Chris McDonnell’s ‘Catholic Times’ column: Future of the parish

An open door?

Chris McDonnell CT January 29th 2021

I make no apology for returning to a subject that I have mentioned a number of times in recent months, our parish life, for the parish is a place of belonging, a place where roots often search deep into the soil, where birth has been given, life passed and death experienced. At least, it used to be.

At one time it was not uncommon for a person to have lived their whole life within the boundaries of a particular parish, lived, worked and loved on one particular patch of land. There they knew the lanes and fields, the hills and streams that gave them sustenance week by month by year. It is worth remembering that beyond our Catholic parishes the whole of England is divided into over 10,000 areas of land defined by legally drawn parish boundaries

With the industrial development of our towns and cities, things changed. Churches were established in urban communities to meet the needs of an ever-growing population. That greater mobility has continued apace and attachment to a geographical locality diminished in consequence.

We often talk of the ‘Parish Community’ without bothering to examine just what it is, how it functions and if it is fit for purpose.

I would suggest that there is not a single parish community but a number of groups gathered together to form a larger whole. The experience of the COVID crisis has led to a re-examination of terms and relationships in a quite fundamental manner,

Consider for example, our Sunday Eucharist, that time when we came together to share in spoken word and sung praise the Gospel message, a time to share in the Eucharistic presence of the Risen Christ. What about the rest of the week, how do we use our churches, what is their place in a secular society? It is heartening to see that Cathedrals are now offering their great space as vaccination centres.

A number of parishes have resorted to the internet to offer those unable to attend Mass an opportunity of prayer. Without doubt, this has met a particular need. But it has consequences. The ‘togetherness’ of the community has not been experienced in the physical presence of others, the exchange of a smile or the touch of a handshake or hug, have been missed. It has led to the realization that sharing in the Eucharist is much more than the words we utter or listen to. Community is built on mutual experience and we are poorer when that is missing. The gathering of different parish groups in the Eucharistic community brings sustenance to all who participate.

So what of the future? How will parishes function when easier times return? How big will they be? How big do we want them to be? In so many aspects of life there is an optimum group size. When that is reached, the group divides and smaller groups follow a sustainable pattern, renewed and refreshed by the experience.

Such group identity depends on relationships that aren’t just a matter of number totals but thrive on the knowledgeable understanding, one with another.

It comes as no surprise that over many years there has been a drive to reduce class sizes in our schools. The teacher-pupil bond is enhanced in smaller groups which encourage learning. Questions can be asked and answers offered with confidence.

Isn’t parish life an instance of learning, a place where we feel safe to ask questions and hopefully listen in expectation to some honest answers? Maybe it should also be considered a place to give. So the issue of their size and the nature of the smaller constituent groups becomes important. Many may not return to a regular mass attendance after the current hiatus. Many will question the integrity of the parish as a viable unit of practice.

Priests in past years were often tasked by their bishops with two targets; build a church for the people and establish a parish school. It was the focus of so much communal activity.

With the growing crisis in the priesthood, the advancing age profile has led to difficult decisions. Gone are the days when a Parish had a priest assisted by two or three curates. Parishes have been treated as ‘units of numbers’ as one without a priest has been pressed into a hastily arranged marriage of convenience with their next-door neighbours. And this solution to a real problem is no real solution at all. We have experienced the diocesan-parish model for so long that it has blinkered our vision.

If the elderly do not resume their place in the pews in coming months, then their absence will be noticeable, for so many others have already walked away. For them, the parish community has not met their need and is seen at superfluous to the requirement of their daily lives. Add to that the mobility of families who can just as easily drive to another parish should the mood so take them. This exercise of choice has had a counterpart in the parish hopping from one televised mass to another.

We might live within the boundaries of a parish, but more than likely our work takes us farther afield. Where we work is within another community of interest, it is another call on our time, another allegiance.

The image that accompanies these words is of an open village church door with a key in the lock, my own parish church. It gave rise recently to this brief poem.


Door ajar

Lying on its back,

white against the mid-evening sky,

the thin curve of a lost Moon

hung over the fence.

Lying lost in early May

motionless without speech

silent in the desert, a door ajar

in this darkness of night

Parish communities have reacted in a great variety of ways to the coronavirus pandemic, some showing an enormous care and concern for each other, others a lack-lustre response to what is a major crisis. The jury is out on whether or not the closure of church buildings should be part of present lockdown requirements.

Will we have learnt anything from the painful experience of recent months or, when it is over, will we seek to rebuild an outdated structure not really fit for purpose?

Whose parish is it? People and priests come and go, each making a contribution a community gathered round a church. For those parishes that have the space for suitable burial land it becomes a significant resting place when their days are done, a place of memorial can be found for families and friends to visit, lay flowers and offer prayer.

Hopefully the fuss over girls serving mass and women reading the liturgy of the word in parish celebration has finally been settled by the recent change in canon law to allow women to serve as lectors and acolytes. The recent papal document “Spiritus Domini” should be seen as the latest moment in a long-term process to de-clericalize the Catholic Church, another small step on the way.

As so many parishes have already moved in this direction, this is only a matter of legality catching up with practice, but an important one. At least, those few recalcitrant priests and bishops who wished to adhere to traditional ways no longer have Rome as a final appeal backstop.

Before this change, the law said that “lay men who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.”

Lector and acolyte are publicly recognized ministries instituted by the Church. ‘Men’ have become ‘persons’ as another small step is taken in recognition that half of the world’s population is female.

The key in the lock of the Church door must remain unturned and the door ever open to welcome anyone who may wish to walk through and share in the Gospel invitation of the Risen Lord.

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