Tuesday, 7 September 2010

So what would a "New Evangelization Parish" look like anyway?

The Canberra Archdiocese (and I suspect others) has launched a campaign aimed at parish revival.  A noble aim.

 But so far the propaganda is largely content-free, instead featuring all the buzz words you can imagine such as 'Strong Leadership', 'Dynamic, Involving Worship',  'An Evangelising Pulse', and 'Small Groups', courtesy of an approach being propagated by Martin Teulan
Small groups and the vision thing

One can hope, but the very choice of words tells you almost everything you need to know I fear. 

I have to admit I shudder at the very concept of small group lead revival - isn't it small groups of a vocal minority of a certain age that have largely gotten us into the mess our parishes are mostly in at the moment, causing the majority of catholics to stay well away?  And what about the role of priests, who are after all the proper leaders of the parish?

And on "relevant visons", if there is one lesson we might draw from the past it is that if you want to start with a revival or renewal process, it is best to start with a real, concrete end goal in mind, not just some woolly feel good vision to which we meander as the spirit leads.  Because even if the process isn't hijacked by those who do have an explicit agenda, the spirit that leads may not be a benign one!

Learn some lessons from business strategy - a vision is not enough, you also need some concrete, measurable goals so you know where you are heading and can measure your progress (and thus adjust your strategy) along the way.

The focus of the latest archdiocesan puff piece seems to be on getting people to engage.  Trouble is, no one will step up unless they have an idea what they are stepping up for.  So perhaps its useful to try and articulate what the ideal revived parish might actually look like...

So I'm going to have a go - tell me what I've missed or gotten wrong...

The vision thing

The objective is surely to have a parish where:
  • where a very high proportion of Catholics practice their faith actively, attending mass each Sunday and making use of all of the sacraments as appropriate (ie marry rather than cohabit; don't divorce; have their children baptised; go to confession regularly; receive the last rites);
  • where Catholics believe what the Church teaches;
  • where the spiritual lives of Catholics are actively supported through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours (or Divine Office), devotions, etc;
  • where there is a strong sense of community and mechanisms for mutual help;
  • where the community is collectively active in carrying out the works of spiritual and corporal mercy;
  • where Catholics are well equipped through good catechesis and support groups to act from a catholic perspective in their jobs, in politics, cultural and social lives;
  • where visitors are frequent and many choose to stay and join the Catholic Church.
How do we achieve that?

1.  An attractive Church that looks and feels like a Church, not a meeting hall

You need the Church building itself to be put to work to attract potential parishioners.

First that means it actually needs to be open for a reasonable amount of time during the day for people to just drop in, find out about mass times, and pray.  Set up a roster of parishioners to open up the Church and be there if necessary for safety purposes.

Secondly make sure there is lots of readily available information in the foyer on the parish - upcoming events, how to get involved, where to find out more about Catholicism.

Thirdly, make it the real centre of parish life.  Daily masses.  Rosary.  Office (the priest has to say it anyway, so why not say it while sitting in the confessional waiting for people to come, or at least in the Church with the opportunity for others to join in).  Daily (?!) confession times.  That start on time and are advertised.

Most importantly, make it as attractive as possible.  We've been stuck with some real clunkers.  But there are things that can be done with even the most badly designed church.  Like rip out the carpet and any of those weird fugly 70s mosaics/paintings; put the tabernacle back to where it belongs behind the altar; put in statues and icons; get nice vestments; dress up the altar with a nice frontpiece and use the "Benedictine" altar formation with candlesticks and a crucifix; and allow people to light votive candles.

2. Good liturgy

We don't need 'dynamic, involving worship': that sounds like Hillsong!  What we actually need is inspiring beautiful liturgy that actually promotes genuine engagement of the mind, not just lots of self-promoting external action.  We need to ditch the informality and the ad libs, and resacralize the mass - try some chant and Latin for example. Ground the parish's thinking by staging a few Extraordinary Form masses as a point of reference perhaps (or better yet, make them a regular part of the schedule!).

There are two useful new pieces on the ABC website worth reading on this.  First on the need for better liturgical language and dropping those pseudo-rituals beloved of too many priests, Deliver us from idiocy.  Then on hymns,  Tracey Rowland offers an injunction to ditch "sacro-pop" - and yes she does mean those Marty Haugen specials have to go.   Better yet, ditch the "four-hymn sandwich' altogether and use the actual propers (in English or Latin).  A extract from Dr Rowland on my favourite hymn (whether in English or Latin):

"The archives of the Haugen and Hass Moratorium website contain a number of excellent parodies which explain, more directly than any extensive theological analysis, what's wrong with sacro-pop.  Here is a slightly modified version of "Gather Us In":

Gather us in, the rich and the famous
Gather us in, the poor and obscure
Gather us in, the slightly eccentric
And all the late-comers out there by the door

Gather us in the hairy and balding
Gather us in, the skinny and fat,
Gather us in, the chic and the frumpy
and anyone wearing a bit flowered hat..."

Even in its pre-parody form it is obvious that the account of the relationship between God and the human person which one finds in "Gather Us In" and similar sacro-pop songs, is completely different from that to be found in, for example, "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent" or "Firmly I Believe and Truly."

One does not have to be a theologian to discern the difference. Sacro-pop lacks the pathos of the great hymns of the Christian tradition and it diminishes divine glory. There is not the same sense of awe and of self-transcendence and only the most oblique references to the Incarnation, Passion and Redemption...."

3.  Good sermons

This is the chance for some solid catechesis - something with a hard edge and some practical applications.  Too often it is just irrelevant sentimental waffle dressed up as Scriptural commentary.

Preach on the importance of confession for example - and keep preaching until they come.  And make some actual confession times available.  Offerings such as "Fifteen minutes before Mass on Saturdays and Sundays" is just not good enough.

4. Engaging the community and looking out

The priest is the best person to start the process of creating a genuine sense of community and mutual help.  If he is available before and after Mass (rather than dashing out as soon as Mass is over, or hiding out in the sacristry), people can make known to him that they need to talk - without the whole intimidating process of making an appointment.  And let's see our priests making their thanksgiving in the Church!

The priest should also be the central person in the support network on who needs spiritual or material help, knowing who is in trouble, being there for them with the sacraments and advice, going after lost sheep, and calling in others to help as necessary.

And then we need to foster the kind of lay associations/activities you should expect to see in every substantial parish - such as:
  • Choirs - have one for the children, one for most Sundays, one for special occasions/Gregorian chant perhaps;
  • Altar servers guild (boys only, and work to explicitly foster priestly vocations);
  • Adoration/Church opening roster;
  • Church beautification group - make it a guild for the girls perhaps (and teach them cool skills like icon painting, rosary making and vestment making, not just flowers and brass polishing!)?;
  • Catechesis for the children (because let's face it, Catholic schools aren't doing it.  Personally, I like the 'Sunday School'/children's liturgy model being adopted in some places where the kids are taken out of Mass during at least the readings and sermon;  
  • Education and ongoing support for parents/young married;
  • A youth group;
  • A pro-life group;
  • Some active works of charity (soup kitchen, etc) and evangelization (such as Legion of Mary);
  • Adult catechesis of some kind both for Catholics and Inquirers.
5.  Have a strong web presence

If you want to reach out to lapsed/uncatechized catholics, revive and evangelize, you need to be active on the medium the rest of the community is - so you need to look seriously at a web page, perhaps a facebook page, a blog and/or a twitter account....A way of letting people outside find you and learn what you stand for, a way of keeping your own community in touch with what is happening, and providing additional catechetical and support resources.

Personally I like cute concepts like the twitter feed of the Summa, section by section, and Fr Finigan's new '#anathemasiturday'.  His sample entry: "If any one says, that by those words, Do this for the commemoration of me (Luke xxii. 19), Christ did not institute the apostles priests; or, did not ordain that they, and other priests should offer His own body and blood; anathema sit." (Council of Trent. Session XXII. On the Sacrifice of the Mass. Canon 2.


Focus first on building agreement on where we are actually heading.  Once we can agree on the blueprint, then we can start worrying about how to actually build it.

And if you think people are spread too thin to even start thinking about all of this - try ditching all the special/Extraordinary Minister roles and refocusing on what really matters. They are, in the main, totally unnecessary and a distraction from where the real focus of the laity should be.


R J said...

This all seems very sensible, and I should like to think that it'd be workable. My one query about it has to do with the fact that in most parishes I have seen at first hand, the congregation consists of (a) the 5% of individuals who actually do something in the organisational field from week to week (animateurs, as the French might call them); (b) the 95% who coast along, regarding Mass as simply a Sunday morning social club.

Yes, it's true that not every parish is like this, thanks be to God; alas, too many are. Myself, I should love to see (if I may misquote Diderot) the last Eucharistic Minister strangled with the guts of the last altar-girl. Thing is, most of those who insist on filling these roles would simply drop out of the Church if they couldn't fill them any more. Which might be a good thing, for those who are sick of their antics, but which isn't going to improve overall numbers.

Felix said...

One minor point. I was off work for about a year and would "pay a visit" to the local church most afternoons. I was struck by how people would occasionally drop in to pray (not on a regular basis but on and off).

Now that PP has gone and several priests run a mega parish. And the church is closed on weekdays after Mass.