In 2021, I wrote an extensive essay on the possibilities for strategic change in various aspects of Catholic ministries in the U.S. based on learnings from innovative ministries observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. I shortened the key points of the essay for this post.

In architecture, a “toothing stone” is an intermediate feature that can be designed into the structure of a wall. It is a construction element of the building process, especially when a structure will require a long period of time to complete, and the construction process will happen in phases. These stones – be they actual stones or similar material – may look like teeth as they just out from the end of a wall. When the time is right, another building or part of one can be built and attached to the existing structure by joining into the toothing stones. In French, the term for “toothing stones” is les pierres d’attente, which, literally translated, is “stones of waiting.”

The early 20th century French Dominican priest-theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu used the image of stones of waiting when commenting on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).[1] He noted that the theological thrust of the constitution was to discern – in contemporary social, political and cultural movements – the signs of a deeper connection to even larger spiritual aspirations among persons and whole peoples, and to draw upon those existing experiences as a point for building towards evangelization and the Christian call to discipleship. Using this architectural image, Chenu emphasized what the document itself claimed, that the church shares in “the joy and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of all people. He used the image of stones of waiting to describe an incarnational and contextual theological approach to the mission of the church in contemporary times.

Over 55 years since Chenu used this image to describe the theological methodology of Gaudium et spes, the spiritual and theological intuition in the image of “stones of waiting” is a striking, evocative, and salient one that can be especially helpful when considering the far-reaching and still unfinished shifts in the Catholic ministry landscape which are effects from the ongoing global pandemic and other social and ecclesial traumas which we have all experienced. The image of stones of waiting suggests a spiritual disposition for those of us involved in Catholic ministry which merit reflection. That disposition involves identifying the shape of the spiritual waiting stones which we see as a result of the very challenging experiences of the past two years, and being comfortable with deliberate incompleteness, even as we vision and craft new structural supports for pastoral care and ministry, and consider purposeful, strategic action to build for the future.

Building Outward

A key feature of the spiritual waiting stones many have observed in this moment is that those stones point outward. They provide a direction for construction that had already been emerging, even prior to the pandemic, but which became even more clear because of its effects. The spiritual architecture that aligns with present pastoral need, and therefore ministerial response, is one that provides paths outward through intentional mission, evangelization, outreach, and advocacy, especially for those most on the margins of society. These four areas – and certainly others – are the pointing tips of the waiting stones, and building on them may be expressed uniquely in different ministry contexts.

In the ministry of the parish, the waiting stones have been pointing away from the concept of geographical parish boundaries as a functional demarcation of ministry for quite some time. To provide just one example, during the pandemic, with online liturgies and church activities, people from across the globe have engage parishes half a world away in new and unique ways. Thus, it may be more helpful to construct a post-pandemic parish life less as a function of space and more as a function of intention. The model of building intentional parishes, which is already effective in many places, can be further organized around mission and outreach, both locally and globally. It is striking that the online ministries of parishes can be utilized to connect different people and even cultural groups. In striving to reach out to members in support of their pastoral care, parishes and other organizations have also provided spiritual sustenance to many others.

It is thus fruitful to consider parish and diocesan commitments in fresh ways and ask mission-focused questions of self-assessment. This assessment is especially important as we reflect on ministry during the pandemic what has been effective and successful during this period. It is likely that if a particular approach has been successful during this very challenging period, it has structural staying power for the long term.  Consider how your parish might respond in such ways to these types of questions:

  • How can both clergy and lay ministers spiritually construct a new mentality for ministry which emphasizes the outward construction and mission focus?
  • What gifts from the community, and particular pastoral practices, can be implemented to encourage the growth of inviting, engaging, and sustaining communities rooted in the liturgical life of the church? How does online engagement fit into these considerations?
  • How can parish communities – and increasingly the clusters of parishes operating together – stretch themselves to become total communities of care in response to the needs, both of members, and of those most in need in our neighborhoods and communities?
  • In the time of pandemic, the rubric of budgetary scarcity has often reigned in ministry contexts. Is now a time of re-investment and re-allocation of limited funds to respond to these ministerial needs?

Many of these questions can be adapted for assessment at various Catholic institutions and organizations as well. At a diocesan and national level, we might ask how we can best resource those seeking to innovate and try new approaches. At a time when we are engaged in the synodal process of listening and dialogue to which Pope Francis has invited the whole church, it is important to consider how such questions can be used as a basis for achievable actions in parishes and institutions, even as dioceses, national conferences and Rome seek input on larger questions.

Blueprint Sketches for the Future

Even as the impacts of the pandemic are being assessed, there are indicators – blueprint sketches – of what new structures can be effective in its aftermath. First, it is important that all ministry leaders – especially bishops and clergy – take serious note of the trends and shifts in ministry practice which the pandemic has produced. It is important to both understand these developments as clearly as possible, and to evaluate them in light of mission and pastoral need. While some practices begun during the pandemic may not continue, and others may be modified, the idea of going “back to normal” in the life of the church – to say nothing of broader society – is not a helpful blueprint. A more useful evaluation will be found in understanding the effectiveness of online ministry engagements, hybrid meetings, and related resources.

For example, many parishes and dioceses have invested money in training and equipment for livestreaming the celebration of the liturgy. Streaming other activities, such as parish council meetings, or using the technology to more effectively communicate in a way that also invites feedback or questions from parishioners should be explored as a further good use of that investment. Such inclusivity related to decision-making should remain in place even after the formal synodal process is complete, and the technology exists to help it occur. Hybridity in parish gatherings affords opportunities to ensure that those who may be ill, needing to recover from health issues at home, or limited in travel, can participate actively in parish life. While more research is needed, anecdotal evidence has suggested that Catholic communities which embraced new expressions of pastoral care and mission outreach, along with direct service and advocacy for those in need, and those on the margins of our communities, have not only weathered the economic storm of the pandemic, but have seen an increase in engagement from parishioners, new members, and increased financial support. The efforts adopted by such communities can be shared so that others may learn about, and adapt them.

Second, it is essential that resourcing for professional lay ministry formation, ongoing education and leadership positions be re-affirmed, not only in word, but in action, at the national, regional, diocesan, organizational, and parish levels. There were many reductions in these areas brought on by the emergency of the pandemic, and these firings, layoffs, and hours reductions have had a very painful effect on dedicated lay ministers, especially those professionals who have labored at great cost to enhance their knowledge and skills, often at their own expense. Urgings that parishes or other organizations simply rely on volunteer ministers alone, or on reduced ministerial staff who work longer hours with smaller budgets, salaries and support for the foreseeable future, are wholly inadequate and naïve. Without strategic and dedicated support for lay ministry formation, education and professional leadership, we risk further ecclesial trauma in the pandemic’s aftermath, in the form of demoralized, overworked ministers – both laity and clergy, and a reduced capacity to address the pastoral care needs of the church. We are not able to respond to new needs if we remain in “survival mode,” or if we presume that a return to the way things were before the pandemic is possible.

Third, leaders and laity must fully embrace the synodal path currently underway, as Pope Francis has invited. The invitation of the Holy Father affords us a ripe opportunity to engage in the type of communal discernment of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, and in the realities we have all lived through and continue to experience. Such discernment is most fruitful often at the local level as Catholic communities and institutions seek to respond to the genuine needs surfaced when such active listening efforts are valued and affirmed. Such an historic opportunity can help further sketch the spiritual blueprints which can help us build on the waiting stones which we see – and some which are yet to be fully revealed.

El pensamiento incompleto

Through the synod, and in other ways, this process of discernment is already underway. Such efforts take time and the answers do not come all at once, or even in a linear, logical fashion; it is necessary to consider and act holistically and strategically over a longer period of time. In his book reflecting on the implications of the global pandemic, Let Us Dream, Pope Francis reminds us of the way in which such discernment occurs. He uses the term el penasamiento incompleto – “unfinished thinking” – a phrase which he uses to describe the approach of another mid-20th century theologian, Romano Guardini, and which the Pope uses to refer to a process of openness to the truth which comes to us in experience:

            [Guardini] develops a thought but only takes you so far before he invites you stop to give space to contemplate. He creates room for you to encounter the truth. A fruitful thought should always be unfinished in order to give space to subsequent development. With Guardini, I learned not to demand absolute certainties in everything, which is the sign of an anxious spirit. His wisdom has allowed me to confront complex problems that cannot be resolved simply with norms, using instead a kind of thinking that allows you to navigate conflicts without being trapped in them. The way of thinking that he proposes opens us to the Spirit and to the discernment of spirits. If you don’t open up, you can’t discern.[2]

This type of thinking is similar to that of architects, who must see the whole of a structure before understanding its parts and the challenges which can emerge in the building process. We are at an inflection point where “synod” (literally in Greek “walking together”) is inextricably tied to building the future of the Church. In the case of ministry after the pandemic, the Pope’s broad invitation in Let Us Dream, and the synod process, calls us to contemplate, discern, build and re-build – creatively and together – on the waiting stones which we have seen and which will become clear. In so doing, we can continue, with vitality, to shape the church’s ministries in response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and true human need in the months and years to come.

About the Author

Marc J. DelMonico has worked for over 4 years at the national level within the Catholic Church in support of lay ministers. He has over 35 years of experience as a minister in Catholic parishes and organizations. He holds a Ph.D. in Historic & Systematic Theology from The Catholic University of America and an M.Div. and M.A. in Theology from the Washington Theological Union. Find out more about him on his website churchMD.com.

[1] Cf. Joseph A. Komonchak, “The Church in Crisis: Pope Benedict’s Theological Vision,” Commonweal, June 3, 2005, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/church-crisis-pope-benedicts-theological-vision.

[2] Pope Francis with Austen Ivereigh. Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future, Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition, 2021, 55-56.