Thursday, May 23, 2002

Rediscovering The Meaning Of Parishes

Reflections on CFL: Paragraphs 25 through 27

This past weekend, I commented on the importance of the parish in the midst of the neighborhood. Fittingly, our next section of CFL looks at the lay faithful's participation in the life of the Church as expressed in the life and mission of the particular Church and its smaller unit, the individual parish.

Some of you may feel this reflection is unnecessary. After all, we all belong to parishes. We know what they are. Maybe so. But we don't always remember what they ought to be. Similarly, many of you may be converts to the Catholic Church. The concept of the parish is different than the concept of church embodied by your suburban, commuter mega-churches.

But before we get to the parish, the pope wants to remind us of the proper understanding of the relationship between the particular Church (such as the Church of Chicago) and the universal Church.

"The particular Church does not come about from a kind of fragmentation of the universal Church, nor does the universal Church come about by a simple amalgamation of particular Churches. Rather, there is a real, essential and constant bond uniting each of them and this is why the universal Church exists and is manifested in the particular Churches. For this reason the Council says that the particular Churches "are constituted after the model of the universal Church; it is in and from these particular Churches that there come into being the one and unique Catholic Church.""
The pope believes that a "clear and precise vision" of this relationship is essential for the lay faithful to be able to adequately participate in ecclesial life. The pope doesn't offer a great deal of explanation here, but I think we can draw one basic point from his emphasis: we need to recognize that we belong to a particular Church. I think we sometimes forget that the universal Church is made up of Churches, not churches. I take the pope as hoping that we take our membership in the particular Churches seriously and, by doing that, we may be of more benefit to the universal Church than if we operate with a mindset that sees dioceses, for example, as merely an artificial construction.

I don't think many of us in America foster this "feeling for their own diocese, of which the parish is a kind of cell," and a willingness to stand "always ready at their bishops' invitation to participate in diocesan projects". Many of us have been tempted to look at JPII as the "Church", being comforted by his orthodoxy and example. Understandable, but the pope seems to be calling for a love and concern for the whole Church that, in some respects, has its eye focused on the local church first and expands outward to include the whole People of God.

Those who complain that the laity lack a sufficient role in the governance of the Church to be anything other than financers of the local church should take some comfort from the pope's mention of diocesan pastoral councils and synods. As the pope notes:
"The participation of the lay faithful in Diocesan Synods and in Local Councils, whether provincial or plenary, is envisioned by the Code of Canon Law.
In fact, on a diocesan level this structure could be the principle form of collaboration, dialogue, and discernment as well. The participation of the lay faithful in these Councils can broaden resources in consultation and the principle of collaboration—and in certain instances also in decision-making—if applied in a broad and determined manner."
Some dioceses already have forms of these structures in place. For me, the question isn't so much about whether they should exist as it is about who will serve on them and whether those individuals will have the interests of the Church at heart or see it as yet another political field. It is fair to add that Church leadership in the United States has been a touch selective in how they have used these structures and may not have listened all that closely to the pope's call for them "to evaluate the most opportune way of developing the consultation and the collaboration of the lay faithful, women and men, at a national or regional level, so that they may consider well the problems they share and manifest better the communion of the whole Church."

But it is the parish that gets the bulk of the pope's attention. For it's the "most immediate and visible expression" of the ecclesial community. To fully understand this idea, one has to be able to see the parish as something more than the place where one attends Sunday Mass:
"The parish is not principally a structure, a territory, or a building, but rather, "the family of God, a fellowship afire with a unifying spirit," "a familial and welcoming home," the "community of the faithful." Plainly and simply, the parish is founded on a theological reality because it is a Eucharistic community. This means that the parish is a community-properly suited for celebrating the Eucharist, the living source for its upbuilding and the sacramental bond of its being in full communion with the whole Church. Such suitableness is rooted in the fact that the parish is a community of faith and an organic community, that is, constituted by the ordained ministers and other Christians, in which the pastor—who represents the diocesan bishop—is the hierarchical bond with the entire particular Church."
Similar thoughts were expressed by Paul VI, whom the pope quotes:
"[T]his old and venerable structure of the parish has an indispensable mission of great contemporary importance: to create the basic community of the Christian people; to initiate and gather the people in the accustomed expression of liturgical life; to conserve and renew the faith in the people of today; to serve as the school for teaching the salvific message of Christ; to put solidarity in practice and work the humble charity of good and brotherly works."
Most parishes have many programs that are examples of this outreach and life within the community. The bigger question is whether the people who make up the parish live it and embody it. Sometimes it is difficult to remember that our particular parish is tied to a territory and not just about those who come to Mass. The parish is to pray for and live in the reality of the whole community. I have always found the tradition of annually walking as a body the perimeter of the parish boundaries a great help in making tangible the parish's responsibility for and solidarity with all the encompassed souls, whether they come to Sunday mass or not.

Besides, sometimes we don't want to be reminded of our faith. The parish that is in the midst of the neighborhood and is fulfilling its mission makes it difficult to avoid. The hymn chimed by the parish bells can be heard from my balcony. I might bump into one of the priests on the street or live next to the woman who sits beside me in the choir. But it also has its advantages. By just walking a few short blocks, my private prayer in my bedroom becomes reflection in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament.

The main point of all of this is that the laity's full participation in the parish's mission is critical.
"Their [JACK: the laity] activity within Church communities is so necessary that without it the apostolate of the pastors is generally unable to achieve its full effectiveness."
Remember, "[m]inistries and charisms, being diverse and complementary, are—each in their own way—all necessary for the Church to grow." As we discussed in previous reflections, the ministry of the clergy and the laity are linked and dependent on each other.

If we take an active part in the life of our parish, helping it fully recognize its purpose and reality, then the parish will be
"a "place" in the world for the community of believers to gather together as a "sign" and "instrument" of the vocation of all to communion ... [and] a house of welcome to all and a place of service to all, or, as Pope John XXIII was fond of saying, ... the "village fountain" to which all ... have recourse in their thirst."

Coming Soon: Reflections on Paragraphs 28 and 29 ofCFL


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