Pope Francis: Parish Conversion | Fr. Charles Zlock
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Pope Francis: Parish Conversion

Over the past few weeks, several events occurred dealing with the self-reflection of Saint Monica parish. In May, the parish hosted a “Listening Session.” This was part of the 2023 Synod on Synodality or the process that the Church uses to listen to (and discern) the voice of the Holy Spirit. A few weeks ago, Catholic Leadership Institute released the results of the Disciple Maker Index. This instrument measures the spiritual, devotional, temporal, and liturgical health of a parish.

In May, Archbishop Perez met with the priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in Hershey for a Priest Convocation. During our gathering, he outlined his three top priorities for the Catholic Church in Philadelphia:

  1. Move the mentality from crisis to hope.
  2. Build up resources for the sake of the Church’s mission.
  3. Build – in the Archdiocese and in the parishes – a culture of intentional, missionary discipleship.

He asked every parish to “Put on his desk three goals, and the plans to achieve those goals, by the Feast of Christ the King” (November 20). In a few weeks, we will invite a diverse group of parishioners to examine the results of the DMI and begin the process to discern what three goals Saint Monica will set out to achieve. Soon, we will announce the process on how that will be accomplished.

This is a concrete way answer to Pope Francis’ call to “provide a fruitful and creative encounter between the Gospel and the culture.” (See “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church“, July 20, 2020). If parishes are going to be centers that are conducive to an encounter with Christ, the Holy Father says that,

Parishes must make a determined missionary decision that is capable of changing everything. The Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times, schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled to the evangelization of todays world, rather than for her self-preservation.

Following the Holy Father’s call, Archbishop Perez as asked us to examine the DMI data we received and talk about what a “missionary decision” would look like. As a start, I showed initial results of the DMI to the Parish Pastoral Staff and a few parishioners who attended the Synod Listening Session. There was a lot of congruence. Not surprising perhaps. Let me offer their initial take-aways, and some of my own thoughts.

Young People and Faith :

  • The issue is not that young people aren’t getting together. They are. They’re just not getting together in parish-based, parish-organized, parish-run events. (Fr. Zlock: We need to move off-campus. Pope Francis has said this. We can longer think that activities, initiatives, social events should solely be hosted at the parish. People on the fringes won’t come. We need to go to them. What would such creative initiatives look like?)
  • Their gatherings are informal, organic, spontaneous, social events with people of similar ideas and values. It is often organized with someone with the “charism of hospitality.” (Fr: Zlock: I am aware of people who are doing this. In my January 1, 2016, and February 29, 2016, bulletin articles (You remember those …right?) I wrote about one model being tried called the Benedict Option. Benedict lived in a world and Church similar to our own. People were searching for order in their lives, a deeper prayer life, a healthy attitude towards work, stability, and community. Sounds like today, doesn’t it? Can we perhaps glean something from the saint from Nursia and apply it?)
  • The parish of the future will not be a traditional parish model of the past. It will be more of a household model (See Transformation and Intentional Communities in Homes like those at St. Therese Parish in South Bend, IN. ) (Fr. Zlock: The current parish model in the United States is perfectly configured to minister to a church – that no longer exists. Pope Francis (and Benedict and Pope John Paul II) have said this. Outreach to the poor, marginalized and needy needs to take place within the parish, but perhaps away from the parish grounds. The Hagenbach Room and the parish school building cannot be the primary place for spiritual growth, catechesis, and personal faith formation. Homes have to be the first and primary place. Other non-traditional locations will be the new classrooms.)
  • Parishioner identity to their faith should not be the same as identity to their parish. Parishioner identity to their faith should not be the same as identity to a Catholic school. (Fr. Zlock: The faith of numerous people is not wrapped up in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Their Catholicism and their Catholic life are wrapped up in their identity to their parish or their local Catholic School. This is not the case for many, however. The DMI showed that a significant number of St. Monica parishioners (66%) said theirrelationship with Jesus Christ was the most important relationship in their life” or that “they have personally encountered Jesus Christ and are growing as a disciple.” We can build on this.)
  • How does Saint Monica, or any parish, pour resources into something that is bearing fruit, but is not necessarily in (or part of) the parish?

Strategy Moving Forward:

  • The parish is open to all, but to thrive – perhaps even to survive – we’re going to need to evangelize. That means reaching out to the fringes – to people who aren’t currently active in the parish, people who are not Catholic, people who do not look like us, people who don’t like us, people who are seeking. We will need to focus parish resources on these key demographics.
  • In terms of “Providing high quality events to which I can invite people”:
    • Many fine Saint Monica events in the past were school-driven, school-organized or planned by people associated with the school. That’s not the case anymore. How do we pivot from this?
    • If you plan, organize, and advertise an event will people on the fringes actually attend?
    • Resorting to Parish Staff/Pastoral Team run activities is not a viable, sustainable model.

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • For any demographic you are trying to attract (youth, young adults, young parents with children) you first have to gain “street cred” with those individuals. This means building relationships. This is a long-term project. This means an investment of time. Rolling out a bunch of activities or program-based models do not work.
  • What are you willing to pay in order to get what you say you want? (Fr. Zlock: This is HUGE! People say, “We want more young people to come to Church.” Ok, then you have to accept the fact that they won’t dress the way you like, they will demand music you don’t like, act the way you don’t like, believe what you don’t like. They will not – and should not – have to conform to your Church model… at first. To quote John the Baptist – if you really want new people in the Church, “You must decrease, and they must increase.” How ready are we for that?)
  • Your parish is successfully moving to attract people “on the fringes” when new parishioners feel comfortable - and existing parishioners do not.
  • When people visit the parish for the first time, do they feel a joyful atmosphere? Nice is not the same as joy. Nice is not the same as good.We need an intentional spirit of joy and welcome.
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