The National Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Parish Ministry Project has revitalized the community life and pastoral leadership of US parishes. Bishop Howard Hubbard was optimistic about the evolving parish in his speech to the National Council for Pastoral Planning and Council Development.
QUIETLY, without much publicity, American Catholic parishes are showing signs of life and growth. After a period of painful consolidation and even the loss of some parishes, many that remain are undergoing a subtle transformation in active community life and pastoral leadership.
This is not an accident, but the result of careful analysis and planning to energize the considerable good will of the faithful. Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N. Y., recently addressed the National Council for Pastoral Planning and Council Development and shared with them his reflections and vision of the evolving parish. Recognizing that the ecclesiological, theological and sociological scenes in American Catholicism are rapidly changing, he believes that the parish community has been and will continue to be the center of the church’s life and its fourfold mission: to proclaim the Gospel, to worship, to build community and to offer healing services to people in need. The foundation of the church’s efforts, he says, is the baptismal call of each member to advance the mission and ministry of Jesus in our world.
Bishop Hubbard cited four characteristics that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Parish Ministry Project found to contribute to healthy, mature, spiritually alive parish communities. They are, stated simply, good liturgy and preaching, practical approaches to problems such as alcoholism, crime, drug abuse and issues of family life, a sense of ownership and, finally, a feeling that something is going on for everyone. He proposed these characteristics as realistic goals and noted four practical proposals that flow from a collaborative model of ministry: evangelization, collaboration with clear mutual expectations, stewardship and, lastly, the quality of the worship of the eucharistic community.
Bishop Hubbard is a realist. He recognizes all the pitfalls, from the priest shortage and shifting demography to a blurring of roles and duties in the newly emerging patterns. He optimistically suggests that this evolving situation presents an opportunity to better appreciate the theology of baptism and collaborative ministry. The characteristics and challenges he noted are not limited to the ideal, affluent parish; they apply to all.
He stressed the need to develop communities that will bear witness to the fact that the church is concerned about persons and personal values; and the signs of that concern will be acts of warmth, kindness and presence among the members.
Continuing theological education for ministry must be a priority, as must opportunities for retreats and other formational activities that will help ministers grow spiritually. Bishop Hubbard considers members of religious orders and congregations to be in a unique position to help parishes address these challenges. They have had extensive experience integrating prayer with the hectic demands of their apostolates. This blending of the active with the contemplative in a meaningful daily pattern of prayer is something the whole church needs to experience.
Bishop Hubbard clearly strikes a chord when he offers his analysis of problems and needs. There is a chorus of support already sounding in harmony with him. Some recent examples:
* In this issue of AMERICA John A. Coleman, S.J., reports his own insights (delivered at the John Courtney Murray Forum Lecture last week at Fordham University in New York) about the recovery of appreciation for community in American life.
* The Rev. John C. Cusick, the director of young adult ministry in Chicago, spoke to the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, Calif., about the need to make the parish a place where young people can feel at home. He echoed Bishop Hubbard in stressing the crucial importance of the Sunday Eucharist. “Make Sunday the most unbelievable spiritual experience of the whole week.”
* Francis X. Cleary, S.J., of Saint Louis University, drawing on Luke’s Gospel, listed four marks of a vibrant parish: competent religious education, personal and community social concern, lively celebration of the Eucharist and prayer suffused with gratitude.
* Commenting in The National Catholic Reporter that we are a church of varieties and quirks, Tim Unsworth advocated spending more to educate sisters, the laity and brothers for leadership roles.
* On Good Friday, in observance of the seasons of Easter and Passover, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a feature article on good preaching. Five of the dozen or so selected preachers were Catholic priests. The diversity of their parishes and congregations seems to prove Bishop Hubbard’s thesis that renewal can take place anywhere. Three of the men mentioned work in desolate inner city parishes where daily life amid drug dealers and drive-by shootings is a challenge. Despite the dreary atmosphere of his neighborhood, one of these pastors is a distinguished poet, filled with optimism. Another “good preacher” leads one of the oldest parishes in the nation, with all the varieties and quirks mentioned by Mr. Unsworth. The formula there, worked out by successive pastors, is to welcome everyone, including the many people with AIDS who reside in the center city area, doctors from the two university hospitals, young professionals, sixth-generation residents–everyone. Preach from the heart and from a life of prayer. And the Sunday Eucharist is a splendid event.
The holy consensus on this crucial issue for the future of the church is so startling that even the secular press is beginning to notice the results.