Saving Our Parishes

By Mattias A. Caro
June 1, 2015

Invitation is the first step in the journey of Christian discipleship.

In my ordinary daily life (as I suspect is true for most Catholics) this invitation is revisited each time we visit our parish. The word 'parish' has its origins in the ancient Greek word for a sojourner, itself a word derived from dwelling place. Its administrative origin is as a unit of ecclesial division, denoting the particular territory of a priest’s mission field. Taken together, the idea of a parish is a space created to welcome the Christian believer and to invite him or her to prayerful rest in the sacramental encounter with the Lord.

The invitation is tactile and real. I dip my fingers in the Holy Water fount, a visible reminder of my baptism and God’s blessing on my life. I genuflect before God present.  The priest invites me into prayer “in the [triune] name” of God. I am visiting His house, His dwelling in my local community.

This invitation is for both the initiated (that is, the baptized Christian believer) and for the uninitiated (those who come to explore belief in God and in His Christ). The parish is open to each as a waystation in life since we share a common human condition. We all share the same need and desire for God, together with faults and wrongdoings and an intellect that at times struggles to see beyond our own limitations. The parish invites all because all share the same need, whether they recognize it or not.

Practically, this invitation works itself out through what we refer to colloquially as the life of a parish. This might include Sunday and daily mass, confessions, a grade school, a catechetical program, various affinity groups for men, women, prayer warriors, and servants. The parish even develops its own internal language and customs of fish fries, CCD, and ministries. By its internal culture the parish offers many points for its members to form fellowship and community.

But this invitation is threatened on a number of levels. First, the parish is threatened by those who want it to “get with the times.” Most of these criticisms come from those (including our President) who’d like to see Church spend less time on the hot-button issues of the day (especially abortion and marriage) and more time on making the world a better place as these critics define it. In other words, the invitation of a parish should be directed solely toward the societal benefits it can provide.

Second, it’s threatened by the increasingly perfunctory role our culture of Catholicism plays coupled with its weakening as a sign that distinguishes us. For example, we Catholics recognize the importance of receiving the sacraments of initiation. We’ve also largely built up customs around the sacraments: the christening gown, the First Holy Communion dress, and the red ropes for the Holy Spirit. But more and more, these customs seem disconnected from the enduring change and grace these sacraments impart. There is a sad drop-off in the number of children who attend weekly mass after First Holy Communion. Attendance picks up again right before Holy Confirmation, only to drop off right after the children receive the sacrament.

What’s more, the parish no longer celebrates strongly those distinctive customs and practices that mark our communities and lives as Catholic. Even a bad Catholic used to refrain from meat on Friday, keep a rosary on his or her bedpost, pray a Hail Mary when turbulence hits, light a candle when a new job is needed, or even remember the number of years since the last time he or she saw the inside of a confessional. But in the way of prayers and lived experience, the parish has done little in the last several decades to cultivate a distinctly Catholic culture.

Finally, the parish is threatened by the pressure to renew parish life through an analysis of its bottom line. How many people are we reaching? What percentage of our parishioners give regularly or contribute to the diocesan annual appeal? Who volunteers? Who is really active in our parish groups?

These threats are threats because they redirect parish life from its primary mission: the people's sacramental encounter with the Lord. If the parish’s mission is that of welcome and invitation, one lost sinner is of more worth than ninety-nine faithful. Metrics do little to illuminate the health of the parish.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in the parish trying to offer too many different experiences and to fill too many needs. The Church is trying too hard to accommodate the faithful however she can. It’s a 'big tent' approach asking the Church to make herself palatable to ever-evolving trends in religious community and experience. Many decades ago, our Holy Father Emeritus previewed the future of the Church in Faith and the Future
The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes ... she will lose many of her social privileges. ... As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.
My daily work consists in running my own parish’s catechetical and youth programs. I very much want Benedict’s words to be untrue. The edifices of programs and communities we have should endure. But even I see among the youth and the faithful an increasing difficulty accepting the parish as a place of invitation. More and more, people either do not see the need for what the parish provides or simply do not identify with the Catholic faith and don’t look for what they need in the parish church. I see way too many youth leave the Church because, in their eyes, the parish (and by extension the Church) doesn’t care about X (gay people, the poor, immigrants, etc.). Fine. But that is not why the parish exists.

How can the parish return to being a place of invitation to prayerful rest in the sacramental encounter with the Lord, even to those who have been trained by our culture to reflexively reject Catholicism? The invitation certainly has to be incarnational. That is, we can’t expect simply to try to get people to the parish and then expect God and His grace to do the rest. That’s lazy.

It starts by making the parish welcoming. This spirit of welcoming, however, needs to cut against a tendency to be “all things for all people.” Because the basis of the Christian experience is the invitation, the parish needs constantly to renew itself taking into consideration this question: Are we inviting, from the streets and nooks of our community, all those to whom Christ wishes to extend His message?

This examination might be difficult because there is always a sense, a tendency in human community, to call something our community and our parish, which asks new members to immediately conform to our idiosyncrasies. In the case of the modern American parish, it is precisely the developed internal culture and pre-existing groups that can cut against a disposition of being inviting toward the stranger.

Fortunately, the tools at our disposal to once again renew a spirit of invitation are quite human and simple. When John asked Jesus, “Master, where do you live”, Our Lord said simply, “Come and see” (Jn 1:38-39). Ushers should greet people and smile especially for unfamiliar faces. At the liturgy people should sing loudly and recite prayers clearly. Nothing is more disheartening than parishes where there’s no energy among the people.

After mass people should stay and make friends. I’m guilty of only talking to the people I know at the parish, but it is important to greet those we don’t know, to welcome the stranger. When the people of a parish make these small acts of attention and invitation, suddenly hearts are a little less focused on the seeming barriers to belief and the troubles our modern age brings. We are outwardly moved not toward ourselves but toward the other.

Not everyone will accept the invitation. Most in fact will not. But we must extend it, not once, but continually. We must orient our communities and parish life to do so. It is precisely this example of Christ we are in need of renewing. For in His sacramental presence, especially in the Sacraments celebrated so often in the parish, Christ awaits. How will we help Him invite?

Mattias A. Caro is the Executive Editor of Ethika Politika.