Pope Francis: The Value of the Parish Today

How valuable is a parish today? The answer to that probably depends on what a parish is supposed to be. What is a parish supposed to do? Parishes that can answer those questions in the affirmative are more valuable to Jesus Christ and His mission.

The parish remains an indispensable organism of primary importance. It is the visible structure of the Church. Nevertheless, parishes are currently being seen through a wider lens. The parish has to attend to the needs of the faithful, but is now doing so in the midst of historic changes. Thus, a parish needs to discern what it is called to be and to do in light of those new historic factors. “In virtue of this discernment…” writes Pope Francis, “…the parish is to read ‘the signs of the times.'” This discernment as to what a parish does needs to be infused with a missionary spirit.

Evangelization is the cornerstone of all pastoral action within a parish. The demands of this outreach are primary, preeminent, and preferential. The parish can no longer be the primary gathering and social center of a neighborhood as in former days.

The parish is the local beacon that radiates the light of faith and thus responds to the deepest and truest desires of the human heart. In this way, the faith community gives meaning and hope to the lives of individuals and families. It needs to find new forms of accompaniment, community, and closeness. To do this, parishioners need to be out amongst the sheep, meeting them, making connections, having conversations, finding what the needs are and determining how each parish member is called to help to meet those needs. This is what evangelization looks like.

The need for meeting people where they are is great (“The harvest is plentiful, but laborers are few.” See Matthew 9:37). Yet, current parish models no longer adequately correspond to the many expectations of the faithful - and potential faithful.

First, there is the physical, territorial issue. It used to be that a parish was rooted at the center of where people lived from day to day. That is no longer the case. The parish is no longer a “geographical space.” Pope Francis writes that, “Any pastoral action that is limited to the territory of the Parish is outdated.”

Second, today people express themselves in types of relationships, reciprocal services offered and received, and traditions that might seem strange to existing parishioners. People talk about building community and making connections. But there are a multiplicity of community types today. This brings us to a third issue - looking back instead of looking forward.

When potential newcomers visit a parish, what do they find? “A parish can no longer be focused on preserving a nostalgia of former times as opposed to looking to the future with courage,” writes the Pope. “Without an outward focus, the parish runs the risk of becoming self-referential and fossilized … of interest only to small groups.”

The renewal of (an evangelization parish) requires a new approach with diverse pastoral proposals. The Holy Father speaks about “being part of a community by adoption.” From my perspective, that is a challenge. Parishioners are not sure what to do. Parish leaders from top to bottom have simply not provided the training to do this. So where do we begin? “Living signs of proximity to Christ through fraternal bonds and ever attentiveness to new forms of poverty” might be a place to start. Let’s delve into that idea of Pope Francis a little deeper next time.


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