[The following is the fourth part of a five-part posting examining some of the challenges of making Catholic Social Teaching a constituent part of parish life in the United States. These reflections are a product of and limited by my own social location as a white, middle-aged, middle-class male layman working in an upper middle class suburban parish. To read part one, click here, part two, click here, and part three, click here.]
[Jesus] told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matt. 13:3-9)
PART FOUR: Working the Soil
My three previous postings have been mostly analytical and descriptive of the challenges facing those who want to make Catholic social teaching a constituent part of the life of parishes. The final two postings seek to be more prescriptive: how do we go about changing the market-driven culture of parish life in the United States?
Because we are dealing with a parish culture that touches almost every aspect of parish life, changing that culture will require a commitment of the entire parish leadership. In addition, changing parish culture cannot be accomplished with a single program or a year-long focus. This work is generational (i.e. we need to think in terms of 20 year timelines.)
When prescribing strategies to combat market-driven parish culture, we are also limited by the weakness inherent in the clerical hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately the key to success or failure is the pastor. Other pastoral ministers, professionals and parish councils can be obstacles or allies, but the pastor is the only person with the power to allow or prevent this work. And even when a pastor is supportive, there is no guarantee that his replacement will be supportive.
Depending on the level of support and/or resistance from the pastor, pastoral staff and parish council, this work can be done in small or large ways. The first step is bringing together allies in the parish who recognize, at some level, that the current way the parish operates isn’t working. (There are many good studies about the loss of Gen Xers and Millennial young adults that can be used as resources for this group of allies to study. There are also plenty of studies documenting the decline in church attendance and commitment to the institutional Church. The book, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church by Reggie McNeal, while written for Protestant congregations, speaks to many of the challenges facing Catholic parishes as well.)
Pastorally it is important to create a space for these allies (i.e. Early Adopters) to acknowledge and grieve what has been lost. This pastoral work should not deny the good accomplished in the past; it should create a safe place where people are allowed to acknowledge that something new is needed. While the temptation will be to quickly construct a “solution” to “the problem,” what is needed is the courage and grace to embrace the wilderness, where asking the right questions is more important than having the right answers. (A good resource on doing this work is, Leading Change in the Congregation, by Gilbert R. Rendle, from the Alban Institute.)
When these Early Adopters are ready to begin the journey out of the wilderness, they can be introduced to the concept of Missional Theology and they can start engaging their fellow parishioners in re-shaping parish culture. The first and most important place to begin is liturgy. The liturgy is, by design, missional in nature—although its missional nature is seldom highlighted or recognized.
One way to recover the missional nature of the liturgy is through the homily. Assuming you can get the cooperation of the presiders, it is possible to lift up the missional aspects of the Eucharistic Prayer and the lectionary readings during the homily. Missional theology does not have to be the theme of every homily, but making at least one reference to the connection between the liturgy and missional theology should be included in almost every homily. If presiders have trouble finding this connection, members of the “Community of Early Adopters” should be ready to assist.
Another part of the liturgy that can help in the formation of a missional theology in the parish is the Prayers of the Faithful. Unfortunately, many Prayers of the Faithful reinforce some of the worst aspects of parish consumer culture. God is often portrayed as the Almighty Vending Machine, dispensing all kinds of goods to his people for the price of a well-written, heartfelt petition. An example of a petition to the Vending Machine God is: “Dear God, help all those who suffer homelessness to find the shelter and dignity they need.” A parish that embraces a missional theology would pray: “Dear God, may all those who suffer homelessness find in our parish a place of shelter and dignity.”
In addition to the homily and Prayers of the Faithful, it is important to connect the dismissal rite to the parish call to mission. To “go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” is to be a missional people. Inviting parishioners to stop in the narthex after Mass to sign petitions or write advocacy letters should be a regular part of liturgical culture. Giving parishioners an opportunity to sign up to volunteer at a homeless shelter, food pantry or other social service agency should be second nature in the community. In doing so parishioners learn through habit that liturgy is connected to service and justice.
These suggested changes in parish liturgies can help set the table for missional theology to take root but they do not address the central challenge to becoming a missional parish: How can a parish community discern its unique call to cooperate with God’s dream for the cosmos? How can a parish know what God is calling them to do/be? This will be the subject of my last posting.