A Missionary Parish
by Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
Our parishes can become as familiar to us as our living rooms. The expectations we have create a sense of belonging that we just assume. There’s where the sofa is; there’s where the altar is. Something just makes us feel at home.
This is one reason why change is so hard for parishes. It’s the space in which the family of faith has gathered Sunday after Sunday—for those fewer families and individuals who still decide to get out of bed, or prioritize schedules—so that celebrating Mass and receiving Holy Communion seem like perfectly natural things to do. It’s the predictability of the lives of us Catholics who commit ourselves to worship—the same parish, the same pastor, the same music, the same pulpit, and, for many still, the same seat Sunday after Sunday—that makes change difficult.
So we are not happy when something disrupts this feeling of familiarity. Once we get used to our parish church, our inertia kicks in; we expect the same thing week after week. If someone is going to do something different, we expect careful explanations. “This is why we moved this statue from one spot to another.” “This is why our music will be a little different at the ten o’clock Mass.” Or, perhaps most disruptive, “This is why we have to renovate our worship space.”
We might be surprised, then, to hear just how much Pope Francis wants our parishes to change. In 2013, soon after he was elected pope, he wrote an apostolic exhortation called “The Joy of the Gospel.” He used ideas and directions that bishops from around the world had discussed in 2012, six months before his election. In one of the early sections of this apostolic exhortation, the Pope says:
I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation (#27).
So however much we want our parishes to be predictable and familiar, Pope Francis has a very different desire. The “missionary option” he talks about means that the focus of parishes is not looking inward but rather outward—not looking, that is, to the assumed needs of those who regularly attend Mass but rather to the often-neglected needs of those who do not find themselves at ease in their parishes. The Pope’s list is pretty extensive—customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures. But, again, just look at what happens in a parish when it decides to shift Mass from eleven to eleven thirty! Parishioners stomp around grumbling, “How dare they change the time? Now that messes up my whole day. I’m going to find another parish that listens to me.”
In that same section, Pope Francis goes on to say this:
The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself (#27).
The phrase “pastoral conversion” should make our eyebrows rise. Here the Pope is talking about the priorities and agenda of a parish. For most Catholics, we summarize that agenda as celebrating the sacraments and teaching religion to our children. Most of the money from our contributions to the parish goes to keep the church open and running and to provide schooling or religious education for our children. But here Pope Francis wants us to accomplish something more: to make our ordinary parish life “more inclusive and open” at every level. And to make our pastoral workers—our priests, deacons, staff, and parish ministers—inspired to “go forth.”
Clearly the Holy Father doesn’t think if we are celebrating the Eucharist and running a good religious education program that we are fulfilling what parish is all about. Clearly Pope Francis is thinking about the large numbers of people whom Christ is calling to friendship but who have not heard the invitation—and who are not hearing the invitation because of the normal way we are doing parish. Obviously there’s an agenda parishes should undertake if they are going to be “missionary oriented”—namely, to be passionate about people who are not involved in the parish’s life.
We should sit back and consider what this means. Part of having a familiarity with the parish points to the “automatic pilot” way in which we do things—how long Mass is, whom we usually see at Mass, who chats with whom after Mass. Could it be that just this kind of familiarity keeps parishes from the missionary responsibility they have? Could it be that taming parishes to our expectations actually keeps them from putting in the prayer, attention, and effort that being missionaries demands?
Our parishes have not begun to fulfill their roles as missionary communities . . . and we, Catholic parishioners, have barely begun to think about ourselves as missionaries, as ambassadors whom Christ uses to call others into friendship with him. In fact, unfortunately, the familiarity of our parishes often hides what Catholic life is all about . . . being friends with Jesus in such a way that we continue his mission in our world.
One of the challenges that the Holy Father has put before all of us Catholics is to get outside our comfort zones . . . to be missionary disciples.” “The Joy of the Gospel” tells us this:
Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples” (#120).
There are two parts of this challenge to think of ourselves as “missionary disciples.” One part calls us to take for real the experience we have had of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. “Anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love” . . . we have to ask ourselves if we see ourselves as part of this group. Just as we get familiar with our parish participation, so also we can get familiar with our religious language. So often we use the words “Savior” and “grace,” but so rarely do we let these terms penetrate into our actual, personal experience.
And, if we are missionaries “to the extent that [we] have encountered the love of God in Jesus Christ,” then we clearly have to be willing to face and engage that love in our normal Catholic lives. Many things in our Catholic history have led us to shape our Catholic thinking around obligations, ceremonies, or actions that we do almost unthinkingly. Certainly the centuries-long battle that Catholics had with Protestants led us to rely on memorizing parts of the Catechism and striving to prove we were right about one thing or another, but these did not make it easy for us to see ourselves in the Scriptures. Every one of us can remember one or another powerful moment in our past experience as believers, but few of us think of the entirety of our Catholic lives as encounter in love with a God whose passion is to love us and save us.
So part of becoming a missionary parish will involve not only reorganizing the priorities of our parish activities to direct them more outwardly toward others but also rediscovering what has been going on in our own personal, spiritual lives—what God continues to do in our lives—layered behind the actions and feelings that we associate with “being Catholic.” This means being confident enough to start mining the relational, feeling part of what it means to be a Catholic: to be a believer in a relationship of love with God.
This is what can make us consciously missionary. To the extent that we realize the foundational love behind every moment of our Catholic lives, we will feel an incentive to let that love motivate our daily lives . . . and motivate us to help others experience that love as well. Our experience of God’s love in Jesus through the Holy Spirit—in the multiple ways and shades that happen in our everyday lives—is the fountain that can spill out to others. Overflowing with God’s love, that love can then flow more obviously into the lives of others.
Some of us have felt this powerfully when we were, say, on retreat. Some of us have felt this when we celebrated a sacrament, maybe watching our children receive their first Holy Communion. Some of us have felt this at moments of strong personal prayer, when we felt desperate and found consolation sitting in the back of a church late in the afternoon. The goal, however, is to make this perception of God’s love an ordinary part of our Catholic life—every day, every Mass, every prayer, every work of charity that we do.
It’s not like the love isn’t there and we have to find it. Rather, God’s love is overwhelmingly present all the time. We mostly have to let it show itself . . . not for our own sakes, but for the sakes of those growing numbers of people who are not in an explicit relationship with God and not celebrating this relationship by regular prayer and worship.
To be a missionary parish, to be a community of missionary disciples . . . that’s the invitation, and challenge, laid before us Catholics today.
Questions for Reflection
- How comfortable am I with changes in my parish? Do I wish there were more changes, or do I wish there were fewer? What kinds of changes excite me? Which ones rankle me?
- Identify one or two moments in your experience of your parish when you felt powerfully in contact with God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit? How do these moments affect the way you feel about your parish church or community?
- If there were one change you would make to help your parish be more “missionary oriented,” what would that change be?