Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Apostolic Blueprint for a Parish, the Model of Christian Community in the Modern Age

There is a lot of discussion today about the loss of community and how parishes, even those that seem well attended, don’t seem to be the center or the community any more. This is not only a response to a sense of alienation in the modern world that so many feel; it is about the transformation of society.

It is through the re-establishment of Christian community, so it is argued, that a Christian culture will emerge that will help to consolidate the Faith among Catholics, by which they will ultimately become beacons of light that will inculturate, evangelize and transform a post-Christian Wild West into a new and beautiful Christian society.

This being so, the question is, How might such communities be established?

A common response is to look to the monastic model as an antidote. My sense is that the current interest in the much vaunted Benedict Option, in which hope for the West is placed in a Benedictine-led spiritual revival, is as much about fulfilling a desire for Christian community as it is for the transformation of the culture. This looks to the part that the Benedictine monasteries played in the preservation and dissemination of Christian culture in the dark ages. Some elaborate on this and envisage a reestablishment of a picture of the medieval village, with its houses clustered around the monastery as the families walk to Mass or Vespers in the nearby Gothic abbey church.

The disadvantage of such an arrangement can be that the spiritual heart is a religious community, which, by its nature, is separated from the rest of the world and therefore also from the lay people who identify themselves an extension of that community. This is not an insurmountable problem; there is nothing wrong with this if those involved don’t mind, and if the fruits of it are positive. However, given the low number and often the remoteness of monastic communities, even if we put aside the difficulties mentioned, it isn’t a realistic option for most until they can retire to rural France...or Oklahoma...or wherever it may be.

I have seen people try to create lay communities of working people and their families by encouraging those who join to live a compound of homes where all subscribe to some modified Benedictine rule. The drawback of this is that it is difficult to overcome the conflict between the demands of community and of family life; there is often a tension between the two. Some seem to manage it, but others in extreme cases suchcommunities can have a cultish feel to them. By necessity they need to be strongly hierarchical if they are to avoid falling into anarchy; ultimately, one or more people are in charge over decisions in daily living that effect others. This immediately creates conflict because that community authority or influence will tend to interfere with, or even undermine, the natural authority of parents in the family.

Such a conflict rarely arises in parish life, since beyond the mere fact of attendance, the parish itself does not impose rules at all beyond what the Church as a whole requires. There is no rule for parish life, that I am aware of, in the way that there are rules for religious communities. But this is also the source of a weakness for the parish as a basis of community. The connection is usually so loose that it is rare, nowadays at least, for people to feel bound to it at all.

This is where the need for a set of principles for parish community might come useful, and this is what I heard described recently.

St Elias Melkite Catholic Church, in Los Gatos, California, recently had their annual visit from the bishop, Most Reverend Nicholas J. Samra, Eparchial Bishop of Newton. I attended Vespers, before which he spoke encouraging words, exercising his pastoral role as bishop. The subject of his talk was how a parish can be a genuine community, or, as he put it, part of the Church and not simply a social club.

He began by going back to Scripture, and in particular, he analysed the growth of the early Church as described by the Acts of the Apostles. He pointed out how the descriptions of the early gatherings seemed to point to four ministries that we should replicate today.

First (of course!) worship: Divine Liturgy (or Mass) and the Divine Office in the Church. Then he spoke of the need to take that worship back into the home by the establishment of the Domestic Church, where the occupants of a house (not always families, this can be people living on their own or single people sharing somewhere) pray the Divine Office in their icon corner. St Elias’ pastor, Fr Sebastian Carnazzo, has produced free booklets which he gives to everyone who walks into the church called Daily Prayer for Melkites. This give a simple stripped down version of the more complex, monastic-derived full Morning and Evening Prayer, which families can do, and by which they participate in the fuller monastic-influenced form that a church might do at Vespers or Orthros. In doing this they are dispersing the liturgy across time and space and taking the Church out to their homes.

Second is social - the bishop spoke of the regular organization of social events, and especially meals connected to the worship, and how newcomers should be spotted and invited to attend the coffee social/meal after the Liturgy. Again, this structure of communal meals after worship can be replicated in the home. There is something wonderful about a social event in a home which is Vespers followed by a meal. He spoke also of how an apparently thriving parish can, detrimentally, allow this social element to dominate at the expense of the others, so creating a social club and not a church. In the long run, a parish that does this will die. When it is done properly, the hope is that this will naturally generate friendships and social cohesion beyond the church, creating a social fellowship amid the parish community which supplements and derives its strength from those parish-based social events, and ultimately the fellowship of the Spirit and the liturgy.

Third is education. He spoke of how great a need there is for constant mystagogy of adults and instruction of the children, and that churches should hold classes for both. The children, he said, should be instructed in the church, in the ideal, by a couple, in such a way that it establishes in the children the habit of looking to parents in the home for education and instruction. And that, of course, is the next step here - the education of the children in the home by the parents.

Fourth is charity - almsgiving. This is the spirit of love by which people donate time and money for the care of others in the church, in the community and beyond. Some of that time will be spent in contributing freely to ministries that provide these four parish functions. Again, we see the model being set in the parish, and then supernatural transformation of those involved so that they take their enhanced capacity to love out to their fellows. This dispersed charity, if I can call it that, participates in that which should be at its greatest in the parish.

Bishop Nicholas suggested that apart from the functions that are necessarily performed by a priest, these are ministries for which lay people should take responsibility. Ideally, they will never prove onerous for anyone. As he described it, this is a natural organization of community and each of us has a charism that suits us to work within one form or another of these ministries. In short, we are made to be members of the Church, and if not religious, very likely part of a parish; when we find our natural niche in which we contribute most powerfully to parish life, we will flourish in a special way as part of it. This would be a true flowering of a liturgically centered “charismatic” movement. Furthermore, when people do what comes naturally to them as part of these ministries, then we shine with the light of Christ and people will see something in us, and this will in turn attract them to parish life.

What he was presenting was a simple “rule” for parish life, a set of guidelines which, if a congregation chooses to follow them, will likely to lead the establishment of a thriving church; and when each is in place the fifth element occurs spontaneously - evangelization.

Bishop Samra was in fact outlining a simple template for the project management of the new evangelization!...which is the same as the old evangelization, and is in fact the oldest evangelization.

It occurred to me also that this is a possible pattern for communities that are not monastic, but perhaps bound together in some other way. Little neighborhood groups of families and single people - maybe in an apartment block - can each have their own domestic churches in their individual homes and apartments, but then gather together from time to time as little parish sub-communities in the home of one, reinforcing this parish template for community in all.

I think this may be a practical answer to the desire for community in modern man. Most of us are meant to be parish people, not monastic people (which is a special calling), and when life is organized on this ideal pattern, we will flourish and evangelize others.

The more it is replicated outside the church in different social groups, the more it will create a bond of community for that particular grouping, while simultaneously priming those who have never been to church for participation in the parish community, and further developing the bond to it in those who already have a parish life.

Among those who are thinking about the decline of community and Christian culture in the West, there is a tendency to assume that the post-Enlightenment model of a city is the one of the culprits; perhaps industrialization, electronic communication, and the existence of giant conurbations of millions of people are part of the problem. This is the back-to-the-land, recreate-a-village outlook. There may be something to this, but I do wonder sometimes if this is not based upon an idealized view of what villages and working on the land used to be like. My instincts tell me that the sense of alienation arises not so much from the environment, as from within the person who is alienated. If I feel alienated, then I must become more of a community person; it is by offering fellowship and community to others that I feel part of a community myself. This can happen wherever there are people. I should redirect my work into an effort to participate in the church-as-community in the fullest sense.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we all need to live in a village or even within walking distance of our local church; a parish community can be dispersed quite widely through a wider population base and still be strong. The old maxim “You get what you give” seems to be the operating principle here, and in a city there always people nearby to whom I can offer community. Regardless of whether or not they accept it, I will change in the effort to bring it to them. Certainly, I should admit, Bishop Nicholas’ address made me ask a few questions of myself.

The paintings are all by LS Lowry, who made his name painting the industrial landscapes of the mill towns in Greater Manchester in England after the Second World War.

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