Pandemic shows increasing need for the church’s social mission

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Vatican workers in protective gear sanitize various surfaces inside St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican May 15, 2020, ahead of the resumption of Masses during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Italy and the Vatican are slowly coming out of lockdown. Cleaners wearing protective suits and masks have sanitized St. Peter’s Basilica ahead of public Masses restarting this month. The return of public liturgies came in the same week that bars, restaurants, museums and hairdressers reopened.

As things start to assume a new normal, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis’ daily Mass, broadcast to an audience of millions during recent weeks, will stop being livestreamed.

The move away from restrictions is gradual. Masses will take place with limited numbers of people, all observing social distancing. Vatican press conferences have been taking place through livestreaming with journalists asking questions remotely. (The Holy See uses Skype rather than Zoom for journalists and livestreams through YouTube).

For Pope Francis, the lockdown period has offered an opportunity for the church to prepare for the post-COVID-19 world. The pope was quick to establish a commission reporting directly to him under the auspices of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Five working groups have been established: The first is working with the church’s global network on the ground to respond to the crisis and ascertain where assistance is needed. The second is looking to “connect the best minds in the areas of ecology, economy, health and public security” to work out what the post-COVID-19 world will look like. The third is focused on communications; the fourth on working with other countries and the fifth on finding the necessary funds by “promoting a virtuous movement of wealth.”

In early May, the task force spoke about the food crisis caused by the pandemic, with Father Augusto Zampini-Davies, who is helping to lead the task force, calling on countries to invest in food rather than weapons. By 2050, he said, the demand for food is likely to grow by 50%.

Zampini-Davies, an Argentine priest and joint secretary of the human development dicastery, also talked about universal basic income, an idea he said had “pros and cons.” In a letter to global grassroots organizers last month, the pope said it “may be the time to consider a universal basic wage.”

Zampini-Davies admitted that sometimes the Vatican was accused of being “socialist” for talking about these ideas. “But our answer is, ‘Hold on a minute, companies are asking for government help and that’s not socialist, but if poor people, or informal workers need help, that’s socialist?” He continued: “This is not about ideology, this is not about socialism or capitalism. What we are trying to implement is the preferential option for the poor … which is the ethical imperative of ‘Laudato Si’.’” 

“Laudato Si’,” the pope’s prophetic encyclical on sustainability, climate change and consumerism, is marking its fifth anniversary. It is also being used as the template for post-COVID-19 planning. The encyclical examines the link between poverty and climate change, and offers a program for how to care for the planet as humanity’s “common home.”

The encyclical offers a 21st-century development of Catholic social teaching, yet in the years since its release it was criticized by some figures in political and industrial circles seeking to defend use of fossil fuels. The pandemic, however, has raised questions about sustainability, poverty and how to build a better future for the planet. As a result, “Laudato Si’” is more relevant than ever. 

The crisis has highlighted the increasing need for the church’s social mission, particularly given the prospect of a global economic depression. Yet while there is intense demand for a church on the side of the poor, many parishes and dioceses are under great financial pressure owing to the closure of buildings and suspensions of public Masses.

The same is true for the Holy See, where officials are predicting a 25% to 45% decrease in revenue. This situation compounds the issue of deficits, as in recent years the Vatican has run a deficit of around 60 to 70 million Euros.

Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, recently told Vatican News that “the Vatican is not at risk of default,” but the crisis is forcing the Holy See to cut expenses and push forward with plans for greater transparency and oversight of money management.

The pandemic is forcing the church to rethink its institutions, and how they can be at the service of missionary evangelization. Some operations may have to close, others will have to do much more. It will require nimbler and leaner institutions, more closely connected to the spirit of early Christianity. 

“If you ask me which book of theology can best help you understand this, it would be the Acts of the Apostles,” Pope Francis said in an interview in April with papal biographer Austen Ivereigh. “There you will see how the Holy Spirit deinstitutionalizes what is no longer of use, and institutionalizes the future of the church. That is the church that needs to come out of the crisis.”


  • laudato si
  • coronavirus
  • covid-19

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