"We are the church"

An Alternative Parish Structure

I have recently spent a month in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo, attending Sunday masses and interviewing priests and lay people. What I found is a vision of the church found nowhere else.

The neighborhood communities. Each parish consists of ten to twenty basic communities that meet weekly for prayer, reflection, mutual support, and involvement in the neighborhood. It is these neighborhood communities that are officially the basic units of the church, not the parish. For baptisms, marriages and funerals, one goes to one’s basic community which will start the process.

Each basic community has six officials elected for three years: the president, the secretary, and the treasurer and their assistants. The president presides over the weekly meeting. The secretary keeps track of all the news in the parish and the neighborhood. The treasurer supervises the treasure chest of the community which is fed by a weekly collection. In each basic community there is also a “missioner” whose job it is to keep informed about the special needs of people in the area. Upon his report at the weekly meeting, the community may decide to visit a mother with a newborn baby, a couple getting married, or a sick member, usually with a small gift from the community.

The commissions and parish council. The presidents of all basic communities form a commission whose president, secretary, and treasurer are also elected for three years. The purpose of this commission is to help and support the basic communities.

In each parish there are usually a dozen commissions having their own elected officials: about the liturgy, catechesis, adult education, family ministries, social justice, spirituality, etc. There is also a commission on finances that, like all others, is independent from the pastor. Thus religious education, the liturgy, preparation to the sacraments, finances, etc. are taken care of by volunteers, without cost to the parish. There is practically no paid staff.

The president of all commissions form the parish council that meets with the pastor once a month. It is the pastor who defines the agenda of these meetings, but it has to be accepted by the parish council. Dialogue is the core spirit of these meetings; it is there that the plans of the pastor are discussed in the light of people's wishes and needs. Conflict is rare, but when it happens, the president of the parish council may say, “We are the church. We built this church and the house you live in. We support you with our weekly offering of food. We are permanently here, and you are not.” I a few cases the archbishop withdrew the parish priest to resolve irreconcilable differences.

The diocesan pastoral center. There is also the archdiocesan pastoral center with 17 commissions to support the parish commissions and the basic communities. There are 2,700 such communities in the 178 parishes, that is, about 15 on average in each parish. Although the commission presidents of this pastoral center are priests nominated by the archbishop, nearly all members are lay people from the parishes, which allows for constant flow of information from top to bottom and from bottom up.

This pastoral center has recently started a formation program for lay leaders in parishes. The program consists of theology and biblical courses in six hours of classes every week for three years. “We begin with four days of dialogue between priests and laypeople,” explained the director. “Priests must learn to collaborate with the laity and laypeople with priests. We want to create a sense of solidarity and subsidiarity.” The first graduate class consisted of 348 students, and the second of 237 – that is, three certified pastoral assistants for each parish in just a few years.

The Sunday 3 hour mass. This structure has been in place since about 1980, but it is much more than a structure. The 6:30 am Sunday mass in the Zairean rite is most popular, although it lasts about three hours. These masses are truly mystagogical, thanks to the enormous effort of the choirs (there were seven of them in each of two parishes of only 1,500 members i visisted, and they rehearsed six to eight hours every week). I found the weekly evening prayer and reflection meetings inspirational: people are eager to speak up, quote the bible, and witness their faith. Yes "we all are the church," the clergy included, in solidarity and subsidiarity.

Do you know similar experiments anywhere in the world?
How can this example inspire local changes in the U.S.?

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