Monday, January 30, 2006

Parish: the thought

Last year our bishop sent a priest to meet with our Church Renovation Committee regarding various aspects of our project. While discussing how much money we could afford to spend, the priest asked us bluntly whether we were a viable parish. My immediate reaction was to answer in the affirmative, but his question bothered me later. What makes a parish viable? We have not had a priest come from our parish since my cousin was ordained some 40 years ago. Mass attendance is down. One never has to wait in line for confession except at the communal reconciliation services before Easter and Christmas. Pastoral Council positions go unfilled for lack of people willing to serve. Attempts to form study groups fail due to lack of interest. RCIA enrollees are few. Are we currently a viable parish? I don't know.

Certainly there are viable parishes around. Vocations are up in some places, but it seems these places are few and far between. The downturn can be attributed to the secular world we live in to some extent, but those few parishes who thrive exist in that same world. Why are some parishes filled with people on fire in their faith, while others seem so indifferent?

The primary responsibility for the mood of the parish has to fall on the shoulders of the pastor. The nature of Catholic worship, the Mass, leaves little time for instruction. Protestant Sunday services may consist of an hour of preaching and teaching. Catholics, if they are lucky, get a fifteen minute homily once a week. Fifteen minutes a week is insufficient to learn much of anything, yet additional opportunities for study are useless if no one attends. Somehow in those fifteen minutes, that priest has to inspire his congregation to want more. How many priests have the ability to hold the attention of their audience for fifteen minutes, let alone fill them with desire to grow in their faith?

I am reminded of what one old Monsignor once told me regarding his philosophy on limiting sermon length. He said, "The longer the spoke, the bigger the tire." Our current pastor's sermons probably average about seven to ten minutes on Sundays. The message is usually that God loves us and how great it will be to see all of our loved ones in heaven. I have never heard him mention mortal sin or the possibility that some of us might could end up in another place. Our previous pastor was quite the opposite. He reminded us frequently that we could end up in hell and gave the impression that he thought we probably would. His Sunday homilies usually lasted about twenty five minutes, during which much of it was spent yelling at us. Many of our parishioners who lived through both pastorates wonder if there isn't a happy medium somewhere. Both styles tend to be counterproductive.

Last night I watched one of Father John Corapi's sermons on EWTN. Father Corapi is one of the few great inspirational Catholic speakers who can hold an audience spellbound for an hour and leave them wanting more. He combines a solid message with a great delivery. In the course of his talk, Father Corapi mentioned that a bishop once asked him to refrain from speaking on the negative during his sermons. This did not sit well with Father Corapi who likes to tell it like it is. He said preaching is like electricity. You have to have a positive and a negative or you have no power.

Some priests apparently think they need to soften the message for fear of driving away those reluctant to conform their lives to Church teaching. Contrary to what some priests and bishops believe, Catholics want to hear the truth. Sugar-coating sermons can only create Spiritual cavities. Sincere people appreciate honesty. More than ever today, people need to be reminded that actions have consequences. Many Catholics approach the Eucharist in a state of serious sin, putting their souls in jeopardy. They must realize their salvation can be lost. To say otherwise is a Protestant notion. As Father Corapi said, accentuate the positive, but tell the truth.

Not every priest has the charisma of Father Corapi, and even he could not adequately educate a congregation preaching fifteen minutes a week. How can a priest inspire others to want more? Father Corapi, and others like him, inspire people by exuding holiness at every moment of their lives. They live and breathe Christ. Being a priest is a full time job. Priests are on duty twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year, plus one more in a leap year.

The way in which a priest conducts himself creates a climate in the parish. He can emit an aura of holiness which draws people in. This holiness extends far beyond the pulpit and the walls of the church building. His collar can be a recognized in the community as a symbol of his holy office by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The presence of Christ can be felt in those who truly live the gospel. The priest should be approachable to anyone searching for serious answers. He brings others to holiness. He saves souls.

When the parish climate is conducive to holiness, people will be open to conversion. Mass attendance will increase. Participation in educational programs and parish activities will improve. People will desire the Sacraments. A good priest will recognize the fears and apprehensions of his parishioners and make them comfortable approaching him for Reconciliation. In time, this climate of holiness will spread through the community. Convert Scott Hahn speaks about being so moved by common everyday Catholics taking time out for weekday Mass. This simple act created a yearning in him to join in.

The parish climate can also drive people away. Some look for any excuse to miss Mass, to criticize the Church, and to validate their disdain for all things Catholic. A close friend of mine once told me he nearly converted to the Catholic faith many years ago, but in passing the church one evening, he saw the pastor shooting pigeons roosting on the bell tower. He believed a man of God would not shoot God's creatures. A feeble excuse for not becoming Catholic? Maybe so, but perhaps if the pastor were feeding the pigeons instead of shooting them, my friend would have stopped to talk.

Some of our separated brothers and sisters in the Fundamentalist communities do not believe in any type of gambling or drinking of alcohol. While we may not see anything wrong with doing these things in moderation, our goal for Christian Unity becomes much more difficult to achieve when they see us engaged in such activities. An Indiana State Police officer gave up his career rather than take an assignment policing a gambling casino. His strict Fundamental background prohibited him from doing anything to aid in what he perceived to be an immoral activity. Those who love Christ enough to sacrifice their livelihood are prime candidates for eventual conversion to the Catholic faith, but before that can happen, many barriers must be broken down. When a parish engages in fundraisers where gambling or alcohol is involved, it reinforces pre-conceived notions some have about the church being the whore of Babylon. Even if we see nothing wrong, such activity emits an air of impropriety for others, and therefore, should be avoided.

Throughout this past week, area newscasts were again filled with allegations of another pedophile priest and accusations of neglect in reacting by the Church hierarchy. Callers to a talk-radio station in Chicago angrily chastised the Catholic Church for allowing these things to happen. One caller, a Catholic, said the Church requirement for celibacy attracts pedophiles who find a haven in the priesthood. He encouraged Catholics to forbid their children from being altar servers. It saddens me deeply that we find ourselves in this position due to the actions of a few sick men who have defiled their priestly office. The damage they have caused their victims, their fellow priests, and all Catholics is immeasurable.