The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the first days of the Church from Jesus’ Ascension to the missionary journeys of Paul who went out to the non-Jewish world proclaiming the risen Christ. At one point in this narrative we read:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2: 44-47).
What is described in this passage is a community alive in its awareness of being joined to the risen Jesus and united to each other by the power of the Holy Spirit. As a result of this oneness with God and with each other, the first Christians were a living sign of the Good News. Through their bold proclamation of the message of salvation and through the service they gave “with glad and generous hearts”, they showed us what it means to live the mission that Jesus entrusted to the baptized.
This stirring vision of the early Church is not only for another time. It is the call given to Christians in every age, the call given to us today: to live in the active awareness of our communion with God and with each other and to carry out the mission of care, compassion and mercy in imitation of the Lord, who “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). Building on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and most recently Pope Francis have each summoned Catholics to be genuine disciples of Jesus by living this communion for the sake of the Church’s unending mission of announcing the Gospel.
We live out this commission, which is conferred on every baptized member of the Church, in many different ways and in many different situations. One of the most important places for participating in this communion of believers and for exercising the mission that is ours is the parish. Here, in this experience of Church that we all know so well, we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, to praise our God, to listen to his word, and to be nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ. In our parishes, we learn to build community and to reach out “with glad and generous hearts” to our brothers and sisters in need.
In order for our parishes to be faithful to all that they are called to be, they must be constantly renewed. We have to study the signs of the times. The circumstances of our day and the projections for our future give us an opportunity to focus our parishes more clearly on the mission Jesus has given us.
The Trends Report released in 2011 forecasts a seriously declining number of priests to serve in our parishes in the coming decade. But rather than be a cause for alarm and reaction, this reality can be a source of new possibility for us; it can, if we will let it, be a cause of revitalization for our parishes.
In January 2014, I established a Task Force of leaders from across the diocese to begin preparing now for our future. It is developing plans for groupings of several parishes under the leadership of one pastor and a pastoral team of other ministers. We are calling these groupings a “Family of Parishes”. In a way this name is very apt, illustrating as it does the main work of every parish community. Like a family, a parish is bound together in a communion; and like a family that teaches and models a life a service, a parish is a spiritual home that forms disciples to go out into the world.
The work of the Task Force is only in its first stages; much remains to be done before these “Families of Parishes” are implemented. Yet, the work of discerning and planning for our future belongs to all the people of the diocese. It is my hope that you will participate in this effort through your prayer, through your involvement in the conversations that will be had at the local level, and through your willingness to be a part of the work that will be required to achieve the goal of having our parishes be vibrant, mission-oriented communities that boldly witness to our Catholic faith.
This is a time of great grace for our diocese — a time when we endeavour, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to become even more the disciples Jesus has consecrated us to be.
Catholic teaching often refers to the Church as a “communion”.
What does this mean? When we hear the term “communion”, we probably think of “going to communion”, sharing in the bread and wine — the Body and Blood of Christ. This experience of communion points us toward its profound meaning. Communion means “sharing in common”, actively sharing in a relationship with God, and with others, in Christ. We share in this relationship when we “go to communion”, when we pray (individually and in community), and when we act in a Christ-like manner. Communion is what we share at the deepest level of our faith community, the Church.
This communion is the unity of many different people with diverse vocations — the bishop and priests, sisters and brothers, and the lay people who make up the majority of the members of the Church. We are united in our diversity because we share a common faith life, a common relationship of love with God in Jesus.
Sharing is an action, as when I share my food, or share my thoughts or feelings with someone else. God has shared his life and love with us and so we are called to share this with others, outside and beyond our faith community. This is what is called the mission of the Church. While we might think of mission as something that our priest does or something that “missionaries” do in far off places, the gift of the Holy Spirit received in our baptism calls all of us to share, in our own way, the love God has given to us. To be the Church is to “go to communion” so that we can share communion with others, here and now
Pope Benedict XVI, when visiting one of the parishes in the Diocese of Rome, told the parishioners:
Let us not wait for others to bring different messages, which do not lead to authentic life. You yourselves must become missionaries of Christ to your brothers and sisters wherever they live, work, study or pass their free time… Faith must be lived together, and the parish is the place in which we learn to live our faith as part of the “us” of the Church.
Parishes, then, are called to be “missionary” — not to foreign countries — but first of all to those immediately around them. This is the new evangelization spoken of us so often by St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and most recently, Pope Francis. This mission of evangelization, of proclaiming and living the gospel message, belongs to every baptized member of the Church.
What does a “missionary parish” look like?
To begin with, a missionary parish reaches out to those who do not know Christ by welcoming them and sharing the Good News with them. Now more than ever this is a mission to other Catholics who no longer actively practice their faith, as well as to non-Christians.
A missionary parish is a welcoming environment for any and all who come to it, regardless of race, ethnic origin, social status or personal situation. A missionary parish is also one that educates and forms its members in the faith so that they can live their discipleship completely. This includes preparing adults and children to celebrate the sacraments fully and fruitfully; training people for leadership roles in the community; and forming parishioners to recognize and undertake works of service and justice in the town or city or region where the parish is located.
Lastly, a missionary parish continues to spiritually strengthen parishioners to live their faith boldly and to share it through witness and outreach to others. A parish marked by a missionary spirit is one whose presence in society is made visible and lasting through involvement in social projects, particularly those that serve the poor and marginalized and promote everyone’s right to life and the blessings due to every human person. A parish that is “missionary-oriented” is one where witness of word is matched by witness of life.
This missionary focus is already to be found in many ways and in many instances in our parishes. But it must increase and become the main characteristic of life in all our parishes if they are to be what they are really meant to be — communities engaged in the mission give to the Church by Jesus himself, to make it possible for others to experience life in the Kingdom of God in our time and in this place.
Recognizing the need to develop a new model of parish organization that will provide for many less priests serving in parishes in the next decade, the Task Force investigated what was being done in other dioceses in Canada and the United States facing a similar shortage of priests. The model that was found to be the most practical and useful involves larger groupings of parishes than we have known in the past.
In this model three, four or even five parishes are grouped together. The individual parishes are not closed or merged together; each remains a distinct parish.
A priest is appointed pastor of each of the parishes and becomes the priest-leader within the grouping. His main responsibilities will be to proclaim the word of God, celebrate the sacraments and provide pastoral care for the people in the grouping. In addition, he will oversee the work of the other ministers in the grouping, who will form the pastoral team. It is very likely that there will be a second priest in the grouping, working hand-in-hand with the pastor and other members of the pastoral team.
There will be a number of other persons providing ministry in the grouping. Among these might be a permanent deacon or a pastoral minister or a coordinator of youth ministry. In addition new roles might be chosen by the grouping such as a parish life coordinator or a parish catechist or a parish nurse. Not all these positions will be had in every grouping. It will belong to the groupings, through its leadership, to determine what ministries it needs to accomplish its goals.
One role that will be strongly recommended for each grouping is that of a “manager of temporal affairs”, who, with volunteers from each of the individual parishes, will take care of the maintenance of the buildings; he/she will also manage the day-to-day financial affairs of each parish. The position could be full-time or part-time depending on the needs in the grouping.
It is the intent of the Task Force that Sunday Mass be celebrated in every church in the grouping, although it will not be possible to have as many Masses in each church as are presently had.
It should be noted that the Task Force will not be recommending the closure of any parishes or churches. But every parish and Catholic Community will be moved into a grouping by the end of the next decade, that is, by 2025.
The grouping will be called a “Family of Parishes”, which name indicates that these are different than simply larger clusters. Like a family they will, hopefully, be characterized by close cooperation and sharing in realizing the common goal of being mission-driven.
The scripture passage from the Acts of the Apostles in Bishop Fabbro’s letter recalls for us life in the early Church. How does this example challenge me in how I live my life? What is the challenge for my parish community in this passage?
In the article “A Missionary Parish”, the last paragraph reads: “This missionary focus is already to be found in many ways and in many instances in our parishes.”
How is your parish already “mission-oriented”? What would need to change in your parish in order for “mission-driven” to be its main characteristic?
Where do you find hope for the future in the new model of Family of Parishes?
What feedback would you give to the Task Force concerning the new proposed model of parish?
The Task Force on the Future of Pastoral Care in the Faith Communities of the Diocese of London was established by Bishop Ronald Fabbro in November 2013. Made up of pastors, a pastoral minister, a permanent deacon, representatives from St. Peter’s Seminary and the Institute of Ongoing Formation, a number of directors of diocesan offices and several parishioners from various parishes across the diocese, the Task Force was given two tasks to accomplish:
to study and develop ways whereby all the parishes of the diocese can become more “mission-oriented”; that is to say, how to have our parishes move from being communities that are inward-looking, focused simply on maintaining the status quo, to being communities that reach out beyond themselves for the service of others, particularly the poor; with the goal of transforming the world.
and secondly, the create models of parish that will provide for a steadily decreasing number of priest-leaders in our parishes and yet have those parishes remain vibrant and active in the work of proclaiming and living the gospel.
This is a very large and challenging mandate but one that also contains within it many possibilities to be creative and imaginative in the face of the reality of changing times. In many ways, the Task Force is acting on Bishop Fabbro’s commitment to look for new ways of doing things in order to build and strengthen our diocese.
In its work the Task Force is not operating in isolation but is consulting and collaborating with those engaged in ministry in the parishes, as well as with lay leadership, such as members of Parish Pastoral Councils and Parish Finance Committees. And certainly, to the degree possible, the Task Force will be seeking the input of parishioners, inviting them into the conversation about our future through dialogue in their local parish communities with their pastors, pastoral teams and others in leadership.
A significant part of the Task Force’s work will be to develop ways to educate and form leaders and all the baptized for the future directions that are being prepared.
This, as already stated, is a big project that will require time and care in its implementation over the course of the next ten years.
Rev. Dwayne Adam, V.G. Pastor, St. Joseph, River Canard
Jonathan Azzopardi St. Michael Parish, Leamington
Rev. Michael Bechard Director of Liturgy
Judy Bertram, Pastoral Minister, Corpus Christi, Windsor
Joe Bezzina Family Life and Health Coordinator, London District Catholic School Board
Vicki Braun Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs, Delhi
Rev. John Comiskey Moderator of the Curia
Dr. John Dool St. Peter’s Seminary, London
John Devet St. Christopher, Forest
Rev. Tom Ferrera Pastor, St. Mary, Tillsonburg
Dr. Christian McConnell Director, Institute of Ongoing Formation at St. Peter’s Seminary
Leanne Moran Sacred Heart, Sarnia
Emma Moynihan Coordinator of Communications
Mike O'Hare Director of Human Resources
Deacon Jim Panchaud
Laura Reilly Director of Lay Ecclesial Ministers
Rev. Mark Sargent Coordinator of Priest Personnel
David Savel Financial Administrator of the Diocese of London
Vince Taylor Holy Family, London
Deacon John Vallely Director of Permanent Deacons
Rev. Paul Baillargeon Chancellor and Judicial Vicar
Most Rev. Ronald Fabbro, C.S.B.
Most Rev. Joseph Dabrowski, C.S.M.A.