Prayer and Parish Life in the midst of a PandemicReading Time: 5 min - Published: Feb 18, 2021
In 2016, I walked along the sloped, cobblestone streets of Assisi and up the winding, countryside roads to Mount Subasio. I will never forget the feeling of walking where St. Francis once did, and where countless fellow pilgrims have done since. This was a place that had been steeped in prayer for over 800 years. There was a deep peace that was nestled into this corner of the world, which evoked the spiritual and physical closeness of the Creator. It was a “liminal space” brought forth by oratio — “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Sitting before the cross where St. Francis had heard the words of Christ beckon him to “rebuild His church,” I heard my own clear instructions: to walk the streets of my (adopted) neighborhood, praying for it and seeking to build relationships with my neighbors.
“Prayer walking” was not a new concept to me. In college, as a student leader in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an ecumenical, evangelical campus ministry, I had invited others to join in walking the campus grounds, listening to the Holy Spirit as we prayed over the students, staff, and faculty. I saw the fruits firsthand — spiritual conversations with peers, doors opened to build relationships, and a deepened love of my campus. Yet years later, I missed in translation the need to do the same for my neighborhood.
In March 2020, I had settled into quarantine in the midst of the pandemic, struggling to develop new rhythms and feeling helpless and hopeless. My prayer life was stagnant and my parish life was gone as I knew it. My spiritual director (aptly a Capuchin friar) gave me a clear instruction: to realize how I could love and be a small light where I was, rather than worrying and cursing the darkness from afar. In the midst of this, I was reminded of that moment in Assisi where I heard Jesus speak so clearly to me about how to love my neighbors.
I decided to write notes of encouragement along with bits of community news and place it in my neighbors’ mailboxes. Every other day, I would walk the streets of my neighborhood, climbing up and down steps to get to front doors (gaining even more respect for postal workers), and sometimes having the opportunity to wish a confused or surprised neighbor well and offer support. I began to notice the small things that I had driven by in the past, growing in compassion and solidarity for the neighbors that I claimed to love but never even knew existed. I feel ashamed to say that it took me almost four years and a global pandemic to respond to the call of Jesus. In the past two months, I have gotten to know, love, and serve more neighbors than I have in the six years I have lived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
One of the many beautiful aspects of our faith is that the entire world is partitioned to be spiritually and physically cared for by the Ecclesia militans. We proclaim the sovereignty of God over every part of Creation. A diocese is a specific geographical boundary where a bishop is appointed to be the shepherd for every living being within those bounds. A parish is a specific geographical boundary within a diocese where a priest is tasked to shepherd every living being within those bounds. If “terraforming” is the effort to make another planet more like Earth, the Catholic clarion call is to “oratio-form” Earth to become more like Heaven. The parish is where this begins.
Yet in my experience of Catholic life in America, particularly as a young adult, there persists a loose understanding of “parish.” Notwithstanding people who “shop around” for a parish church, it is often difficult to even determine which parish you actually live in. Many of my peers do not claim belonging to a parish, much less frequent the church that is within the parish that they live in. Even right outside the walls of a church, how many of our neighbors have received a personal invitation or have a personal relationship with someone from the church?
Especially in these physically, socially distant times, covering our neighborhoods with prayer is both a spiritual discipline for ourselves and a spiritual blessing for our neighbors and communities. In Jeremiah 29, the prophet’s exhortation to the Jewish exiles in Babylon is to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (NRSVCE). If we did not realize it before, we all are surely exiles now, navigating a new world dominated by the coronavirus. We cannot return to the patterns of our past; Catholic life as we know it has been upended. What then does life within a parish look like now?
Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman said, “Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But if each one would light a candle we’d have a tremendous light.” Now is the time for us to desire the wellbeing of our neighbors, of the neighborhood God has placed us in. Now is the time for us to be a small light, spreading hope and encouragement to our small corner of our parish in the midst of despair and darkness. Now is the time for us to walk the grounds of our parish, praying that it may indeed be transformed to the Kingdom of God.