the parish leadership challenge

Ministry 1Last week I participated in a conversation on ‘tomorrow’s Church’ alongside a biblical scholar, with some 150 people gathered.

I shared that I expect the parish to remain the primary experience of Church for Australian Catholics but that this basic community will require conversion and ongoing development if it is to be something other than a testament to times past.

The parish is a privileged place where the living mystery and mission of Christ is encountered in Word and sacrament. It is the very ‘face’ of our Church and is called to manifest the grace and vocation proper to the Church – the mission of evangelisation (Evangelii Nuntiandi 14).

However, drawing on French Dominican Étienne Hugueny (1868-1942), I suggested that the possibility of personal transformation in our parishes is not the same thing as the frequency of its happening. We are called to constantly grow as persons and communities, in holiness and charity, in number and involvement, in personal commitment and public presence as disciples ‘in the midst of the Church for the sake of the world’ (Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples).

Our parishes are filled with good people, dedicated people to God and one another. This includes our ordained priests who form and govern the priestly people, building up the baptismal and Eucharistic unity of the Church through a ministry of grace, teaching and pastoral government. Our parishes depend also on our lay men and women, who are called to be spiritually-well formed, steeped in prayer, witnesses to the self-emptying of Lent and the generous joy of Easter.

The future of our communities depends on an ongoing deepening of this common life, on an ability to preference growth over stability, an ability to recognise that ‘evangelising parishes’ is not one and the same thing as ‘parishes without problems’, and the recognition that there is no universal call to complacency or settlement but a universal call to holiness, a holiness and striving that is always going to take us further than we are accustomed to or comfortable to go.

All of this was a way of saying that our mission in the world as Church, as fishers of men and women, is dependent on the mending of our own nets and this mending must start with the local parish as a community of disciples on pilgrimage to God.

The Task of Parish Leadership

Liturgy 6The Church of tomorrow, I insisted, also calls for parish leadership that on the level of mercy encompasses, invites and consoles each and all, sharing that same mercy given to us as gift in the covenantal relationship between Christ and the Church (the Church is merciful because the Church itself is the object of God’s mercy, redeemed by Jesus Christ).

However, in forging new paths we also require leadership that does not capitulate to the timidity of a ‘convoy routine’ where all travel at the speed of the slowest ship. As leaders we must actively seek out, desire and co-create opportunities for grace which acts not above or behind human history but through flesh-and-blood disciples, through human agency, decision and commitment, even planning.

As I’ve further reflected on last week’s conversation about ‘tomorrow’s Church’, another key to the reform of our parishes has come to mind – the need for us to develop an attentiveness to the dynamics that may be surreptitiously undoing, or at least frustrating, the mission we have been given.

As an example, I’ll focus on our parish engagement of those Catholics who are at the margins of faith or ecclesial life. This refers to the large majority of occasional or non-attenders who are the subject of many a water cooler conversation in our local parishes (at least I hope they are!).

It is important to acknowledge that at times the motivation for less committed Catholics to engage with our Church or parishes is extrinsic; that is, their contact with us is not yet motivated necessarily by an inner drive, an interior desire to explore, learn or find personal or social fulfilment for instance. Often the stimulus for people’s contact with our parish communities is external, focused on an outcome which is separate from the religious act itself. For example, it could include participation in sacramental preparation for the purpose of meeting admission criteria for Catholic schools or to maintain family custom rather than to live faith, attendance at youth groups motivated by parental encouragement alone, or involvement in ministry as a means of offsetting the more ‘boring’ bits of Mass (it can happen!).

What makes this hollow dynamic more entrenched in some parish cultures is that in seeking to respond to those on the margins we can actively feed this extrinsicism by attempting to engage people in the life of faith and the life of our communities by giving them jobs.

Have a young person you want to hold on to? Invite them to a ministry because we tell ourselves that what young people really want, above all, is to ‘do things’. Have a newcomer or neophyte you want to retain? Involve them in ministry as well. Have someone who is restless in the pews, weighing up their commitment or even on the way out? Give them a ministry too, an upcoming event, something to do or an activity in which to get involved.

Jesus Christ 2It doesn’t even matter if those ‘involvements’ involve a formative dimension or not, nor whether they encourage a ‘dropping of their nets’ as Sherry Weddell has emphasised as a necessary step toward discipleship. At least these people might still be with us next weekend. Well, sort of.

Rarely do we attempt to address the issue of discipleship, of that deep interior conversion of individuals that happens to call forth a community that forms and apprentices people in that Christ-embracing life. Just like those on the margins of faith, we as ‘insiders’ can get caught on the extrinsic, frenetic borders of what Merton describes as a ‘mass-movement’, a religious collectivity that is but a parody of the Catholic communion of discipled persons we ought to desire:

A mass-movement always places the ‘cause’ above the individual person, and sacrifices the person to the interests of the movement. Thus it empties the person of all that is his own, takes him out of himself, casts him in a mould which endows him with the ideas and aspirations of the group rather than his own . . . The individual ceases to be a person and becomes simply a ‘member,’ a ‘thing’ which serves a cause, not by thinking and willing, but by being pushed around like a billiard ball, in accordance with the interests of the cause (Merton, Disputed Questions, 132-133).

What separates a ‘mass movement’ from a spiritual communion is a concern and a challenge for persons, each of whom is called to be a disciple and find their vocation by walking a unique path of holiness.

However, we do not address this interior life of persons so well, that intrinsic fire of discipleship that sees people do such things as attend Mass, to give, to live and to desire to live a life of faith in the midst of the Church and world. We are not always focused on cultivating and supporting this personal relationship with Jesus Christ and can distracted by what we think will ‘work’ to strengthen extrinsic or nominal membership, despite all the evidence to suggest that we do not do that either!

We can be especially lackadaisical in responding to the discipleship of adults which is the great challenge for our Catholic Church as we in Australia watch 13,000 people walk out the parish door each year (Dixon, Reid and Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment, 4).

Renewing Our Pastoral Vision

In a recent article posted online, an American commentator, Jennifer Fitz, throws light on the need for renewed vision among parish leaders by pointing to our catechesis of children as an instance that betrays a narrow but customary view of discipleship-making in our parishes. Fitz draws on the ‘orphanage’ as an analogy to critique our parishes, which, she suggests, tend to treat symptoms rather than address causal factors:

In the helping professions, there’s a tendency to want to sweep in and “rescue” children by making them wards of an institution.  We look at the saintly orphanage workers in certain impoverished countries, and forget that the ‘orphans’ aren’t orphans — they have living family members who would take care of them if only they could.  The solution to the ‘orphan crisis’ in such situations isn’t to build bigger, better orphanages, but to work towards economic, political, and social reforms that will make it possible for families to raise their own children.

Proclaim 3Fitz then comes to her point, ‘In our parishes, we have just such an orphan crisis’. Unlike good institutions, we fail to address or else avoid the larger and critical issue which is the faith formation of parents, parents who are, as the refrain goes, the primary educators of children in the ways of faith (Lumen Gentium 11).

Instead, we just work harder on the existing ‘program’ with a cadre of ‘spiritual orphan workers’. We grow and fill our catechetical and sacramental processes with add-ons and trimmings in order to ‘engage’ – tasks for the parents, family-focused events, gratifying and non-confrontational activities – but without address of the elephant in the room, the ability or otherwise of parents to form these children themselves.

Indeed, Fitz notes our actual parish practice gives light to the fact that for many, ‘it becomes inconceivable to imagine the existence of parents who are capable of instructing their children in the faith . . . The norm is to assume that Catholic parents simply cannot be trusted to teach their children the Catholic faith. If you spend much time around Catholics, you know this fear has its basis in sordid reality . . . Since the parents are unable to teach, we’ll teach for them’ (my emphasis).

We widely accept this norm as parishes, and therefore substitute a domestic responsibility with an institutional ‘solution’ which has revealed itself to not really be a solution at all. Fitz concludes, “When you monkey around with Church teaching, bad things happen. We’ve identified a problem — kids whose parents aren’t disciples — and we’re so busy ‘solving’ the crisis by heroically stepping in to replace the parents, that we’ve overlooked a small detail: Doing so is contrary to the Catholic faith’. This is strong tonic for our parishes today and certainly challenged me to widen or deepen my view of the heart of our pastoral ministry.

From ‘Orphanage’ to Ownership

In setting out the scene above, I am very conscious that many sacramental processes in Australian parishes do in fact work very hard and seek to address the faith of parents in the preparation process of their children, including parent-only sessions which are an opportunity for catechesis or, more commonly, for rudimentary evangelisation. This takes place not only in the Parramatta Diocese but also in the Archdiocese of Sydney and in the Broken Bay Diocese.

However, I think our approach is always called to deepen and widen, and ideally we would work towards a whole-of-parish commitment to address adult formation for adult discipleship. As Jane Regan, an impressive writer on the adult Church in Boston, shares, ‘Jesus welcomed the children but taught the adults, and the church has been doing just the opposite for years’ (Regan, Forming a Community of Faith, 2).

prayerA good parish, sacramental process, or parish ministry will seek to lift and support people, not only children but adults as well, to grow in faith and discipleship above and beyond what their religious background might have equipped them for. It will enable parents to claim what is their unique calling and not substitute for it as yet another ‘outsource’ for domestic responsibilities.

As noted in a previous blog, consider what a good school enables when focused on the growth of student performance (we won’t get into the meaning of a holistic Catholic education right now…). We know that a lack of academic opportunity is transmitted from generation to generation and, as such, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often do not perform as well as they could. However, some education systems (e.g. Shanghai and Korea but sadly not Australia) are able to lift students well beyond their statistical likelihood of poor academic performance, enabling these students to perform and excel at their full potential. In this context, good teachers make a tremendous difference.

In a similar way, we know that ignorance of the faith is transmitted from generation to generation, and that many of our people start their journey in the Church ‘disadvantaged’ by low religious literacy and low or no commitment to practice, including little enthusiasm for evangelisation. We know that the aim of good parishes is to make a difference, not simply provide a sort of spiritual welfare service, but to be a ‘circuit breaker’ in the story of low religious literacy, practice and understanding of faith that marks many of our disconnected and loosely-affiliated families and individuals.

We are not talking about revolution in our parishes, sacramental processes and catechesis but we do need to look again at our focus from time-to-time as parishes, leaders and communities, to ensure we are set on the mission of evangelisation not a routine of maintenance and that we provide for the formation and empowerment of parents. We cannot afford to discharge parents of their primary responsibilities by maintaining a religious system devoted to expanding the ‘orphanage’.

Rather, we must attend to reforming our parish vision and practice of ministry and mission so that our communities of faith empower and support parents to raise their own children, to nourish inner belonging not extrinsic membership, and so translate compulsive compliance into a genuine desire to share in the life and mission of our evangelising Church.