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Posted May 14, 2009

Critical Issues for an Evangelizing Parish

Allan Deck, S.J.

An Excerpt from talk given at 2009 NFPC Convention in San Antonio

At this point you may be asking what does all this really mean at the practical level. Here are some critical practical issues for an evangelizing parish.

1. Know Your Parish

I am old enough to remember something called the “Parish Census.” Old-time pastors were very committed to the census that I believe was highly recommended if not mandated by the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Being responsible for each and every Catholic in their territorial boundaries, pastors were serious about knowing who and where they were. The parish census was a big deal as was something called the Liber Status Animarum that pastors kept with up-to-date information on parishioners’ engagement with the parish. Today we must ask whether there are comparable commonly accepted methods and mechanisms available to pastors and how knowledgeable pastors are regarding the real demographics, the trends, the social and economic indicators affecting Catholics in their communities? My father used to say, “Ignorance is bliss.”

And I have met a pastor or two who seemed quite happy not to know much about the people around him. But bishops, pastors, religious men and women and lay leaders imbued with a vision of the Church’s mission to evangelize have to have their eyes and ears wide open to the realities around them.

What this means is that an evangelizing Church seeks to find the proper balance between deduction and induction. On the one hand our ministry must be grounded on Catholic identity as formulated in sound, authoritative teaching. On the other our applications of it must reflect knowledge and insight into the concrete reality of the people we are called to serve and prudence regarding how to accomplish the task.

What is not helpful here is an either/or mentality, as if fidelity to Catholic identity and the content of the faith meant excusing oneself from the critical questions and hard work of finding the proper and effective correspondence between faith and the world as it is, the only world in which faith can be incarnated and become life. Pope Benedict reminded us last April that information is not enough but rather there must be formation and, more than anything else, performance, that is, the faith has to show itself concretely in the lives we lead and the decisions we make.11 St Augustine got it right centuries ago when he insisted that preaching and teaching in the Church, what today we call evangelization, demands not only that we know those to whom we preach and teach, but, more importantly, that we actually love them.

2. Parish: Community of Communities and Movements

Today’s parish characterized by so much diversity needs to be a real community of communities. Parish leadership must have a sense of how the dynamic of community building unfolds. This is more critical than ever today because the average size of Catholic parishes has grown dramatically over the past decades. As parishes grow and the number of priests and religious declines parishes risk becoming mere sacramental way stations where anonymity reigns and viable communities of prayer, faith, life and service become more and more rare. Missiologist Marcello Azevedo and others have shown how evangelization as inculturation is furthered principally by participation in real communities of faith.13 The analogy can be made with Alcoholics Anonymous, probably one of the most successful methodologies for bringing about real change in people’s addictive behavior that has even been developed. It is in community like AA that people find motivation to put the “shoulds” of their life into practice. This includes making the faith come alive through one’s choices and actions. Undoubtedly, small Christian communities of one sort or another, including ecclesial movements like Cursillo, the Charismatic Renewal, Communion and Liberation, or Opus Dei provide an authentic experience of Christian community that constitutes the best environment for motivating people to put the faith into daily practice.

It is no secret that some of us priests, especially parish priests, for whatever reason do not pay much attention to ecclesial movements. Yet, as we know, the movements have become one of the signs of the times, a source of great enthusiasm and fruitfulness in the lives of the faithful. They are usually led by laity themselves and the Vatican more and more has been recognizing the rise of the movements as a positive development for the Church in our times.14 Pope John Paul II suggested that one of the ways to make the parish come alive, especially in urban contexts, is by making it a “community of communities and movements.”

3. Multilingual and Multicultural Capacities

Today’s parish must also have some bilingual or multilingual capacity. In this connection it must be made clear that I do not include Latin in the list of strategic languages to learn. There are good reasons to have some familiarity with Latin, but they do not bear much on what I am talking about here. I say this because I have heard that some seem to be putting study of Latin on a par with study of Spanish or some other fundamental language of ministry. That, in my view, makes little or no sense for a Church truly aware of the urgent pastoral demands of its multilingual, especially Spanishspeaking membership.

Closely linked to the need for parishes to have language abilities beyond English are the corresponding needs for cultural immersion and cultural competencies. By cultural immersion I mean programs that give would-be ministers the opportunity to experience other cultures at greater depth whether that be by field work 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.

By cultural competency I mean 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. For example, the Mexican American Catholic College (MACC) here in San Antonio (formerly the Mexican American Cultural Center) has pioneered such formation programs in cultural competency over the years as has the Rev. Eric Law at the

Kaleidoscope Institute in Los Angeles. The Center for the Study of Religious Life, moreover, under the auspices of several organizations of men and women religious has produced an excellent Cultural Audit that helps religious men and women orientate themselves to changing demographics within their communities and among those they serve. The methodologies and contents of this program are among the best we have for developing these essential cultural competencies. The U.S. bishops have made recognition of cultural diversity with an emphasis on Hispanic ministry one of their five priorities for the next several years. A major implication of this is the development and dissemination of guidelines on cultural competency for implementation at every level of the Church’s life including, of course, parishes. At the USCCB we are currently mounting a major effort in this direction and we will be hearing more about it in coming months.