Nurturing vitality in parish life
By David Lopez
Speaking of Faith
One of the hoped-for outcomes of the Diocese’s current strategic planning is to strengthen parish life. This strategic planning process is an opportunity for all of us to ponder, pray, and discern how we can revitalize our Diocese, to flourish for the next hundred years and more. We know that we must make sacrifices and changes in our church commitments, activities, and even organization. But which sacrifices and changes are the right ones, and how much will we support or resist them? The right answers to such questions must be the fruit of deep prayer.
What do we mean by a “vital parish life?” Since a parish is a stable, active community of the faithful, united under a pastor, in union with the universal Church through its bishop as a successor of the Apostles, the “life” of that parish is both a spiritual and a social reality. It begins from our full participation in the spiritual and sacramental life of the Church. Most central, of course, is our regular and devout participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but all the sacraments and liturgies of the Church support it. From these follows our firm commitment to prayer at home, to examination of conscience and interior conversion, to reading and praying Scripture, to moral virtue at home, at work, and in the world, and to sharing our faith and our gifts appropriately with those around us. When these Catholic commitments comprise our fundamental culture and identity, we can build up a shared life together.
As an example of gauging the vitality of parish life, imagine a typical parish fund-raising dinner. What brings these parishioners together – the food, or the opportunity to help the parish, or the socializing? Is such a gathering of parishioners outside of Mass a common parish event? Is it the high-light of a strong culture of cooperation, or is it the only thing that brings people together? How easy or difficult is it to get volunteers for this event? Is it an opportunity to include more actively those who are looking for a chance to give their time and talents? Is this event used invitingly to grow the parish? Is it directly connected to the Church’s mission to serve the poor, for example by “tithing” in kind to a local food pantry or soup kitchen? Do prayer and discernment, or habit and convention, more deeply shape each planning stage? As part of our strategic planning, we must consistently ask such questions about everything the parish does.
Strong and healthy parish life often flourishes in useful programs of ministry and formation, such as religious education classes, sacramental preparation programs, food pantries, and so forth. These programs need the active involvement of many parishioners to be successful. This means that parishes need people to thrive. Having too few parishioners will make the life of the parish a heavy burden for those trying to sustain it. Having too few parishioners fragments our common resources, and limits what good comes from our efforts, even when we live God’s love effectively and tangibly. Over the last two generations, sweeping economic and social changes have greatly diminished our rural parishes’ numbers. Our more urban parishes have lost fewer, but have still gotten smaller.
But parish life cannot be reduced to programs. Programs are useful, but they are in fact the result, not the cause, of parish life. Fruit can’t bear the weight of the branch; when we try to force programs to generate an otherwise absent parish life, they are quickly sapped of vitality and effectiveness. Such programs become mere activities that leave us unchanged.
In this process of strategic planning, we need to evaluate the depth and vitality of our parishes. Just how strong and healthy is our current state of parish life? In what ways does our spiritual and sacramental life together flourish, and in what ways languish? How can we change these latter? Is it possible that two or three parishes could flourish together, where each would merely endure separately?
Parishes, even when large and full of resources, need to collaborate. Every parish is part of something larger than itself. The reality of the Church in Northwest Iowa is most truly the reality of the Diocese. No parish exists on its own, or for its own sake. Every parish lives within the ecclesial life of the whole Diocese. Healthy parish life, then, is part and parcel of our love for the whole Church. Just as we can’t love God without loving our neighbor, so we can’t love God in our own parish, without loving neighboring parishes – and those parishioners.
(David Lopez, Ph.D., is executive director of formation and ministry.)