Parish Ministries Form Building Blocks for Social Change

Article excerpt

In Iowa a mother of three peeks through the parish "peace tree," and the local daily newspaper photographer snaps her picture. In Silver Spring, Md.. a former Catholic Worker prepares to lead a parish to a deeper understanding of Catholic social teaching.

In Springfield, Mass., a pastor returns home enthusiastic from a national conference, having once more seen his parish as part of the bigger U.S. Catholic picture. And in St. Louis, Jim and Kathy McGuiness field the telephone at their Parenting for Peace and Justice Network headquarters.

Too often when Catholics look at the church, they see the local and not the aggregate. Parishes are rarely able to stand back and examine their own vital contributions as building blocks for the broader structures of social change.

Maybe America's 20,000 Catholic parishes are like leaves on a tree. By holding themselves open to God, they experience a spiritual sort of photosynthesis. As sunlight courses down, the "Catholic tree" sends its roots deeper into the political, economic and social soil, helping to promote growth.

Call that growth "social justice."

The evidence suggests that simple acts at the local level can be of enormous utility when added together. Take those parishes where the people are always signing letters to the governors, state legislators and the like. They've done it for years at Blessed Sacrament community in Sioux City, Iowa.

Blessed Sacrament, the first Catholic church listed in the city's Yellow Pages, gets called on to do many things in the community. But it is parishes like this that give the Iowa Catholic Conference -- supported by the state's four dioceses -- its muscle.

Bernardette Rixner said, "Iowa's Catholic Conference works very hard setting legislative priorities for the state in four areas -- social concerns, pro-life, education and family," she said. The conference depends on the pressure built up when parishioners contact elected officials' offices by phone, mail or in person.

"Catholics generally are educated people. They know how to do it. They know it's an integral part of how we build social change," said Rixner, who heads Blessed Sacrament's peace and justice committee. But they may know more about practical politics than about the content of the church's social mission.

At St. John the Baptist community in Silver Spring, Md., social justice minister Kim Lamberty uses first Eucharist preparation to explain to both the children and the parents that the church has a social justice tradition. "For a lot of people," she said, "it's the first time they've heard that. I try to help them make the connection -- even though it may be obvious to some of us. Each parish needs a blueprint to learn and proceed," Lamberty said.

In three years, St. John's Parish task force on social justice in religious education has developed specific goals for specific categories: for elementary school children, build a foundational understanding that service/charity/justice are gospel imperatives basic to Catholicism; by high school, encourage a more advanced understanding of Catholic social teaching and its basic theological foundation, explaining the differences between charity and justice, and developing a capacity for reflection; for adults, according to Lamberty, a former Catholic Worker in Washington with an MA in theology, the task includes explaining reconciliation and social sin. "Some have never heard of that, either," she said.

Making it personal

Lamberty uses a page of the weekly parish bulletin to offer adult education on issues from sweatshops to the World Bank/IMF debt issue. There's community service, delivering food and a sister parish in Haiti. "It uncomplicates things when it's personal," she said.

She knows what every parish team member understands: It's hard to get people to come out. But Lenten programs are particularly successful. …