Updated: Jun 21
So here we are, 3 years into the Covid19 colored world. We are no longer confined to our homes, experiencing restrictions on gatherings and travel or afraid of close quarters in restaurants, bars and yes, church. But, large numbers of people are still contracting Covid, death rates are still high and there's still dis-ease even as we emerge from our Covid cocoons. Just this morning I found myself standing 6 feet away from a fellow patient in a waiting room. Habit or fear? Probably a little of both. You see, the effects of the pandemic linger, and for already introverted people like me, continue to influence me. And yes, sometimes I still feel very lonely. Turns out, I'm part of the epidemic of loneliness that persists, even now.
The epidemic of loneliness
“In the United States, more than one-quarter of people over age 60 live alone, according to a “Pew Research Survey, and more than 43 percent of them reported feeling lonely even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Younger people suffer from loneliness, too. In fact, those aged 18 to 22 have the highest loneliness scores, a recent survey found, and being a student correlates heavily with scoring high on the Cigna US Loneliness Index.” These findings are sobering. As social scientist, researcher, storyteller Dr. Brené Brown says frequently, “People are not ok right now.”
There’s real pain called loneliness all around us.
”What is the good news any parish has to offer to the pain of loneliness? Connection. Belonging. Participation, to use one of the synod themes.
The need to belong
Human beings are hard-wired for belonging, for connection. When we don’t have enough of the right kind of connection, we are not fully human. We NEED to belong. Here’s what scholars say:
The most influential version of the need to belong theory was proposed by Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, whose theory put relationship needs as one of the most important needs that humans must fulfill. They compared satisfying the need to belong to securing necessities, such as food and shelter, which are needed to survive. Baumeister and Leary said that satisfying the belongingness motive requires that two aspects of relationships be met: The first part is that people need to have positive and pleasant, not negative, interactions with others. The second part specifies that these interactions cannot be random but, rather, should take place as part of stable, lasting relationships in which people care about each other’s long-term health and well-being
We are social beings. We need relationships that are positive, sustained and meaningful in order to thrive. Without them, all kinds of terrible physical, mental and emotional consequences ensue. We are seeing some of them now: high suicide rates, lots of drug and alcohol use (and an opioid epidemic), public rage incidents, and addictions to our devices. And we are seeing continued isolation and disengagement.
The gift of the parish..the joy of participation
Here’s the great hope! A parish has the potential to be a real antidote to loneliness… a place to belong, a place to enter into or deepen a relationship with Jesus Christ which then puts its members into relationships with many others who share a love for Jesus. A relationship with Jesus is stable, and lasting. He cares about our long-term health and well-being. He commands us to love others in just this same way, creating a beloved community where we know we belong to Christ and to one another. Parishes can become these beloved havens of belonging and connection.
And here is even more good news, a parish embracing synodality is a parish that offers an antidote to loneliness by practicing spiritual listening. It's a wonderful way to give the gift of attention, respect, and connection while inviting the lonely to come and share their hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows. Spiritual listening, a hallmark of synodality, can be a tremendous gift to all ages...an antidote to loneliness, especially for the young. Why is this important?
Apparently parishes are not seen as viable antidotes to loneliness, especially among the young. Here's what Springtide Research Institute reported in 2021:
But our data show that even though the majority of young people in general identify as religious (71%) or
spiritual (78%), most aren’t turning to religion— whether religious communities, leaders, practices, or beliefs—to
help guide them in moments of uncertainty. This is true even of the young people who tell us they attend, believe in, or identify with a particular religious tradition. Of the young people in general who identified as “very
religious,” less than half (40%) told us they found connecting with their faith community helpful during
challenging or uncertain times; only 23% of those who consider themselves moderately religious found this
helpful. Only 1 in 5 young people in general agree with the statement “I use faith as a guide when I am confused
So what's the parish to do? If we listen to the Wisdom from organizational experts (a gift to us from the Holy Spirit), here's what we hear them asking:
How does the parish foster connections? Is it easy to "belong"?
I find joining organizations hard, for all kinds of reasons: my preference for solitude – I keep my own company just fine (introvert) ; my past experiences where joining suddenly meant way more to do than I ever imagined (lack of clarity around expectations); my fears that I will not fit in, be accepted or be given a chance to contribute meaningfully (in other words, I won’t really BELONG); and experiences that included backstabbing, gossip, subterfuge, and sabotage (not walking the talk). Combine them and I am not a joiner.
So let’s imagine that the descriptions above hit home for some segment of your registered parishioners, and for at least some of the young people who, while baptized, don't darken the door. And we know responses from the diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality indicate a disconnect between self-reported welcoming and who really feels as if they belong. Add to that list the apparently mistaken thought that someone “belonged” to the parish and then, when we all went home to quarantine, no one reached out to them...no one... for more than 2 years. So much for belonging. One consequence? They’ve (we've?) come to the conclusion that “They (the people of the parish) don’t care about me. Why should I care about them?” This is especially true if the sense of belonging before the Covid19 shutdown was tenuous. Add to this the ongoing suspicion, sometimes rightly founded, that what the parish really wants is time, talent and treasure. But the people of the parish don’t really care about them. The result? No connection. Not real, not perceived.
If this rings true for you, even a little bit, it’s time to act. Reach out and connect, heart to heart! Take a look at Stop Lamenting Start Connecting 31 Ways to Reach Those not Coming Back.
Even after getting this list, take time to consider how the parish is set up to address belonging and loneliness.
Is there a way that all parishioners are connected to one another, by design: neighborhood groups, phone trees, note-writers, prayer chains, ministries, mentoring, surrogate grandparenting, book groups, etc?
Is Jesus prayed and preached as friend, companion, and guide as well as Lord and Savior? Are prayer practices to connect the people to Jesus (other than the Mass) offered?
Does the Staff shepherd the people? Here's an added bonus to help with this: 5 ways to shepherd your people, authored by yours truly)
Are there ministries of kindness? Of note-writing? Of remembering those who have died? Of noticing who's missing and reaching out to those who aren't connecting through the parish?
And perhaps most importantly, is the parish structuring itself as a listening place, where all the baptized are invited, encouraged and enabled to speak truth in love and trust they will be listened to with reverence, curiosity and prayerfulness?
To embrace the Spirit of synodality is to embrace the truth that every baptized person belongs to the Church. To unleash the Spirit of synodality is to make their participation simple, thoughtful and sacred. This is why synodality is the way for the Church in the third millennium. This is why becoming a listening Church matters. This is one leg of the three-legged stool forming the culture of synodality: #participation. Participation in a parish where someone knows your name, someone cares for you, someone misses you, someone listens to you…someone reaches out to you and, in so doing, Jesus reaches through them to touch your loneliness.. This creates connection and the connection builds trust. People WANT to belong to parishes like this! How hopeful is that?
Feeling a little lonely now? Listen to Andre Bocelli remind us that we never walk alone!
More Good News: Religious practice thwarts loneliness
Madeline Dangerfield-Cha and Joy Zhang. “Solving the Loneliness Epidemic” Stanford Social Innovation Review.https://ssir.org/articles/entry/solving_the_loneliness_epidemic_two_generations_at_a_time#:~:text=In%20the%20United%20States%2C%20more,people%20suffer%20from%20loneliness%2C%20too. Accessed 5/23/22.
Photo Unsplash/Matt Sclarandis