Column | Moving our Parishes Beyond Comfort to Mission

Bishop Bonnar


Bishop of Youngstown

When you think of your parish where you belong, what are some of the first thoughts that come to mind? Perhaps what emerges is the name of the parish or the church building along with the clergy and staff.

In his post 2012 Synod of Bishops’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis reflects on the parish. He writes: “It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.” In short, the Church is a community that serves and extends herself in the name of Jesus Christ. It is people helping people near one another. Pope Francis brings this idea home to priests when he says that they need to know “the smell of the sheep.” The Church is not an island to herself but a beacon of hope – especially to those most in need. (Para. 28)

In the same paragraph, the Holy Father makes a bold and honest statement about parishes today. “We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.” (Para. 28)

What can we do to help renew our parishes and make them more completely mission-oriented? First, we as a Church need to make a more concerted effort to move from maintenance to mission. Some of our parishes have become too self-serving, too comfortable and much too complacent. Parochialism, which once was the bedrock of our parishes, has yielded limits on our perspective and ministry. The increasing ways of our world centered on comfort and convenience have affected our ability to minister beyond ourselves. Moving from maintenance to mission is not only a matter of changing one’s mindset but it is also about finding the means for mission or re-prioritizing the budget to support the global mission. A strong and active pastoral council working in concert with the finance council can enable the pastor to lead his people from maintenance to mission.

Second, to be true to the mission we as a Church need to go to the peripheries. For many of us, the parish is the place where we come to be fed. We hear God’s Word, receive the Holy Eucharist and experience a shared sense of community. Still, there is more to being Catholic. Keep in mind, that we come to Holy Mass so that we may go forth. In fact, at the conclusion of Mass we are sent forth by the priest or deacon to go and serve. This call means that we need to move out of our comfort zones and little worlds to the edges and seek to be the Church where there is no Church. This isn’t something that we need to do alone. Jesus sent His disciples out two by two. The formation of small groups around various demographics and topics is an organized and structured way to begin this journey to the peripheries.

Third, we need to think less of the Church as a building and more of it as a community called to action. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis quotes the Latin American bishops who noted that we “cannot passively and calmly wait inside our church buildings.” There is a need to move – once again quoting the same bishops – “from pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.” (Para.15). Faith is never meant to be private between just God and me. Faith is always communal in nature. In fact, Pope Francis writes: “True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others.” (Para. 88)

Fourth, we need to commit ourselves to a greater sense of accompaniment, especially with those who are different from us. The Holy Father has made it clear that the Gospel of Joy is for all and that no one is to be excluded from it. Sadly, we live in a society of labels and judgment. We find security in things being black and white but life is not always that simple. Sometimes there can be an overwhelming greyness. Some might argue that grey is God’s favorite color. When we accompany someone, it does not necessarily mean that we approve. It simply means that we are striving to love one another as Jesus loves us.

Fifth, as we strive to renew our parishes, we must all strive to embrace ongoing personal conversion. None of us have arrived. We are all sinners. It is incumbent on each one of us, clergy, religious, and laity, to assume responsibility for our spiritual lives and meet the standards of Church membership. We are all part of the story and together we need to do our part. Everyone has a role. It is not about them but us. We all have gifts to share. One of the greatest sins of omission in my mind are those gifts we fail to share with others for the common good. Another sin of omission centers on the changes we fail to make in our own lives for the good of the Church. If our church building closes, or the Mass schedule changes, it need not be the end of the world. We simply embrace it. If we cannot change in even the smallest ways, how true are we to our membership? Is Church more about me than the person of Jesus Christ and the community of believers?

Finally, we need to make more of a determined effort to move on from the nostalgia of the past to embrace the moment of now trusting in God’s divine providence. In other words, we need to look less at the rear view mirror and more at the front windshield – even though the visibility may not be crystal clear. I realize that there is comfort and clarity in what was, but the longer we hold on to what was the more difficult it is to consider what can be.

St. Paul reminds us: “For we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7). We are living in a time when, perhaps more than ever before, we need to walk by faith knowing that it is going to be different. And yet, the real difference is that we as a Church will be renewed. Together, let us open ourselves to this process and pray: “That all may be one.”


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