On Monday 20th July, the Vatican released a document, an ‘instruction’, about parishes. Firstly, let me say, I have found this document deeply encouraging and a wonderful reminder about where to focus our aspirations on, but I will also concede that there’s also a significant amount of detail about parish structures (which I found much less inspiring, but useful nonetheless!).
As with all Vatican documents, the paragraphs are numbered. After a brief introduction with lots of references to existing documents, quotes and scripture (paragraphs 1 – 5), it then moves to discuss the parish in a contemporary context. This is where it starts to get interesting:
The territorial configuration of the Parish, however, must confront a peculiar characteristic of our contemporary world, whereby increased mobility and the digital culture have expanded the confines of existence. On the one hand, people are less associated [with a] geographical context; on the other hand, the digital culture has inevitably altered the concept of space, together with people’s language and behaviour, especially in younger generations’Paragraph 8, The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church (2020)
In the introduction, we are urged to use creativity, and in paragraph 14 we are called “to find new forms of accompaniment and closeness.”
A task of this kind ought not to be seen as a burden, but rather as a challenge to be embraced with enthusiasmParagraph 14, The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church (2020)
At this point, there is some very strong language, a warning if you will, that we cannot continue with ‘same old, same old’. Although it does try to couch it in sympathetic tones, there is a very clear message for parishes who are continuing with the status quo:
Their generous dedication notwithstanding, the current Parish model no longer adequately corresponds to the many expectations of the faithful … As a result, any pastoral action that is limited to the territory of the Parish is outdated, which is something the parishioners themselves observe when their Parish appears to be more interested in preserving a nostalgia of former times as opposed to looking to the future with courage.
Moreover, mere repetitive action that fails to have an impact upon people’s concrete lives remains a sterile attempt at survival, which is usually welcomed by general indifference. If the Parish does not exude that spiritual dynamic of evangelisation, it runs the risk of becoming self-referential and fossilised.Paragraphs 16-17, The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church (2020)
Think of your own parish – does it honestly ‘exude that spiritual dynamic of evangelisation’? If not, your parish is genuinely facing becoming outdated, fossilised and inadequate.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this document is not full of damnation – although it is brutally honest. It actually spends a lot of time encouraging and calling us to be authentic, to spend time with the people of the parish and wider community, a bit like that phrase from Pope Francis back in 2013, where he encouraged priests to be ‘shepherds living with the smell of the sheep’.
The document also strongly encourages all members of the parish to be involved in the missionary focus of the parish, and not just a select few or the ordained priests and religious:
The pastor who willingly serves his flock with generosity, must instruct the faithful, however, in such a way that each member of the community feels responsible and directly involved in caring for the needs of the Church in a variety of ways and in a spirit of solidarity.
The mission required of the Parish, as a central driving force of evangelisation, concerns the People of God in its entirety: priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, and the lay faithful, each according to their respective charisms and the responsibility that corresponds to them.Paragraphs 40-41, The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church (2020)
This is followed by a large section about structures and instructions for parishes, priests, deacons, administrators, appointments, parish councils (including finance and pastoral councils), and offerings (paragraphs 42 to 121). While much of it comes across as rules and guidelines, it is still useful (although not directly relevant here). The context appears to be setting boundaries for those examples where there are not enough priests or where a Bishop may want to close a parish, and making sure parishes are not left with temporary or sub-standard arrangements that can stifle their development and hinder their ability to perform “its primary function, that is, being a force of evangelisation”.
The present Document, therefore, besides underscoring the urgency of this type of renewal, presents the canonical norms that establish the possibilities, the limits, the rights, and the duties of pastors and the laity, so that the Parish might rediscover itself as a fundamental place of evangelical proclamation, of the celebration of the Eucharist, a place of fraternity and charity, from which Christian witness can shine for the world. The Parish, that is, “must remain a place of creativity, of relationship, of motherhood. It is there that this inventive capacity is realised; and when a parish moves forward this way, it achieves what I call ‘the parish on the move’ “Paragraph 123, Conclusion, The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church (2020)
There’s no doubt in my mind that we need to reconsider the use of digital tools in our parishes and communities to reach out with the Good News. This encourages me to know that I am on the right track, and that we can and must integrate this into the way we move forward.