation, incite jealousy of others' rising online persona, or bring out our worst characteristics, and all hid behind the veil of anonymity. As clergy, we have the critical responsibility to be discerning and promote its positive use. St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and journalists, who existed long before the world wide web was even conceived, had described: "Let your words be kindly, frank, sincere, straightforward, simple, and true… always remembering that God is the God of Truth." Guidelines we must always keep in mind as Ambassadors for Christ.

Safeguarding Priestly Ministry in the Online Realm
As clergy, we have an added responsibility when we get onto social media. Inadvertently, we can become "influencers" in our own right, a direct result of the "office" we hold. Followers who track us online are often not able to distinguish between a personal or an official view when priests make a presence on social media. As individuals (clergy) and as the Church post, like, give a thumbs up to and share is weighted equally and have the potential to either draw someone closer to an encounter with Christ or drive someone further away. Yes, these platforms are indeed powerful tools for evangelising, no question. However, we must again be watchful of social media lures that often lead influencers to become 'follower' centric. Online activities can be disguised or mistaken as glorifying God when instead, the focus becomes self-promotion.   

As clergy, the distinct "call of duty" to evangelise online does not necessarily imply online preaching or hosting one's own podcast only. While this may be possible, it is not the only way – intent and purpose become primary considerations to avoid blurring the right objectives. In deciding on the type or format of religious content online, be on guard to steer away from the obsession of tracking the number of views, likes and shares. This is yet another red flag or false indicator with which effectiveness of pastoral engagement or Godly influence is measured. In all scenarios, even as we desire to share the Good News as extensively as possible, we should be vigilant that our choices and methods reflect Christ and the Church's mission.  The word "social" in social media is a clear indication that privacy is compromised. Given that the priestly ministry is based on a relationship of trust and confidence, sometimes it is difficult for followers to make the distinction between public duties and the private life of priests. The lines are blurred when personal opinions are seen as public statements. In addition, the public duties of a priest are sometimes carried out in more "private-sacred spaces", for, example in a confessional, at the hospital, in a nursing home. Though all sacramental celebrations are communal, they are not necessarily social or aimed at the general public. As clergy, one has to remember that the use of social media does not change our "professional duty" and the Church's understanding and position of confidentiality. Within the life and ministry of the Church, there will always be "private" meetings and conversations in the course of one's pastoral work that must be safeguarded at all times. Even if there is consent among those concerned to have these close door events shared, it is important to recognise that it is the ministry of priesthood and not the individual that holds the keys of confidentiality. Therefore, the ministry itself must be preserved for the sake of credibility.

The social media culture has also created a culture of anonymity. The craze has turned many people into becoming keyboard warriors. For this reason, social media should never be the place to iron out situations of conflict, especially when it concerns parishioners.  Though seeking counsel is always considered good practice, social media is not the platform for it in pastoral ministry. The flipside of ignoring this is that there will always be people who are pushed out to the margins when one does. 

Where Do We Go from Here?
As we look forward to the end of this pandemic, it will take the Church, Clergy and the People of God to put on new lenses – reimagining a new way of being Church. To move forward requires taking similar out-of-the-box creativity, with the same tenacity when we looked for directions as we went into the lockdown and isolation. It will be a grave error and a sad day for the Church and as a community of the faith if we start saying, "'OK, let's go back to the old way!' Being an effective and mission-focused Church beyond the pandemic will take some creative reimagining and be able to strike a healthy balance between an onsite and online church. All-new forms of communication that emerge in the post-pandemic era provide opportunities to share the Good News of Christ. While we increasingly leverage the value of the internet and social media as critical missional tools of these times, here are five simple safeguards to ensure that our Christian witnessing of the Gospel does not lose focus of its intended goals: 

1. Be Mindful that You are an Ambassador of Christ: As a disciple of Jesus, anything you do or say in a public domain could be interpreted as representing the church, especially if you represent a ministry in the church. Therefore, take a pause and ask, "Are my actions consistent with my vocation as a follower of Jesus promoting Christian values?" 

2. Don't Rush to Respond: Before uploading a post, sharing or liking anything, always ask yourself: "Are my actions/reactions Christ-like?"  

3. Be Cautious of the Permanent Nature of Postings (Momentary yet Permanent): Assume that anything you post is permanent and will be shared with others. "Even if I delete my post, how sure am I that it may not have been seen, republished, referred to elsewhere, or a screenshot may have been taken?" 

4. Be Sensitive to Confidentiality and the Risk of Intrusion: When posting a story or visual about a situation that involves someone else, ensure that you are not the source of confidential information leaking out. "Will this post that I share breach the confidentiality required of the ministry or the other person's privacy? Will it cause distress, inconvenience, upset or embarrass others?"

5. Remember the Value of Other Forms of Communication: While social media is an exciting forum for interaction, the value of face-to-face ministry and the power of relationships should never be forgotten. It can be very easy to hide behind a growing online persona and become self-absorbed. Here again, do a self-check "Is my online ministry or online engagement causing me to neglect other relationships and other channels of spreading the Good News?" 

Almost everything we knew as normal has now changed. Amidst all the rapid change, there is ONLY one thing that remains constant – our God. Methods Change, the Message Does Not! We need to remember that more than having to choose one or the other, in the words of Pope Francis (2021), "the Gospel comes alive in our own day, whenever we accept the compelling witness of people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus" – the compelling witness of the Church, priests, and laity to the world, physical and virtual.

"There are several things I have to tell you, but I have thought it best not to
trust them to paper and ink. I hope instead to visit you and talk to you in person,
so that our joy may be complete" (2 John 1:12)

(Rev. Fr. Dr Clarence Devadass is the Director of the Catholic Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Though not a media professional by training, but a practitioner whose interest in being Church in the new era has always been at the forefront of his reflection and thought.)

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