The Vision of a Parish, Part 1 Diagnosis

Part of Catholic tradition is striving towards excellence, that whatever we do, we should do it to the very best of our ability. That is why, historically, Catholicism has produced the greatest art, architecture, music and writing.

As American Catholicism sought to find its identify, caught in the cross fire of a Protestant individualism, democratic social values, the sexual revolution, and the tragic impact of psychology in the 1960’s and 1970’s, this quality of excellence is largely absent in the typical Catholic parish. In the wake of a technological revolution and an American can-do attitude, the focus has been on a superficial “full, active participation” reduced to how physically active (by singing, processing in, serving on the alter) the congregation member can do. In an effort to reach out to new people, the modern small parish’s vision of evangelization, the music (as the primary way one can fully actively physically participate) has been dumbed down to the point of songs filled with over-used clichés, under use of the organ which has pride of place in Roman liturgy, and tunes that more closely align with pre-school television theme songs (“My Little Pony”) than Bach’s “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” or anything in the Roman Gradual.

Additionally, beyond art, the history of Catholicism has enjoyed enormous organization when society was in a time of upheaval. Though corruption existed, as it has since Adam, during the so-called Dark Ages, monastic life flourished, preserving culture, evangelizing peoples, and educating women. Today, in the struggle to find volunteers and the priest shortage experienced in many dioceses, whoever is willing is accepted to volunteer and thrown into the trenches without preparation. This has reeked havoc on many a religious education program whether for adults or children. Hiring practices have resorted to nepotism. While some family approach is appropriate, staff members should be trained, educated in the mission and culture of the parish life. It is the receptionist who greets the suffering soul coming to the Church for guidance and refuge. If he or she is cold, unprofessional or uninformed, the soul is at risk of being more wounded than when he or she walked in. I have seen efforts in offices to do whatever possible to avoid “bothering” the priests who are overworked.

What is the level of openness at the typical Catholic parish? In order to withstand the rotating door of priests or pastors who are burnt out, poorly placed, many lay people have dug in their heels declaring this “our parish” and “this is the way we do things.” It is one thing to preserve a vision and culture, it is another to withstand change and new ideas. Too many elders in parishes view changes introduced by new staff or new clergy as a personal attack. Are we concerned about service and outreach, or my community where I am fed?

The purpose of a parish is to do the work of God, through sacraments, preaching and evangelization. Parish boundaries are often larger than reasonable for the one or two priests to act as the priests in Bing Crosby’s classic film, Going my Way. More organization is needed.

What is evangelization but marketing with an intent to reap eternal riches or souls rather than material, earthly riches? How many parishes consider their public image? Rather than present a vision and seek a strategic plan to reach that vision (other than a vision of multicultural unity), priests and parish administrators often take what they can in the way of volunteers and employees and go from there. Overworked, perhaps, grateful if less people would come through those doors.

This state is a tragedy.

In my next post I will explore, what I feel, are important components for a successful American parish.

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