Why Parish?

Sep 13, 2020 | 34 comments

Malin Chapel, Co Donegal – Diocese of Derry

Now in even deeper crisis, our Irish church will need ‘all hands’ in all parishes to get to grips with renewal.  But what would it take to revive a parish community?  Here Aidan Hart offers the fruits of his own experience.  

As the number of diocesan priests and vocations to the diocesan priesthood rapidly diminishes in many parts of the world – Ireland having only one ordination in 2020 – there is increasing discussion about closing or amalgamating parishes.

However, few people in charge of the closures and amalgamations ever seem to identify and discuss with parishioners the purpose of the parish and the parish structures that would help effectively to realise that purpose. In organisational management, this is called Agreed Aims and Realistic Objectives, the latter being regularly and rigorously reviewed to assure their ongoing, successful realisation.

The parish, like the Church it is intimately part of, is meant to be a community of faith, hope, love and service. The parish community should thus work unceasingly to increase the faith, hope, love and practical service between all its members and to encourage and facilitate the growth and quality of that faith, hope, love and service as it moves outwards to the wider community.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.
But the greatest of these is love.”  (1 Corinthians 13:13)

The sacraments, especially Eucharist, are a divine feeding to strengthen all parish members in their daily programme of outward moving, ever-growing, deepening and widening unconditional love.

The risk is that the sacraments, and particularly Mass, become solely personal and inward-looking, part of a privatised religion and privatised spirituality. How many parish clergy and parish councils seek to identify, encourage and guide the parish in bringing about the vision of St. Paul in Romans 12:27 & 28?

“Christ’s body is yourselves, each of you with a part to play in the whole. And those whom God has appointed in the Church are first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, after them miraculous powers, then gifts of healing, helpful acts, guidance, various kinds of tongues.”
(1 Corinthians 13:13)

I suspect few parishes would score highly on encouraging and developing the above charisms. Current parish life tends unconsciously to encourage, rather than challenge, privatised religion and a merely inward-looking spirituality among many of its members.

How does your own parish score, in terms of the programme of action laid out by St. Paul in the above quotation? Why not share your results with other readers, using the Comment facility below, without necessarily naming the parish.

My own recollection of a serious attempt in the Catholic Church to realise St. Paul’s vision was Charismatic Renewal. Sadly, it eventually died in most parishes for want of clerical participation, encouragement and guidance.

The only way to change things is through a Vatican II vision of what the Church, and hence parish, should be about, and through dialogue with the whole parish about a plan of action, built upon the inspirational and supportive role of the Holy Spirit in its midst, and the unconditional love of the Father. That divine love flows through Jesus the Christ into our midst and demands expression through all parishioners in service to each other and to our local community.

Every marriage should be a lifelong relationship of increasing, reciprocal, active and forgiving love, every home a cell of love, hope and faith. All those cells are the building blocks of a loving parish, in service to one another and to their wider community and imbued with the presence of God, reaching out to transform society. Love is the breath of God, forever incarnating itself in the everyday life of the home and parish.

                        “For the love of Christ overwhelms us….So we are ambassadors for Christ.”  (2Cor.  5)


  1. Mark maguire

    We are all called to play our part by baptism to become living cells within the Body of Christ, THE CHURCH. Just as in the human body when each part is working in tandem it promotes the bodies growth. Likewise when each and every member is embraced, encouraged, enlightened and educated in the fact that we all belong to the Royal priesthood ie each member becomes priest, prophet and King and in so being we are all called to the salvific mission of Jesus Christ. Then our faith and Tradition can be passed onto the next generation. This is our Faith tradition and heritage which dates back to St Paul’s time.

  2. Mark maguire

    In my view all parishes need to start their renewal by every member of the faith community being given the opportunity of partaking in Baptism in the Spirit seminars. This would be a wonderful starting point. It would refocus and recalibrate our minds for it is not our plan but God’s plan. This in my opinion would lead and educate each and every single member of the Body of Christ, The Church if they really embrace and be trusting in the Holy spirit the way forward all as one in unity with the Holy spirit. Forget about being entrenched about a particular view. Let everyone be open to the will and direction the Holy spirit wishes to bring our Church Communities. The breath of the Holy Spirit must be discerned by each member of our faith communities in order each member can discern their own diverse operative working theology and contribute all working as one with a harnest zeal which can be directed and unleashed, going out from our churches and encountering people that do not come into direct contact with the church. But can encounter Jesus Christ by your actions an inter actions with them,as members of the Body of Christ, THE CHURCH.

    • AIDAN

      That is a great suggestion Mark about Baptism and Life in the Spirit seminars, and one with which I totally agree. The joy and enthusiasm which accompanied those seminars were tangible and contagious, They brought faith alive.

    • soconaill

      What accounts for the studied blanking of the Holy Spirit in most of our Irish experiences of church, the failure to do exactly what Mark is advocating here, and what Lumen Gentium obviously called for in 1964? It is almost as though our bishops and clergy had privately agreed that to affirm the right and need for all of us to pray for all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, fervently, from Confirmation on, would instead be too dangerous. And how many have ever heard a rousing homily on Jesus’s insistence that we be ‘born again’ – as adults – the obvious scriptural source of the practice of Baptism in the Spirit? (John 3: 1-21)? As the church’s crisis deepens, so does this mystery. And here, surely, we also see clearly why, in that blanking of the Holy Spirit, lies the explanation of the immediate departure of most of those Confirmed at age ten or eleven, from further contact with the church.

  3. Bernard C. Phelan

    The traditional Parish is not really a community, but rather, as someone commented, a crowd. The numbers are too great for a community and people are present as individuals. In my experience the only way forward is to encourage the formation of Small Christian Communities within the Parish. These normally are formed of about ten families and bring together people on the basis of becoming a real community. They meet on a regular basis from home to home and share the Word of God among themselves applying it to their lives. Leadership ideally moves around the community. From time to time they are invited with other small communities to share Eucharist. Thus the Parish becomes a Community of Communities. The role of the Priest is to visit the communities and preside at Eucharist from time to time.

  4. Bernard C. Phelan

    In my experience, traditional parishes are not really communities. Someone commented that they are crowds. There are too many people for a community and most of those present are there as individuals. In my experience the only way forward is to build up Small Christian Communities. These are usually formed of about ten families. Leadership moves around the families. They meet regularly from home to home. They share the Word of God and apply it to their lives. From time to time a number of the communities are invited to come together to share Eucharist. The role of the Priest is to visit the communities and to preside at Eucharist. Gradually the Parish becomes a Community of Communities.

    • Aidan

      Bernard, your comment about the large parish being organised into small communities or house groups reflects what is often said about large primary and secondary schools – that the large school community is only as good as the strong community aspect of individual class and form groups.

  5. Liam Mc Grath

    As someone who left the institutional church many years ago I am least qualified to comment on the Aidan’s article and the subsequent comments, other than to say I despair.
    Phrases and words are used in a manner that is all but meaningless to the average person and smack of an elitism that should have no place in religion.
    Surely the parish – as it has developed in the West – is simply an administrative unit whose purpose was and as far as I can gather still is directed from further up the organisational chain. In recent times it has never been about community. If one sought and needed the warmth and succour of a caring community the parish was not the place to find it.

    • Mark maguire

      A hierarchical structure is needed to the point that it facilitate the growth of the church community. When it goes beyond the point of facilitating the growth of our church communities, then it becomes in my view merely an administration run by administrators, not pastors. This is my view why parish life stagnates. I know its hard for priests with all the extra work load in our day and age even having the energy to try and continue to build faith communities. Ultimately though the life of our parishes is down to our priests weather by being a pastor that leads from the heart which connects with people so our parishes not only survive, but rather trives or is led by administrators who lead with the head and run the risk of stagnating parish life eventually leading the parish to fade away into insignificance so our faith tradition and heritage is not passed onto the next generation. I would equate it by being a pastor you are the captain of the team. Encouraging your players to work for each other and the common good of all the team. You are helping to build and strengthen your church community whom you are shepherd. I really think that Pope Francis is making the correct appointments as bishops. Pastors whom have the smell of their sheep. It will take in my view a few years to trickle down but already I can see a shift from working out of the administrative hierarchical model towords a more pastoral, Servent leadership model of Jesus.

    • soconaill

      I’m guessing, Liam, that ‘Lumen Gentium’ is one of those ‘words and phrases’ that ‘smack of elitism’? Believe it or not Aidan Hart has an article here complaining about the use of Latin to name RCC documents and asking for it to stop!

      Meaning ‘Light of Nations’ Lumen Gentium was a 1964 document of the last full council of the world’s bishops, ‘Vatican II’ (1962-65). It was intended to make the church a warmer place for everyone, and less of a ‘barracks’ – but our bishops did not see the need for it – and the necessary ‘loosening up’ never developed down to parish level in most of the island. The making and enforcing of regulations relating mostly to sexual relationships and family life by the hierarchy left too many priests fearful of speaking their minds in case they might be reported to Rome. And then, to compound that disaster, came the sex abuse scandals, beginning in Ireland in 1994. The demoralisation that caused still underlies the present even more extreme crisis caused by Covid 19 – so here we are!

      Please don’t hesitate to call us out for any other use of ‘in house’ jargon here. We need to realise the obstacle that may well cause problems for visitors, and change our ways.

      That article of Aidan’s complaining about RC ‘in house’ use of Latin is ‘Language which Alienates’.

      See: https://acireland.ie/language-which-alienates/

      • Kevin Walters

        @ soconaill on 15/09/2020 at 1:31 pm

        “And here, surely, we also see clearly why, in that blanking of the Holy Spirit, lies the explanation of the immediate departure of most of those Confirmed at age ten or eleven, from further contact with the church.

        A recent quote by Pope Francis
        “We are not orphans, we have a Mother in Heaven.” Sure, of this, we can never fall into the sin of despair, a sin which has a powerful pull today.

        When they couldn’t find him, they went back to Jerusalem to search for him there. Three days later they finally discovered him in the Temple sitting among the religious teachers, listening to them and asking questions. All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
        His parents (Earthly Parents) didn’t know what to think. “Son,” his mother said to him, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.” He responds “But why did you need to search?” he asked. “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Cuts the apron strings so to say)

        Later leading to, ‘do whatever He tells you’, “you must love the Lord thy God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” manifest in “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

        Accumulating in the resurrection and this promise. “I will not leave you behind as orphans, I will come to you” as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”

        While we can reflect on these Words “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, (Spirit) living in me, who is doing his work”

        So, if we are true to His teachings our promise is that The Holy Spirit (God Himself) will
        dwell within us also. Which is true for/of all His Saints including His exulted Mother. As His earthly creatures we are always the container never the contents.

        Yes, we are taught that we can pray (request) that the saints intercede on our behalf but ultimately that intercession must glorify God alone, leading to “For whoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother”

        Taken from the interesting article see the the link below
        “At a time in Church history when Western theology is rediscovering the role of the Holy Spirit, it would be good to emphasize more clearly the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity’s “power to act” – also in the form of popular belief.
        After all, the ancient litany, Veni Sancte Spiritus, implores the Holy Spirit to “heal that which is wounded” and “correct what goes astray”.
        Why must all popular devotion revolve around Mary and other saints? Many Catholic theologians have rightly pointed out in recent decades that Mary often takes the place of the Holy Spirit, for example as “Advocate” and “Comforter”.

        Where has our creativity gone? Why do Catholics of our day and age so often, and too eagerly, cling to devotional practices that have been surpassed by their own Catholic theology? The question is whether these kinds of old practices keep the faith alive or, on the contrary, stultify it and turn it into a museum piece”

        kevin your brother
        In Christ

    • Aidan

      Liam, when you say “Phrases and words are used in a manner that is all but meaningless to the average person and smack of an elitism that should have no place in religion.” I would be very interested to learn which phrases and words in the article you found to be such.

      • Liam Mc Grath

        Aidan, these are some of the words and phrases that I and, I am sure, others find a hindrance to fully understanding your article: –
        Charisms – what’s wrong with the much more common ‘charisma’ which is a word most of us are reasonably aware off and understand.
        Privatised religion- I wasn’t aware that the practise of religion was a nationalised industry. Why use a phrase like that as if somehow personal spirituality was not quite right. Can I only have a relationship with God through the Church?
        Then there is the use of analogy / metaphor which seem to have become more real than that with which they are compared. To talk about the ‘feeding’ of the soul to explain the spiritual fulfilment of the soul’s momentary touching of God’s eternity through the Eucharist is I believe, to miss the point. Nor are we all parts of a body busily going about our assigned tasks to maintain that body, rather each of us is God’s unique creation striving to do His will in a far from perfect world.

        I could go on about the constant rehashing of outmoded concepts that for most people are now little more than fairytales. All I will say is that truth is unchanging, language isn’t. If you want to revitalise the parish revitalise the language you use to better reflect the actual world in which we live.

        • soconaill

          There is an important difference between charisms and charisma, Liam – but I will leave Aidan to explain that.

          By ‘privatised religion’ I believe Aidan is describing a religious observance that lacks a lively social dimension, even in communal liturgies such as the Mass – because an individual is so concerned about ‘saving his own soul’ e.g. by constant private prayer and meditation, that he misses Jesus intention that we become joyfully aware of our need for relationships that go beyond our own close families and develop our capacity to become sources of happiness to others. The typical Irish Mass is too often ‘a perfunctory gathering of strangers’ for that reason, with neighbours seldom if ever taking the time to get to know one another and to discuss issues that have become critical for the survival of faith. As the purpose of the liturgy is ‘communion’ i.e. the forming of community and social solidarity, that purpose is defeated if everyone simply comes and goes without taking time for ‘chat’, wrapped in their own private intentions and prayers. This is a critical issue now, because young people cannot understand the point of this behaviour and simply opt out after Confirmation – and ‘faith schools’ are not fulfilling the primary purpose for which they were formed.

        • AIDAN HART

          Liam, I like your explanation of Eucharist as a “momentary touching of eternity.” Some might find it an ‘outmoded concept’ but I find it deeply spiritual and meaningful.

          Charisms, as listed by St. Paul in the article above, are spiritual gifts or graces of the Holy Spirit given to people for service to the Church; ‘charisma’, on the other hand, is a “compelling attractiveness or charm” which some people show or exude towards others.

          I will leave it to those reading the article to comment on whether they agree or disagree with your evaluation of the article as a “constant rehashing of outmoded concepts….which (you) and others find a hindrance to understanding (the) article”.

  6. Sandy Corbett

    That “few people in charge of closures and amalgamations ever seem to identify and discuss with parishioners the purpose of the parish…. ” raises a profoundly fundamental issue about the structure of the Church as a whole, namely, should She open Herself up to a more democratic form of government, or not. Gone are the days when the only literate person in the parish was the priest! Parishioners, these days, are well enough educated and open minded to understand and take into account the broad picture which “the few people in charge” have of the situation, and can give constructive input to broaden the understanding of those few. Indeed, it would be prudent of the few to reserve judgement until after discussing with parishioners. This would lead to a more cohesive community.

  7. Patricia

    In my country sub parish Covid 19 has resulted in a revitalisation of the parish. The requirements for cleaning and stewarding have been generously responded to by the laity and the priest is saying Mass 5 days a week (versus the once a week before Covid) so everybody can get to Mass at least once a week, those who are working go on Sunday. I think the Pandemic is going to provide an opportunity for the laity to step up, and just in time

  8. Marjorie Corbett

    How very refreshing to read your article, thank you Aidan. I am lucky in that where I live we have a very strong close-knit church community largely fed spiritually from within the community itself, making the most of scripture, sharing together in groups etc. and united with other such groups throughout the diocese. (Thanks to the Jesuits ‘outreach’ (Prego) communications each week.) However our experience of the officialdom in this diocese is something else – we have a Bishop who is not at all pastoral and would seem to be living in a pre – Vatican II ecclesiastical bureaucracy to whom Ezekiel Ch 34 vs 1 – 11 could be directed! Most parishes nowadays are composed of very intelligent, well informed, spiritually mature and knowledgeable men and women in its congregations as is ours, but we are largely ignored and never consulted. On a very positive note I find the final sentence of Ezekiel so true “I am going to look after my flock Myself and keep all of it in view.” Indeed Our Blessed Lord does just that.


      Thank you Marjorie.
      You are greatly blessed in belonging to “a strong, close-knit church community largely fed spiritually from within the community”. I wish all parish were like that.

  9. Noel

    In response to Patricia’s comments the lay faithful have never, in my experience of parish, failed to support the church. In fact if the ‘faithful’ had been less generous with their support, particularly with their financial support, we may have earned greater respect, appreciation and recognition from our clerical leaders. Even during the worst years of the clerical sex- abuse scandals, while we were horrified by the details, we continued to support the parish – even when we lost faith in the institutional church. In using the term ‘we’ I’m referring mainly to the older generations who were indoctrinated in a particular form of religion in the second half of the last century. The generations so disappointed by the failure to fully implement the changes recommended by Vatican 11 and the same generations who were probably most devastated by the decades of revelations and scandals. In many localities this group is all that remains of the traditional parish. Many in the younger generations have ‘moved on’ and regard us as irrelevant, hardly worthy anymore of attention or criticism. The decline may be slower in more rural areas but in the larger towns and cities it appears irreversible. The pandemic may well accelerate the decline as attendances at masses are restricted and churches in Dublin may well be forced to close again in the face of surging numbers of Covid cases in the city and surrounding areas. One practical consequence of the virus [as we know] is the rapidly deteriorating financial position of many diocese. In the Dublin Archdiocese support staff, including key pastoral workers, are being made redundant. These are the realities for many in parishes we have supported and worked for over the years.

    Aidan’s ‘renewal’ is a huge challenge in current circumstances but is nevertheless worth working for. In my view any hope of renewal depends on a fundamental reform of our church. The tired and discredited hierarchical model which survived for centuries has failed miserably in the face of the challenges posed by the evolving society of the last few decades. The church has to embrace change at all levels to survive. Yes, change will be very difficult, especially for those accustomed to occupying positions of authority, but it can also be very positive and might even lead to a level of rejuvenation and renewal. And, while everyone will not be satisfied by change, it important to emphasise that change doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning all church teachings and traditions. This theory has been used by many in positions of authority for too long to defend the model of church that has led us to the current crisis.

  10. PHILIP

    The crisis in the ordination of new priests is no longer on the horizon. It is now with us, as Aidan points out. Will the amalgamation of parishes be a part of the solution? It may be a way of guaranteeing Mass and the Sacraments to the people, even though to a lesser degree. But is that enough? Surely bigger parishes will weaken the sense of “belonging” whenever we should be thinking of strengthening it. The problem of fewer numbers of priests will be with us for some time into the future. Yet Christ’s mission on Earth needs to continue and grow. People still need to meet in prayer and study, to receive the Eucharist and to administer to the needs of the local community. The means of doing this already exists in the many dedicated parishioners living amongst us. Several parishes with progressive priests and active parish councils, my own included in North Belfast, already harness that enthusiasm to “love God and my neighbour” in a practical way by active participation in parish life. What is lacking is vision from the Church to shape that enthusiasm and action into a structure which will give hope, spread faith and provide charity in a very unpredictable future.

    • soconaill

      That last sentence sums up the situation perfectly, Philip. Given the crisis of priestly manpower, the delay in moving to co-responsible structures has been highlighted by the Covid crisis. This is why, this week, the ACI Steering Group has reminded the Irish Bishops Conference of our 2019 proposals for moving decisively to co-responsibility by recognising the importance of the common priesthood of all baptised Catholics. Those 2019 proposals can be found here:


      In November 2019 the bishops received a report on our pilot research study of parish pastoral councils and other indicators of progress towards co-responsibility in Ireland. This was predictive of slow progress, and the likelihood of the absence of vibrant PPCs, in most Irish parishes – as well as low morale among many of those interested yet frustrated by lack of progress.

      Patricia’s comment here suggests that the Covid crisis may be changing that situation, as greater reliance upon lay people now becomes essential – so the next meeting of the bishops on October 6 and 7 could see progress towards your vision of the future. We can all pray for that.

      Clearly you and your parish colleagues are already exercising your priestly role. That is the future everywhere now.

    • AIDAN

      Your point is well argued, Philip. One answer to the current dire shortage of priests, which is likely to be a very long term issue, is to keep parishes small and have them run by a full time, trained and suitably remunerated lay person (man or woman) or deacon. That person would work under the direction and guidance of a local lay council and an area priest (circuit leadership as practised by Methodists) who would visit, where possible, to celebrate Sunday Mass and other sacraments. When not available a trained lay person or deacon would conduct Sunday and daily prayer services and distribute Holy Communion. The deacon could also administer the sacraments of marriage, baptism and the Last Rites. That model would keep parishes small and more easily developed into spiritually and socially active communities, working closely together at various levels for the Kingdom of God.

  11. Cornelius Bray

    What is it one is speaking of when one speaks of Catholic Community?

    I worked in a support service organisation which once spent a few days developing a charter and language of community. I was absent on those days. At the next meeting the leader presented a document containing an enriched affective expression of community and requested a response from each person present. All signed up to it verbally, apart from a few of us (Time ran out!). It was never mentioned again. The primary attention returned to the work in hand. No new or extra sense of community or trust emerged. The existing commitments continued. For most people extra effort eventually correlated with the competitive element which set in on realisation that rationalisation was in the offing.

    Community cannot be created by fiat. What is it? What does it look like, sound like, feel like. Does everyone need it? How is it created?

    Acts 2:42-47 describes community among the first believers:

    And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

    Basically the early Christians devoted themselves to the Sacrifice of the Mass, to the teaching of the Church, to prayer and good works. The latter required personal sacrifice. There is no evidence of name calling, labelling, stereotyping and seeking personal influence and power rather than humble service. How does one avoid woke community in this age?

    There are Catholics lucky enough to have a priest who allows them to experience the liturgy as outlined in the Roman Missal. Reflection on same reveals data on the use of personal pronouns in the text. The pronoun “I” is used in the Confiteor (“I Confess” and “I ask), in the Credo (“I believe) and at Communion (“I am not worthy”). At some weekday masses it is used only once. The related pronouns elsewhere are “we”, “us” and “our.”

    Four things stand out here. 1) All of the pronouns are part of prayer. The whole purpose of Catholicism is to get to know God. Prayer is the central means of achieving the theological virtues conducive to getting to know God. 2) Priests who adhere to the Missal actually lead the laity in prayers with and for each other – a vital activity for all elements of community. 3) Prayers for the salvation of souls abound in the text of the Missal. All Catholics have already entered eternity, and in the prayer of the Church in the Missal God enjoins on them to pray for their own and others’ salvation. Yes, that of all others! And for all others daily wellbeing to boot. “Deliver us (Them?) O Lord from every evil…”

    The fourth element of note here derives from the post Consecration prayer in Eucharistic Prayer II. Here the congregation thanks God for being counted worthy a) to stand in the presence of God and b) to minister to Him. This is the essence of participation in Catholic Community. Everything we do or say or think has to be in the awareness that we are standing before God. I have borrowed this idea from Pope Emeritus Benedict who regards worship as a combination of liturgy allied to ministering to God and neighbour between liturgies, always standing before God.

    Celebration of the Mass as Sacrifice is the life force of community. The Credo is a communal expression of shared beliefs in the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” So a Missal-led Sacrifice of the Mass is community in action. This is the starting point, the fuel, the source of the insight necessary for understanding the notion of Catholic community. Private prayer is a vital component. Awareness of concern for others is creatable through the “we, us, our” pronouns. The old maxim remains true: the more individuals grow closer to God, the more they grow closer together. This is our means of knowing what Catholic community actually is. Getting to know it is not a laboratory exercise.

    Reception of the Eucharist independent of disposition is not an automated instrument of community creation. Communicants must be in the state of grace and must approach the Sacrifice of the Mass with “humble and contrite hearts.”

    My rural parish has 840 inhabited houses. The average Sunday attendance prior to the Wuhan virus was 350-400. In effect there is the geographical parish (the commune) and within that but visually different from it on the Sabbath is the operative Catholic parish. This latter has to be the first focus in the development of Catholic community.

    Given the fractured nature of Catholic belief Catholic Community has to be God’s creation. Thus justified laity leadership and participation in it requires growth in the virtues through prayer and good works. The laity in the Catholic parish need a renewal from the Gospel with ongoing catechesis and evangelisation based on the transcendent rather than on sociology. They need mission, pastoral care, the mystagogy of the sacraments. Administration Science reduced to the secular conception of man comes second.

    One can’t assume an ability to work pastorally with priests unless the basic meaning of the ordained priesthood is sought out. The only “presider” at any Sacrifice of the Mass is Jesus Christ. There is no point in transforming the sacrament of ordination into a professional system of paid functionaries, of shifting the politically understood ‘power’ from the bishops and priests to a leadership of laymen and lay women. This strips away the scriptural understanding of the ordained priesthood. One of the most enriched instructions on this is sourced is the recent book of Cardinal Sarah and Pope Emeritus Benedict – “From the Depths of our Hearts.” Such will not appeal to some. But community cannot be formed if some sources of insight are spurned, if some questions are left unasked.

    • soconaill

      It is intriguing, Neil,that the authority you refer us to regarding ‘the ordained priesthood’ is itself both extra-scriptural and extraordinarily late – given the signal failure of the Irish ordained priesthood of the Ratzinger / Benedict era to build parish ‘community’ in Ireland.

      As Jesus must be the model for Christian priesthood, and scripture tells us that he began his ministry by rejecting power and status – and warned his followers against ‘lording’ it over anyone – and based the central Christian ritual on an act of total surrender by himself, how is it Christlike to do the very opposite of these things and then claim a scriptural mandate for so doing? You seem to be entirely blind to the historical impact of the political empowerment of the church upon ‘priesthood’ more than two centuries AFTER the scriptural record was complete – and to the reality that all of the great scandals of Christendom – including the ongoing and as yet unresolved child abuse issue – followed from that post-scriptural shift.

      That is not to say that ALL Irish priests have failed to build community, but our experience and recent pilot research on lay co-responsibility strongly points to the most successful clergy being those who practise personal humility combined with respect for lay people, for the charisms of the common sacraments of initiation, and for the need to delegate responsibility to the unordained. Those who on the contrary stand fast on the canonical prerogatives of the ordained – e.g. to dispense altogether with PPCs – are bequeathing a wilderness.

      For me the dedicated career of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI has been extraordinarily tragic, especially for Ireland. Who else bears more responsibility for the freezing of Irish church relationships in the wake of the council, when only ongoing and frank dialogue between priests and people could have kept us afloat as a gale of social change set in, and prepared us for the internal revelations that could never have been suppressed indefinitely?

      The Creed is true but it is self sacrificial love and not the policing of doctrine that verifies it – and still today it is the fear of dialogue and consequent lay-clerical apartheid that set in post 1968 that is our most critical problem. We are as petrified still as was eastern Europe following the collapse of the Berlin wall.

    • AIDAN

      Cornelius, your experience of failure after the group you were working with spent time on developing a charter of community is typical of organisations that put a lot of time and effort into writing grand aims but never get around to writing clear and measurable objectives to realise those aims and never set an annual date for the rigorous evaluation of how well all the objectives are being put into practice and are proceeding. Without a set of clear objectives (what, when, by whom) and their regular, critical evaluation of how they are working, the exercise is just window dressing.

      I totally agree with you that community cannot be created by fiat but nor can it be created by just hoping that it will happen of itself. That is why I stress consultation and agreement on the clear objectives of action by all those involved. The description of the programme of action by the early Church in Acts and other New Testament writings is no more than very broadly helpful as the culture and historical reality within which that programme took place and was recorded in Sacred Scripture is very different from societal and parish cultures today. Your basic summary in para.4 is spot on but remains as general aims that require more detailed plans of identifiable actions.

      After a lifetime of participating in the celebration of Mass in many different countries and parishes, none of which had any real sense of community among more than a handful of attendees, I doubt if reversing the language of Eucharist back into Latin or Gregorian chant (much as I love the latter) will create the sense of community experienced by the early Christians.

      However, something must be fundamentally wrong with how parish and Mass are currently being experienced to explain the rapidly increasing rate of lapsation and dire shortage of vocations in the Western world.

      I agree with Sean about the contradiction inherent in your final argument about what priesthood is for and what it currently claims total and sole authority over.

      Thank you Cornelius for taking the time to share your thoughts with all our readers.

  12. Cornelius Bray

    Sean, what parts of the Benedict-Sarah book entitled “From the Depths of our Hearts” underpin the assertion that it “is itself both extra-scriptural and extraordinarily late?”

    The sacrifice of the Mass is much, much more than a ritual. Every Sacrifice of the Mass is a participation in the continuous paschal mystery offering of Jesus to the Father in Heaven whose current form went into action in heaven at the Ascension and will never stop.

    The phrase “For me” at the start of the fourth paragraph is important. It has to be taken on board. So does every other “for me” if the process of community formation if such is deemed necessary and operable. It supports the contention in my submission that only God can form community. No priest can do it alone, as many have found out.

    The following sentence is not about you. The challenge is to change the “for me” into the “do this” as desired by God.

    And the “this” can be varied. I’ve just listened to the conversion story of an former a-theist on EWTN. Initially all he wanted on conversion was to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass in the most reverent form of it he could find. In line with this he offered to act as a server. This led to his being asked to teach catechetics classes. He exclaimed “What the hell, I didn’t bargain for this.” The point is that there are many “for me” concepts of parish community. Indeed today as in previous periods of serious upheaval in Catholicism, there are many “for me” concepts of church and theology. Christ would still associate love of God with keeping the Commandments. He would still say that his Way and Life cannot be separated from him as Truth. All the “for me” stances can only be brought together by Christ.

    • soconaill

      Your first question, Neil: I meant simply that you were referring us not to scripture itself but to a recent commentary upon it.

      I agree that the Mass is ‘more than a ritual’, yet to become that ‘more’, to become formative of community, the personal sacrifice that grounds its meaning (Jesus’s decision to abjure political and religious power and domination and to affirm his Father’s ‘preferential option’ for those who suffer from the abuses of those kinds of power) must be understood and fervently expressed by whoever presides. With the scandals of Christendom still vivid, and its passing inevitable, it is time to recognise that under Christendom the meaning of the Mass inevitably became less clear – as though the God whom Christ loved was now less concerned for the poor than the maintenance of medieval order and the medieval social hierarchy. As Jesus was vitally concerned with the injustices of his own time, and sacrificed himself for that reason, any Mass celebrated today, to become ‘more than a ritual’, must reflect an awareness of the injustices of our time.

      The ‘closed book’ of Catholic social teaching in Ireland reflects a medieval theological tendency to represent God as essentially concerned with self-vindication, via Jesus, rather than with building his kingdom on earth via our concern for the least fortunate of our own time, inspired by Jesus’s example. There is no other way of explaining what happened in the 20th c. Irish residential institutions for children and unfortunate women in the very decades when Catholicism had greatest political and social status in Ireland. During those same decades the Holiness of the Mass was often extolled while the call to social justice was ignored.

      And young people are nearly always missing from Mass today because they see no connection between it and the deteriorating world outside, including the dangers that world poses directly to themselves.

      • Mark maguire

        The church’s social teaching is supposed to be the Catholic church concern for the poor, our brothers and sisters on the margins of society. Maybe there would be more connections made with the ordinary people if this was preached from our pulpits on Sundays. When Jesus saw something not right he challenged it, and thus pointed people to Gospel values which help shape culture/society. A culture or society which is not built on the gospel values of Jesus Christ serves nobody.

        • Aidan

          Mark, I fully agree.

      • Aidan Hart

        Sean, I think Catholic social teaching has long been a closed book throughout the Catholic Church. It is hard to see Catholic social teaching in the support some members of the American Catholic hierarchy and many lay Catholics are giving to President Donald Trump.
        Your theology of Eucharist is deeply spiritual and according to the teaching of Vatican II.

  13. Neil Bray

    In my first contribution the question was posed: What is [catholic community]? What does it look like, sound like, feel like. Does everyone need it? How is it created?

    So if the contributors to this thread were to gather in a parish setting how should they go about approaching its creation.

    In particular how would one know it had been created?

    What would they seek from each other?

    • soconaill

      I have suggested to Neil that this question is important enough to warrant a new discussion – initiated by a short feature article explaining why he asks us this. His own succinct account of what he sees as the essentials of Catholic Community would make a good start to what is bound to be a lively discussion.

      • AIDAN HART

        Great suggestion, Sean. I trust Neil takes you up on it.


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