Over the summer I was able to skim across a number of themes, from Church governance, to the theology and sociology of discipleship, and a powerful book on the concepts of mission (by Francis Anekwe Oborji). There was also a Lenten campaign to coordinate, all of which returned focus to the parish as a central yardstick of our spiritual life as a communion.
As absorbing as ecclesiology is as a theme of Catholic theology, offering us the ability to look at the Church from this point of view or that, it is the flesh-and-blood reality of the parish that grounds us in the essence of what the Church is in fact, a pilgrim community seeking to develop its baptismal and eucharistic unity not simply for its own sake but for the good of the world. To the extent that the local parish gives witness to and really lives as a tangible sign and the reality of God’s grace alive in the world, the more compelling and missionary it will be in and for that world.
Certainly, some of the signs don’t look as good as we would like – participation wavers, local issues can encourage inwardness, spiritual development can stall, amateurism can prevail, and energy can wane.
Rigorous self-assessment by local communities is a healthy exercise for we are not seeking to build a sort of ‘Potemkin village’, an ecclesial superstructure of show and spiritual pretence, but asking quite seriously how we might deepen our conversion and deepen it together for the sake of a mission we have been given. This is our task. We are forbidden by the Gospel to take a ‘steady as she sinks’ approach to parish life. We want to see what Christ calls us to see and to actively move in that direction.
To see properly, however, means purifying our vision as Catholic communities. For those in positions of ecclesial leadership, a basic thing to say is that a missionary viewpoint does not consist of imagining ‘parishes without problems’. This can, I sense, be a temptation on account of the tyranny of the urgent, competing concerns and the subtle routinisation and flattening of communal life that results in what Francis calls ‘pastoral acedia’ (Evangelii Gaudium 82). We can settle for tranquillity and cosiness in our communities, a dull serenity that contrasts with the dictum of Blessed John Henry Newman, ‘holiness rather than peace’.
If our vision as leaders is limited to parishes or faith communities without problems, then it is not surprising that our groups and members slip into a managerial or administrative mindset. As Pope Francis has repeatedly conveyed, the mission of Christ into which we have been grafted is not at all synonymous with tidiness, let alone comfort:
I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a church concerned with being at the centre and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.
We need good structures and procedures as it is naïve and even dangerous to think we could live without them in some sort of casual huddle of believers, sharing life as if by chance. However, we do need to think creatively about how these structures of our communities intersect and support real, personal and ecclesial discipleship and the mission into which that identity eventually unfolds.
In the case of parishes, there are some noticeable structural reasons that we do not often ‘go out’ with genuine missionary zeal, and one reason is well articulated by Sherry Weddell of Forming Intentional Disciples, with relevance to the Australia milieu.
Sherry points out that a key factor in the growth or otherwise of Christian community is scale, with ‘smaller’ groups providing a fertile environment in which personal discipleship can develop, flourish and be sustained. However, the reality for our Catholic parishes can work against this potential:
This strategy of founding hundreds of thousands of small evangelising communities is key to evangelical/Pentecostal growth in Latin America and throughout the global south . . . While in the U.S., Catholics are doing the opposite – largely because of the relative shortage of priest compared to our gigantic Catholic population. Our parishes are getting ever bigger as one priest become responsible for thousands of people in multiple linked or clustered parishes who are already “parish-connected”. Which means our parishes become more and more centripetal, and focused upon the people who are or will be willing and able to make the journey to us. You literally can’t go out as long as you are besieged at HQ.
So as previous blogs have noted, the recovery of small groups – which I propose is entirely possible even within our now larger parishes and communities – is critical to mission. To be disciples of ‘encounter’, ‘accompaniment’ and ‘mercy’ on the streets, as Pope Francis suggests, requires disciples who have had some opportunity, at some time, to discern the divine initiative and action in their individual human lives. It insists on some forum in which Catholics can share their inner life and wonder, like the Spirit-filled individuals of the Upper Room, at the work of God in their midst.
This need of structures of intimate support amidst the ecclesial calls for the recognition that the weekend liturgy cannot suffice alone in promoting spiritual growth and missionary outreach, and that parishes can do something about this – whether it be creating opportunities for spiritual direction, faith-sharing, catechesis, for the discernment of individual gifts, and openness to the influence of other witnesses to faith and mission including ecclesial movements, religious communities, associations and other groups that offer diverse charisms and often overlooked dimensions of Christian living to the memory of the local Eucharistic community.
To be sure, this may all cause some ‘problems’ and messiness in parishes if ‘problems’ and ‘mess’ are understood as something other than the status quo. However, without such catholicity and creativity of vision and structure, communities may never realise their full potential as centres of grace and formation where we can learn to enter ever more deeply into the life of charity and to engage the world as it really is in Him.
The fostering of such missionary discipleship is not an abstraction but a concrete task and call for communities to pursue a way that life that enables ‘holiness rather than peace’ and growth which Newman will claim is ‘the only evidence of life’. But we must pursue it and actively seek out a new way of life, for without that desire in us not much is possible such is God’s generous reliance on us.