No one knows if the post-pandemic era is just around the corner, but a lot of people worth listening to are urging us to use this time to reflect on what we’ve learned from COVID so far.

The president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops believes the Church can learn from the experiences of the past year. “This is a blessed and privileged time in our lives when the Lord can bring change within us,” says Archbishop Richard Gagnon in his Christmas message. “An opportunity is opening up for us in rebuilding our Church in new ways with the Father’s unfailing help.”

Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller writes, “as difficult as 2020 has been for all of us, we can ponder how our current suffering will bring unexpected blessings.”

And in his new book Let Us Dream, Pope Francis challenges us against simply returning to the old normal, from our economic systems to our relationships with others. If we don’t learn from the lessons of COVID, says Francis, “I am convinced that this will lead to an even greater failure, one that could ignite a huge social explosion.”

Learning from our experience with COVID is essential, not only because God has lessons he wants us to learn, but so we’re prepared for whatever comes next.

The closing of our churches is a case in point. A year ago, we had no idea societal disruption was just a few weeks away. But there were warning signs indicating how easily religious liberty could be restricted.

An Angus Reid survey last December showed paradoxical and inconsistent attitudes about religion by Canadians, who talk a good game about supporting religious freedom, while being ready to allow startling limits on the practice of faith in public life.

Religious liberty was soon put to the test as churches were shut down across Canada, sometimes for seemingly reasonable justifications at the time, but sometimes not.

The willingness of many Canadians, including people of faith, to unquestioningly accept the shutdowns is disconcerting. While B.C. politicians issued bromides about the importance of religion and thanked faith communities for their cooperation, the obvious question that needs to be asked is, if it’s this easy to impose restrictions on houses of worship now, how hard will it be in future? There’s fashionable sentiment that churches could use some reigning in, whether with heavier taxes or more restrictions on public expression. When religion isn’t considered essential, it becomes easier to treat it as inconsequential.

It also bears asking what the impact of the pandemic has been on our relationship with God, and there are signs many Catholics have scaled back or withdrawn from their practise of the faith. A survey last summer by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found few young adult Catholics in the U.S. are tuning into Masses on television or online, and more than a third expect to attend Mass less frequently after the pandemic ends and churches reopen.

So as not to close on a down note, there are positive signs as well. A U.K. survey found just four per cent of Catholics don’t plan to return to church after the pandemic, while another survey found only two per cent of U.S. Catholics say their faith has been weakened by the coronavirus crisis.

As for Canadians there are also positive signs. An Angus Reid survey last Easter found among Canadians who pray, “more than one in five say they are turning to prayer more since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country.” For those Canadians “more steeped in faith,” said the survey, “prayer has been an important source of relief and comfort in dealing with feelings of isolation, depression and uncertainty.”

Each of us – myself most of all – have lessons to learn from the past year. My prayer is we’re open to receiving them.