Aidan Hart wonders what it would take to revive a parish community?
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.
“The parish… will create a strong awareness that God is lovingly present in us and in all others, both inside and outside the parish community.”
Again Aidan returns to a theme so often missing in the emphasis on rules, exclusions and dogmatic doctrine – his insistence that ‘First comes the experience of God’s unconditional love’. This is the title of the first article he wrote for us at acireland.ie – revisited again and again by our readers.
In my experience, I fail to see how the church truly promotes and encourages community. We arrive into church on a Sunday, and other than a greeting at the front door, we are expected to take to our seats and reverently – and quietly – pray, awaiting the start of Mass.
We sit through the Mass and do not interact with our neighbour – other than the sign of peace – which is sadly temporarily removed thanks to Covid.
And then Mass ends and the congregation files out – having made no meaningful connection with each other.
Over time people get to recognise faces and nod in acknowledgement and perhaps exchange a few pleasantries, but that is it (in my experience)… hardly a vibrant and close knit community.
I work in a corporate environment and while formal meetings are important and have their place, we wouldn’t get business done if everything was strictly formal. It’s the freedom – and opportunity – for informal chat beforehand which is where relationships start to be forged, that ultimately assist our goal in working together.
I’m not sure what the answer is but it must surely be to move away from having everything revolve around the Mass – instead creating opportunities to bring people together in a meaningful way.
Thank you Colette for sharing your pertinent and personal experience of parish with us.
You write: “Current parish life tends unconsciously to encourage, rather than challenge, privatised religion and a merely inward-looking spirituality among many of its members.”
This privatised inward-looking tends to predominate in many Irish parishes and dioceses. A vibrant community needs to have both maintenance and mission. Where we just maintain the arrangements, there is no dynamism. Yes, there is mission, in that we have various organisations which channel this: Trócaire, Missionary organisations, etc., and these are good, but it’s almost as if they are external to parish and diocesan life.
And yet the world is in dire need of Good News and hope and healing and justice. Pope Francis’s new encyclical, although I find what I’ve read so far somewhat indigestible, does put to us that what needs to inspire the peoples of the world is the realisation that we are family, sisters and brothers to one another, and that the whole of creation around us is an integral part of that. There was something of that in the beginnings and growth of the European Union, at least to ensure that we do not again lapse into the violence of the 20th century. But there is little of that sense of commitment to one another in international relations and in the United Nations.
That lively sense of commitment to one another and to the peoples of the world could rekindle dynamism in our parishes.
The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops has a 1994 document called “Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish.” It can be found at https://www.usccb.org/resources/communities-salt-and-light-reflections-social-mission-parish
That’s 26 years ago. Has there been any comparable statement of mission in the Irish church or churches?
How might we formulate today the mission to live the faith, hope and love which inspired St Paul in this pandemic and (we hope) post-pandemic world? How do the signs of the times today communicate God’s love to us, and guide how we can be the living Body of Christ today?
Aidan – good words, and thanks for taking the time to put them together.
A question, you mention the vision of Paul in Romans 12:27-28? My edition ends with verse 21? Any help in finding that vision, those verses?
You’re right on when it comes to the whole ‘privatized religion and inward-looking spirituality’. To me it’s the rare parish which is anything other than that.
As hope springs eternal, I’m hoping and praying that out of the pandemic-absence we might re-do the whole participation in an outward direction and become loving communities of service to all who are in need.
Thomas O’Loughlin provides a lot of food for thought towards that end in his latest work: ‘Eating Together Becoming One’. Peace, and thanks again.
(Editor – corrected on home page – Romans 12:4-21.)
I totally agree with the idea of salt and light and of parish being a missionary as well as a community reality. Even though for health reasons I cannot take a very active role I admire the zeal of those who still hope for renewal in the church. It has been a privilege to be part of the association of Catholic priests over the past 10-years. I wish a blessing on all present and past members.
May the Lord bless the next ten years of the association as he has blessed us this past decade.
Delighted to hear from you. You say you “cannot take a very active role.” Well, not the way you have been doing for so long, but you still do in this phase of your vocation which is equally valuable. I remember how I used to go all day, and now health factors (non-Covid!), as well as age, have changed the picture. Still, our vocation as baptised Christians, with or without priestly ordaining, adjusts to providence. There’s much more Sabbath in everyday life now. Every day is the Lord’s Day. This is the day the Lord has made.
John, well spotted – a senior moment. I meant to say Romans 12:4-21. Perhaps the site editor could correct my mistake for the sake of others.