A vision for our parishes: Reflection on recent Instruction from the Holy See

By Fr. Steve Pullis

One of the first times I read Unleash the Gospel, I was captivated by the Description of a Parish toward the end of the pastoral letter. Here we read that “every activity and resource of the parish must be in alignment with the fundamental commitment to evangelization.” This particular statement has been a clear reminder of the purpose of a parish as we begin to look forward to new methods of parish collaboration.

Recently, Pope Francis and his collaborators at the Congregation for the Clergy released their own vision for what a parish should look like. In many ways, it is remarkably similar. Entitled The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community in the Service of the Evangelising Mission of the Church (they use the British way of spelling evangelization), this Instruction from the Holy See offers reminders, challenges, and words of encouragement to pastors and the faithful working to ensure their parishes remain committed to evangelization. As we seek to understand this document in light of our particular circumstances in southeast Michigan, here are four main takeaways we can glean from an initial reading of this brand new document:

  1. Parishes are meant to evangelize!

From the title of this instruction it should be clear that parishes exist in order to evangelize. It can be very easy to think of a parish as an oasis from the challenges of the world. This is good and right. But it also has to be outward-focused: “If the Parish does not exude that spiritual dynamic of evangelization, it runs the risk of becoming self-referential and fossilized, offering experiences that are devoid of evangelical flavor and missionary drive, of interest only to small groups.”

There is something wrong with a parish if all its efforts are focused on those already present. Yes, catechesis and pastoral care are important – in fact, St. John Paul II taught that these were essential. Yet they alone are not enough. As our culture and world become more and more removed from a collective understanding of our human dignity, rooted in the truth that we are made in God’s image and likeness, parishes need to be oases for everyone to come and experience the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Catholic faith. But we cannot simply wait for others to stumble upon us. We must be actively seeking those who do not know Christ and his love and inviting them to experience God’s love through our parishes.

  1. A renewal of structures is needed in light of our present circumstances

Our current structure of parishes served as an effective tool for evangelization and pastoral care throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century. But now we live in very different times, especially in metro Detroit. We need to consider with fresh eyes how parishes can be effective for their mission in the new circumstances of the 21st century. The Instruction from the Holy See makes this point clear when we read that “it is necessary to identify perspectives that allow for the renewal of ‘traditional’ Parish structures in terms of mission.”

“Renewal” is a key word to understand this process. It is not about creating a new system completely; rather we are looking for ways parishes can be more fully what they are called to be. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, we are looking at how parishes can collaborate in grouping we will call “Families.” Through shared resources and a coordinated outreach, a Family of Parishes will avoid getting bogged down with growing administrative needs and will more fully realize its mission to proclaim the Gospel without and build up joyful missionary disciples within.

  1. Not everything can change but some things can…and should!

While the Instruction from the Holy See is a reminder of our call to renewal, it also reminds us that there are certain constitutive elements of a parish which must always remain. The leadership of a pastor – a priest to be the father of the Catholic community – is essential. The centrality of the Sacraments – particularly the Sacrifice of the Mass and Confession – along with a commitment to preaching the Word of God must be paramount.

The laity are not simply passive recipients of the pastoral care of the parish. Rather, they are active coworkers with the pastor and parish staff in fulfilling the mission of the parish. Lay men and women are the backbone of the parish and this reality demands a new appreciation for their collaboration in the mission of the parish: “A renewed vitality is required that favors the rediscovery of the vocation of the baptized as a disciple of Jesus Christ and a missionary of the Gospel.”

The particular needs of the local community as well as the particular gifts of the parish provide opportunities for parishes to find new ways to proclaim the Gospel. Therefore, outdated and unfruitful parts of a parish can and should be pruned or let go in order to make the missionary heart of the parish front and center. This work requires a commitment to the Good Habits articulated in Unleash the Gospel.

  1. A community of communities on mission!

Finally, a parish is not meant to be a homogenous collection of individuals. Rather, they are called to be “a community of communities.” Healthy parishes have a diversity of peoples who come together united in their belief in and commitment to Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Catholic Church. This means young people and seniors, people of means and those just getting by, life-long Catholics and new converts to the Faith all gather together for the celebration of the Eucharist.

We cannot ignore the challenges this diversity presents. Yet, our identifying title “Catholic” means universal. God wants everyone to be part of His Church. Therefore, parishes should express this breadth of the human family in their given territory. Pope Francis reminds us that parishes “are called to communion and unity.” We are not diverse simply for itself but rather to express and to live out the great commission given by Christ that all nations come to him through the saving waters of baptism.

In coming together as a community of communities, we are united in the purpose of living the Christian life. We are called to encounter the power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to grow as his disciples by building the daily and weekly habits asked of us, and then to witness to the power of his mercy to the world. A parish is not for itself; it is a community on mission!