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Posted May 14, 2009

Clericalism, ideologies hinder parish evangelization, priest says

By Catholic News Service

SAN ANTONIO (CNS) -- A "lingering clericalism that distracts and discourages laity in their God-given calling to serve" and the presence of ideological extremes can hinder parishes' efforts to evangelize, said a speaker at the national meeting of the National Federation of Priests' Councils.

Jesuit Father Allan Figueroa Deck, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, delivered one of the keynote talks at the April 27-30 NFPC meeting in San Antonio. The theme of the meeting was "The Parish of Tomorrow -- Today."

Other speakers included Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles; Edward Hahnenberg, associate professor of theology at Jesuit-run Xavier University in Cincinnati; Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio; and Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management in Washington.

In his April 29 talk, Father Deck said that, although the U.S. church "has become as much an immigrant church today as it was a hundred years ago," U.S. Catholics today are characterized by a "wild diversity."

But, he added, "the key to a successful parish is precisely what it always was: creating the conditions whereby many diverse groups experience a real sense of belonging."

Father Deck cited a number of obstacles to achieving a truly evangelizing church community, including a lack of "regard for the role women play in the church" and an "unhealthy polarization of thought" among some Catholics.

He cited concerns he has heard that some newly ordained priests "have developed a priestly identity that is not congenial to the collaborative, collegial way of working demanded by a church whose mission and identity is to evangelize."

He said "neither so-called conservative nor progressive/liberal responses" can adequately address "the wide gamut of circumstances that characterize a multicultural, multigenerational church."

"The diversity that characterizes our parishes today requires a rich diversity of responses that run the gamut from the traditional to the innovative," he said.

"The Catholic Church is fully able to hold in creative tension a bewildering range of cultural, language and liturgical preferences," he said, "from the Latin extraordinary rite to the Life Teen Masses, from charismatic renewal devotees and Sister Faustina's Divine Mercy disciples to Pax Christi social activists and the ecumenical spirituality of Taize practitioners, from Guadalupana associations to the Knights of Columbus."

"The challenge for an evangelizing parish is to create an environment of real hospitality strong enough to overcome the innate tendency, the default drive, of many ecclesial communities to close in on themselves and huddle together in homogeneous groups," Father Deck said.

He advised pastors to keep "their eyes and ears wide open to the realities around them" and to encourage the formation of small Christian communities within the parish that can be "the best environment for motivating people to put faith into daily practice."

Every parish today also must have "some bilingual or multilingual capacity," Father Deck said. But in addition to language abilities, parishes must meet the need for cultural immersion and cultural competencies, he said.

"By cultural immersion I mean programs that give would-be ministers the opportunity to experience other cultures at greater depth, whether that be by fieldwork in barrios, urban centers or rural missions in the U.S. or seminary and priestly continuing education and ministerial formation programs that immerse seminarians, priests and lay ministers in other cultures by traveling to the mother countries of today's immigrant Catholics," he said.

The Jesuit described cultural competency as "providing learning opportunities that provide an adequate level of familiarity with the principles and dynamics of cultural interaction and relations so as to prepare priests, deacons, lay ministers and leaders of all ethnicities, races and cultural backgrounds to succeed in providing pastoral care for today's parishioners."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is currently developing "guidelines on cultural competency for implementation at every level of the church's life, including, of course, parishes," Father Deck said.

He envisioned the optimal parish of the future as one in which "understanding pastors and lay leaders in good faith reach out and find practical ways to accommodate new groups rather than create the impression that 'everyone is welcome as long as they do things the way the in-group likes them.'"

"The historical experience of the U.S. church suggests that this process takes a generation, not a year or two," he added.