A new way of looking at the parish
In recent times the parish has suffered profound alterations. The process of secularisation has diminished the influence of the parish on the daily lives of people. Today we are faced with a great challenge to renew the parish. The numbers of people frequenting the parish church has fallen. One hears people lamenting that the churches are becoming more and more empty. Senior citizens are more evident at Mass than young people.
Today a very important reference for a person is the idea of belonging to a group of people, social relations are becoming more and more important; this has led to a new way of looking at the parish as a network of small communities. These are small groups of people who know each other, who share their lives and who are interested in the wellbeing of the group. Today there is a certain cooling down in relationships especially in big cities and towns where people live a very busy life, but even in big cities and towns there can be a lot of solitude. The big parish church too doesn’t help to create a welcoming atmosphere. Many people just go to the church to answer their religious needs of the moment on the occasions of Baptisms, First Holy Communion, Weddings, Funeral Masses, but as a place where people can get to know each other it leaves a lot to be desired. The feeling of belonging to group is not being met in the parish church; we need to create a new model of parish.
This new model could take the form of a network of small groups. This will need planning to avoid that all activities are concentrated in the parish church. This new vision of parish will not increase the parish priest’s workload for here we are talking of a new form of organisation, with greater delegation of responsibilities to the laity. This new organisation of the parish into cells will have a simple structure, thus avoiding bureaucracy and services which do not need to be used in the small group.
The parish church, without loosing its place and importance, needs to create new groups that will have less administration. These groups can be situated in different parts of the parish and be animated by women or men. In these groups many services and ministries could be developed and celebrated by both sexes. This could lead to new forms of vocations as distinct from the male celibate vocation that we have been accustomed to for many years. These leaders, women and men, could be given a two to three year preparation in sacred scripture, theology and pastoral theology and be ordained to celebrate the sacraments for their small community.
It is to be noticed that some parishes have never really taken on the renovation which Vatican II proposed and limit their activities to the celebration of the sacraments and devotions, all of which take place in the parish church for the same number of people week in week out. The greatest challenge today for parishes is to move out in mission, to go out and meet people where they live and not just wait for people to come to them.
On the other hand there are parishes that have this missionary spirit with many different services which seek out the lapsed but even with this missionary richness these parishes are unable to reach out to the vast majority of people scattered throughout the parish who have no contact with the church.
The early Christians had a living experience of meeting Our Lord through Faith. For them the physical space of a church building wasn’t the most important thing, the most important thing for them was being united as a group. The foundation or motivation of these groups was the Word of God and the celebration of the Eucharist.
Today our parishes could be made up of small groups of people who are brought together by the Word of God and strengthened by the Eucharist. In such small groups different services could arise such as, care of the sick, catechism, the attendance given to the bereaved, the care given to the poor, the preparation for the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage. For these services you need local leaders, the question then arises who will find these leaders? A Parish Priest who knows his people, who knows where they live and what their neighbourhood is like will be aware of people in these neighbourhoods with leadership qualities. His first step then is to make friends with these people then invite them to a missionary leadership course. They could be given a course on what is a community leader, what are the qualities of a leader, what is the spirituality of a leader, how to hold and run Bible groups, how to animate a Celebration of the Word etc. These leaders, women and men, could bring together people in their homes to celebrate the important moments in the life of the church such as Lent during which bible groups could meet to reflect on this special time of the year; they could also animate the month of May with Marian Devotions in peoples homes culminating with a Marian procession through the streets of the parish; for September, which is the month dedicated to the Bible, they could organize a bible course, then in preparation for Christmas they could organize prayer groups to reflect on and to pray about Christmas in the Family and so on. There is no end to the amount of activities a dynamic leader, be they a woman or a man, can do in his local community to engage the people and to create a spirit of community in his or her neighbourhood.
If, as there seems to be today in different parts of the world a big decrease in celibate male vocations, is this not a call for the church to re-think with courage its approach to vocations and ministry? Even the way we pray for vocations needs to be looked at. Generally speaking when prayers are asked for vocations this is understood as meaning prayers for male celibates. Let us be more inclusive in our prayers for vocations so that among our people those who feel called to a celibate life and those who are married or single will know that there is room for them to serve their community by bringing together small groups of people, people who like the early Christians ”were a group of believers with one mind and heart”(Acts 4:32)
Brian Eyre, Catholic married priest, Recife, Brazil
Indeed, there are a number of “cell” group communities in Ireland. Such small Christian communities have generally not worked in my area…Edmonton, Alberta, Canada…generally due to affluence and parishes across Canada, are largely becoming ethnic…with a tremendous boost come from the Philippines…Yes, small Christian communities have flourished in South America with the work of Liberation Theologians. It would be great, if groups would form, without the Charismatic Renewal element, only because…there is a certain way of ritualizing with the renewal, which is not helpful for everyone. Small Group Formation, I thought would work in Ireland, where there is a history of the people coming together naturally, for sharing life stories, prayer, and music. Certainly, with the continued demise of the institution, for people, who still want a living a faith in community, a grass-roots movement would have to be of small faith communities. Some of this could happen with clustering…..While the idea of married priests seems possible, I just can’t see it being affordable. Even in Canada, a parish of 3,000 plus could probably not afford a priest and his family…so, I think, clustering will continue…and so, small groups within that clustering may afford the renewal of faith and what Father above says, create new ministries….ones, that would never had been possible in our current system. I had been a part of assisting a Redemptorist priest,who, for most of his priesthood, tried to organize parishes into small Christian Communities, but, it never took off..and I think, because, people simply didn’t see the need, but, there could be a need, elsewhere.
Yesterday, by pure chance I met a woman who had recently returned from Peru where she had ministered as a lay missionary for the previous three years. As we both had done religious studies between 2000-2002 we had some catching up to do. During our conversation she told me of a model of parish that sounds remarkably like what you, Brian are outlining above.
I will paraphrase her experience of a Church Community gathering here. She ministered in a hilly parish in Peru where there would be one or maybe two main Churches but as well as those Churches there would be other smaller Church Community Groups coming together either in one of their homes or in a local community centre. This Church Community Group would have a Designated Leader who would lead and direct the Readings and prayers during the local gathering. The lay minister herself had helped in the Preparation for the actual Church Community Gathering by preparing the table/Altar on which there would be a Bible, A Cross, two candles and two statues one of Jesus and one of Our Lady. About a maximum of thirty chairs were arranged around this table/Altar. On those occasions it was mostly women who would arrive and sometimes men and childrenwould come. When the Church Community gathering was taking place in the Community Centre a Large Cross was stood outside the door to show passersby that a Catholic Church Community gathering was taking place during that time.
The closest experience we here in Ireland have to that type of local Community Gathering in local areas within our parish is the Church Station Mass which has all but died out in many rural parishes. Each parish had it own designated area made up of a few townlands and the Station Mass was celebrated in a designated family home that usually moved around to maybe once every few years depending on the number of families who opened their home for such a Station Mass Community gathering even if the Community designation was not strongly applied to it.
Such Station Areas could be activated in each parish especially in rural parishes and Church Community Cells formed in each of these areas.
‘Even the way we pray for vocations needs to be looked at. Generally speaking when prayers are asked for vocations this is understood as meaning prayers for male celibates. Let us be more inclusive in our prayers for vocations so that among our people those who feel called to a celibate life and those who are married or single will know that there is room for them to serve their community by bringing together small groups of people, people who like the early Christians ”were a group of believers with one mind and heart”(Acts 4:32)’
Just wanted to affirm my fervent belief in this prayer. Well said, Brian. You have given us much food for thought. With the serious shortage of priestly vocations in Ireland we do need to think ‘outside the box’ and I cannot see any reason why those priests who left for perfectly valid reasons e.g. to get married, cannot be allowed to give of their experience and gifts to the rest of us. What is the reason they are not allowed to serve??? It seems like a punishment. Where is the love and compassion of the institution towards them? ( not mentioning the W word this time. Y’know,those of us not born male.)
Since prayer to me, is fundamentally relationship, it certainly, makes sense to talk to God about what we need, including what is needed in the Church. Yet, this is God’s Church, and He knows what is needed and He provides. I suggest, He has already provided, but, the Church, magisterium and people, have by and large, not understood, what is to be done. I have done, what some people, would think is pure folly, and that is, to write a letter to Pope Francis, asking him, to write a thorough paper, on what he means by, “clericalism is a problem”, so that we can be guided with divine wisdom, at this time. While, we will always require Church leadership, it must be leadership, that is truly reflective of the authority of God, full of divine integrity, and hopefully, we can correct current problems, and move ahead and yes, that most definitely means, “thinking outside the box” and with an innate sense of Vatican II, that is, a sense, of working with the Holy Spirit, as closely as we possibly can St. Paul said, we see, through a dark glass dimly. We need better spiritual vision, and that, would be an ideal, purpose for prayer. P.S. I also gave Pope Francis my phone number.