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Posted January 17, 2005

Article: The Mission of the Contemporary Parish
Author: Bishop Howard Hubbard
Origins, Jan. 2005

“I would say that the issue of responding to the alienated, the fallen away and the unchurched continues to be the No. 1 challenge confronting our church and parish,” Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., said in a Jan. 6 speech to the annual Diocesan Leadership Symposium sponsored by the National Pastoral Life Center in New York.

“The critical question, however, is how do we respond effectively and constructively?”

Hubbard’s speech reflected upon “the mission of the parish at the outset of the new millennium.”

“The search for meaning --- what does it mean to be human --- is the religious question of the day, and young people in particular are asking it.”

“We can help people connect or reconnect with the parish and the church only insofar as we have befriended and loved them . . . The challenge of evangelization is that it it’s not so much a lack of programs or resources that is at the heart of the problem but a lack of relationships.”

Hubbard stressed the centrality of Jesus for the parish’s mission., but said, “At times, unfortunately, it seems that the person of Jesus gets lost in translation. Parishioners today must learn how to enter the mystery of Jesus, seeing how his life, his words, his temptations, his choices, his facing death and his overcoming death related to the demands of the day, to the needs of God’s people and to the fears of our contemporary world and society.”

Hubbard presented four characteristics of successful parishes:

Good liturgy and preaching

An ability to help people deal practically with their life concerns

A feeling of ownership on the part of the people

An alive quality to the parish

“It is not enough to have one or two of the characteristics for a quality parish, but all four must be present and interrelated with one another.”

Hubbard discussed parish councils, collaboration among parishes, the ecumenical dimension of the contemporary parish, polarization and the need for a new civility, the parish’s commitment to social justice and other matters.

Excerpts from Hubbard’s talk:

“To most people it matters little that Jesus walked on water some 2,000 years ago and that Peter walked with him. What matters to them, however, is to know that when they are sinking, this Jesus in whom they have put their faith and trust will lift them up. What matters to them is whether they can muster courage to step out of the boat and into the storm. What matters to them is whether they can invite others to take bold new steps into unfamiliar territory, with confidence in this Jesus.”

“Father Gerald Vann, the renowned writer and preacher, once shocked his audience when he said, “I don’t believe in the dogmas, doctrines and teachings of the Catholic Church.” Then pausing, he added, “Rather, I believe through them in the living reality beyond, in the person of Jesus Christ.” These words tells us, I believe, that what we need among our parishioners in this third millennium of the Christian era. For it is possible to be a disciple, to give a loving response to Christ’s invitation to come follow him, only if we have truly met Jesus and responded to his presence in a personal way.”

“The members of the pastoral council must appreciate that they not only have responsibility to see that the parking lot is paved and the annual bazaar conducted, but that they share responsibility for making the mission and ministry of Jesus tangible and real at this particular moment in history and in this particular space. So, too, must the music, youth, eucharist and bereavement ministers, those preparing couples for marriage, those exercising the ministry of hospitality, or those working in the parish soup kitchen, food pantry, or thrift shop, or those engaged in outreach to the elderly, AIDs sufferers, gays and lesbian or the unchurched.”

“What I would add, then, to my 1998 observation about the challenge of evangelization is that it’s not so much a lack of programs or resources that is at the heart of the problem, but a lack of relationships, both in terms of our people being willing to engage others in their search for meaning and of being confident that such an engagement is not so much a matter of having answers to questions they may have or providing programs for their formation and edification, but evangelization is a matter of being willing to listen, to understand and to walk with them in their spiritual quest.”

“Even those parishes which remain vital and viable will be able to survive only if they are willing to collaborate with neighboring parish communities in joint articulation of mission, in sharing personnel and resources and in programming together, for example, in marriage preparation, youth ministry, the operation of food pantries, social service programs, etc.”

“Especially we must demonstrate that we can keep our deepest convictions and still maintain our civil courtesy; that we can test others’ arguments but not question their motives and that we can form communities where conflicts are not avoided but resolved peacefully.”

“Evangelical daring is not power, it is vulnerability; it is not pure calculation, but simplicity of heart and trust in the wisdom and power of God. Evangelical daring is not a clenched fist, but open arms.”