Column | Understanding the ‘Why’ of the Parish

Bishop Bonnar


Bishop of Youngstown

According to an observation often attributed to the Irish-British author and theologian C.S. Lewis: “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

In his post-2012 Synod of Bishops’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis shares his dream for the Church. He writes: “I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth, and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself.”  (Para. 27)

Implicit within these words are two key points.  First, the Church exists not for her own self-preservation but for mission.  Second, to embrace mission, we need to go forth and expect change. More specifically, the Church needs to adapt to the situation. This point really encourages us to steer away from the rear-view mirror and the sense of nostalgia to the front windshield and a whole new way of seeing and being.

The parish is at the center of mission.  In the same document, Pope Francis writes: “The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be ‘the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.’ This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people, or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few.”  (Para. 28)

These are challenging words from the Holy Father. While he notes the parish is marked by “great flexibility,” he also honestly says “if.”  In other words, “if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity.” The “if” implies that clearly some parishes do not meet this task. For those who do adapt, the Holy Father maintains that the parish needs to be in contact with the people and live in reality. The parish cannot be an exclusive group or a private entity.

Bishop Mark Seitz, bishop of El Paso, Texas – right on the Mexican border – tells the story of a family who reached out to him to bury their infant who died. The bishop naturally agreed to assist the family in their grief and asked them where they lived. When they told him the area, he asked why they did not go to the church in that area.

“Oh” they replied. “That is a private church.”  That was the impression given to this couple, and yet, it was a Catholic church.

Sometimes in living out our faith we can be faithful to a fault. That is, we can become so committed, territorial and possessive that we become exclusive and private and preclude others. Do our parishes help or hinder an expansive sense of belonging? The Holy Father is clear that no one should be deprived of the Gospel.

It is interesting how one of our greatest strengths can be one of our greatest weaknesses. For example, for so many years we as a Church built strong but separate parishes – usually centered around a school. Surrounding parishes were typically kept at arm’s length. The parochialism was so strong that, long after individuals grew up and moved on with their lives, they continued to belong to the same parish or at least returned as needed. The closure of schools due to funding issues and changing demographics, has created a crisis for many parishes – not to mention Catholic high schools, who rely on those parishes as feeder schools. For many years, a vibrant parish meant a parish with a Catholic school. As clergy personnel resources diminish even further, moreover, many priests are serving in multiple parishes. Some parishes have been merged while others have closed. All these events raise the question: What is a parish today?

In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis defines the parish as “the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship, and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers.” (Para. 28)

What is noteworthy here is what the Holy Father does not say. He does not say that the Church is a building but rather a dynamic and active presence. Presence means people who embrace a mission. For too long we as a Church have defined our parishes by buildings. The Holy Father wants us to know that the Church is more than bricks and mortar. It consists of “living stones” – namely, the People of God whose primary task is to proclaim the Joy of the Gospel.

I share the dream of the Holy Father along with the prayer – “That all may be one.”  I pray that, in our regions where one priest is serving as pastor in two or more parishes, the faithful will work with the pastor and members of the finance and pastoral councils towards becoming one in mission. I am committed to making sure that our structures match our dreams for unity and mission. We are stronger when we are together! When we share our resources, great things can happen. We can no longer afford to look at our parishes as before. We cannot be about self-preservation. In the spirit of our Holy Father, we need to be open and adaptable. Let us work together to make these dreams become realities in this portion of the Lord’s vineyard.

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