Instead of Territorial Boundaries, Build Parishes on Special Charisms

Article excerpt

The literature on parishes proposes many models, but none addresses the sociological and cultural situation of late 20th century American Catholics.

All current models assume a geographically based, all things-to-all-people approach. This is not realistic in such a diverse society as ours.

Most people today choose their parish and do not follow the designated geographic boundaries. People gravitate to the parish that makes sense to them. They base the choice on a complex set of needs, a combination of liturgical and prayer style, the priests and preaching, school needs, personal history and more.

Many other people begrudgingly tolerate unacceptable parish life, poor liturgies, poor preaching, out of touch programs and ministries. Many Catholics go outside their parish to nurture their spiritual lives in small support groups, renewal movements or other types of energized ecumenical groups. Some entirely leave the church for other "spiritualities."

The continuing strength of renewal movements, from Charismatic renewal to small base communities, also suggests that current parish structures are not fulfilling people's needs. Many say their parishes do not embody the nurturing spirit they find in the "movements."

Furthermore, none of the recent parish models seems to acknowledge the current vocation crisis. All assume some form of the current priesthood.

Instead of the current divisions of energies and loyalties, why not take advantage of that energy and spiritual commitment?

One useful model is the parish as "religious community." We have no problem accepting and encouraging diverse religious orders such as the Benedictines, Jesuits, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Little Sisters of the Poor and many others. Why not conceive of the parish of the future as a "religious order" with its unique charisms, mission and spirituality, including liturgical prayer forms.

Religious orders have many strengths that sustained them for centuries: choice by affiliation, commitment based on self-interest, focused energy for the mission, and community cohesiveness based on common interests and needs. Religious orders historically attracted certain types of individuals based on their interests and needs and shaped new members through novitiate and formation programs.

Religious orders and congregations when necessary say clearly to potential members what their order or rule is, what their spirituality is and often advise aspiring members to try elsewhere for a better "fit." The new parish that is clear about its charisms can say to potential members, "This is who we are, this is how we understand the mission of Jesus in the Catholic church, this is how we do liturgy, this is how we do mission, this is how we are the people of God in the world today, this is what we will commit to you, this is what we expect of you." Such clarity embodied in the great religious movements of history, provides tremendous opportunities for all Catholics to find their own spiritual home.

Like religious orders, new parishes could be "founded" to reflect the new spiritual energy awakened in God's people when existing groups did not meet current needs. And just like religious orders, those filled with energy and the Spirit would grow and flourish and others would die.

We cannot make work what goes against the basic freedoms and choices people have in urban America. We cannot make work what does not acknowledge the real diversity in the American church. We cannot avoid the choices that current American Catholics are already exercising with their pocketbooks, cars and spiritual energy.

No one questions the differences among Dominicans, Franciscans and Benedictines, yet all acknowledge the unique contribution each makes to the spiritual whole. All are Catholic yet all are allowed to practice their own form of spirituality and unique mission as a part of the universal church. …