The parish is a gathering of gatherings, especially of families. But some within the Church are asking if it’s time to rethink the concept of parish. Photo by Michael Swan

Rethinking the parish concept

  • May 19, 2013

The ideals of parish life aren’t hard to identify. Priests everywhere remind people in front of them on Sunday they are the Church — a community bound together by sacrament and the word of God. It isn’t just the building that is named after a saint but every family and each individual whenever they come together to worship and reach out for the kingdom of God.

But the ideals and reality have diverged, says Msgr. Roch Pagé, one of Canada’s most senior and influential canon lawyers and scholars of the Church.

“We fake it, I’m sorry to say. We fake that the parish is a community. Increasingly, people do not know each other,” Pagé told The Catholic Register recently. “It’s not because we call it a community that it is a community.”

Pagé is not a radical voice from the fringes of the Church locked in some theological ivory tower. He is the judicial vicar of the Canadian Appeal Tribunal. The 74-year-old prelate of honour works four days a week at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops reviewing the trickiest marriage annulment cases. He has degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, University of Ottawa and Ottawa’s Saint Paul University. He has taught canon law at three universities and is a past president of the Canadian Canon Law Society.
Pagé has begun to wonder whether it’s time to rethink parishes.

“Jesus didn’t found a parish,” he said. “Why would we behave as if the parish is essential?”

In a paper delivered last October to the Canon Law Society of America’s annual conference in Chicago, Pagé challenged an audience of bishops and senior Church officials to imagine a post-parish Church.

“Even if the parish has existed for more than 16 centuries, even if it was and continues to be an excellent means to localize the Church, it remains a means,” he said. “And as a means, it should not be confused with its final goal.”

For the Church’s first four centuries there was no such thing as a parish and bishops had a more direct relationship with Christians in their city and region. As churches sprang up across Western Europe, boundaries were established to separate parishes. Each parish had a priest but maintenance of the church building and the adjoining cemetery was the responsibility of the parishioners.

If the parish disappears that doesn’t mean the Church disappears, nor the ideal of community as the body of Christ, Pagé claims.

“We have to renew with the origins,” he said. “We have to make a new link with the beginning of the Church.”

Pagé says he’s not predicting the demise of the parish. He’s observing it. When he was a young man in Chicoutimi, Que., the five city parishes had anywhere from 15 to 18 priests. Today, one priest calls those five churches his parish. Studies by the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate in the United States show that by 2035 there will be significantly fewer priests than parishes.

Is his vision distorted by the collapse of trust in the Church in Quebec over the last 40 years? Pagé says no.

“It’s a question of time (for the rest of the country), he said. “Look at the Atlantic provinces. It’s coming… In Europe it’s worse. It’s not a Quebec issue.”

The combination of a shortage of priests and diminishing congregations is forcing parish reorganizations across North America and Europe. Pagé fears a future of parishes that exist only as legal entities, “juridic personalities.” Some have called his thoughts on parishes “the Gospel of death,” but his message is beginning to be heard in curial offices across Canada.

At Easter, Trois-Riviéres Bishop Luc Bouchard released a pastoral letter to the faithful of his diocese that made specific reference to Pagé’s paper for the Canon Law Society of America.

“What does the future hold? Will there still be parishes as we have known them? Will there still be priests? Who will be the leaders of tomorrow?” asks Bouchard, as he enumerates the uncertainties that hang over the diocese.

With only eight priests under 70 years old out of 33 who are taking care of parishes — almost all of them consisting of multiple churches spread over a wide territory — Bouchard encourages the aging and diminishing number of Trois-Rivierés churchgoers to imagine different structures.

“In other words, can we do Church differently?” he asks.

The purpose of the pastoral letter is not to spread gloom but give people hope, said Bouchard.

“The community is diminishing in number and getting elderly,” the bishop said. “They carry a heavy burden.”

These aging congregations feel themselves chained to churches that are too big and too old for them to maintain. Bouchard hopes some of the congregations will find new life by freeing themselves of a difficult job in real estate management.

“Maybe we can still be a community without necessarily identifying ourselves with a building. The Church is identified first of all by the love of one another, as Christ taught us,” Bouchard said. “The challenge is to shift, I would say, from being a parish community to being a Catholic community… When Christianity began, Christians didn’t identify themselves with a building but rather by the way that they lived.”

Divorcing the community from the building is not easy, notes the director of pastoral planning services in the diocese of London, Ont. Connie Paré has been one of the leaders in a process of amalgamating and rationalizing parishes in London, Windsor and rural southwestern Ontario.

“The parish model is the source of revenue and it’s also where Eucharist is celebrated. When proposing other models, or even investigating them, well — how do we tend to these pieces?” she asks. “Especially the Eucharist piece. Virtual doesn’t work. In the sense of a real, living, organic community, how do you maintain that and still connect with people differently? Those are risky questions.”

But they are questions London is determined to ask and have answered. Fr. Paul Baillargeon, London’s episcopal and judicial vicar, was in the audience for Pagé’s presentation to the Canon Law Society of America and later sent him an e-mail of congratulations on a bold and thoughtful paper.

In 2011 London commissioned a study that found 14 per cent of those who identify themselves as Catholic actually attend Mass on Sunday. Another set of surveys is underway this spring. They will take a closer look at the people who aren’t in church.

Getting the structure right isn’t just about amalgamating parishes and conserving resources. It’s also about discovering a meaningful way for all Catholics to really, concretely belong to the Church.

“Sometimes the Church is a little behind in asking the questions,” said Paré. “When we start talking to people, especially at different age groups about parish and the model of parish, we might already find that people are working out of different models themselves.”

That doesn’t mean the immediate end of parishes.

“We probably will always have parishes, but we also may have virtual communities,” she said.

For Paré this isn’t a matter of better administration and planning. It’s a question of identity.

“In a lot of cases we’ve become very inward looking,” she said. “The mission calls us to be outward looking — to look at serving the larger community. Parishes don’t exist for themselves but they do exist to serve, to serve their people and also the larger community.”

Toronto’s new pastoral plan entertains no talk about closing, amalgamating, rationalizing or clustering parishes. In many ways, Cardinal Thomas Collins is doubling down on the traditional parish. The first of the plan’s five core directions is “parish life.”

When Collins introduced the plan last December he rejected any suggestions of parish closings.

“Our problem is to open parishes,” he said. “Fundamentally, our issue is to expand.”

With a growing population of young families, fuelled by wave after wave of Toronto-centric immigration to Canada, Toronto’s Catholic Church doesn’t look much like the Church in the rest of North America. Toronto has seen a boom in new, plus-size suburban parishes. Compare that to Pittsburgh, where the archbishop closed 163 parishes 20 years ago and where the number of parishes has continued to decline — going from 218 in 1995 to 204 today.

But Toronto’s pastoral plan also makes it crystal clear that parishes must be active, sacramental communities.

“The active, engaged parish is at the heart of our pastoral plan,” the document reads. “It is the place where we live out the foundational values of prayer and deep stewardship.”

Nor does Collins want inward looking parishes.

“An effective parish will be engaged in the life of its local community. In co-operation with others, ecumenically and civilly, the parish contributes to addressing the various social needs of the community. This commitment to ecumenism will be reflected in all actions of outreach to the broader community.”

The Toronto plan strongly urges parish pastoral councils with a real role in coming up with a parish pastoral plan and collaborating with their pastor. But even with this more collaborative model of parish leadership, the second plank of the diocesan plan is to pray and work for more vocations to the priesthood.

“Practically, we need priests to lead the 225 parishes of the archdiocese,” reads the plan.

Which means there are real expectations for the next generation, for the children of immigrant families who have found their home in Toronto parishes.

“Youth should be involved in parish life, in service projects within the broader community and in discernment retreats and ongoing programs of spiritual accompaniment,” reads the plan. “These are effective ways to help them to live their Catholic faith and at the same time to be open to considering a vocation to the priesthood and religious life.”

Whether the structure is a territorial parish or some other kind of gathering based on associations, movements, language or spirituality, the goal is to create and inspire eucharistic communities.

“How can a community be eucharistic without a priest?” asks Pagé.

Pagé doesn’t ask his dangerous questions out of despair, pessimism or a sense of impending doom. It takes confidence to face hard questions head on.

“I am absolutely hopeful,” he said. “Who knows the future?”

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