Sunday, May 17, 2015

Parish: playschool ... or school of communion?

Over the last 30 years or so, and more intensely in recent years, people in parishes all over Australia have been fed mistaken ideas about the nature of parish, the role of the laity, and the role of the parish priest.

As a result, almost everything is now ‘lay led’ in a way that goes far beyond legitimate lay involvement and collaboration. An implicit message is beginning to be heard more and more loudly, especially in priestless parishes: No Priest Required!

These ideas Rome has corrected on many occasions.

Good people have been misled, and all too often conflicts, divisions and power struggles have been the result at parish level, while many dioceses have become vocations-free zones. Either the priest simply walks away from his responsibilities and gives the laity a free hand, thereby immediately becoming ‘popular’, or he condemns himself to interminable confrontations and discord and the labels bullying and divisive.

It is not the role of a parish priest to pander to illusions about the nature of the Church (however popular or widely held these may be), to give the personal opinions of parishioners the same status as Church teaching, or to keep mindlessly doing what has been done in the past long after it has ceased being effective or proper, just because some cannot bear to change direction, or have a vested interest in the status quo.

It is the task of the parish priest to build parish – a Catholic parish – based not on his faith, or some parishioner’s faith, but on the Faith.

There are now in most parishes 'leadership' groups which are very fond of, and very attached to, their own understanding of the Church. Anyone who has attended a Bible Study with Sr Maude, or who has done the session on being a ‘Eucharistic minister’ with Betty Smiles, is now an expert ‘ready to shape the Church of the future!’

It is common now to find many who have reduced the task of the parish priest to making people feel good about themselves, and to obeying the will of his parishioners. ‘Oh, Fr Todd is so nice, he never says no.’

To put such a parish under scrutiny is usually to find a noisy, activity-centred, people-centred forum in which every second individual can be a ‘leader’, while the things of God are sidelined.

What are we to say, for example, about a parish described as a ‘vibrant, warm, friendly, life-giving, welcoming and inclusive, happy community’ with 34 clubs and groups, regular BBQs and Bush Dances, but which has only a tiny handful at Confession?

All too many parishioners see their parish as a kind of playground offering all sorts of ‘games’ in which they can express their ‘giftedness’ and ‘creativity’. They move between the seesaw and the swings and the sandpit in a frenzy of busyness – what Pope Benedict calls a kind of ecclesiastical occupational therapy – and when they do finally enter the school building they just want to go on playing, forgetting that the parish is really a school of holiness. Their religious and their social lives have become coterminous, usually with sad results for the former.

In addition, everything is now subjected to the ‘how good does it make me feel?’ criterion.

Such churches are usually full of chatter because they are all about ‘me’. There is no reverent greeting of the Lord on entering or leaving, but great care not to overlook friends. In these churches the sense of the sacred has all but been demolished, and the high point of the Mass is the Sign of Peace.

Well, I don’t believe in such parishes, no matter how well attended. I believe such parishes are failures because they fail at their primary task which is to draw people to Christ, and only thus to one another.

A pastor of a parish should direct his efforts not so much towards building community as to building communion.

The value of an harmonious community is beyond price, but it can only come, and will come naturally, upon the building of communion centred on Jesus Christ.

Community cannot challenge heterodoxy or sin, to name only two dimensions of faith life, whereas communion can only be achieved through adherence to Christ in his Church, which means precisely confronting both heterodoxy and sin.

Priest and people face the task of building a parish which has Christ as its centre, drawing closer to him and then, automatically, closer to each other. Only then can it become a strong and united community worth belonging to, and only then will it be ready to fulfil the call to evangelise the culture.


  1. Don’t you think in the past the “community” part of the church was built through its shared rituals? When we took time to make our celebrations revolving around feast days, holy days of obligation, and May Day crowning something special, the feasting and fun was a natural outcome.

    It’s all part of the top down rather than bottom up. Now we want to build community before we share the spiritual.

  2. Good...great...I'm having deja'vu!

  3. And to think that this priest was sacked by his Bishop!!!

  4. To be a priest today, is to truly lay one's life down, emotionally.