1. Working creatively together

Fifty years ago I was a young teenager in a northern Midwestern town that had no Catholic parish. A group of Catholic couples in the town decided to approach the local bishop to plant a new parish. He said no; there were not enough Catholics in the town. The group spent weeks going door to door, canvassing the neighborhoods to see if they could find out if the bishop was right. They found a thousand homes with Catholics. The bishop said they could have their parish if they could figure out a way to pay for it themselves. They parked a trailer with a glassed-in front at the end of the local mall. In this era when blue laws still closed businesses on Sunday, the mall parking lot became a giant ecclesial drive in. In warm weather, the would-be-parishioners left their cars and went to the front of the parking lot with lawn chairs and followed the mass in the glassed-in front of the trailer. On nice days the glass could be opened. In the winter they stayed in their cars and cracked the windows (to “hear mass”). (Sound tacky? It looked tacky.) After a few years of passing the collection baskets up and down the rows of parked cars, they raised enough money for land and a building and planted the new parish.
Dan Finucane, Saint Louis University,

2. In the early church and today

An article from the now-defunct Living Light noted that in the early church they would excite people first, touch their hearts with the healing love of Christ, instruct them in the faith – catechesis – and then baptize them The article noted that today we do exactly the reverse. Perhaps a leftover from days in which there was acute fear of the fantasy place, Limbo; we baptize babies first, try to catechize them, and hope that somehow we turn them on to a profound experience of the risen Christ in the community.

My husband and I belong to a small community at the local Carmelite monastery. Often at great inconvenience to themselves, the priests who come to celebrate for and with us never leave us empty or comfortable. The people who gather there know and carry each other's pain and joy. Sadly, this congregation will disband soon. So few sister remain that they must move to a smaller venue, welcomed by the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland to a new building.

One last comment. We in Cleveland are anticipating a new bishop. The acting bishop, Daniel Thomas, actually answered letters he receives. That is something that helps set a tone for a diocese, for a healthy church of people on the journey, their bellies full of Christ's loving nourishment and their hands joined together in the pursuit of justice. Gotta like that!!
Dee Christie,

3. A communion of believers

My parish church is a true communion of believers in the gospel Jesus. It is a small parish, only about eighty families. The small numbers means large demands on parishioners but no demand goes unanswered. It has a deacon parish coordinator instead of a parish priest but no matter, it is a self-motivated, vibrant Christian community. The archbishop wanted to close it down several years ago but the community convinced him not to do so because ministry to the poor in the neighborhood and city would be severely damaged if he did so. That ministry is the hallmark of the parish and has been now for some forty years.

There is a "door ministry" serving lunch every day to the indigent (of which there are many in the city); there is widespread individual support for a nearby homeless shelter that the parish was heavily involved in building; and there is political outreach to legislation protecting the poor, homeless, and unrepresented. Sunday Eucharist is presided over by a visiting priest, usually a retired one, and homilies are far from uplifting. There is a small choir whose function is not to give concerts but to lead the community in joyful singing, which is seldom on tune but always fervent, wholehearted, and everyone-embracing. The kiss of peace is a rowdy, 10-15 minutes affair, but genuine and far from pro forma. I leave feeling I have been energized in the company of Christ-ians and I look forward to going back to their company again and to their dedicated ministry. All it takes is a response to Jesus' invitation to "Come, follow me."
Michael Lawler, Creighton University,

4. Renewal and decline with church politics

Until three years ago I helped at one parish every weekend for about 14 years, longer with only summer help. There the pastor transformed it from a dying, nearly dead parish – the liturgy was in English but looked and felt like 1950's – to a truly vibrant community. First, he had a vision of parish that empowered people; while setting a direction he got them on board. Second, he knew liturgical theology, liked good liturgical music, and committed the parish to invest in both – this included an expansion of the church, and a complete renovation that respected the old architecture while offering a fully renewed worship space – gathering, baptismal font, etc. Third, he believed in quality religious education that included adult faith formation. His successor carried the vision further and enhanced a social justice perspective. The community appreciated and expected good preaching but knew some preachers were better than others.

Unfortunately a new pastor arrived who while born after Vatican II prefers a liturgy closer to 1950. Congregational singing was replaced by a performance choir (paid members many of whom did not belong to the parish) that did not encourage participation. The pastor came with a suspicion (fear?) of lay leadership and faith formation that advanced modern Catholicism. While the parish remains, much of the community has dispersed, though a remnant still gathers each month for prayer, discussion, and sometimes Eucharist.
As Pope Francis pointed out, preachers have a responsibility to prepare well and to preach well. People want to hear a word they can take with them; something to sustain and encourage. And, people rightly want to be respected, to have their talents appreciated, and to be empowered to be church. For me, respect and appreciation for the people is the very foundation of a vibrant parish. From there, "reading the signs of the times" parish leadership can build, fashion, and renew the community in lifelong formation.
Frank Berna, La Salle University,

5. In Nigeria and Portland

I recently moved to Portland, OR, but let me first describe vibrant parishes in Nigeria.
Nigerian liturgies
In Nigeria liturgies must be filled with music that involves dancing, clapping and singing. There is nothing like a choir singing and the audience listening. The choir leads and everyone joins in according to their abilities. Homilies last forever. I have been at masses where the homily lasts more than one hour. Offertory procession is another story. It is one step forward and three steps backward. The procession can last for almost an hour or more. People come ready to offer gifts from their farms and kitchens. Friends and strangers join the special offering procession of parishioners because it is important that one brings along a crowd of supporters to do their special thanksgiving. There are endless second collections and yet the people gladly contribute what they have. Financial contribution is not based on how much money is in the bank account of the parish but on how much of their time the people contribute to projects carried out by the parish. I have seen parishes where the lay people built the parish house and their parish church themselves without paying for external labor. The sign of peace takes forever as well. One is expected to go say hi to a friend seated fifty yards away. The priest leaves the altar and shows his dancing skills while embracing his parishioners. The liturgy can go on for four hours.

An inclusive vibrant parish
At Saint Andrew's in Portland, our Masses go on for an average of an hour and a half. What makes this parish unique is how it has blended its Christian faith with the social fabric of the City of Portland. It is a very inclusive parish. Parishioners who are experts in theology or other relevant fields are invited to give the sermon of the day periodically. I must tell you all that these sermons are awesome, to say the least. Gay men and women are actively involved in the life of the parish as couples. The parish is actively involved in caring for the homeless community in the city and carry out other social causes that are at the heart of the social teachings of the church. While many in our church are fixated on barring divorced and remarried couples from the table of hospitality, this parish welcomes all. This parish has become an example of the type of church being called for by Pope Francis.
It is not so much what the pastor of Saint Andrews is doing that makes this parish vibrant, rather; it is what he chooses not to do. He has chosen not to be a doctrinal police and by so doing allows the church to be a place where those who seek a home can find one. There are many young gay men and women in the City of Portland who are cast out of their families for being gay. They find in this parish a community of friends who welcome them with open hands
During the Extraordinary Jubilee year of Mercy, the parish created a sacred space to celebrate persons from different traditions and cultures who through their actions and teachings of mercy have made a difference in our collective life as humans. On that altar was the image of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama.
SimonMary Aihiokhai, University of Portland,

6. My parish. Imagine... Could you image that?

Imagine a small Catholic church in the poorer section of a large city. It is a non-geographical parish, so people come from all over town and from outside the city limits. It is also a non-discriminating parish, welcoming the divorced and remarried, gays and lesbians, former priests and nuns, unmarried couples, and even non-Catholics. Shortly after Vatican II, the pews were taken out and replaced with chairs, and the altar is now a large table that is usually in the middle of the nave, but it can be moved for different arrangements of the assembly. Where the old altar once stood is now a platform for a music ensemble and chorus of paid and volunteer musicians.
In the 1970s the parish began buying run-down properties in the neighborhood, fixing them up, and then renting them at fair prices. It also saw a need to help people on welfare and disability manage their money and rebuild their lives, so it started a counseling service in what used to be the sacristy. In the 1980s the parish joined the Sanctuary movement, sheltering political refugees from El Salvador trying to reach freedom in Canada. It also started a fair trade market for Latin American crafts, and it has since become a not-for-profit store.

Through an American missionary, the church established a close relationship with a rural parish in Nicaragua. Today it provides funds for a community health clinic there, it helps women grow vegetables for their families, and it supports an organic farming cooperative. Every year or so, the parish sends a delegation to visit that parish, and it pays for a delegation to come from Nicaragua to meet the parishioners here and report on progress there.

The old parochial school is now a minimum security jail that provides men to do janitorial work in the church and allows them to come for worship on Sunday. The former rectory is now a retreat center for high school and college students who are interested in spiritual growth through an inner city immersion. A number of small groups meet regularly for prayer and Bible study, and during Advent and Lent additional groups are formed for short-term reading and sharing.

There is only one liturgy every Sunday, which is planned and executed entirely by parishioners, with a priest from a neighboring parish as the usual sacramental minister. Children’s church is held during the adults’ Liturgy of the Word, divided into different age groups and led by parents of the children themselves. Besides the worship committee and the parish council, there are about a dozen committees that meet weekly or monthly, many having to do with social justice concerns. The parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Conference distributes food to and pays utility bills for needy families in the neighborhood, most of whom are not Catholic.

Of the 300 or so households in the parish directory, two-thirds of them are engaged in some form of parish ministry. The rest just come on Sunday for the experience of worshiping with people who sing their hearts out. During the kiss of peace before communion, it takes more than five minutes for everyone to greet and hug most of the people that they know in church. The mass always ends with applause.
Joseph Martos, Louisville, Kentucky,

7. Are vibrant churches sustainable?

We have all been to communities and churches where things seem great. For me, many of these great moments came in the 1960s. One came in a small Belgium town for a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass where the congregation sang the Gloria at the end of the Gospel: the whole congregation walked around the Church singing like in an offertory procession. Another great moment was at my first guitar Mass, standing around an altar at an inner city Chicago church. For a majestic moment, it was at a gathering of American choral directors in Berchtesgaden Germany, the old Hitler retreat in the Bavarian Alps; everyone in the congregation sang a Gelineau Mass lustfully. Perhaps also, it was the first time I saw a concelebrated Mass with over 50 priest participants in Trier, Germany.
As for the sustaining parish activities, they are even rarer. Some meetings seem invigorating, but can we sustain them? Today, we talk about sustainability in developing countries. Can our parishes sustain not perfection, but a decent level of community worship? Too often, I hear about this parish or that parish priest who is wonderful. However, the need for a good president of the assembly is the starting point. The problem is that there are too few perfect priests, because we are also too many imperfect people. I think we all want to be part of a parish like the people in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average. The problem is that some have to be below average, so that we can have an average. We need to settle for mediocrity because there are not enough charismatic leaders to go around.
Sorry to be a downer, but sustainability is very difficult.
Gene Finnegan, Calumet College of St. Joseph,

8. Now when I attend Mass I am inordinately happy

Many of you are participants in vibrant churches and I am happy that you are. But at eighty-one years I am indifferent to the issue and have been for much of my recent life. I can't get to Mass anymore for physical reasons; I am somewhat cut off from regular practice of my faith

For twenty years (1961-1980) I celebrated Mass and administered the sacraments with fervency and conviction and would do so now. I think I was a "sacristy priest"! Now when I attend Mass I am inordinately happy. What I hope and in most cases rightly expect are these: a dedicated priest, an interested congregation, a thoughtful scriptural homily, and good, sensible Christian music when possible. This leads me to believe that I take my Catholicism as a religion rather than as a world and socially transforming faith.

All of the foregoing I fear is inadequate and even inaccurate but I so love to read you all and tell you what I think that I can handle the shortcomings! If you want a fuller exposition see my memoir, Judas was a Bishop (2015).
Bill Shea, College of the Holy Cross,

9. The Problem of nice pastor talk

I want to focus on the preaching. Our pastor is certainly an engaging speaker and is earnest in his message. But his sermons, like many, come up short, at least for me. Like most of us preachers, he is adept at describing what is wrong with the world, but he seems to struggle to articulate substantially what good God is doing in the world. Sure, he usually spends the second half of his sermon assuring us that God loves us and is giving us hope, but his wording tends to consist of "glittering generalities" that, at least for me, do not "take root in my consciousness." His sermons tend to default to what I call "nice pastor talk" that is vaguely reassuring but lacks depth and specificity, and so does not produce any durable hope within the heart of the hearer.

That said, despite my pastor's homiletic shortcomings, he does indeed embody hope and love through his ministry, and the rest of the liturgy certainly contains moments of more profound spiritual nourishment, such as the Eucharist.
David VonSchlichten, SetonHill University,

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