Friday, July 28, 2006

The Ecclesial Movements and the Parish

The Couples For Christ (CFC), just days after their 25th anniversary celebration, sent a strong letter of appeal to all the active bishops in the Philippines. In a nutshell it states: “Please accept us in your dioceses and respective parishes. We love God and our Mother Church, and are zealous to proclaim the good news of Jesus to all. May we be given the opportunity to share that love with others and bring Christ to the ends of the earth.”

I am personally struck by the tone of the letter. It sounds like the voice of a stranger at the door pleading for admittance; of an outsider who begs to be accepted as part of the household. And yet they are not strangers in the parish. They are familiar faces, close relatives and friends, all genuine residents of the dioceses and parishes. Baptized that they are, they are duly recorded in the parish book, expected to participate in the activities of the community in worship and in the apostolate. They are in short the lay men and women in the parish. It is a fact, however, that for some time many of them were mere passive members of the parish, Catholics in name but not in life, indifferent to the call for the apostolate and work of mercy. And then, one day they were there in the Church, singing and dancing in groups, praising the Almighty, invoking the Holy Spirit. For them the Holy Mass ceases to be a routine to comply or an obligation to go over with. It is a celebration; it is life. Hence, they attend the Mass with much devotion and gusto. They are also seen taking care of the old and orphans; they build houses in remote barangays; they are with the poorest of the poor helping out with their livelihood programs. And, look how they love their family. These were the same lay men and women of yesterday, residents in the parish, now transformed by the CFC.

In a way, they are strangers to the parish, for they attain a spirituality that does not come from the pastoral program of the parish; nor from the inspiring homilies of the parish priest, of the sacraments that the pastor has faithfully administered to his flock, of the great example of his life. And so, like strangers, they are knocking at the door of the parish waiting to be received.

But why does the CFC or any other ecclesial community seek the acceptance of the parish? What is there in the parish that it is seeking? Is there something still deficient in the ecclesial community that only the parish can supply? Or, is there perhaps the possibility that the ecclesial movements and faith communities can eventually supply that deficiency and replace the role of the parish in their spiritual needs?

The Parish and its Significant Role. By design the parish is irreplaceable. It has a unique and fundamental role in the spiritual life of the faithful, for it is necessarily linked to the sacramental structure of the Church, the permanent core in which Christ acts through the Holy Spirit. The parish is, as the late John Paul II finely observed, the ultimate presence of the Church in a territory. It is, in some sense, the Church itself, close to the homes of her sons and daughters. It is the common home of the faithful, the first place of the incarnation of the Gospels. It is a mother who with its preaching of the Word, the baptismal font, the Mystery of the Lord’s Supper and the other sacraments gestates, gives birth, nurtures to full stature its sons and daughters. Vatican II expressed this doctrine beautifully in these words: “This Church of Christ is really present in all legitimately organized groups of the faithful, which, in so far as they are united to their pastors, are also appropriately called Churches in the New Testament” (LG 26).

Based on this theology the parish is defined by law as an organizational structure of the Church. It is not an association of the diocese, but part of its structure. It is a group of the faithful that the bishop must establish in the diocese for the convocation of the faithful around the Eucharist and the development of the liturgical life (SC 42). Structurally, it represents a part of the diocese, entrusted to the bishop with the assigned pastor as his cooperator in the care of souls (CD 30).

The parish is therefore a pastoral organization established by the bishop in his diocese. It is not an autonomous institution, but an entity that is dependent upon, yet integral to, the diocese.

Within the context of these Conciliar teachings, the Code of Canon Law defines the parish as: “A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably established within a particular Church, whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor “ (Can. 515, § 1).

The Role of the Ecclesial Movements in the Parish. The parish therefore is the locus wherein the faithful is placed to meet their Creator in the Word and the sacraments, the place where they respond to the exigencies of evangelization. However, it is limited in its resources. It cannot for instance contain every possible form of Christian life, whether individual or group. It is in this area that every parish has to be open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, that more often than not are manifested in the irruptions of ecclesial movements and faith communities.

John Paul II had oftentimes in the past expressed his optimism and confidence in the capacity of these movements to renew the Church’s apostolic action. There are parishes, he said, that are languishing, turned into mere “providers of pastoral services.” It is precisely in these cases that the role of the movements is not only providential, but important. They produce mature Christian personalities, conscious of their own baptismal identity, their own vocation and mission in the Church and in the world. They offer a significant testimony to what Christian life should be. In his enclyclical Redemptoris Missio John Paul II said these prophetic words: “When these movements humbly seek to become part of the life of the local Churches and are welcomed by bishops and priests within diocesan and parish structures, they represent a true gift of God both for new evangelization and for missionary activity properly so-called.”

Meantime, the zealous pastor of the parish, to fulfill his mission to the lay men and women entrusted to his care, has drawn up the pastoral program of the parish, complete with vision, mission, plans, organizational set-ups, programs, objectives, and activities. This pastoral organizational set-up and plans are supposed to be the standard program of the parish. Will it not be disturbed or disrupted by the insertion of these ecclesial movements into the life and activity of the parish? To this apprehension, it is good to again listen to and reflect the words of the present Holy Father, Benedict XVI, who in his homily of the Mass at the opening of his Pontificate said: “My true program of government is that of not doing my will, of not following my own ideas, but of listening, with the whole Church, to the word and will of the Lord and of letting myself be guided by him, so that it is he himself who guides the Church in this hour of our history.” In other words, in the Church uniformity is not the ideal, it is catholicity which admits of plurality, diversification.