[The following is the final part of a five-part series 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, part three, click here, and part four, click here. We are also making all of these reflections, with prayers and discussion questions, available as a free process booklet for small groups. To download this free PDF resource, 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 FIVE: Discerning God’s Call for Our Parish
In my previous post, I suggested ways that liturgy offers opportunities to move the parish from a market-centered, consumer-based culture to a missional culture. Reflecting missional theology in the liturgy is an important step in changing parish culture but it can only set the table for missional theology to take root in the parish.
Liturgical changes 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? Discerning a response to these questions is not easy to do nor is it something a parish only needs to address every 5 to 10 years. Because God’s call is both particular (unique to the parish) and provisional (changing over time), the work of discerning God’s call will need to be integrated into the ongoing life of the community–it will need to become part of the regular rhythm of parish life.
There are three sources of wisdom that need to be brought into dialogue with each other in order to discern God’s call for the parish: the experience of the parish community, the surrounding culture and our religious tradition. All three of these sources need to be put into an assertive relationship of challenge and confirmation. (A good resource for doing this work can be found in the book, Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry, by James & Evelyn Whitehead.)
The place to begin this work is reflecting on the experience of parishioners. One way to accomplish this is through one-on-one interviews with a representative sampling of parishioners. But instead of asking what they like or do not like about the parish or what they want from the parish (i.e. treating them like customers), the interviews should focus on trying to understand the world parishioners inhabit: What are their deepest concerns for themselves, their family and our world? Where do they find hope in their life and in the world around them? While this information is an important resource for discernment, by its nature it will be anecdotal.
The second source of wisdom that needs to be brought into dialogue with the experience of parishioners is the surrounding culture. This source of wisdom does not refer primarily to popular culture (i.e. fashion, fads and entertainment) but can include it. The culture this discernment process needs to engage is the wisdom available through the social and physical sciences (i.e. sociology, psychology, history, politics, economics, ecology, biology, medicine, physics etc.)
Because this source is ubiquitous and pluriform it is important to allow the experience of parishioners to frame the questions that are brought into dialogue with it. And because the information from the surrounding culture will be more analytical, it may both confirm and contest the anecdotal experiences of parishioners. When accessing the wisdom of the surrounding culture, it is also important to include the experience of those who may not be members of the parish but are important to the universal call of the church–we need to make a preferential option for the poor, the marginalized and disenfranchised.
While the first source of wisdom (the experience of parishioners) is anecdotal and the second source of wisdom (the surrounding culture) is analytical, the third source of wisdom (our religious tradition) is interpretive. Religious tradition includes the Bible and biblical scholarship as well as Catholic teaching, spiritualities, theologies and practices. These sources of wisdom help us to interpret the meaning of experience and culture. Our religious tradition also helps us to sort through the many contesting claims that are made by experience and culture. Finally our religious tradition helps us to prioritize our concerns by reminding us that the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized have a special claim on us.
The outcome of any discernment process to understand God’s call for the parish will be partial and incomplete, but this should not lessen the importance of engaging in the process or acting on its results. Understanding God’s will for the parish unfolds over time in the same way God’s will for an individual becomes clearer over time. We walk by faith, not always knowing where we are going but always trusting that God will guide our steps if we truly seek to do God’s will.
At the point where the parish leadership community feels that they have taken the discernment process as far as they can, they need to formulate missional directives that can be used in creating, implementing and evaluating parish liturgical life, formation programs and pastoral ministry. The language used to express these directives should be missional. For instance, they might begin in this way: “Created by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit our parish is called to …”
At the same time we need to remind ourselves that Jesus already saved the world through his death and resurrection; therefore it should not be on our parish “to do-list. Understanding the limits of what a parish is capable of doing is important in developing missional directives. Overreach can leave the community dis-spirited and inadequate. On the other hand, directives that do not stretch the community will not be transformative or life-giving.
Discerning God’s will for the parish is never complete or fully accurate; it is always a work in progress. We can never be assured of having the right answers, but if we remain committed to the process we can be reasonably assured of asking the right questions.
It is impossible for me to provide ready-made resources, materials or directions on how to do this work. Efforts undertaken in my own parish have had mixed results with little overall impact on parish culture. But I believe that at their best, parishes are laboratories of innovation and practical theology. It could be that some of you who are reading this post will come up with ideas and strategies that will prove to be successful. The more experiments we begin, the better chance of creating successful strategies.
Although I am not very confident in my grasp or practice of missional theology, I am confident of this: as parish consumer culture is replaced by a commitment to missional theology, we can create a rich and fertile soil for Catholic Social Teaching to grow and produce “a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”