The importance of the parish cannot be understated. According to Pope John Paul II, it is where we become aware that ew are people of God. Heady stuff:
257. The parish is, without doubt, the most important locus in which the Christian community is formed and expressed. This is called to be a fraternal and welcoming family where Christians become aware of being the people of God. (Catechesi Tradendae 67b) In the parish, all human differences melt away and are absorbed into the universality of the Church. (Cf. Apostolicam Actuositatem 10) The parish is also the usual place in which the faith is born and in which it grows. It constitutes, therefore, a very adequate community space for the realization of the ministry of the word at once as teaching, education and life experience.
Today, the parish is undergoing profound transformation in many countries. Social changes are having repercussions on the parish especially in big cities “shaken by the phenomenon of urbanization”. (Catechesi Tradendae 67b) Despite this, “the parish is still a major point of reference for the Christian people, even for the non-practising”. (Catechesi Tradendae 67b) It must however, continue ” to be the prime mover and pre-eminent place for catechesis”, (Catechesi Tradendae 67b) while recognising that in certain occasions, it cannot be the centre of gravity for all of the ecclesial functions of catechesis and must integrate itself into other institutions.
It is not reasonable to expect, however, that the parish must be all things to all people. Where is the difference to be seen? The parish exists to support parents and form them as primary catechists of their children. It sends young people out into the world as fully-formed adults in their faith. It can let go when it brushes up against forces it cannot budge: parental neglect, diocesan incompetence, or even apathy in its own leadership.
Wondering where to begin? What do you think of these?
258. In order that the parish may succeed in activating effectively the mission of evangelization, some conditions must be fulfilled:
a) Adult catechesis (The importance of adult catechesis is underlined in Catechesi Tradendae 43 and General Catechetical Directory 20) must be given priority. This involves “a post-baptismal catechesis, in the form of a catechumenate, …presenting again some elements from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults with the purpose of allowing a person to grasp and live the immense, extraordinary richness and responsibility received at Baptism”. (Christifedeles Laici 61)
b) With renewed courage, the proclamation of the Gospel to those alienated or who live in religious indifference (Cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi 52) must be planned. In this task, pre-sacramental meetings (preparation for Marriage, Baptism and First Holy Communion of children) can be fundamental. (Cf. General Catechetical Directory 96c)
c) As a solid reference point for parochial catechesis it is necessary to have a nucleus of mature Christians, initiated into the faith, for whom the pastor should have an adequate and differentiated pastoral care. This objective can be more easily achieved by the formation of small ecclesial communities. (It is important to state as Pope John Paul II does in Christifedeles Laici 61 the usefulness of small ecclesial groups in the context of parishes. They should not however be a parallel movement which absorbs the best members of parishes: “internal to the parish, especially if vast and territorially extensive, small Church communities, where present, can be a notable help in the formation of Christians by providing a consciousness and an experience of ecclesial communion and mission which are more extensive and incisive”)
d) While the preceding points refer mainly to adults, at the same time catechesis for children, adolescents, and young people—which is always indispensable—will also benefit greatly.
Parishes are doing fairly well on d), and probably neglecting the other three to some extent. Let’s look at these in a bit of detail:
a) The great mystagogues among the Doctors of the Church used the sacramental experience of the believer as the basis for a deeper entry into the mysteries of Christ. Homilies can and should be more mystagogical, but they also need to make connections with the lived life of the believers celebrating liturgy. For homilists, is there one simple mystagogical point to make about the Scriptures and liturgy? Two or more points are likely poorer than one. Remember what is said in GDC 257 and apply it: the homiluy cannot be center of gravity for all adult catechesis.
b) Young couples preparing for marriage and for the first sacraments of their children–face it: it’s when people are there who ordinarily wouldn’t be. Are the best catechists employed for these occasions? To use a baseball metaphor, when you need to get on base to get into a game, do you have your most reliable and speedy hitter leading off?
c) Small groups. Programs like RENEW and CRHP focus on these. They are designed by experienced catechists. Keeping small groups meeting for years sustains the faith of many parish adults for many years. And while most “programs” end after a set period of time, religious publishers offer many possibilities for ongoing faith formation of these groups. There is literally an embarrassment of riches on this front. Trust me.