Has the parish a future?
On April 10th, the 360 bishops of the world’s biggest Episcopal Conference in its 51st Assembly chose as the central theme for this year, “Community of Communities: a new parish”.
The bishops resolved to finally confront one of the challenges proposed by the Fifth General Council of the Latin American & Caribbean Episcopate which met in Aparecida: the necessity of pastoral conversion and, consequently of “abandoning the outdated structures which no longer favour transmission of the faith” (so that the Church should leave aside a pastoral approach of mere conservation for a decidedly missionary pastoral approach. And one of those outdated structures is the parish.
But do the bishops intend to finish with this thousand-year-old experience, or will they try to “save it”, giving it a new face?
Coincidentally, this Conference is taking place in a climate of novelties and even amounting to some “ruptures” which the Catholic world has been accompanying through the gestures and words of Pope Francis. In his March 27th General Audience, Francis called on the Church to “open the doors” and “go out to meet others” (or as he insists in saying, “go out to the peripheries of existence”) and lamented the current situation of the parish which has nothing of “missionary” about it: “what a shame, so many parishes closed!”
It will be an arduous task for the Brazilian episcopate during these days of discussion, for the parish is, as Fr José Antonio Almeida well observed, one of the longest standing ecclesial phenomena and one of those which today presents a series of difficulties (“Parish, community and urban pastoral” Paulinas Press 2010).
From a socio-historical point of view, today the parish continues to be an institution typical of Christendom with its strongly rural character, where even in many places an autocratic leadership predominates, living under a socio-cultural reactionary model of pastoral action limited and closed in on itself.
Furthermore, it is an organisation where, in the Masses, the faithful are side by side but without inter-communication, not forming a community; it develops some religious and cultic activities, more for clients (consumers of religious goods) than for the faithful (community of the sons and daughters of God).
It remains victim of its territorial character and alien to the social surroundings. It lost mobility and ended up getting confused with physical exteriority: the mother Church, the parish house, the secretariat, the parochial works. And so, reduced to a sacral and administrative ghetto, the parish is transformed into a property in which certain services are provided in response to traditional religious demand.
Its more constant practice is not the witnessing / announcing of the gospel, nor the service (diakonia), but the cult (liturgy). It has maintained and reinforced, through the centuries, the privilege of celebrating the sacraments. It responds to a sacral model where the places of cult are in evidence: the temple, the altar, the sanctuary, the baptistery, the confessional and in some places, the cemetery. In this sense, everything revolves around the parish priest, who is a “priest”, that is, a man of the cult. He is responsible for the administration in all its aspects and in all it includes. The parish, in the ultimate analysis, is the “lord parish priest”
We could also say that the parish has become an economico-financial institution. The main volume of Church financing comes through the parishes, filtered, afterwards, into the diocese and, finally, into the Holy See. The resources are serving more to finance the functioning of the parishes rather than their ultimate ends, above all in relation to the formation of persons, to the levering of pastoral works and to mission
As is traditional in the preparation of its annual assemblies, the Secretariat-general of the CNBB set up a General Theme Commission (formed of bishops and periti) for the production of an initial text for study and debate. This Commission prepared a “martyr-text” which was sent to all the bishops before the Assembly so that they could propose the initial corrections emendations and suppressions. I also made the same request of some specialists I know, in sociology, biblical and pastoral studies, who read and critiqued the first version of the text.
The word “new” exists only in the title (Community of communities: a new parish”). In truth the document presents suggestions for “saving” the old parish. The impression the document leaves us with on this proposal of “community of communities” is that it is seeking to re-adjust an edifice by only taking care of the cracks, and to add on some more rooms or corridors. The bishops would do well to read the last parts of Frei Cantalamessa’s homily in the Good Friday celebration during Pope Francis’s first Holy Week. Look, what today is being proposed is that the parochial model should not simply be improved but radically re-thought on the lines of Vat II ecclesiology. It would be necessary to abandon the view of parish as an edifice of multiple uses with many new rooms or housings added on. Instead of this, the parish needs to be an itinerant, prophetic, and missionary community rather than a building for cult and multiple ecclesiastical services.
The document reflects a clerical mentality both in its language and its schema, and in the vision which it presents of problems and solutions. Notable is an absence of contributions and analysis coming from the laity. Then there’s a systematic exclusion of the Basic Ecclesial Communities. They appear as defined but not explicitly and they are listed in the midst of the apostolic movements, new communities and ecclesial groups.
Absent also is any serious reflection on the Presbyterate necessary to coordinate this “renewed” parish. What kind of priests do we have today? What presbyter today is capacitated for this “modern” parish? As Padre José Comblin remarked in one article, “the current clergy is not in a condition to invest in this programme”.
Well then, let’s accompany the development of this important ecclesial event and see what will be the product of those days of collegial work. Let us hope that the “teaching” of Pope Francis will be taken seriously by the Brazilian episcopate if the bishops want the Church in Brazil to be truly missionary.