Renewal Phase 2: Making the parish central again
Back in the late 1960s, when I first began to see the urgent necessity of renewing the Church, the available options were both few and primitive. The disruption of clerical leadership in dioceses, parishes and religious communities throughout the West was so rapid and thorough that it quickly became difficult to promote Catholic fidelity through the usual ecclesiastical structures. More often, Catholic lay apostles, who emerged to fill the vacuum left by the clergy, had to set up or join organizations that were not connected to particular parishes or dioceses.
Mainstream Catholic publishing had also deteriorated very rapidly. Writers who emphasized fidelity to the teachings of the Church were pretty much limited to low-circulation newspapers and new publishing ventures which did not yet have significant clout. But since those early days, some lay-founded and lay-run organizations have successfully positioned themselves to provide educational and formational materials to parishes and dioceses (e.g., Augustine Institute, Sophia Institute), or to engage in campus ministry within various dioceses (e.g., FOCUS), or to provide excellent candidates for priestly vocations to a variety of dioceses (e.g., Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College).
These and other positive developments have made it far more likely that greater strides toward renewal will be both welcome and fruitful in parish settings. The situation still varies from diocese to diocese, but in many (and I hope most) places, the avoidance of entanglement with a diocese or a parish should no longer be the default position of lay persons dedicated to Catholic renewal. The number of diocesan and parish opportunities has grown tremendously over the past generation. This applies to religious education, youth work (and work with other age groups), music ministry, pro-life efforts, service to the poor and a growing variety of other options, both traditional and brand new—from home schooling organizations and work camps to what in my parish is called theater ministry.
It is important to reflect again on both the importance and the possibilities of the parish. I am grateful to Pope Francis for having reminded us of this critical point on April 30th when he addressed the many thousands of people who are involved in Italian Catholic Action:
I invite you to continue your apostolic experience rooted in the parish, which “is not an outdated institution,” do you understand? The parish is not an outdated institution, because it is “the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, 28).
The decline and rise of the parish
One of the great tragedies in the contemporary West is the breakdown of community. Over the past several generations, the orchestration of our educational and economic life has led to what can only be called, somewhat paradoxically, a debilitating mobility. Affluence has taken its toll on the local commitments necessary to a robust family life with deep roots in a particular community. With fewer or no children, or simply owing to greater wealth, people increasingly find their relaxation in extensive travel. With increasing frequency, young people go off to college in a different region, often breaking their local ties (or failing to develop them in the first place). The white collar workforce is highly mobile. Repeated transfers around the country or even overseas are commonplace. In addition, the massive growth of suburbia and commuting has reduced local ties, as our working lives are tethered relatively far from home.
These trends have been exacerbated by the decline of Christian community in a culture that is rapidly secularizing, not to mention our preoccupation with digital entertainment, often at the expense of real relationships. Gone are the days when we could assume that those in our neighborhood shared our values. Gone are the days when we could assume it is a positive thing for our children to play outdoors with the other kids in the neighborhood. More and more often our deepest friendships, involving those in similar family circumstances who share our values, are with people who live miles away from us. We find it harder and harder to make common cause for good within local communities to which we now have only an insubstantial attachment.
During the years since 1960, all of these trends have accelerated. As much as possible, it should have been the local parish that served as the antidote. Unfortunately, between about 1965 and 1985, parishes degenerated rapidly under the leadership of dissenting and secularized clergy and religious—until, at long last, many of us did not recognize even our local parishes as true communities which we could both support and enjoy.
Since 1985, however, many dioceses and parishes have made excellent progress. Priestly leadership is generally improved. Classic devotions have made a comeback. The parish’s dependence on real prayer (not ersatz tampering) has increased. Obviously your mileage will vary. But Pope Francis is right to remind us that—whenever possible and appropriate—we should root our apostolic work in the parish, not only to heighten the renewal of the local church, but to create a true sense of community with the substantial presence of the parish church at its center. Moreover, parishes and their churches are the natural centers of consistent community outreach—natural centers of evangelization and service in myriad ways to all of those in need.
Insofar as there are more and more excellent parishes, some of the angst and disruption of our hyper-mobile society will also disappear. Through the Church we will have real brothers and sisters in a great many places, and our too-frequent moves will become more like changing rooms within the household of the Faith. In other words, Pope Francis is on to something here. We need to test the waters frequently, and become more parish-centric as opportunities permit. When not forced upon us, isolated individualism quickly becomes a very bad habit. Let us pray that we succeed in becoming more parish-centric with each passing year.
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