This discussion was part of a much bigger conversation of how we can shift our parish from maintenance to mission: How can we free up people and resources for missionary outreach? How can we renew our relevance to the wider community? How can we engage with those outside our faith community? How can we genuinely respond to Jesus’ great command to go and make disciples?
It is all part of a process of renewal that many Parish Communities are undertaking. Whether it’s a reaction to the challenges and difficulties of our world at this time; or as part of the new movements inspired by books such as Divine Renovation (Fr James Mallon) or Rebuilt (Fr Michael White and Tim Corcoran); or stirred up by local gatherings such as the Proclaim Conference; or perhaps nothing more than an authentic response to the question of the Plenary Council, What is God asking of us in Australia at this time? There are Parish communities who are earnestly listening to the voice of the Spirit and seeking to respond in new ways to the call of discipleship.
This journey of renewal resonates with Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, which calls the church to a new missionary focus that is capable of transforming all our structures, parishes included.
Pope Francis writes:
I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. EG 27
When we began this journey, the above words of the Pope allowed a kind of freedom to let go of some things we had held onto for a long time – our times, schedules, structures, ministries, our way of doing things – and to start to explore what our community may look like today. What does it mean to be a St Joseph’s Parish in Toronto in 2019?
And even on the nature of the parish community, the Pope has some challenging yet life-giving direction:
The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”. This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few. The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach. We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented. EG 28
We don’t change our structures just for the sake of change, but so that we can be more mission-oriented. We need to free ourselves from the busy-ness of maintenance so that we can redirect our creativity and energy to the call of discipleship and mission. And this is exciting.
For our community of St Joseph’s Toronto, it has meant re-examining what we have and who we are, and how best to respond to the needs of the community around us. We needed to discern our vision and mission in light of what we were learning. One of our first steps was starting the ALPHA Course – a space where new and interested people can explore their faith in a friendly, relaxed environment. We intentionally focused on welcome and hospitality. We invested new energy into our Sacraments Journey to genuinely engage with young families. It has led us to partner with DARA (Development and Relief Agency) to establish a community kitchen and hopefully build more connections with the wider community. And it has led us to prayer – to earnestly listen to the Holy Spirit as we journey into unfamiliar territory.
But that’s been our story. Every community will have their own response to the invitation of parish renewal which will be shaped by history, the gifts of the community and the unique call of the Holy Spirit.
It is a journey of discipleship. It is a commitment to building a Christian community that is growing in relationship with God and each other. And to be honest, the journey won’t be all smooth sailing. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve had to stop and adjust the course. It gets messy at times too. But we’ve learnt a lot on the way.
And that in itself is an adventure worth taking.