Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Parishes Come with the Territory: Parishes Are More Catholic When Membership Is Based on Territory Rather Than Ideology

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Parishes Come with the Territory: Parishes Are More Catholic When Membership Is Based on Territory Rather Than Ideology

Article excerpt

Msgr. Philip Murnion says parishes are more catholic when membership is based on territory rather than ideology. When it comes to parish affiliation, don't vote with your feet; bloom where you're planted.

In the late 1960s and early `70s, as the flood of changes in church and society were washing over parishes--drowning some and lifting others off the sandbar on which they were stranded--I was a member of St. Gregory the Great on the West Side of New York. Between 86th Street and 92nd Street, and Central Park on the east and the Hudson River on the west lived an amazing variety of people. There were the old-timers of Irish, Italian, and Jewish descent, Puerto Rican and Haitian immigrants, professional writers and editors and lawyers, and many others. St. Gregory embraced them all.

At Mass as the priest went down the aisle at the greeting of peace, he would be met with a strong egalitarian handshake from a liberal Anglo, an abrazo from an enthusiastic Puerto Rican, a reverent kiss of his hand from a Haitian, and a defiant "Et cum spiritu tuo" from an unreconstructed old-timer. When parishioners were invited to voice their own petitions at the prayer of the faithful, one person's appeal that "our troops will be successful in Vietnam" elicited a lukewarm "Lord, hear our prayer." While a subsequent petition asking that "the efforts at peace may disengage us from Vietman" prompted a similar response.

The parish council was a faithful representation of the parish. Its composition was established by a two-part election process in which those directly elected thereupon elected five more members. Thus representation from groups inadequately chosen in the first poll was ensured.

As a territorial parish, it was deeply involved in what was happening in the neighborhood. The priests led a neighborhood organization that brought together community groups and area parishes as well as members of Jewish and Protestant communities. So strong was the connection between the parish, pastors, and community that, after one pastor moved on, some Jewish members wrote to the cardinal to express their concern about who their next pastor would be.

St. Gregory the Great was the best expression of what it meant to be a territorial parish. It was one that embraced all the varieties of Catholic identity and piety that existed within the boundaries of the parish--here was no self-selecting congregation. It was concerned with and involved in what happened with the neighborhood and its people. St. Gregory's rootedness not only brought it into contact and cooperation with other parishes, religions, and organizations. Its rootedness also meant that it had to take an interest in all of the issues, that affected the community. Sometimes this meant lending community groups the resources of the parish--the auditorium or the copy machine, for example.

But St. Gregory's inclusive style was not always easy. The sensitivities of one group could be bruised by the concerns of another. For instance, when the parish hosted antiwar protester Philip Berrigan's arrest by the FBI, some older and Hispanic parishioners marched in protest. Still, difficulties could be surmounted and broken relationships restored because the concerns of each group and each individual were respected in the parish's day-to-day life. The parishioners found common ground around the Eucharist, and the parish structured itself to seek both the common good of all the people and the separate goods of the respective subcommunities.

Our Lady of Refuge

With that kind of experience, it is not surprising that I am a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of territorial parishes. The following anecdote helps to illustrate the problems I have with nonterritorial approaches.

Some years ago a woman in a nearby diocese called and said she and others had developed an officially approved, self-selecting parish. And now the local bishop was asking them to reconsider their "parish" and return to their territorial churches. …

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