The Parish Paradigm

Do you ever wonder if the present parish paradigm will still be viable a generation from now?

Parishes will still be around, as canon law will assure that the “juridic person” is still alive. This juridic person, however, may change its looks as it ages or choose to have a face-lift and in the process change in a way we cannot predict. The way the Church develops can surprise us. Would the founding Church fathers recognize the Church if they were able to jump 1,974 years ahead? Would today’s parish be anything they had envisioned or experienced?

The Acts of the Apostles states that the early Church “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

Given that description, those early Christians would not recognize parish life today. And, if we could time-travel back we would not recognize parish life in the early Church. While Acts does not give particulars or share much about how it actually occurred, the “juridic person” has evolved since then. In some respects progress may have been made; and in other ways, the Church might have digressed.

modern parish
In today’s more mobile society, parishioners do not need nor do they look for the local parish church to take care of their social needs. The parish is there to provide a place for their spiritual formation. The Crosiers photo

One of the digressions may be the whole concept of parish registration. If an early Church founder could call upon most of our parishes today to be a godparent to a nephew, he probably would walk away without becoming a godfather. I wonder how the early Church kept track of everyone. Did people register? When Paul wrote a letter to the Church at Ephesus, who got to read the letter: the staff or all “registered” parishioners?

Parishes today spend an inordinate amount of time writing back and forth to one another testifying as to whether one is a registered parishioner or not. If they are, the dear uncle can be a godfather. If he is not, he’d better register soon if he wants to be the godfather to the niece who made him an uncle for the first time. The whole registration process, though useful for communication and keeping track of who our parishioners are, has gone a little bit too far when we start drawing lines in the sand as to who can be baptized, married or even buried from the parish. The horror stories are still being written, “This wedding cannot happen here because you are not registered here.” Once a young couple hears those words, they most likely are not going to register there or anywhere but they certainly are still going to get married whether at the courthouse or at First Baptist down the street.

We Americans can be too strict when it comes to rules. Registering in a parish is our desire for order but when does that order actually clutter up the process. Many cultures do not have parish registration. With the world getting smaller and people traveling more, recent generations (say, Generation Y, now in late their 20s or early 30s) have a strong sense of the “catholic” mark of the Church. They experience that mark in a different way than their grandparents’ generation who could not imagine being anything but Catholic. The previous generations seem so attached to a parish that they would probably prefer that the third mark of the Church be “parochial” and not “catholic” (One, Holy, Parochial Church). Generation Y people see themselves belonging to the universal Church, and they just happen to experience that global Church where they are at the time, be it at the Newman Club at college or the parish around the corner from where they work this year — next year it will be a different job and therefore a different parish. The mobility of society today might encumber the idea of belonging to the local parish but does not encumber belonging to the universal “catholic” Church.

Church history
Would the founding Church fathers recognize the Church if they were able to jump 1,974 years ahead?
W. P. Wittman photo

Just think of how businesses worldwide have changed over the years. The day of the local grocery store or the local bank that has maybe two branches in your town are over. What was once a small-town bank named for the town or the founding family is now swallowed up by a national or even an international bank. The local bank is gone. My bank can now be recognized up and down the East Coast and beyond. And even the idea of going to the bank is getting more and more obsolete. People see themselves more as belonging to a national or global bank than as possessing any allegiance to a local franchise. This phenomenon is becoming more widespread. Commerce is more universal and less local.

It is not a stretch then to understand that, if most pieces of one’s life are becoming less local and more national or global, the next generation would see Church more “catholic” than “parochial.” They see themselves joined to, registered with the Catholic Church by their baptism and, therefore, they see no need to register with the local Catholic parish down the street.

How people envision parish for their daily life today is not how it was two generations ago. The nostalgic stories that older parishioners share of how the parish was “in my day” are truly eons from how people envision their parish today. Years ago, the parish was the center of their lives. Even centuries ago, the parish church was built in the center of town and life revolved around it. In the previous generation, it was similar to that. The church may not have been the geographic center of their lives but it certainly had a major role in their social life. People today do not need or use parish in that way. In today’s more mobile society, parishioners do not need nor do they look for the local parish to take care of their social needs. If young parishioners want to go out to dinner on a Sunday night, the parish bulletin is not where they are going to look to see what time the chicken dinner or the Sodality potluck supper is being served. People just go where and when they want. Generations ago, sports leagues revolved around the parish. Baseball leagues and basketball leagues were legion.

Priests sit around at deaneries and bemoan the fact that people just come to church now on Sundays and aren’t being seen until the next Sunday. People are accused of using the church only on Sunday, as if there is something wrong with that. It infers that they are just using the church for something, and that it should be used in this way. The way they see it, the parish is there for their enrichment; the churchgoers are not there for the parish’s enrichment. Who exists for whom? The parish church is there to provide a place for their spiritual formation. Now it needs only to be the spiritual resource for people, and the Church itself can concentrate on doing that well.

The last three popes have traveled the world, which certainly helps in allowing people to experience the Church as “catholic” (universal). Obviously, popes are well-known figures, and Pope Francis has made quite a first impression. If people see him as their pastor and go to Mass wherever they end up each weekend, they probably see themselves belonging to and registered via baptism in the Catholic Church, but not at Our Lady of the Neighborhood down the street. The mentality is “If I belong to the national bank, I should not need to register at the local branch.” If I was baptized at Église Sainte-Marie in Paris, isn’t that good enough? If the Church is truly “catholic,” why can’t St. Mary Parish in New York see me as a member of the Church and let the poor uncle be the godfather to his niece?

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese.