Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Dignity of the Lowly Parish

It is heartening to note that even at the thick of so many engagements and commitments, international as well as regional, the Holy Father has still the time to focus and give quality attention to the importance of the lowly parish in the faith life of the believers. In his September 22, 2006 discourse to the group of some 100 lay men and women gathered together by the Pontifical Commission of the Laity, he called for a serious revisit and renewed appreciation of the central role that the parish plays in spiritual life of the people.

It is the “family of Christian families”, a locus where the believers individually as well as with their families assemble to hear the words of the pastors, to pray and celebrate the Holy Eucharist together, and to share their goods with those in need. The parish should be seen as a faithful copy of the first Christian community in Jerusalem. The Pope hopes and prays that the community of the early Christians in Jerusalem described graphically by the Acts of the Apostles will be reincarnated in parishes, which include not just the bustling urban ones but also those lowly parishes found in the country side and in the far distant towns and villages.

Some years ago to say that the parish must play a central role in the believers’ spirituality is unthinkable. People would rather talk of centers of spirituality where they congregate, pray, confess their sins, ask for consultation and seek spiritual guidance. In their mind is the monastery of some ascetic monks, or of some pious contemplative nuns, or some shrines that answer petitions, even the desperate and hopeless ones, a house of some religious congregations known for piety, or, even, a university chapel run by religious priests or sisters of deep spiritual mooring. But a parish to be the center of spirituality?

There was a time when parish priests were bitterly complaining regarding the strange behavior of some faith communities and renewal movements. With seeming disdain they snubbed the programs and activities of the parish. They held their own prayer meetings and assemblies, had their own out-reached programs and apostolate, invited priests as speakers and motivators, lay leaders as spiritual guides, criticized the too institutional and therefore lifeless activities of the parish.

The reason that they gave to this behavior is the nature of their communities, they are, so they said, they are transparochial. What it tries to say is that the charismatic communities are beyond the jurisdictional grasp of the parish priest. After all, they owe their spirituality and life not to the parish and its programs, but to the charismatic leader that draws them to conversion and renewal.

At surface the ground for the snobbery is valid. But when one delves deeper into the reality of their spiritual life they will be surprised to realize that parish has much to do with their conversion, that the baptismal font is the source of their rebirth. It is baptism that makes one a child of God, a member of the Church, a subject of ecclesiastical rights and obligations. Conversion is actually a return to this original grace of baptism; renewal is the return to this original conversion. “No one can enter into God’s kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit” (Jn 3: 5).

The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XI, in his August 31, 2006 discourse to the parish priests of the Diocese of Albano gathered together in Castel Gandolfo spoke articulately on the importance of the parish in the life of the Catholics. He said: “Baptism is a newness of life in the sense that, as well as the gift of biological life, we need the gift of a meaning for life that is stronger than death and that will endure even when, one day, the parents are no longer alive. The gift of biological life is justified only if we can add the promise of a stable meaning, of a future which, also in future crises -- which we cannot know -- will give value to life so that it is worth living, worth being creatures.”

The baptismal font gives life and meaning; the parish possesses this font by right; the parish priest administers this sacrament. That is the central role which the parish plays in the life of the faithful.

Moreover, the parish has the table of the Eucharist. To have this table is a right, not a concession. Here, Christ’s permanent presence is celebrated in the daily celebration of holy Mass. It is around this table of the Eucharist that the parish priest is given that unique role of bringing together the families, the young and the old, men and women, the rich and the poor, all of them to pray and celebrate together the Holy Eucharist. “Nourished by the Eucharistic bread, the parish grows in Catholic communion, walks in full fidelity to the magisterium and is always ready to receive and discern the different charisms that the Lord inspires in the People of God,” thus affirmed the Holy Father. And he continued: “From constant union with Christ, the parish draws vigor to commit itself ceaselessly in the service of brothers, particularly the poor, for whom it is in fact the first point of reference” (Benedict XI, Discourse to Sacred Congregation of the Council of the Laity, September 24, 2006, Castel Gandolfo).

Such is the dignity of the lowly parish. It has an irreplaceable role in the spiritual life of the Catholics in the place where it is established. To by pass it is a mistake.

+Leonardo Medroso, DD
Bishop of Borongan