How can you tell when a parish is fulfilling its purpose?
Canon Law’s definition of a parish is rather stark: “A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop” (515).
Legally, then, any parish with these four elements (community, stability, a pastor, and the diocesan bishop) is a parish!
Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church put some meat on those bare bones. There should also be preaching of the Gospel, the celebration of the Lord’s supper, and manifest charity (26). The document on the laity adds a little more: the parish should be an example of community apostolate (active participation in liturgical life, engagement in apostolic works, spread of the word, and care of souls) plus working cooperation between laity and priests (10).
On the practical level, however, we need more.
Clearly a growing number of Catholics are “church shopping,” trying to find “a place where they are fed.”
What criteria make a parish a good parish? a place where the people are fed?
The people of St. Michael parish in Cincinnati were asked recently to answer the question, “What do you like about your parish?”
The top responses included: “a friendly, welcoming place,” “good music,” “good pastor,” “good preaching,” “the people.”
I think those responses can be summarized in one description; they like a church which is “pastoral.”
But is what they like necessarily what a parish should be?
A new book, recently published and growing in popularity, addresses the issue –Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish by Michael White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity, Baltimore, and Timothy M. Dolan, lay associate (Ave Maria Press, 2013).
Their chief insight is that for a parish to be what it is supposed to be the parishioners must recognize that they are called to be not consumers but disciples!
White and Dolan list ten major mistakes they made in their initial effort to make the parish grow (e.g., trying to please everyone, wasting time and money, fearing to lead).
Resolved to change the parish’s status quo, the two leaders set out to change the parish culture. They started by “challenging church people and seeking lost people.” They decided to evangelize.
In their words, “We just decided to stop doing a lot of things we had been doing and instead concentrate on the weekend…we had a music program; what we needed was a worship program…we are convinced that churches will remain consumer-driven as long as people aren’t singing.”
Most of what these two reformer-authors propose isn’t new; it’s just that they applied it: develop small faith groups, encourage tithing, promote lay ecclesial ministry, evangelize.
The start of their program for making a parish grow is the realization that only God can make a parish grow. The fertile soil for that growth is, in their experience, helping parishioners move from being consumers to disciples: “Our parish had become a consumer exchange, and, as such, it had lost its 'transforming power' in people’s lives.”
When Jesus sent the Church out into the world, he ordered, “Make disciples…”
White and Dolan spell out what they tried, acknowledge their mistakes, and urge others to make discipleship the catalyst for change.
There is no human agenda, formula or template for making a parish what a parish is supposed to be. The best we can do is allow Jesus to lead, and remember that being his disciple means picking up a cross.
Maybe that’s why we have a hard time making our parishes work –we’re still afraid of that cross.