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First Friday Club | The Changing Face of the Parish

Bishop Bonnar


Bishop of Youngstown

Note: Bishop Bonnar delivered a version of this talk on September 8, 2022 (The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary) at the First Friday Club of Youngstown. He also delivered a version of this talk on October 20, 2022 at the Faith and Light Forum in Canton.

It is a real delight for me to be here today with you as a speaker for the First Friday Club. Before I delve into my talk, I would be remiss if I didn’t pause to acknowledge the fact of what we are celebrating today, namely, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Only Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist have birthdays on the liturgical calendar. Happy Birthday Mary! Normally we sing “Happy Birthday” to the birthday person, but there is something more we can do. Let’s sing one verse of “Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above.”

I want to speak to you today about “The Changing Face of the Parish.” I have been in this world for 60 years, a priest of 34 years, and a bishop of one year and a half. I can attest to the fact that parishes have evolved over the years. The parish that we were born into most likely is very different today. That is certainly the case in my own situation.

For example, my home parish when I was a kid had a vibrant school along with three priests and the presence of a religious community of sisters. The school had no tuition and identified itself as “Second to None.” Today, that parish has merged with three other parishes. The school is a regional school with tuition. There are two full time priests, two retired priests, and one priest chaplain for the nursing home. And the church used to have five Sunday Masses but now there are only two.

My first priestly assignment in a parish was to an ethnic, all Italian parish just over the border. There were three priests, 6 Sunday Masses, a large school, and a convent of religious sisters who were involved in the parish. There was also a cemetery. Interestingly, there are three men who eventually became bishops who served in that parish including Bishop Tobin and myself. Today that parish is part of a new configuration of parishes encompassing all of New Castle. There are three priests for the whole area, fewer Sunday Masses in the Church, the rectory is solely the parish office, and the convent was torn down.

My second priestly assignment took me to the City of Pittsburgh in a section called Greenfield which was known as “the suburb in the city.” The parish had two priests and a resident priest along with two school buildings. There was an elementary school and the more recently built building used to house a high school. There was a religious community connected to the parish. Today, that parish is absorbed into the Cathedral Parish. No priests live in the rectory. There are just two priests who serve the entire parish. The school has been closed and the building sold. The religious sisters are gone. There are only two Sunday Masses.  

My third priestly assignment as a parochial vicar took me to the suburbs, four miles from where I grew up to a parish that was across the street from the Mall. There were three priests, a school and a large religious education program. Today, the parish has been merged with another parish. There are three priests. The school is regional with two campuses. There is a beautiful Family Life Center.

This particular assignment opened my eyes to the beauty of lay ministry. I remember one day having difficulty with a certain staff member. I said to the pastor, “You need to say something to her because she works for us.”  He said, “No Dave, she does not work for us, but she works with us.” Ever since then I have thoroughly enjoyed working with lay ecclesial ministers (LEMs).  They have brought out the best in me.

I could speak of more experiences, but I think you get the point. Parishes have changed. The changes are not just with personnel and configurations and new names. Over the years, we have witnessed in the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis, the commitment to Safe Environments and the reality of Safe Environment Coordinators. In the wake of security concerns and incidents, many parishes now have safety plans, safety teams, video surveillance, fobs and ID cards. Parishes now have pastoral plans and there is greater financial accountability and transparency.  

Today there are fewer priests but many of the priests serving today are shared as they serve multiple parishes and possess various roles. There are fewer church buildings, the result of mergers and closures. And with the concept of sharing, it is not just the priest, but staff and other resources.  

Today, there appears to be more emphasis on community over buildings.  And many of the ethnic parishes have disappeared.  

One thing that has not changed is that parishes remain vibrant as fountains of grace and places of belonging where people come to be fed. And yet, it would seem to me that parishes are more broadminded in their approach. In other words, there is much more service that takes place beyond the parish borders. In fact, in the parish where I was pastor for 11 years there was a group of people committed to serving the poor. They would prepare a meal every Friday and then take it to some shelters in Pittsburgh.

Much of this change is coming from our Holy Father. Prior to the Conclave, Cardinal Bergoglio gave a brief talk to his brother Cardinals. Normally, these conversations remain confidential, but the Pope gave permission for it to be shared. Evidently the Argentinian Cardinal referenced Revelation 3:20 in which Jesus is knocking at the door. The text refers to him knocking on the outside in order to enter but this is where the Cardinal said, “…but I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out.” This is precisely what the Holy Father is calling us to do, to go out into the world.

In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, the Holy Father speaks of a Church that “goes forth.” He writes,

“Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.” (#20)

Furthermore, the Holy Father speaks about the need to be pastoral. He writes,

“I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. “Mere administration’ can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be ‘permanently in a state of mission.” (#25)

To be on mission is to go forth. That is what happens every Sunday. We are sent forth by the priest or deacon out into the world.  

The Holy Father speaks specifically of the role of the parish in this regard. He 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 of a chosen few.” (#28) 

Quite simply, the Holy Father wants a parish that is close to its people and is not exclusive or self-absorbed.

Pope Francis then presents his vision of today’s parish. He writes,

“The parish is 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. 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. 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.”  (#28)

It goes without saying that change is hard. But if we don’t change, we die. We can never ignore the fact that the Church is a dynamic reality always at the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As we move forward in our journey, we need to recognize that what may appear as an obstacle when entered in faith can become an opportunity to be the Church in a new way. 

Moreover, I would like to suggest that we seek to incorporate even more the following seven features into our hearts and parishes:

  1. Collaboration and Sharing—We are always stronger when we are together.  How can I become more collaborative?
  1. Mission—As a Church we are sent forth and called to be on mission.  We do not exist for ourselves.  Where is God calling me to come out of myself and share his mission?
  1. Peripheries—We cannot become self-absorbed.  There is work to be done as we are called to extend ourselves by leaving our comfort zones.  What are the peripheries in my life that God is calling me to reach?
  1. Joy—We live in a world that is desperately in need of joy.  Pope Francis acknowledges in “The Joy of the Gospel” that the most joyful people he has witnessed in the world are the poor and those who have little.  Where is God calling me to radiate his joy?  Where is he asking me to become poorer?
  1. Hope—We are an Easter people.  No matter how dark or defeated, we believe in the resurrection.  Where is God calling me be more hopeful instead of despairing, cynical or pessimistic?
  1. Accompaniment—We are called to accompany one another on the journey.  This necessarily involves listening.  Where and to whom is God calling me to listen
  1. Holy Spirit—We need to surrender to the Holy Spirit who is in charge.  The Spirit is the great difference maker.  We need to pray to the Holy Spirit.  Pope Francis writes, “Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide, and direct us, leading us wherever he wills.  The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every time and place.” (#280)

Come, Holy Spirit!

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