Now in even deeper crisis, our Irish church will need ‘all hands’ in all parishes to get to grips with renewal. But what would it take to revive a parish community? Here Aidan Hart offers the fruits of his own experience.
As the number of diocesan priests and vocations to the diocesan priesthood rapidly diminishes in many parts of the world – Ireland having only one ordination in 2020 – there is increasing discussion about closing or amalgamating parishes.
However, few people in charge of the closures and amalgamations ever seem to identify and discuss with parishioners the purpose of the parish and the parish structures and activities necessary to realise that purpose. In organisational management, this is called Agreed Aims and Realistic Objectives, the latter being regularly and rigorously reviewed to assure their ongoing, successful realisation.
The parish, like the Church it is intimately part of, is meant to be a community of faith, hope, love and service. The parish community should thus work unceasingly to increase the faith, hope, love and practical service between all its members and to encourage and facilitate the growth and quality of that faith, hope, love and service as it moves outwards to the wider community.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.
But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
The sacraments, especially Eucharist, are a divine feeding to strengthen all parish members in their daily programme of outward moving, ever-growing, deepening and widening unconditional love.
The risk is that the sacraments, and particularly Mass, become solely personal and inward-looking, part of a privatised religion and privatised spirituality, or at worst, a routine as part of attending Sunday Mass. How many parish clergy and parish councils seek to identify, encourage and guide the parish in bringing about the vision of St. Paul in Romans 12:4-21.
“Christ’s body is yourselves, each of you with a part to play in the whole. And those whom God has appointed in the Church are first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, after them miraculous powers, then gifts of healing, helpful acts, guidance, various kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
I suspect few parishes would score highly on encouraging and developing the above charisms and the parish as a vibrant community of inter-personal relationships and activity. Current parish life tends unconsciously to encourage, rather than challenge, privatised religion and a merely inward-looking spirituality among many of its members. Few are part of the activities already running in most parishes, like the St. Vincent de Paul and Legion of Mary. St. Paul envisages the local churches of his time as living, vibrant communities.
How does your own parish score, in terms of the programme of action laid out by St. Paul in the above quotation? Why not share your results with other readers, using the Comment facility below, without necessarily naming the parish.
My own recollection of a serious attempt in the Catholic Church to realise St. Paul’s vision was Charismatic Renewal. Sadly, it eventually died in most parishes for want of clerical participation, encouragement and guidance. The house group movement is an ongoing attempt to create real Christian communities within which close relationships develop and the love of God finds concrete expression.
The only way to change things is through a Vatican II vision of what the Church, and hence parish, should be about, and through dialogue with the whole parish about a plan of action, built upon the inspirational and supportive role of the Holy Spirit in its midst, and the unconditional love of the Father. That divine love flows through Jesus the Christ into our midst and demands expression through all parishioners in service to each other and to our local community.
Every marriage should be a lifelong relationship of increasing, reciprocal, active and forgiving love, every home a community, a cell of love, hope and faith. All those cells are the building blocks of a loving parish, in service to one another and to their wider community and imbued with the presence of God, reaching out to transform society. Love is the breath of God, forever incarnating itself in the everyday life of the home and parish.
“For the love of Christ overwhelms us….So we are ambassadors for Christ.” (2 Cor. 5)
Some would say that community already exists in the Catholic Church as a worldwide community. Sociologically the term ‘community’ has several levels of meaning, each with its own aims and objectives. The universal Catholic Church as a community is obviously correct at the lowest level of it being a worldwide and eternal community. However, at the much higher level of community it has to mean a lot more than parishioners knowing that they belong to a universal Church and gathering together as a worshipping crowd for Sunday Mass. Eucharist has a strong community, interpersonal dimension as well as personal dimension, the former often poorly realised.
Is the level of parish a vibrant, life-giving community? Does it go beyond being a group of Catholics belonging and practicing the same faith, vitally important as that is, being the foundation of the Church?
The parish as community needs to be closer to the highest level community exemplified in the best of families, moving from the head (theology) to the heart (relationships), from a belief system to a vibrant, mutually loving and mutually supportive community where parishioners relate to and support each other in a variety of ways and feel a strong sense of belonging and desire to participate. A parish with a vibrant sense of community will organise and encourage active participation in a wide variety of activities, which seek to enhance parishioners’ varying spiritual, liturgical, scriptural, catechetical, evangelical and social needs. These activities, along with organising the parish’s finances, employment of staff, building maintenance and repairs etc., should be organised by an appropriately commissioned and trained Parish Pastoral Council. That will help relieve the heavy workload on local clergy and give them time to concentrate on what they were ordained to do. It will also help parishioners connect with one another and to support each other and the parish in many and various ways. They will help the parish community to be a truly biblical community, where each reaches out in Christ’s love to the other.
A spiritual, life-giving and vibrant parish community needs to build a strong sense of belonging – to the universal Church and to the local parish. It needs to look outwards as well as inwards. It will create a strong awareness that God is lovingly present in us and in all others, both inside and outside the parish community.
Aidan Hart, now retired but formerly a seminarian with the Mill Hill Missionary Society, teacher and Head of Religious Education in Catholic comprehensive schools in London, Durham and Wales and then Senior Inspector of Education and Training, specialising in Religious Education, Educational Management and Pastoral Care, in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, Northern Ireland.