Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parishes Transformed

A few summers ago, I was visiting one of my friends in central Illinois. He was assigned to a fading, downtown parish in the northern part of his diocese. There was talk of parish mergers. We both talked energetically, as only idealistic seminarians can, of the need for a real zeal for evangelization, of resisting the move to the suburbs, or simply moving out when demographic change has set in.

There are stories out there of urban parishes transforming themselves and becoming centers of faith, worship, devotion, and communal life again.

The first such story I encountered was that of St. Peter's in downtown Omaha, NE. The parish robustly embraced a beautiful, traditional approach to the liturgy, and focused on restoring their parish church. This video was made during their fundraising campaign. I worshipped at St. Peter's when I was in Omaha for a summer course during my seminary formation, and on a recent visit, I took some photos of the stunning, beautifully restored church.

Another such story is that of the Church of Sts. Peter, Paul & St. Philomena in New Brighton, England. The church was closed in 2008. In 2011, the Bishop invited the Institute of Christ the King to take over the pastoral care of the parish, and by all accounts it is thriving. The Institute is one of few religious institutes within the Church that celebrates the liturgy exclusively in the Extraordinary Form, according to the Missal of St. John XIII. This video, just recently produced,  is well worth the time.

This also reminds me of Holy Name of Jesus in Brooklyn, which just finished a church restoration project, with a beautiful sanctuary, and Masses in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms.

These parishes follow a model of transformation that may be termed the "restoration of the sacred," model. The emphasis is on reviving liturgy, sacred music, the church building, with a focus on highlighting beauty. Beauty is, of course, one of the transcendentals, and attractive, well, by definition! I would assume that along with this, there is also a focus on solid preaching and catechesis (reflecting the quality of formation the priests staffing these parishes have received), and a strong sense of ownership and belonging by the people. One commenter on a blog about the parish in England said that the laity are tremendously involved in the running of the place, which is what one would expect from a smaller parish with a committed laity. The parishes also attract faithful from a broad geographical area -- easily the norm in the U.S. but I suspect also in Britain. Both parishes attract younger Catholics and families.

This is not the only model of parish transformation. A very famous story is that of the Church of the Nativity in the greater Baltimore area, and the book, "Rebuilt," which follows ideas from the evangelical megachurch world. This blog is not the place that I want to comment on the merits and flaws, as I see them, of this model.

However, another story comes to mind: that of Most Precious Blood parish in Brooklyn NY. Here was a parish in a poor part of the City, on the verge of shuttering, that focused on reaching out to the new  neighbors, with a creative, faithful, youth program (run by this great ministry from Steubenville). Sherry Weddell's post from the Intentional Disciples blog in 2010 is worth a read:
Fr. Maduri, who grew up Catholic in the parish next-door, became pastor just over a year ago and responded in a remarkable way.   He sized up the situation quickly: either the human community had to be rebuilt or the parish would close.  Since the traditional Catholic population was leaving the area, he would focus on making disciples of the unchurched and apostles of the churched. 
When the parish school closed, he rented the building out and used the income to renovate the old convent into a faith formation center. He brought in two enthusiastic young evangelists, newly married Andy - with his wife, Megan - and a exuberant young woman named Kree.  They work with a Catholic group called Dirty Vagabonds, which specializes in the personal evangelization of urban youth.  These recent graduates of the Franciscan University of Steubenville sport lots of conversation-starting tattoos, live very simply in the faith formation building, and spend their afternoons going out and meeting the kids in the neighborhood and the projects nearby.  They have resurrected the parish youth group and renovated the rectory basement into an "Underground" gathering space.  After only 4 months, attendance is going up steadily – with non-Catholic black and Chinese kids. 
Fr. Maduri has also begun an outreach to local Hispanics.  He brought in Nancy, a quietly vibrant and efficient woman, whom he had worked with in another parish, to run adult faith formation.  He is forming a critical core of the parishioners, sending them to conferences, bringing in speakers to give retreats, putting on Life in the Spirit seminars, and bringing us in to teach his parishioners about gifts discernment.
But Fr. Maduri has even bigger plans.  Next year, he will be collaborating with a Catholic Chinese woman to begin reaching out to the huge number of non-Christian Chinese immigrants in the area. 
This model may be called the "discipleship" model -- where the focus is on the people, and in their being formed into intentional disciples, as well as apostles, i.e. well-formed, on-fire laity who go out of their parishes to live and share the Good News in the world. The focus is on the encounter with and personal relationship with Jesus lived out in the Church, in the sacramental life, but also in everyday life, as the central reality of the disciple's life.

Now the "restoration of the sacred" model also has an aspect of discipleship -- these communities are of generally well-formed Catholics, who have a love for traditional liturgy, and a robust sense of Catholic doctrine, tradition and teaching. The person of Christ is central. I suspect, though I don't know, that the apostolate is perhaps not as emphasized. The parish is a refuge in a secular world gone mad, an exercise of the so-called Benedict Option (again, a blog post really precludes a proper analysis of that term, which has been the subject of some interesting conversations). It may serve as a sign of contradiction, as an intriguing beacon, attracting the jaded post-modern seeker. But again, it may not. Going out, apostleship, is not emphasized, or so it seems

It is tempting to categorize these two approaches or models as fitting the teaching and personality of our two living Popes. While Pope Francis doesn't seem to say much about the liturgy (there are but a few lines about beauty in Evangelii Gaudium; this programmatic address to CELAM in Rio in 2013 warns against "restorationism," calling it the Pelagian solution; and the 2007 "Aparecida Document" [which has a Bergoglian stamp all over it], says nothing about liturgical formation), the emphasis on going out, on the peripheries, on discipleship being fruitful in everyday life, and apostleship is certainly one of his favorite themes. Pope Benedict, is, of course, known for his love of the liturgy, and his Pontificate focused on this in a special way, but he is no less evangelical in his thought and exhortation.

Of course, I would want to argue that both these "models" are vitally necessary. Discipleship and apostleship, as well as the culture of encounter and personal accompaniment, the willingness to go out and get messy, that Pope Francis talks about are vital, but so is a restored sense of the sacred, the transcendent, in our parishes and communities. Divine worship, after all, is central to who we are as Catholics, and if we don't get it right, so to speak, in this area, then the rest will be flawed as well. Another way of putting it is that the reverent celebration of the liturgy is as much a part of evangelization as is the culture of encounter, and forming disciples. A disciple, after all, is one who is transformed by the encounter with the Lord, which is renewed and perpetuated in the liturgy, the source and summit of the Christian life.

Finally, both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict (and Pope St. John Paul II -- just read Novo Millenio Inueunte, #30, for instance) emphasize the priority of God in all ecclesial activity, that is the priority of humility, listening, prayer and discernment, and warn against the temptation to operating purely out of a functional or institutional mindset.

Let me conclude this bit of a ramble of a blog post with the words of Pope John Paul, in the document mentioned above:
First of all, I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness ...  
 At first glance, it might seem almost impractical to recall this elementary truth as the foundation of the pastoral planning in which we are involved at the start of the new millennium. Can holiness ever be "planned"? What might the word "holiness" mean in the context of a pastoral plan? 
In fact, to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness is a choice filled with consequences. It implies the conviction that, since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: "Do you wish to receive Baptism?" means at the same time to ask them: "Do you wish to become holy?" It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (NMI, #30, 31) 
A parish that takes seriously this call is well on its way to transformation, to new life. 


Nancy said...


Ollllddude said...

The thing is "sacred" is not a thing, but more a state of mind. Couple of interesting snippets that grabbed attention from the daily readings a few weeks a good:

"What we do here in church requires a pure heart, not special garments; what we do outside requires great dedication.....

For God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts....

What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs?

- attributed to none other than St. John Chrysostom

Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

We are both body and soul and a state of mind is not independent of a state of body. It's the Incarnational principle. St. John Chrysostom's very real commentary against adoring churches *at the expense* of helping the poor is wrongly taken to mean that the externals are unimportant, or that churches should be ugly.

Ollllddude said...

Wrongly taken? Seems plain to me even in full context. But what about Matthew, Chapter 23? And why is a plain church an ugly church? If ostentation is beautiful to you, fine, but recognize that simple can also be beautiful. And while a state of mind is not independent of a state of body, why add unnecessarily to what the Creator has given us?

I love Mass when I can be a full and active participant. In my mind, simple and regular promotes that idea. Yes, reclaim the scared, but sacred is intangible; it is of the heart. Show me sacred.

Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

I don't see anything ostentatious in what these three parishes have done. As to full & active participation and simplicity -- I didn't say anything about this. It sounds like you're reading something into the post. This is hardly surprising, given how neuralgic these conversations tend to be.

This isn't just about subjective taste. Beauty has an objective dimension, and the tradition, in a variety of ways, has passed that on to us as well, a tradition that has been rejected, with marked deleterious effects on the life of faith.

"why add unnecessarily to what the Creator has given us?" We shouldn't use instruments (other than the voice)? Wear clothing? I'm perplexed.

The sacred is a state of heart, but it has an external manifestation.The externals also shape the internal. If it is entirely intangible, then, well, what's there to reclaim? Why even have liturgy? Or revelation? All we need is interior illumination...

I do want to affirm what (I see) as one of your points: a focus on beauty can devolve into ostentation, into a split between externals and the heart, a legalism condemned by the Lord, and a formalism that is alien to the Gospel. I agree. (Hence also the other model and the need for both.)

This doesn't eliminate the need for externals. If that's what you're saying then we disagree in principle, and I'm not sure much more can be said.