Examining the Call to a Pastoral Conversion of Structures 

Over the last couple of months, I have written about the document “The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church.” The Congregation for the Clergy in Rome promulgated this document in 2020. I’d like to conclude my reflection on this document this week.

Chapter 6 is “From The Conversion of People to the Conversion of Structures.” This topic is especially close to the Holy Father‘s heart. He sees it as a significant issue in parishes around the world.

Pope Francis has asked the Church around the world to re-examine what it is and what it does. Archbishop Perez has echoed the sentiments of Pope Francis. Archbishop Perez has laid out three top priorities under his Archdiocesan initiative “Called for More.” His top priority is creating a culture of missionary discipleship. He wants to do this both in the Archdiocese and in parishes. In order for this to occur, parishes are going to have to pivot the way that they currently do things. What we did pre-Covid needs to change in light of the dramatic changes around the world after the pandemic. This will require the restructuring of the Archdiocese and within the parishes.

“The parish has to avoid certain items in the process of renewal and restructuring. This includes services and activities that do not express the dynamic of evangelization. Rather, some current parish practices fall under self-preservation.” This statement is taken from Pope Francis‘s encyclical Evangelii Gaudii. Pope Francis quotes Pope Saint Paul VI saying that, “The Church must look with penetrating eyes within herself.” Archbishop Perez echoed this at a recent priest workshop. He said that, “Parishes need to deeply consider how we gather.” It’s an interesting idea requiring some deep consideration and reflection.

The conversion of structures requires a significant change in mentality and an interior renewal. This is especially the case among those trusted with the responsibility of pastoral leadership. Pastors need to consider the profound, emotional, and nostalgic bonds within a Christian community. They ought not to forget that the faith of the people of God is interwoven with familial and communal memories. Often sacred space and sacred place represent important milestones in the life of past generations. These spaces provide occasions that have influenced personal relationships with God. Trauma and hurt need to be avoided in the process of restructuring. It is imperative that any necessary restructuring be carried out with flexibility and gradualism.

What does the Holy Father mean by the phrase “gradualism?” It has to do with the passage of time. It includes stages of development, assessment, correction, experimentation, and approvals, drawn on experimentation. One should not do this hastily. Rational decisions cannot be made to the detriment of those who actually live within the territory. Every plan must be situated within the lived experience of that community. Changes need to be implemented without causing harm. It should be done with a necessary phase of prior consolation, with progressive implementation and verification.

The pastoral conversion of structures implies the faithful holy people of God are anointed with the grace of the Holy Spirit. They should consciously and lucidly seek areas of communion and participation. And this way, the anointing of the people of God can find concrete ways to express itself. The baptized need to realize that they are “protagonists of evangelization.” (I like that phrase, “protagonists of evangelization” … Fr. Zlock.) In turn, the pastor must instruct the faithful in such a way that the community feels both directly involved and responsible in caring for the needs of the Church.

The document also offers a word of caution. The central driving force of evangelization has to be at the heart of the mission of the parish. Priests, deacons, consecrated men, women, and the laity are involved. They need to exercise their respective charisms and the responsibility that corresponds to them to foster that culture of missionary discipleship. Consultation, respect, and honor of the past are important.

However, as one priest at our Archdiocesan workshop was heard to say, “Serenity and nostalgia cost money. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been willing to spend millions of dollars, over many years, to retain serenity and nostalgia. Some things should be retained. However, a candid dispassionate judgment also needs to be made whether practices and activities are bearing fruit. Are they sustainable? Will they bear fruit in the years ahead?”

Challenging questions….

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