Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Raising the Image of the Parish

It is rather unusual, but definitely significant, that the Pontifical Council for the Laity took a serious look on the parish, that ultimate unit of the institutional structure of the Church. This occurred just recently when at the instance of the Council a good number of Cardinals, bishops, priests and lay people gathered together in Castel Gandolfo. For three days, from September 20, 2006 to September 24, it discussed the theme: “To Rediscover the Parish: Paths of Renewal.”

As it is the Pontifical Council of the Laity is not directly involved with the affairs of the parish. The reason for its existence is after all the “promotion and coordination of the apostolate of the laity and, generally, in those matters respecting the Christian life of lay people” (Pastor Bonus, 131). It is due to this entrusted mission that they took the initiative to call together the ecclesial communities and faith movements to Rome to confer with the Holy Father regarding the place of the charisms in the Church, invited archbishops and bishops for conference in the City for consultation on the charismatic phenomena and their proper locus in the institution of the Church, patiently encouraged and steadily guided these communities, reviewed their statutes, set standards for lay formation, took the lead in the preparation for the World Youth Day Celebrations, and all such activities. Hence to veer its attention to the parish life is strange, if not interesting.

For sure it is not to intervene in the affairs of the local Church. It is rather to revisit the parish to see its potential as the proper locus for the gestation, growth and missionary activities of these charismatic communities and lay movements. Concretely it was to discuss how the parishes respond to the needs of the lay faithful, the clergy and the faith movements. The Holy Father who was invited to the conference, appreciated the initiative of the Council in taking interest in the parish which he believed plays a central role in Catholic life. After all, he said, “the parish should be understood as a family of Christian families" And then, he added: “A new face of the parish is possible and that is a task for everyone: priests and laymen together” (CWNews, September, 2006).

Needless to say a similar topic was already discussed by the same Council sometime in November 2004. It was on this occasion that Cuzman Carriquiry, the undersecretary of the Pontifical Council, declared: "More and more, the field of action for the laity passes through their concrete participation in parish life." His reason for saying this is his observation that Catholic families today are mobile, constantly moving in and out of parishes. “To meet these new pastoral challenges,” he continued, “ it is very useful for the parish to be acquainted with the various lay associations active in the area” (CWNews, Nov. 2004).
With this development the local Church, particularly the parish, should take another hard look into itself and appreciate the treasures that it possesses. Come to think of it, the parish by design plays the fundamental role in the spiritual life of the faithful, for it is linked to the sacramental structure of the Church, the permanent core in which Christ acts through the Holy Spirit. As John Paul II succinctly put it: “The parish is the ultimate presence of the Church in a territory.” Before him Vatican II described this unit of the faithful in this way: “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). In short, the parish possesses all the elements for salvation, that is, the baptismal font, the table of the Holy Eucharist and all the other sacraments that were established by Christ in order to gestate, give birth, nurture to full stature the sons and daughters of the Church.

To uplift the parish life, however, the pastor should not just be contented with having the sacraments and dispensing them to the faithful. The preaching of the Word of God, constant catechesis, missionary activities within the parish, pastoral plans and organizational set-up are needed for the parish to be alive and participative. It is on this level that the parish priest should realize that he cannot do it all. He has to look around, discover the charisms of the lay faithful, the lay movements and faith communities that are sprouting in the locality. They are not activated by Holy Spirit for nothing. They are there ready to be availed of as agents and close collaborators in the pastoral endeavor of the parish. In his talk to the priests of the Diocese of Albano, the Holy Father said: “The parish priest cannot do it all! It is impossible! He cannot be a "soloist"; he cannot do everything but needs other pastoral workers. It seems to me that today, both in the movements and in Catholic Action, in the new communities that exist, we have agents who must be collaborators in the parish if we are to have "integrated" pastoral care” (ZE06092401).

However, to call these charismatic movements and communities to work in the parish, integrating them into the program and work of the parish, demands from the pastor and the faith communities much prudence, wisdom and patience. As John Paul II exhorted the bishops in a meeting in Rome in 1999: “Your first task, in fact, is to open the eyes of your heart and mind to recognize the multiple ways the Spirit is present in the Church, to reflect on these and to lead them to unity in truth and charity”( ZENIT990620).

The first task of the pastor is to recognize the specific charism of each group and respect it for what it is. It is this charism of the founder that renewed the parishioners to the faith, sustained them to this new found spirituality. Ecclesial movements and faith communities have therefore their own unique way of expressing the faith. That has to be respected; their uniqueness to be upheld at all times.

For their part, the lay movements and faith communities must be aware that their faith is not somewhere in the air, but exists in the concrete reality called the local Church, nay, the parish. Any movement is a concrete ecclesial reality, the reason for its existence is in its communion with the Church. This is a communion that has to be lived in relation not only to the Roman Pontiff, but most especially to the local Church where the initial discernment of the charism has been done. The Pontifical recognition is indeed an honor, but not at all a license for the community to declare independence from the parish life and structures. Rather, it is a constant reminder to the community to integrate itself deeper into the parish life. As the document Christifideles Laici wisely admonished the charismatic communities: “No charism dispenses a person from reference and submission to the Pastor of the Church” (n. 24). Hence, communities have to listen to the invitation of the parish priest to be integrated to the existing parish structures. Sensitive issues have to be ironed out, frictions doused off through constant dialogue, childish jealousies sloughed off.

To rediscover therefore the parish is a twofold task. It is the task of the members of the faith communities and lay movements to discover their true identity, that is, they are not just members of renewal groups, but they are first and foremost sons and daughters of the parish. Secondly, it is the task of the parish priest to discover within his own parish the vast wealth of pastoral and spiritual opportunities deeply hidden by the Holy Spirit in the heart of the members of these lay movements, ready to be tapped for the renewal of his parish.

Bp. Leonardo Y. Medroso, DD
Bishop of Borongan