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Renewal of the Parish

An ecclesial renewal that cannot be deferred

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In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis presented his dream for a Church, a renewed and revitalized mission that would transform everything (cf. No. 27). This vision for the Church would channel new energy and enthusiasm, he believes, into what has become a moribund institution, in need of new ways of doing things. He longs for refreshed ecclesiastical structures that are more “mission-oriented” (No. 27), which could make pastoral activity in every area more mission-driven. His thinking is that a pastoral conversion is needed on all levels of the Church, away from an introversion that concentrates too much on inner needs and is not responsive to the pressing anxieties of a society unmoored, and in need of hope. A missionary conversion is essential, he writes, since “‘mere administration’ can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be ‘permanently in a state of mission’” (No. 25).

Formation of Missionary Disciples

The first step in renewal is the formation of missionary disciples who are involved, supportive and joyful. Acknowledging Jesus, who takes the lead and initiates, who has loved us first, missionary disciples “go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast” (No. 24). The outward thrust of the disciples originates from a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI, in the encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”), identified an evangelization that flows naturally from the disciple who has met Jesus: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (No. 1). Such an encounter can release us from self-absorption and propel us outwardly, to share what we have been generously provided. “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 8).

Missionary Impulse

The parish is a community of believers who, when imbued with a missionary impulse, can provide a structure and a home to nourish, sustain and organize for the mission — “a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with him” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 27). Pope Francis highlights the great advantage of the parish as an agent of missionary outreach: its flexibility. It can, he explains, fluidly respond to needs, since it can “assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community” (No. 28). This ecclesial structure must be in constant renewal and adaptivity to its surroundings, constantly in contact “with the homes and lives of its people” (No. 28), not a remote institution that is owned and operated by an elite few. The pope defines the parish, using the framework of the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization: “The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration” (No. 28). The parish, in all its activities, must train its members to be evangelizers. The possibilities and opportunities are limitless. “It [the parish] is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach” (No. 28). Unfortunately, a renewal of mind and heart in parish structures has not completely taken root, “has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communities and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented” (No. 28).

Principles for Renewal

Given the vast variety of settings and availability of resources present in the wide spectrum of parishes throughout the world, it is difficult to identify one plan or strategy for parish revitalization. But “The Joy of the Gospel” is rich and thorough in outlining principles for renewal that can energize any ecclesial structure toward a strong missionary discipleship impulse and a “resolute process of discernment, purification and reform” (No. 30).

In virtue of their baptism, each member of the People of God must become a missionary disciple. It is inconceivable, Pope Francis says, to have an evangelization undertaken only by “professionals” while the rest of the faithful are passive recipients. And the good news is that we need not wait until everyone is thoroughly trained in every pastoral skill. “Of course, all of us are called to mature in our work as evangelizers. … But this does not mean that we should postpone the evangelizing mission; rather, each of us should find ways to communicate Jesus wherever we are” (No. 121). We have in all our parishes a large cadre of people primed for discipleship, who can enhance our ability to share the Good News received from Jesus Christ, a call embedded in each Christian’s baptism and confirmation. Often these gifts and charisms are idle, waiting to be tapped.

“The Joy of the Gospel” is not only insistent about the message that the parish must proclaim. It is insistent about what it should not: pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed (cf. No. 35). The “missionary style” has to concentrate on the essentials, the heart of the Gospel: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (No. 36).

Bruised, Hurting and Dirty

Ministry conducted in the style and manner of Pope Francis will not be “antiseptic”! Our hands will get dirty. The pope invokes an image that he used as archbishop of Buenos Aires: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures” (No. 49).

The thrust of missionary discipleship must then appropriately be directed to the poor. “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor and for enabling them to be fully a part of society” (No. 187). Our Scriptures demand a response to the cry of the poor. Such efforts undertaken by the parish must be comprehensive, since we must not only ensure food, but also the wider yet essential needs: education, access to health care and employment (cf. No. 192).

In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti On Fraternity and Social Friendship, Pope Francis decries the greatest personal and communal hindrance to outreach to those “abandoned on the wayside,” identified in the parable of “the good Samaritan”: our unwillingness to spare our time. “Certainly, he [the Samaritan] had his own plans for that day, his own needs, commitments and desires. Yet he was able to put all that aside when confronted with someone in need. Without even knowing the injured man, he saw him as deserving of his time and attention” (No. 63).

Another obstacle to our outreach efforts may be indifference — menefreghisimo — “so-whatism” as the pope calls it in “Let Us Dream” (Simon and Schuster, $17). If we approach life with this attitude, we end up “armor-plating the soul; that is indifference bulletproofs it, so that certain things just bounce off. One of the dangers of this indifference is that it can become normal, silently seeping into our lifestyles and value judgments. We cannot get used to indifference.” By contrast, “the essence of God is mercy, which is not just seeing and being moved, but responding with action.”

The Eucharistic Revival

The bishops of the United States have invited Catholics to a Eucharistic revival, which began in 2021 and concludes in 2024; an effort in “renewing the Catholic Church by enkindling a loving relationship with the Lord in the holy Eucharist.” The three-year plan will highlight Eucharistic processions, catechetical formation on the Real Presence of Christ, and extended opportunities for adoration and reconciliation, culminating in a Eucharistic Congress in 2024.

The revival provides an opportunity for parishes to reflect more deeply on the Last Supper of Jesus identified by the Synoptic Gospels with the institution of the Eucharist and by the evangelist John with the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus. Our celebration of the Eucharist must connect to service to our brothers and sisters — to leave Mass where we have celebrated Jesus’ presence in the elements of the bread and wine, to now see Jesus clearly in the “distressing disguise of the poor.”

The social activist and writer Dorothy Day, as she walked to Mass passing by a block of people standing in the cold waiting for bread and coffee, understood this dual presence of Jesus. Notre Dame theology professor John Cavadini wrote in Church Life Journal, in the October 2019 issue: “Walking past the breadline one has just been serving to go to Mass is not to hurry by with indifference but to extend, as it were, the Eucharistic communion to include them. It is to extend the Eucharistic remembering of Christ’s sacrifice to all in that line, remembering them, as Christ Incarnate Word remembered us, by ‘sharing and realizing our troubles.’” The National Eucharistic Revival is an opportunity to renew our call to “become what we receive.”

Pope Francis has called parishes to “an ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred.” It is by the power of the Holy Spirit, who heals “whatever causes us to flag in the missionary endeavor … [and] knows well what is needed in every time and place” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 280), who will propel us and our parish communities in savoring Jesus’ friendship and his Gospel with renewed enthusiasm.

FATHER KEVIN McKENNA serves as the pastor of St. Theodore Parish, Gates, New York. He is past president of the Canon Law Society of America and former vice-chancellor and director of legal services for the Diocese of Rochester.


An Ecclesial Renewal that Cannot Be Deferred

In Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), he writes: “The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be ‘the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.’ This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few. The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach. 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).


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