Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Re-Imagining Parish

The Congregation for the Clergy this week issued a new Instruction, "The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church," which was actually approved by the Pope and promulgated last June. It deals with the theme of the pastoral care of parish communities, which it traces back to the “House Churches” of the New Testament, but which are experiencing a particularly new challenge as “people are less associated today with a definite and immutable geographical context,” requiring “a new discernment around community” and “new forms of accompaniment and closeness.”

As one would expect in almost any contemporary Instruction of this sort, the document stresses the Church's evangelizing mission. Emphasis is placed on the parish as an inclusive community, "the context in which people express their lives in terms of relationships, reciprocal service and ancient traditions," where, especially through the celebration of the Eucharist, "the Christian community welcomes the living presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord, receiving the announcement of the entire mystery of salvation."

Unsurprisingly, the Instruction follows Pope Francis and Evangelii Gaudium is opposing "the dynamic of evangelization" to "the criterion of self-preservation," which particularly animates the document's discussion of various possible parish structures. A particularly relevant cautionary note is sounded in the reminder "that the faith of the People of God is interwoven with familial and communal memories. Often, a sacred place can evoke important milestones in the life of past generations, where faces and occasions have influences personal and familiar journeys."

The document stresses the absolutely essential role of the priest who has been duly appointed to be the pastor of the parish. But it also highlights the multitude of individuals and communities that participate actively in the parish’s mission and the formal structures and institutions (e.g., finance councils and pastoral councils) that assist in making that mission a reality. The Instruction has its highly hortatory moments as, for example, when it advocates aspects resembling religious community life. "When the presbyterate experiences community life, priestly identity is strengthened, material concerns diminish, and the temptation of individualism gives way to profoundly personal relationships." On the other hand, it also addresses such very practical matters as the terms of pastors and the "moral duty" to offer one's resignation when one turns 75. (It gets somewhat hortatory again in imagining that such post-pastors should not thereby feel "demoted" or "punished.")

As they certainly deserve, deacons get considerable attention in this Instruction. Intriguingly, it also takes up the neuralgic issue of Mass Offerings, which in turn offers an opportunity to remind priest to "offer virtuous examples in the use of money, whether it be that of a sober lifestyle, without excess on a personal level, or that of a transparent management of Parish goods."

Finally, it emphasizes how "pastoral activity needs to go beyond merely the territorial limits of the Parish, to make ecclesial communion more transparent by means of the synergy between ministers and diverse charisms, structuring itself as a'pastoral care for all,' at the service of the diocese and of its mission."

I often wonder just who is the anticipated audience for documents such as this. An Instruction is not a legislative document or a dogmatic pronouncement. It restates existing law and applies established magisterial teaching to the situation at hand. In this case, the situation is the actual life and mission of the parish, a practical exploration of possibilities  for the context within which most Catholics experience being Church.  Even were we not in the midst of the shattering crisis created by the pandemic, this would be an important issue. The Instruction speaks predictably does not say everything that could be said on the subject, but it lucidly sets some helpful parameters and points to possibilities, which make sit a good foundation for further efforts at re-imagining parish for a post-pandemic Church.

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