Parishes, Part III

Parishes, Part III

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by Bill Droel

Outreach and mission must set a parish’s goals, not inherited routines or personality quirks of the leaders. Outreach and mission directly inform an enlivened liturgy, especially the music and preaching. Doors are open wide to new arrivals. One Chicago parish, for example, has a sign above the church entrance: Witamy, Welcome, Bienvenidos.

Some new arrivals are immigrants; others come by way of a process called gentrification. Nowadays, in contrast to the bubble years preceding 2007, gentrification is usually a slow process. An observant parish leader understands that today’s gentrification includes more than young professionals remodeling lofts. It embraces teachers and health care workers (nurses, technicians, researchers, graduate students and more). It includes young information and service workers who find walking to work or to groceries and restaurants attractive.

Gentrification is not an unqualifiable good. Any church true to the gospel must be for the poor, including for the elderly. However, a parish’s obligation to give primacy to the poor is not a rationale for dependency on the diocesan welfare system. Gentrification is an opportunity for the parish to add competent leaders and have financial independence. But gentrification is a positive only when parish leaders engage in sophisticated negotiations. How many housing units are designated low to moderate income? How many jobs are given to local residents? What is the procedure for a parish to refer potential new residents (of all income levels) to developments?

Similar to their critical stance toward gentrification, parish leaders must put aside any interest they might have, no matter how unwittingly, in keeping the parish poor. Neighborhood upgrading is not in itself a threat to a parish’s mission. After all, for most of U.S. Catholic history, the parish saw its role as moving the poor and under-educated into the mainstream.

The Code of Canon Law says that a parish “is to embrace all Christ’s faithful.” Thus, entrepreneurial parish leaders systematically develop relationships with the daytime occupants of nearby hospitals, supermarkets, colleges, mental health agencies and government buildings. These leaders also identify and meet with the women religious, brothers, chaplains, priests and lay ministerial professionals who happen to live in or near the parish. They make similar contacts among nearby Orthodox Christian leaders and Protestants.

The Code of Canon Law also instructs parishes to open their facilities to neighborhood groups, presuming the group’s agenda is not hostile to Catholic doctrine and presuming the group’s use of the facility does not conflict with the normal parish schedule. Most parishes are hospitable to 12-Step groups, scout troops and the like. An outreach and mission-centered parish goes further, personally extending the invitation to the local chamber of commerce, to social service agency staff, to public school administrators, book clubs and more. Of course, an aggressively hospitable parish needs an extra part-time janitor.

Parish planning usually means: What must be closed or consolidated? Planning premised on outreach and mission begins with signs of strength: Under what conditions will this parish thrive? The usual planning process amounts to death planning. A better process nourishes life.

Up next: schools, high-rise buildings, daytime workers and changes in suburbia.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.