Visions of a new Church: Same as the old Church!

guest_rick_swenton

Changes in parishes across the country have caused many people to become angry or frustrated with the Church. Change is never easy. In our society people expect to be heard and have their opinions count. Decisions are made and people feel left out.

Some decisions leave people totally perplexed. It can be hard to understand why a parish that appeared to be Spiritually and financially viable was required to either close or combine with another. Often these parishioners were instrumental in building and sustaining the many successful facets of that parish’s life. The parish seemed to be successful. Why was it dismantled?

During various reorganizations I listened to parishioner concerns about what will happen during a parish closure or combining. Several common themes emerged. “We have money in savings. Will we have to share with another parish? Who will be making the decisions in the new parish? What will happen to all our social events? Our facilities are more modern. I hope we don’t have to worship in a lesser place. Explain how having more people at a Mass improves worship.” 

I was taken aback but yet not surprised. These are among some of the attributes that define a parish. These are things that give folks a good feeling. They create comfort and familiar surroundings. They are a part of the community building process.

I tried to explain how having more people at Mass improves worship. One of the core initiatives of the Second Vatican Council was to achieve “Full, Conscious and Active” participation in worship” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14). This was best achieved in a full church with lots of people joining the celebration rather than with an almost empty church with great distance between the people. Very few people understood this concept.

In retrospect this helped me understand why there’s so much unrest surrounding the parish changes. Our personal definition of Church might not be the same as the one Christ intended.

Let’s explore this. The Church was God’s idea. The Church is Christ’s Bride (Eph 5:25-27) waiting to be joined fully with Him at the end of time. The Church is the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27) and each one of us is a vital part of the whole. The Church is a family. “Wherever two or three gather in My Name I am there with them” (Mt 18:20). A family loves and cares for one another. They admonish and teach one another. They grow together in Christ’s love.

All of this seems only casually connected with parishioner concerns: What’s going to happen with the money, power, buildings and social events? They did not seem to be aware that the Church was Christ’s creation. They seemed to be more concerned with what people created within the church. They also questioned why they did not have more influence in the changes. They resisted the idea that we have one Church, with Divine authority (Jn 5:22). This authority is Christ and the bishop acts under this authority to live the Gospel and pursue the best interests of the Church.

The Apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit to develop a stream of new disciples for all generations. This is the Church. The parish is where disciples are made.

Our understanding of a disciple is someone who was a personal follower of Jesus during His life, especially one of the Twelve Apostles. We usually don’t think we are qualified to be at the disciple level. That’s probably because we don’t know we can be or should be.

In the New Testament the Greek word for disciple is mathetes. It means you are more than just student or a learner. You are a follower who receives the teachings of another and you change your life and behavior to match those teachings. A disciple doesn’t simply master the teachings. A disciple emulates the master’s life. This implies that a transformation is happening. You will never be the same again.

Who wants to be changed? Not me! I am at peace in my comfort zone. Jesus was a change agent. His goal is to change our hearts in a way that we will never want to go back to our old ways. In order to make disciples we should start with some classical core concepts used in building faith. The first is Scripture.

Scripture

The Word of God should be a part of every parish activity. Scripture should be a part of the opening prayers of parish meetings and events. The Sunday Gospel reading can be reinforced by having heard it earlier in the week. Encourage discussion after the reading. This is a form of Lectio Divina, a Benedictine practice of Scriptural reading. Read, Meditate, Respond and Contemplate. “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tm 3:16-17).

Prayer

Prayer is essential in helping us develop our relationship with God. It is one of those connectors that bridge the Spiritual with the human and link us directly with our Creator. Prayer is like “putting on the armor of Christ” as our shield of faith (Eph 6:10-18). Become aware of the power of silence during prayer. Silence is when we make time to listen to the voice of God. How can we hear Him if we’re not listening?

Mass and the Eucharist

The Mass and the Eucharist are the source and summit of our Catholic Christian lives (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” 1324). Cultivate a parish awareness of all four presences of Christ during the Mass:

1 — He is present in His word, since it is He Himself Who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church;
2 — He is present in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist;
3 — He is present in the presiding priest, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered Himself on the cross” (Trent, Session 22);
4 — He is present in the people when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt  18:20) (this list is from Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). 

The clergy should consider taking advantage of weaving these concepts into their homilies as appropriate.

Education and Formation

Build and grow an active adult education program in your parish. You can’t build disciples without at least some basic knowledge. A favorite one used in my former parish was the book, “Living the Mass,” by Father Dominic Grassi and Joe Paprocki. Parishioners were offered a short book to read followed by discussion sessions. Many people commented that they learned things about the Mass they never knew before. Some read the book but could not come to the discussions. They responded favorably, too.

Consider taking advantage of diocesan formation programs as a way to build disciples who can help build other disciples. Among the benefits to the parish can be improved adult education offerings, improved pastoral council direction and leadership and improved Liturgies. There are many areas of specialized training including parish business management. Those who participate in formation programs become more active contributors in the parish drawing on their training and experience. These programs provide the participants an enrichment in faith and a greater depth of understanding.

Parish Pastoral Council and the Laity

Consider the role of your Parish Pastoral Council. Rather than being a reporting council with committees the council should be a visioning body to help the pastor develop and affect his pastoral plan. The council can assist the pastor through its study, reflection, and recommendations to improve parish life. According to Canon 511, the role of the council is to investigate, ponder, and draw conclusions. The pastor and the council members should foster a highly collaborative relationship. This does not mean telling the pastor what to do. It means helping the pastor connect to and experience the whole Body of Christ in the parish. Try to move the council away from busy work. Let the parish committees handle that. Shift your work to helping the pastor develop a future vision of the parish and then help him be successful. Be sure to incorporate prayer, Scripture, education and Spiritual formation throughout the pastoral council activities. A council member is a disciple and ongoing formation is essential.

The Sense of the Faithful

In the Church each member has a vested interest and active role in the growth of the other. A common wisdom emerges that is greater than the sum of the individual members. The Church calls this common wisdom Sensus Fidelium: The Sense of the Faithful. It means that all the people of God, from bishops to the last of the faithful, guided by the Holy Spirit, carry with them the foundation of faith and a sense of guidance and direction for the Church. It is a Spiritual instinct that empowers us to understand the truth of the Gospel and apply it in our lives. This is what keeps popular opinion from wrongly influencing Spiritual judgement (Sensus Fidei: In the Life of the Church, International Theological Commission). This is one reason why the Church will never fail (Mt 16:18).

The Church needs to do a better job helping the faithful understand that the Church is more than buildings, social events and a savings account. The Church can persist after restructuring. New opportunities can unfold to build the Body of Christ in ways not yet imagined. The Church needs to help build disciples who, in turn, can build other disciples. The Church should consider giving the laity an even more active role than it has in the past. With proper training the laity can provide valuable assistance to the clergy. Focus on the basics: Scripture, prayer, Mass, the Sacraments, education and the community. Do them everywhere, all the time and with the whole community.

We all need to pray for healing within our wounded parishes. Part of that healing is to grow awareness that we are not alone. We may be frustrated with change but we still have full membership in the Body of Christ which is the Church. We are still empowered as disciples to draw other people in to experience God’s love as we minister to them and to those in our own community.

Let us all, clergy and laity, go forth to build the Body of Christ. Let us especially ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. Let us support our pastors with encouragement and prayers:

— Be a Community of Prayer;
— Be a Community that reads the Scripture;
— Be a Community of Worship;
— Be Community of Charity;
— Be a Community of Peace;
— Be a Community of Justice;
— Be a Community of Learners;
— Be an active part of the Sense of the Faithful;
— Be a Community of Disciples;
— Be a Community of Disciple Makers;
— Be a Community of Jesus.

“I give you a new Commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35). God is with us. God will not let us fail.

Rick Swenton is a parishioner at St. Pius X in South Yarmouth and is a member of the choir and a cantor. He has a certificate in Lay Ministry from the Archdiocese of Hartford with a focus on Liturgy and Music and was a longtime member of the board of the Hartford Chapter National Association of Pastoral Musicians. He is a published composer (Oregon Catholic Press, Passionist Music, West Hartford, Conn.).


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