A priest greets parishioners after Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the Staten Island borough of New York. Parish life is more than the Sunday Mass experience, but for many, that is precisely where they get to know a church community. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Get to Work

Making our parishes vibrant and inclusive

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Bonnar (new)This month I celebrate my 60th birthday. Tempus Fugit! There was a time when that number seemed so old to me, but not anymore. As I mark this milestone, I am not focusing so much on the number as much as on the experiences of this time. I have experienced so much.

I do not ever remember a time in these years when I was not involved in some way with the Church. From sitting in the first pew with my family as a child every Sunday and, at times, serving holy Mass to now sitting in a cathedra of a cathedral, I feel so blessed to belong to the Church. I thank God for my parents who not only gave me life but also the Catholic Faith. I am also grateful for the holy Roman Catholic Church, which has always been for me a place of welcome and a comforting home.

Looking back at those first ecclesial experiences to where I am now as a bishop, I can honestly say that the Church has adapted over time. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to the parish. Parish life is much different today than it was when I was a child, or, for that matter, when I was ordained a priest 33 years ago.

While my home parish church exists, it has been combined to form one new parish with multiple worship sites and a new name. That parish has fewer priests, and the priests who are assigned move from site to site. What is more, the Catholic school I attended in that former parish is now a regional school. All the parishes in which I served as a priest have been merged and are known by a new name. The church building from my first pastorate has been closed. Some pastors serve multiple parishes. Parochial vicars are fewer to be had. And pastoral work once done by hospital and nursing home chaplains is now being absorbed by the parish priest in that given territory.

With fewer priests, many of these newly formed parishes are blessed to have an array of lay ecclesial ministers who assist the priest in the parish. In rare circumstances, a deacon or lay leader oversees a parish in the absence of a full-time priest. These parishes rely on sacramental ministers. Many of the parish schools no longer have a full religious staff; dedicated laymen and laywomen now continue the tradition of teaching as Jesus did.

Today, many parishes boast of more lay involvement as parish councils have given way to pastoral councils that work under a consensus model. The finance council, comprised of laypeople, works closely with the pastor on budgets, facilities, personnel and financial matters. And when it comes to stewardship, in some cases, parishes need to do more with less.

There is more accountability in parish life today with safe environment policies that include background checks, safe environment training and letters of good standing. A priest or deacon can no longer function in another diocese for a Mass without a written testimonial from his bishop. The accountability is also expressed in greater financial transparency. Even though the collection basket continues to be passed at Sunday Mass, many parishes now have in place the option of online giving.

In some places, there are fewer Masses celebrated on a Sunday. Some parishes, because they share a priest, do not have weekday Mass every day. And let’s not forget the new phenomenon created by COVID-19 — the virtual Mass, which while helpful when there were no Masses, has become the new and more convenient option. Parish membership is no longer exclusive to a territory as there are more Catholics who roam and move from parish to parish.

While there have been many changes in the parish, the parish remains according to Pope Francis the “community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 28).

But there is more work to be done to make our parishes more vibrant and inclusive. The pope continues, “We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented” (No. 28).

Let us roll up our sleeves and get to work!

BISHOP DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown.

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