The Future of the Parish: Pastoral Conversion to the Gospel

Pope Francis has dwelt at length on the “pastoral conversion” of the parish

May 01, 2021

By Giancarlo Pani  SJ
Pope Francis has dwelt at length on the “pastoral conversion” of the parish. In Evangelii Gaudium (EG), quoting Vatican II, he wrote, “‘Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling […] Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, in so far as she is a human institution here on earth’ (Unitatis Redintegratio, 6). […] 

I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. […] 

The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility; it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.”[1] 

At the beginning of his pontificate, Francis thus proposed with courage and foresight “a missionary conversion of our parish communities.” 

At times there is a difficulty in moving forward and facing the evolution of society. 

In recent years our world has undergone epochal changes, and Christians must confront them. Many of us live a hectic life, constantly on the move even when we stop, an accelerated life, fragmented into multiple activities, affected by various ideas and messages, in what has become a metropolitan fabric that today is no longer only that of cities, but has extended to towns and even small rural centers. 

“The speed of change, successive cultural models, the ease of movement and the speed of communication are transforming the perception of space and time. […] 

The Parish finds itself in a context where territorial affiliation is increasingly less evident, where places of association are multiplied and where interpersonal relationships risk being dissolved into a virtual world without any commitment or responsibility toward one’s neighbor.”[2]  

We live in a world that is more complicated than in the past and marked by cultural and religious pluralism.

What can a parish do in such a transformative situation? Is it capable of dealing with the new way of life that is emerging almost everywhere? Is it capable of proclaiming the freshness and joy of the Gospel in this new situation that is becoming more widespread? 

An Instruction from the Congregation for the Clergy
The Instruction of the Congregation for the Clergy is entitled The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community at the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church,[3] and is intended to call attention to the evolution that society has undergone in recent decades and the role and form of the parish in this new context. 

Pope Francis wants the Christian community to have the missionary and evangelizing spirit of “the Church that goes forth” and the Instruction brings together his interventions related to the community, the parish, the responsibilities of all the baptized in the service of the Gospel and, in particular, the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, applied to the parish community. The pope has stated: “The mission, the ‘Church on the move,’ is not a programme, an enterprise to be carried out by sheer force of will. It is Christ who makes the Church go out of herself.”[4] 

At the same time, the Instruction is intended to be a canonical-pastoral tool to better apply the ecclesiology of Vatican II to the life of the parish. 

In his first address to the parish priests of Rome, Francis “recalled the importance of ‘creativity,’ meaning thereby ‘seeking new ways,’ that is ‘seeking how best to proclaim the Gospel’”[5] and witness it in the reality of daily life. 

The Instruction is composed of two parts: the first (chapters 1-6) offers a reflection on pastoral conversion, the missionary sense and the value of the parish in today’s world; the second (chapters 7-11) dwells on the internal divisions of the parish community, the different roles present in it (pastor, presbyters, deacons, consecrated persons, laity), the bodies of ecclesial co-responsibility in parish care, and presents the context in which change can occur and the canonical instruments to address it. Although it contains no new legislation, the Instruction proposes new ways to better apply current legislation. 

Pastoral conversion
The underlying theme of the Instruction is the “pastoral conversion […] whereby Christian communities become ever more centers conducive to an encounter with Christ.”[6]  

Therefore, Pope Francis suggested: “If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. 

More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mark 6:37).”[7]  

This is the true meaning of the Incarnation, of the Word who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The parish has a very ancient history and from the beginning has played a fundamental role in the life of Christians: that of proclaiming the Gospel. 

The very term “parish,” in its etymology (paroikia), indicates “a house in the midst of houses,”[8] precisely in order to live the logic of incarnation that the Lord has revealed and taught us. 

When we speak of “pastoral conversion,” we immediately think of the transformation of structures: changes of territory, unification of parishes, new pastoral units, etc. These define the identity of a community, recall its history, and deeply mark a portion of the People of God.[9]  

These structures, however, cannot be identified with the reality of the parish, since the parish is made up of persons, “a community of the faithful in which the pastor is the shepherd.”[10] They constitute the people of God gathered around the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the Eucharist, in faith lived in charity, in communion with the bishop, and therefore with the diocese and the universal Church. 

In 2006, Benedict XVI recalled that the renewal of the parish must be thought of in the light of the experience of the first Christian communities.[11] It “cannot only result from pastoral initiatives, albeit useful and timely, nor even less from programmes worked out theoretically. 

Inspired by the apostolic model as shown in the Acts of the Apostles, parishes ‘rediscover’ themselves in the encounter with Christ, especially in the Eucharist.”[12] 

Francis, too, in Evangelii Gaudium, specifies: “The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship.”[13] 

Structures, then, are instruments at the service of people, and not vice versa; therefore, when we speak of renewal and planning, we must first and foremost focus on the pastoral care of people. 

Similarly, pastoral projects and restructuring plans should not be entrusted simply to deskbound planning, based on pre-established models, to be implemented at any cost.[14]  

It is necessary to beware of two equally negative extremes: on the one hand, an obsession with efficiency, which is based on worldly criteria; on the other hand, thinking in unrealistic, abstract terms or perhaps idealism, which creeps into ecclesial life when people stop listening to the Lord and try – even in good faith – to replace him. 

In any case, it is necessary to avoid short term theoretical projects, especially if some parishes are united on the basis of numerical criteria, without taking into account their traditions and history. 

Such solutions can severely test the faith of the people of God and perhaps even lead to the abandonment of religious practice. Instead, the Instruction recommends that the bishops act gradually, in direct and patient dialogue with the faithful of the parishes, respecting their localities, their signs and their life of faith. 

When several parishes are united into one, it is necessary to guard against excessive bureaucratization, so as not to transform them into “small businesses” that make people “passive users” and distance them from community life and participation in the sacraments. 

In addition, two excesses should be avoided: that of a community in which the pastor and presbyters have a monopoly on everything and decide everything on their own, and that of a parish that seems to be without a pastor, where lay parish officials take care of pastoral ministry as their responsibility, not out of a spirit of mission engaged in without worldly recompense. 

[1]. EG 26-28. This quotation is taken up in Congregation for the Clergy, Instruction The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community at the Service of the Evangelising Mission of the Church, June 29, 2020, Nos. 5 and 29, at https://press. vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2020/07/20/0391/00886.html#ing The Instruction will be cited as PC.

[2]. PC 8-9.

[3]. See footnote 1.

[4]. Francis, Message for World Mission Day 2020 (May 31, 2020). Cf. Id., Without Jesus We Can Do Nothing. A Conversation with Gianni Valente, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana – San Paolo, 2019.

[5]. PC 1. The address to pastors is from Sept 16, 2013.

[6]. PC 3.

[7]. Ibid.

[8] . PC 7.

[9] . The Pope said in an interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro in 2016, “To be part of the people is to be part of a common identity made up of social and cultural ties” (A. Spadaro, “Le orme di un pastore”, in J. M. Bergoglio – Papa Francesco, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola. Omelie e discorsi di Buenos Aires. 1999-2013, Milan, Rizzoli, 2016, XVI). [10]. PC 27; cf. also 28-33.

[11]. Cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (September 22, 2006).

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. EG 27.

[14]. Cf. Francis, Letter to the People of God on the Way in Germany (June 29, 2019): “I remember that in the meeting I had with your pastors in 2015 I said that one of the first and great temptation at the ecclesial level was to believe that solutions to present and future problems would come only from purely structural, organic and bureaucratic reforms, but that, at the end of the day, they would not touch at all the vital cores that demand attention.”

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 5 art. 6, 0521: 10.32009/22072446.0521.6

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