Overwhelmingly, the most common experience of Catholic priests, parishes, and dioceses is one of overwork, hackneyed originality, and shortness of funds. In truth, we are in survival mode; few parishes or dioceses have any growth or effective plans for the future years.
Most Catholics no longer know what mission is. They hopelessly confuse it with social justice. A downhill spiral is evident in the practice of merging parishes, stretching priests as pastors to a number of communities, and importing overseas priests to plug gaps. None of this has halted the general decline. Indeed, frustrations at not having sufficient parish pastoral care is increasing, along with often hastening decline in the parishes that no longer have a resident priest living in the nearby presbytery.
A more adverse message to parish culture, history, and future hope is hard to imagine than deeming a center unworthy of having its own priest. This is not intentionally the message of the diocese to such parishes, but the “subconscious,” on the ground feeling is usually one of abandonment and inevitable decline.
Recently, I encountered the extreme outcomes of this system whilst on holiday in France: an 87-year-old priest in charge of ten centers, with no help—each village church receiving a daily Mass and pastoral care on a ten-day cycle. If we do not change and do mission soon, we risk joining Anglican and other Protestant groups whose critical mass of parishioners is unable to develop new growth. Catholic decline in previously vibrant Catholic nations such as France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and even Italy are a severe reminder of a bleak future without action.
How can we transform our circumstances? First, it needs to be noted that mission is not easy; in reality, it is hard work, mostly concerned with error and failure. We need to get used to this common experience of lack of success and harness the ability to never give up and to start again.
Success only comes when we develop an unyielding attitude to our failures and errors. In truth, most parishes have never tried mission. Fear of failure ensures that we continue to do what we have always done, in a mistaken belief that things will change. As of now, things haven’t improved by doing more of the same.
A central dimension of mission psychology is to move away from the idea that the exclusive role of the priest or parish is about getting new people to join—yes, mission churches expect that to be an outcome but not because you are offering programs, progressive ideas, extra Masses, or more prayer groups. Underlying mission is the critical idea that mission is Catholic culture in action. Mission is what you do, but you are not “selling” programs, services, Bible studies, or anything else. Mission involves “living” and expressing your Catholic culture and values.
An illustration may be helpful. Let’s imagine your church identifies and decides to support a number of unmarried/single young parents in your area. Prior to initiating any food relief, help with the children, tutoring, or any other practical initiative, you must emphasize and stress the Catholic value that you wish to give prominence to. In this case: we are a church that values family life, we support young families (regardless of past circumstances), we are a community that “lives family life” and is prepared to put our time, efforts, and finances behind our words. The point of this emphasis is not only for the young family in question, but it is a didactic experience for both parishioners and those outside your community.
You must be able to highlight and commend family life from what you are doing with local families; you must be seen and known as the pro-young-family church. And, you must be regularly defending what you do and why in local magazines, in flyers, in community forums. This is not advertising; it is a much deeper projection of your culture onto your local area.
Our purpose is not only to affect the lives of these local families but to transform the lives of our community, to establish our unique Catholic value in our society. We are the people who stand for family; that is our central value and, as a by-product, without condemnation we are also saying we support marriage, we support two-parent families, we recognize the value of fathers in family life.
We must be prepared to say this is what our actions and deeds are pointing to. This is the basis of all mission—transformation of the world. Unfortunately, we have forgotten this central understanding and side-tracked our energies into a survival model, which only makes statements about how wonderful and caring we are.
Mission is living our culture and values, radically different to our local communities which often say that individual success is the highest human achievement. All mission is founded as Christ’s words: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).
Too many parishes and priests are content to allow things to happen to them. They prefer a quiet and uneventful life. Unfortunately, this is not the life that Christ Himself promised His followers; opposition, family dissections, loss of friends, self-doubt, mistakes, and martyrdom are firmly on the list of possibilities.
If we add a society that has reached a level of contentedness, and with it a disposition that incessantly calls to government or other authorities to do things, then it should be expected that mission initiatives can be met with a view centred on “why should we have to do this?” The answer is Christ’s response to his disciples prior to the feeding of the five thousand: “You give them something to eat!” (Mark 6:37).
Authentic Mission is local mission. It will not necessarily be workable in the parish five kilometres away. You are not them. So discuss, design, and initiate something new and unique for your environment, operated and owned by your people.
Christ calls us to do mission in our area. That is a unique and special charge given only to you. Overwhelmingly, Authentic Mission is usually small and intimate. Your job is to speak to those within your boundaries that have not yet heard of you. If you are not prepared to own and direct your own mission, why would others do it for you? Authentic Mission is different because it works through you. Your first step is to get that local initiative airborne. Where it takes you is God’s business.
[Photo Credit: Pixabay]