Change our ways for changing days

By  Fr. Ben P. Ebcas, Jr., Catholic Register Special
  • January 25, 2008

The pastoral arena or terrain in the Greater Toronto Area is considerably changing every year. The latest numbers from the 2006 Census show quick and dramatic changes in the demographic composition of the metropolis. There were reports that one out of four Torontonians is foreign born. What does this mean? What are the pastoral implications of these data?

Pope Paul VI, speaking to the College of Cardinals on June 22, 1973, said: “The conditions of society today require us all to revise our methods and to seek out with all our energy new ways and means by which the Christian message may be brought to the men of our times, for it is only in this message that they can find the answer to their doubts and the inspiration to carry out the obligations arising from their mutual dependency” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975).

Our clarion call is evangelization. We preach the same Gospel because “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). But there is a need to rethink, re-evaluate or even re-engineer our methods and ways.

Many of our leaders, pastors and ministers have already responded to the challenges posed by the changing demographics. There is an air of openness to fresh ideas in dealing with the evolving reality. Many parishes have opened their doors to ethnic-influenced liturgical celebrations. Although there is still room for improvement in many facets of parish life, at least the attitude is gradually changing.

As Bishop Richard Grecco, auxiliary bishop of Toronto, said: “The shift in immigration has brought old mission lands onto the parish doorstep, and many parishes are responding with outreach and evangelization efforts.” Our role as welcoming and caring communities here in the metropolis is to help create an atmosphere where they can share their unique but edifying ways of expressing their faith through devotions, renewal programs, family ministries, etc.

Unwillingness to respond positively to this pastoral reality will isolate and marginalize immigrants who are potential parishioners and partners in our common mission. There is a challenge to conduct pastoral assessment and planning anchored on the realities of parishes, hence, the need for parish pastoral councils. Creating venues for participation leads to lay empowerment and opens the road for new partners in our mission. By virtue of our Baptism, we are all missionaries. Hence, more missionaries, the better and challenges become lighter.

Another strategy would be organizing study groups among parishioners in order to bring out new ideas, suggestions in dealing with the influx of new parishioners. A firm grasp of the uniqueness and similarities of one’s flock would definitely lead to a more effective and realistic pastoral ministry. There is richness in diversity. In fact, this phenomenon all the more solidifies the Catholicity of our faith.

This parish vision should be anchored in our common mission but flavoured by the diverse cultures existing in the parish community. The task of formulating a parish vision, mission and goals is both a pleasant and daunting challenge. It necessitates an attitude of openness without compromising basic and foundational structures. It also involves risks in order to allow parishioners to have a sense of ownership of the formulated vision and mission, which will hopefully lead to a commitment on the implementation of goals and objectives.

Some parishes have also been holding multicultural festivities. Parishioners of different ethnic backgrounds gather annually and showcase their culture, food, apparel, etc. The atmosphere created by these multicultural activities opens up imaginary barriers and promotes mutual understanding and leads to respect and co-operation. There are more pastoral strategies that can be drawn from this experience. Our parishioners can surely help us in formulating more as they become more aware and responsive to the common challenge of making our parish communities alive.

Our seminaries, I believe, have already taken steps in order to fully equip future priests and deacons for the evolving pastoral realities that they will deal with after their formation years. I think courses and seminars on Oriental and Asian cultures would be a great help. Inviting immigrant priests to the seminary as resource persons in workshops and seminars on inculturation would be a realistic pastoral strategy as well. Priests can also draw from the wealth of information coming from their fellow priests who belong to different ethnic backgrounds. These priests can explain more of the nuances of the liturgical celebrations of their people. In this manner, we open up avenues for better understanding and meaningful co-operation among parishioners of different cultural backgrounds.

(Fr. Ebcas is pastor of St. Barnabas Church in Toronto. He also holds a master’s degree in pastoral ministry.)

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