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Encountering Christ – Helping and Serving Others- 2 A Spiritual Reflection

Over the last few weeks, we have been examining the quality of my homilies. We examined whether the homilies were audible, passionate and organized.  Last week I asked whether the homilies were “Understandable.” Understandable is defined as “using words that people can grasp and follow both theologically and linguistically. “88% of the people who responded said that the homily was Organized or Very Organized. 12% said the language used was not easy to grasp and difficult to follow. This is useful information. I’d be interested in knowing what it was about the language which I used, that seemed confusing or unclear. Regardless, it’s an aspect of my homilies that I will be considering in the future. So, let’s move on to a second look at “Encountering Christ Through Reaching Out and Helping Others.”

This is a big topic and goes to the heart of the social justice aspect of the Catholic Church. As a point of departure, last week I introduced a 2016 document from Pope Francis which he wrote on the occasion of meeting the Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. In the document, Pope Francis seemed to be “calling out” lay people in particular, saying that although “the hour of the laity has come… but it seems the clock has stopped.” Now, before you take offense to the Holy Father’s critique, note one of the reasons the Pope mentions for this shortcoming. The Pope cites “clericalism” as an underlying issue. This is defined as a situation where priests are engaged in activities in the parish that are best suited to others.

In his May 4 and June 1 leadership podcasts, Communicator, author, and pastor of North Point Community Church, Andy Stanley says that when priests/pastors do this, they commit three errors. First, they end up working in areas that are not their strength and thus do a poor job. Second, since they are not working in their strength, the church loses the fruits of the great and anointed work that the priest/pastor should be doing instead. Finally, these priests/pastors deny other people the opportunity to move into their respective strengths. Such pastors don’t allow the laity to exercise their charisms and allow the fruit of the Holy Spirit to come forth. Thus, the work of the non-ordained to enrich the church and the world is lost. As a result,

The character of Christians is nullified, the value of their baptismal grace is diminished and undervalued, the laity are treated as mere “representatives of the “boss” (the pastor), the diverse initiatives, efforts and necessary boldness of the laity to enable the Good News of the Gospel to be brought to all areas of society and, above all, to the political sphere is limited. Clericalism doesn’t give guidance, direction or impetus to various contributions and proposals. Instead, it gradually extinguishes the prophetic flame to which the entire Church is called to bear witness in the heart of her peoples. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and sacramentality of the Church belong to all of the People of God (cf. Lumen Gentium, nn. 9-14), not only to the few “chosen, enlightened” favorites of the pastor (Pope Francis, paraphrased).

Why is this important to me? Last year, the Discernment Group examined the results of the  “Disciple Maker Index,” the Catholic Leadership Institute’s instrument that measures the spiritual health of a parish. A few glaring areas for improvement stood out. We noticed a very low score related to the statement “The parish helps me connect with a local Catholic community by providing me with opportunities to serve those in need.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, we also noticed a low score associated with the statement, “The parish helps me connect with a local Catholic community by following up with me when I express an interest in being involved.” Finally, St. Monica scored average in regards to the statement “In the past year, I volunteered to serve a member of our community (Catholic or non-Catholic).”

So, is this a sign of clericalism? Do people have the impression that their gifts are not needed or appreciated? Do I or other people give off an impression that only parishioners who are part of the “in crowd” are welcome to help? Have we offered people the opportunity to identify, develop and use their gifts and charisms?

Francis continues, “Our cities have become true places of survival. Places in which the throw-away culture seems to have taken over, leaving little room for hope. There we find our brothers and sisters, immersed in these struggles, with their families, who seek not only to survive but among the contradictions and injustices, seek the Lord and long to bear witness to him.

What does the fact that lay people are working in public life mean for us pastors? It means finding a way to be able to encourage, accompany and inspire all attempts and efforts that are being made today in order to keep hope and faith alive in a world full of contradictions, especially for the poor, especially with the poorest. It means, as pastors, committing ourselves among our people and, with our people, supporting their faith and hope. Opening doors, working with them, dreaming with them, reflecting and above all praying with them. “We need to look at our cities and other areas where the life of our people unfolds, “with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares…. God does not hide himself from those who seek him with a sincere heart” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 71).

Pope Francis writes that “It is not for me, the pastor, to tell you the laity, what you must do and say.  You know this better than I do. It is not for a pastor to establish what the faithful must say and do in various settings. Francis writes, “As pastors, it does us good to ask ourselves how we are encouraging and promoting charity and fraternity, the desire for good, for truth and for justice; how we can ensure that corruption does not settle in our hearts.”

Reflecting on the Holy Father’s words, one can say that we definitely have more work to do. Still, a foundation seems to be developing. The picture at St. Monica does have some hopeful signs. For example, we hosted two “Called and Gifted” seminars to help people identify and develop their gifts and charisms. We encourage people to take a “Spiritual Gifts Inventory” to examine those gifts and charisms at a deeper level. We have several parishioners who are trained and certified “Gifts Interviewer Counsellors.” They can offer one-on-one interviews to take the budding “disciple” to a deeper level, in order to see how, and where, God is calling them to use their gifts. Last year, some parishioners made a 9-month commitment to engage in a “Parish Missionary Disciples” course. They committed to take their call to discipleship from the Lord to an even deeper, and more intentional, level.  Most recently, several parishioners felt called to lead the “Encounter Christ Through Helping Others” aspect of the parish vision. They are considering people to form a leadership team. They have begun to develop a long-term strategy that will impact people in need. They are examining current St. Monica parishioner-led activities in Bristol, South Philadelphia, Kensington, West Chester and Norristown. They are asking how our parish can build upon these initiatives. They are also looking into identifying and acquiring resources for this endeavor to support a broad and far-reaching vision. I’ll outline details on this in the weeks ahead.

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