Parishes: Places to be known by name

My wife and I participate in the same parish community today that we joined 41 years ago.

May 23, 2014

By David Gibson
My wife and I participate in the same parish community today that we joined 41 years ago. To be sure, 41 years is a long time. Not surprisingly, our parish is important to us. Our three children were baptized here. We celebrated all their weddings here too.

One reason we value this community highly is because of the support received from others. A period of more than four decades encompasses many moments of wonderful celebration and some moments of real-life challenges. Supportive, trusting bonds with others in the community always served us well.

The life of a parish is important to so many Catholics and for so many reasons. If you doubt that, just read the Sunday bulletin distributed by a parish of average size today and consider the astonishing range of events on its agenda for the week ahead.

These events pull together individuals, parents and families, groups with special shared interests and needs, and young adults, to mention just a few.

However, statistics suggest that a significant percentage of baptized Catholics do not consider parish life essential in their lives, at least for the time being. For a wide variety of reasons, they do not join the worshipping community most Sundays.

Some tell of not feeling welcome in a parish, others speak of not feeling understood by the church. Yet others say they neither felt recognized nor respected in their parish; no one spoke to them.

As much as possible, people want to be known by name in places that are important for their lives. In a homily on the second Holy Thursday of his pontificate, Pope Francis pointed out that all the people of a parish — the sick, the poor, family members, the young — make up “the living church” and have “a first name and a last name”.

Many people who experience a sense of belonging, welcome and support in their parish think of it as something like a home. That is as it should be, the newly canonized St John Paul II suggested in his 1988 apostolic exhortation on the laity’s vocation. “The parish is not principally a structure, a territory or a building,” the Pope wrote. “Rather, it is God’s family and a welcoming home (Christifideles Laici, 26).

In a real home, though, no one remains anonymous. Families gather to celebrate their lives and enjoy time together, but home life also mandates family members to do what they can to pull each other out of loneliness, to hear each other and to recognize each other’s gifts. Parish life is like this.

A parish is a place where people assemble to celebrate faith, above all the Eucharist. It is a place, too, where they are mandated to welcome others, to do their part in making the parish a home by helping to lift others out of anonymity.

This mandate is not always easy to fulfill. Like so many other parishioners, I am not always certain how to welcome people I do not know or am seeing for the first time in our parish. But it sure helps to smile, say hello and ask “How are you?” Perhaps a conversation will ensue and the opportunity to learn each other’s names will arise.

This mandate in parish life is a big challenge. But lots of Catholics welcome the many challenges to grow that they encounter in parish life. Perhaps a seminar or retreat group invites parishioners to grow spiritually.

Perhaps they discover how enriching it can be to collaborate with others on projects serving teens in the parish, or preparing engaged couples for marriage, or finding new ways to make the poor a priority. In the parish, they discover how true it is that we grow by giving to others.

The parish is a eucharistic gathering place that marks every moment in the church’s worship year, focusing the community’s attention on what is most important about life and faith. The Eucharist invites the community together around Christ, its centre. Then the worshiping community sends its members out into the world, saying, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

The roles of a community such as this extend from helping to renew hope among people who suffer to clarifying the presence and action of God in the daily lives of ordinary people — people who often feel they barely have time to think, let alone pray.

In this vein, Msgr Philip Murnion once said that “we all need new and repeated experiences where we stand before God and discover anew who we really are.” This US priest, whose expertise on contemporary parish life was consulted widely, died of cancer in 2003.

Parishes fulfill an important role, Msgr Murnion thought, by “inviting people into new opportunities to experience the presence of God” in worship and work. A parish, he said, is “a place where one goes to be renewed in the vision” and equipped with strategies for carrying out the mission of Christian life “in the worlds of family, work and community.”

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