A Christ statue stands outside Sts. Paul and Peter Church in Baie-Saint-Paul, in the Archdiocese of Quebec, which is re-organizing its parishes. CNS photo/Philippe Vaillancourt, Presence

The changing parish

  • February 19, 2021

In announcing another reorganization and consolidation of parishes, Quebec City Archbishop Cardinal Gérald Lacroix sought to focus the conversation on “our ability to fulfill our essential mission.”

Canada’s primate is not the first bishop, nor will he be the last, to stare down the impossible math of too many parishes, not enough priests and not enough parishioners. But like bishops all around the world, he’s also asking himself, what’s a parish for? 

“We can no longer be satisfied with giving good pastoral services to the people who faithfully participate in our assemblies and movements,” Lacroix said last month with the announcement of reorganizing the archdiocese’s 29 parishes into 10 missionary units. “These people now represent a tiny part of the population entrusted to us.”

“We’re at an interesting moment where Catholics in a number of different dioceses and a number of different countries are facing this reality of a structure that is built to accommodate Church in a particular form,” Tricia Bruce, author of Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church, told The Catholic Register. “You don’t have enough priests or you don’t have enough people living residentially in the same area, or you don’t have people who quite frankly want to attend the parish of their neighbourhood because they would rather be around others that they agree with politically. All of this has kind of pressured the parish system.”

Canon 518 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law begins, “As a general rule a parish is to be territorial.”

It’s not a rule all Catholics obey anymore, and the Vatican gets that. In an instruction from the Congregation for the Clergy issued last June, Cardinal Beniamino Stella calls on bishops and pastors to face the reality that the kind of parish most of them grew up in no longer exists.

“The territorial configuration of the parish must confront a peculiar characteristic of our contemporary world, whereby increased mobility and the digital culture have expanded the confines of existence,” reads the Vatican document on parish life. “On the one hand, people are less associated today with a definite and immutable geographical context, living instead in a global and pluralist village; on the other hand, the digital culture has inevitably altered the concept of space, together with people’s language and behaviour, especially in younger generations.”

This change is something sociologists of religion have been studying for a generation, said Bruce, who studies parish life as an affiliate of the University of Notre Dame’s Centre for the Study of Religion and Society and is also adjunct research associate professor of sociology with the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“You basically don’t have the old model of parish anymore,” she said. “The fact is, it’s been going away for some time.”

People living in democratic countries and market economies take for granted their right to choose. They choose their politics, choose where they live, choose their careers and choose their spouses, so why not choose their parish?

“You have North American Catholics in particular having a long history and penchant for exercising their own agency and decision-making and discernment to decide what path to take and seeing it as equal in value to what they hear from the Church,” Bruce said.

“There’s the sense that this parish or this particular priest or the particular things on offer here don’t actually fit my needs,” said Calgary’s Ambrose University sociologist of religion Joel Theissen. “It’s a shift in social norms and values that have moved in an individualist direction over the course of time.”

In Nova Scotia, Halifax-Yarmouth Archbishop Brian Dunn has just taken over a new, slimmed-down parish structure — going from 65 parishes and 25 missions to just 20 parishes spread over an area of almost 22,000 square kilometres and serving just over 200,000 Catholics. But a reorganization on this scale is a lot more complicated than just naming parishes and assigning pastors, Dunn said.

“The issue really is finding new ways of creating or giving people a sense of community,” Dunn told The Catholic Register. “It has to do with breathing life into the parishes that we have. … Just because you decree a parish, it doesn’t mean that the former communities that made up the (new) parish now will have the identity of this new parish.”

Dunn’s focus isn’t exclusively on the people who go to church most Sunday mornings. He wants parishes that are there for the people who don’t attend Mass.

“It’s only since most people are not going to church now that we need to change our mindset,” he said. “The mindset is not just to reach out to the people who belong to our community, but to reach out to everybody around with the Good News. That’s a kind of missionary thrust that takes a long while.”

Dunn’s number one ally in the journey toward mission-oriented parishes is Pope Francis. 

“If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life,” Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, his 2013 exhortation. “More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat.’ ” 

"The mindset is not just to reach out to the people who belong to our community, but to reach out to everybody."

For decades the Archdiocese of Toronto has dodged the bullet on parish closures and consolidations. A steady stream of immigration has seen Toronto add new parishes while other dioceses were closing old parishes. But even with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the coming years, Canada’s largest diocese is facing decisions that come with major demographic shifts, said western region Auxiliary Bishop Bob Kasun.

Older, downtown ethnic parishes have seen their communities flee for the suburbs. They’re now surrounded by a younger, condo-dwelling population often with little connection to the church. 

“A lot of the senior immigrants are dying,” pointed out Kasun.

Some Toronto clergy ministering to historic immigrant populations are hanging on, determined not to abandon often marginalized, older immigrants.

“Then there are the priests who say, ‘Look, the gig is up, boys. We have no chance of surviving. The good old days will not return and it’s time now to focus on the reality we have, to recognize that we are significantly a Canadian Church, but with roots in many different countries.’ ”

Whichever side of that debate about pastoral priorities you’re on, Pope Francis’ demand for a more missionary Church — one that functions as a field hospital for the wounded of our world — still looms, Kasun said.

“We need to move beyond the maintenance model of the parish  into a more active, missionary model, going out,” he said. “There are different ways of becoming a field hospital. One that’s probably surfacing the most clearly is the increased awareness of the needs of the poor.”

In the Catholic schools there’s a clear focus on social justice and young Catholics expect the same of their parishes, said Kasun.

“Who is it that gathers us together? Is it the music? Is it good homilies — which are essential, of course? Or is it more than that?” asks veteran parish pastor Fr. Vito Marziliano of St. Patrick’s in Brampton, Ont. “It’s the presence of Christ. He is the Word. Not only does He speak the word, He is the Word.”

Marziliano is still on course to build a new church for his suburban parish. Architects have based the design on the church at Tabgha, which stands on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Tradition holds that it is the site where Jesus fed the 5,000; where He said to the apostles, “You give them something to eat.”

Over the last year, Marziliano has watched COVID-19 alter the habits of church-going Catholics.

“There’s no doubt that I have some concerns (that parishioners might not come back post COVID). But it’s not I, not me, who calls people together. It’s Christ,” he said.

He believes the post-COVID parish will have to reconnect with the domestic church of families in their homes.

“Our homes are becoming more and more domestic churches and our parishes, our church buildings, our community spaces are becoming more and more the family,” he said. “I don’t think we can do without either.”

Dunn wants parishes to be touchstones in people’s lives.

“That’s part of the incarnational aspect of the Church, that we are together,” he said. “We live together, so we grow in faith together.”

As people choose the parish that serves them best, where they feel most comfortable, there is a danger of a parish becoming one more example of the divisions of our culturally and politically divided world, said Theissen.

“If we’re only gathering with people who are like ourselves, however defined, we probably are missing something integral to not only our worship experience but also our social experience of interacting with people who are different from ourselves. That’s always a danger,” said Theissen.

“That’s absolutely a risk of the Church reflecting broader social trends of segregation based on not just socioeconomic factors but also ideological ones,” said Bruce. “That is going to exacerbate polarization and inequality rather than aiding it.”

So what does it mean to be catholic in the sense of universal?

“It’s very difficult to talk about the Catholic anything, because the Catholic experience is hugely different based on level of involvement, participation and adherence to Church teaching,” Bruce said.

The Vatican’s instruction on “The pastoral conversion of the parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church” tells us to worry less about what the parish is and more about what the parish does.

“While it remains an indispensable institution to encounter Christ and to have a living relationship with Him and with our brothers and sisters in the faith, it is likewise true that the parish must constantly face changes taking place in today’s culture and in the existential reality of persons, in order to explore creatively new ways and methods that allow it to be at the height of its primary function, that is, being a force of evangelization.”

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