Recently I was part of a small retreat team, and the topic assigned to me was “Radiating Jesus in Our Parishes.” My talk was supposed to be, more or less, a commentary on section 41 of The Church in America, an Apostolic Exhortation by Saint John Paul II, dated January 22, 1999. The background for the Exhortation was a Latin American synod of bishops held in 1997, but it is addressed to the entire Church concerning “the encounter with the living Jesus Christ, the way to conversion and communion and solidarity.” References are to a Synod document.
Section 41 is titled, “The parish needs constant renewal as a Eucharistic community.”
1. The parish is a privileged place where the faithful concretely experience the Church. (137) Today in America as elsewhere in the world the parish is facing certain difficulties in fulfilling its mission. The parish needs to be constantly renewed on the basis of the principle that “the parish must continue to be above all a Eucharistic community”. (138) This principle implies that “parishes are called to be welcoming and fraternal, places of Christian initiation, of education in and celebration of the faith, open to the full range of charisms, services and ministries, organized in a communal and responsible way, capable of utilizing existing movements of the apostolate, attentive to the cultural diversity of the people, open to pastoral projects which go beyond the individual parish, and alert to the world in which they live”. (139)
I suspect that almost no one can find fault with that statement as far as it goes. But what is lacking is any clear statement about the need to challenge the individual person, the married couple, and the family to grow in faith and holiness. Reading that statement, one would not perceive as a great challenge to the Church the fact that only a small percent of adults in the typical American parish actually believe and follow the moral teaching of the Church. It does not challenge the parish leadership to try to persuade adult Catholics to conform to the teaching of the Catholic Church and to cease conforming to the culture.
2. Because of the particular problems they present, special attention needs to be given to parishes in large urban areas, where the difficulties are such that normal parish structures are inadequate and the opportunities for the apostolate are significantly reduced. The institution of the parish, however, retains its importance and needs to be preserved. For this, there is a need “to keep looking for ways in which the parish and its pastoral structures can be more effective in urban areas”. (140) One way of renewing parishes, especially urgent for parishes in large cities, might be to consider the parish as a community of communities and movements. (141) [emphasis added]. It seems timely therefore to form ecclesial communities and groups of a size that allows for true human relationships. This will make it possible to live communion more intensely, ensuring that it is fostered not only “ad intra”, but also with the parish communities to which such groups belong, and with the entire diocesan and universal Church. In such a human context, it will be easier to gather to hear the word of God, to reflect on the range of human problems in the light of this word, and gradually to make responsible decisions inspired by the all-embracing love of Christ. (142) The institution of the parish, thus renewed, “can be the source of great hope. It can gather people in community, assist family life, overcome the sense of anonymity, welcome people and help them to be involved in their neighborhood and in society”. (143) In this way, every parish, and especially city parishes, can promote nowadays a more person-centered evangelization and better cooperate with other social, educational and community work. (144)
I want to draw attention to the underscored sentence about one way to renew—become a parish that is a community of communities. A most obvious application would be Presentation Ministries based in Cincinnati and with home-based communities in a number of states. My talk was given at one of its retreats.
3. The kind of pastor who is needed. Moreover, “this kind of renewed parish needs as its leader a pastor who has a deep experience of the living Christ, a missionary spirit, a father’s heart, who is capable of fostering spiritual life, preaching the Gospel and promoting cooperation. A renewed parish needs the collaboration of lay people and therefore a director of pastoral activity and a pastor who is able to work with others. Parishes in America should be distinguished by their missionary spirit, which leads them to reach out to those who are faraway”. (145)
Again, no one can find fault with this statement as far as it goes, but I would like to put it in context. This Apostolic Exhortation was published on January 22, 1999 in Mexico City. Much of its talk about the problems of the apostolate in large cities refers much more to Latin America with its huge city slums than to North America. I wish that Pope John Paul II had also included in this document the recommendations he had made just four years previously in Rome. In May 1995 he co-sponsored with the Royal Society of England a conference on breastfeeding and mothering. Bishop James T. McHugh of the United States made the introductions. In his address, the Pope endorsed the recommendations of the World Health Organization and UNICEF that mothers should breastfeed their babies for at least one year and then up to two years and beyond.
It would be very helpful if the Pope had carried that sort of thought forward into this document. It would be helpful to the Church as a whole if Catholic parishes were known as centers of breastfeeding. Here in the United States such thinking is apparently not yet on the radar of parish expectations.
The document is beautiful, and I don’t think anyone can take exception to its message as far as it goes dealing with the communal aspects of the parish and the ideal pastor. I hope that it has had good effects in Latin America and all throughout the world.
Next week: Current challenges in many parishes.
John F. Kippley, August 3, 2014
P.S. This week is World Breastfeeding Week and Sheila is blogging daily at http://nfpandmore.org/wordpress/ .