Parish That's Vatican II Church at Its Best: One Sign Is Surviving a Charismatic Founder

By Roberts, Tom | National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Parish That's Vatican II Church at Its Best: One Sign Is Surviving a Charismatic Founder


Roberts, Tom, National Catholic Reporter


COLTS NECK, N.J. -- The intersection of the career of Fr. William Bausch with the founding of a new parish, St. Mary's, in this bucolic swatch in central New Jersey, was a bit of serendipity that had implications far beyond the usual appointment of a parish pastor.

Both parish and pastor, in the 24 years since, have gone on to achieve a certain measure of fame in Catholic circles. Bausch is known as a writer and, increasingly, a speaker. He has authored more than a dozen books on parish ministry and liturgy and on storytelling.

The parish, in turn, is looked on far and wide as a model of collaborative, post-Vatican II worship and ministry. But countless parishes have flared as beacons of hope only to fizzle when the visionary pastor who started it all retires. So perhaps as impressive and important so what St. Mary's has come to symbolize is the fact that the parish seems to have weathered the event that so often destroys a good thing -- the dreaded change of pastors.

When Bausch announced a year-and-a-half ago that he would be retiring from the parish to pursue other interests -- writing and conducting retreats and speaking about spiritually -- parishioners here feared the worst.

"I came here very conscious of the fact that for years many have openly wondered, 'Once he's out of there, what's going to happen?"' said Fr. Ed Griswold, 50, a Bausch protege and the pastor of St. Mary's since June 1995.

From the start, he was aware that a lot of people were watching. Could it possibly work here, post-Bausch, in this place that was so inventive and feisty that the chancery types in Trenton were known to refer to it as the Diocese of Colts Neck?

Griswold, who before his appointment here was a professor and spiritual director at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, sees the transition as a challenge. "This is not about a man, this is about a church." He has transferred the challenge, in a number of public settings, to the people themselves.

"I have said to people, 'It was important for St. Mary's to become what it is. It's just as important for it to continue to model this kind of church for the rest of the church and to live it ourselves with the transition. ... In one of my more excited moments, I would say this is even more important than ever. We've got to make this thing continue because it can work, it does work, and if people elsewhere see it working they begin to take the risks of having it happen in their own parishes."

When bright ideas were confronted by reality at St. Mary's, Bausch, determined from the start to turn the "ownership" of the parish over to the people, was more than as good as his words. This parish is a community in a way that most parishes can only dream. It is lay-led and organized in a way that, for many, exists only as an idea of some church of the future where an acute priest shortage requires extreme measures.

The list of ministries and activities is daunting -- it takes a 72-page handbook to outline it all -- from "Procedures and policies concerning reception of the sacraments" to massage therapy offered by Sr. Pat Reynolds, to workshops ranging from how to cope with downsizing in the '90s to sessions on women and money matters. Support groups and one-to-one ministries and education programs abound. The handbook includes a month-by-month calendar of all predictable events.

If the parish is heavy on lay leadership and collegiality, it is not a free-for-all or busyness for its own sake. There is a considerable amount of deliberation behind all the activity.

Planning was one of Bausch's strong suits. "He is the most thorough person I've ever met," said Joe George, a retired credit manager for Chevron and now coordinator of the Spiritual Center and volunteers at St. Mary's.

The invitation

Being thorough sets up another dynamic at the parish: the invitation. Almost everyone interviewed spoke of Bausch's inventive ways of inviting people to take part in the parish.

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Parish That's Vatican II Church at Its Best: One Sign Is Surviving a Charismatic Founder
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