On July 20, the Holy See released a document named “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church.” Its sole objective is to evaluate, challenge, and inspire parish communities to mirror the face of Christ to the world that surrounds them.
There are countless avenues of renewal found in this instruction, but what is most evident is the call for parishes to become communities ordered toward spreading the details of and providing an encounter with the life, mission, teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.
The words of Pope Francis set the tone for the entire document:
“If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.”3
The loss of faith and the deterioration of the worship of God is not simply the fault of the culture we live in. The Church, which breaths, first and foremost in and from the parish, must do better.
The Vatican, in this document, is giving aid to parishes all over the world who are in need of a revival. Mass attendance and Church involvement has grown beyond stale over the years. Now with the rise of the pandemic, many parishes suffer, even more so, financially and spiritually. This instruction is meant to give insight and guidance for parishes facing unprecedented challenges along with the call for each parish community to discern “how to best proclaim the Gospel” (1). Below are the keys to understanding the main mission and message of the undervalued and mostly unknown document.
A Home for Pilgrims
Parishes are meant to be “centres conducive to an encounter with Christ” (3) which leads others to view the Church, not strictly as an institution or body of spiritual governance, but a location where God is truly and evidently moving and present. The parish is the house for God and the home for pilgrims on their journey. The original Greek word for parish would have imbued the term “sojourners” and would have been intimately connected with the pilgrim nature of discipleship.
This is the place where followers of Christ meet him in a profound manner through the sacraments he instituted as well as the location for his community, his ekklesia or “in-gathering” of humanity, to find sustenance and rest in each other’s arms.
“It is visibly characterised then, as a place of worship, a sign of the permanent presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of his People.”7
In order to accomplish this divine task and in the light of the digital age “it is thus necessary to find new forms of accompaniment and closeness” (14) in order “to embrace the Holy Spirit’s invitation to begin the process of ‘renewing’ the face of the Church” (10).
The Church uses the word “urgent” several times in this area and implores the attention of priests and those involved with evangelization on the parish level. Implementation, methods, and proclamation of the gospel must improve because “the current Parish model no longer adequately corresponds to the many expectations of the faithful” (16).
Evangelical and Local
Two phrases or invitations referenced in the document provide the roadmap for renewal of parish life. There is a great need for a “culture of encounter” (25) and an “art of accompaniment” (26) to rule the day in the lifeblood of the community. Having a profound focus on dialogue and being person-centered in regards to evangelization creates an environment where God can move within us and nourish us through the sacraments, and through our relationships with one another. The parish must give profound witness to the communal aspect of discipleship and be a place where “solitude is overcome” (26).
So many are overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness and desire contact with the living presence of God and others. Parish communities which are “self-referential and fossilized” (17) are often not led by Jesus’ mission to “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
This does not mean we should move away from weekly parish Rosary groups and local small group meetings. Rather, we simply should not stop there. We ought to take the faith-filled fellowship we acquire from those parish groups into the public square.
“Any pastoral action that is limited to the territory of the Parish is outdated, which is something the parishioners themselves observe when their Parish appears to be more interested in preserving a nostalgia of former times as opposed to looking to the future with courage. It is worth noting, however, that from a canonical perspective, the territorial principle remains in force, when required by law.”16
While the local parish should always look to strengthen the faith of its own community first, this does not mean its evangelical mission stops at its own geographical borders.
God’s Power and Proximity
The parish must be ushered forth to meet the poor, visit the sick, and show compassion toward the least among us. It must move outwards to meet others face-to-face and must “avoid the risk of falling into an excessive and bureaucratic organization of events and an offering of services” (34). Conveyor belt sacramental preparation, empty and monotonous yearly gatherings, and uninspiring services that do not have Christ as their main focus “hamper efforts of evangelization” (34).
More than anything else, “The Church must . . . ponder the mystery of her own being” (34) in order to rediscover where Jesus is being overlooked as the main person of contact. When the parish simply hosts events and programs for its own parishioners without encouraging those outside the parish to join, it loses sight of the community of encounter it is called to be.”
The Church must reflect within herself, like Mary, and take these words to heart. Faith in America and across the globe is failing, in part, because many parishes are too wrapped up with corporate and structural models that do not provide a community built upon an encounter with Christ.
Let our parishes encounter Christ with a renewed vigor that gives parishioners the strength to be his witnesses in every arena of their lives. We can help parishes encounter Christ by encouraging Eucharistic Adoration, confession, daily Communion, and more opportunities to grow in community through small groups. Then our parishes will experience conversion and will engage the world with a renewed hope, a hope in the power and proximity of God’s presence within our parishes.
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Thomas Griffin teaches apologetics in the Religion Department at a Catholic high school and lives on Long Island with his wife. He has a master’s degree in theology from St. Joseph’s Seminary and College along with a bachelor’s degree in theology and philosophy from Molloy College. Thomas has written for several online Catholic blogs. Follow his (and his twin brother’s) article posts and videos @CalledTwin.
Featured image from Needpix.com