ROME, SEPT. 4, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Though priests have an irreplaceable role in parish life, cooperation from laypeople is key to enabling them to carry out their God-given mission, according to the assistant promoter of justice at the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature.
ZENIT spoke with Franciscan Father Nikolaus Schöch about how laypeople can help parishes be a true instrument of God’s grace and the future of parishes amid the changing face of the Church.
Part 1 of this interview was published Thursday.
ZENIT: How can laypeople in a parish contribute to pastoral development?
Father Schöch: The parish priest is not obliged to carry out all parish activities personally, but rather, to see to it that they are performed opportunely, in keeping with sound doctrine and Church discipline, according to the particular circumstances and always under his own supervision.
The ideal is not a parish where the priest does everything. The priest should help laypeople discover and fulfill their specific vocation in communion with other faithful. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings about this communion and integrates the priest within God’s people in communion. As the Holy Spirit fills and motivates the entire sphere of existence, he also penetrates and shapes each person’s specific vocation. That is how the particular spirituality of priests, religious, parents, entrepreneurs, catechists, etc. is molded and developed. Each vocation has a concrete and distinctive way of living its spirituality, which gives depth and enthusiasm to the tasks performed.
The apostolate of the laity is mainly carried out within associations and movements that operate in full harmony with the Church and in obedience to pastors’ guidelines. These associations of faithful should be encouraged and supported.
However, within the parish structure, any kind of exclusive or isolated activity on the part of individual groups should be avoided. On the other hand, the parish and associations are not free of dangers from within such as bureaucratization, functionalism, democratism or planning that focuses more on management than on pastoral activities.
ZENIT: What is a parish priest’s main challenge in contemporary society?
Father Schöch: Each parish needs to be viewed from the overall perspective of the diocese and not the other way around; and due account needs to be taken of laypeople, religious, and other consecrated persons in the Church, both within the Christian community and in the world.
There is a growing awareness that, in addition to the problems of postmodern culture, there is the problem of a high percentage of non-practicing Catholics, a drastic decrease for various reasons in the number of people who claim to be Catholics; and at the same time, there is the problem of the extraordinary surge in so-called evangelical Pentecostal sects and other sects.
In the face of this situation, there should be an urgent and generous response to Benedict XVI’s invitation in Brazil to undertake a real “mission,” focused on those who, though having been baptized, have not, for various historical circumstances, been sufficiently evangelized.
In this task, we must make the most of communication to avoid the expansion of a culture trying to reject God and deeply marked by secularism, relativism, scientificism, religious indifference, agnosticism, and by frequently militant and antireligious secularism.
ZENIT: The pastoral work carried out in a parish is often very broad and diverse, according to various concrete situation. Such is the case, for example, of family ministry, and the health care ministry, among others. What aspects of pastoral activity should be the priority in the world of today, looking to the future of the Church?
Father Schöch: I think the seven pastoral priorities highlighted by the Servant of God John Paul II in “Novo Millennio Ineunte” are still valid: holiness, prayer, Sunday Eucharist, sacrament of reconciliation, the primacy of grace, and listening to the Word and proclaiming the Word.
According to the example of the holy Curé d’Ars and other exemplary pastors, at the heart of the parish priest’s pastoral activity is the administration of the sacraments, particularly of the Eucharist and penance.
Among the many activities that take place in a parish, none is so vital or formative for the community as the Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist. Ultimately, each parish is founded on a theological reality, because of being a Eucharistic community.
For this reason, Vatican II recommends that pastors should see to it that the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the center and culmination of the whole life of the Christian community (cf. “Christus Dominus,” No. 30). This means that the parish is a suitable community in which to celebrate the Eucharist, which contains the living source of its building up and the sacramental bond of its existence in full communion with the whole Church.
Parish priests should devote special attention to individual confessions, according to the spirit and manner established by the Church, as well as to spiritual direction for those who request it. One cannot evangelize in the long term without giving supremacy to God and without interior life. The moral and social crisis of our times, with its consequent problems both for people and families, intensifies the need of priestly assistance in spiritual life. Priests should be fervently encouraged to give new acknowledgement and new zeal to the ministry of the confessional and spiritual direction, also because of the new demands among laypeople, who are more willing to follow the way of Christian perfection set forth in the Gospel.
In the context of the Year for Priests, which has recently begun, attention to vocations to the priesthood and to consecrated life constitutes a pastoral priority.
ZENIT: In a global society, how can priests imitate the holy Curé d’Ars, St. John Vianney, in their priestly ministry?
Father Schöch: In a world in which the common view of life is increasingly heedless of the sacred, and where “functional” is the only important category, the Catholic vision of the priesthood risks losing its natural consideration, sometimes even within ecclesial circles.
The parish of Ars was a parish of peasants, and a very small one, with only 230 faithful. However, St. John Vianney not only assisted sick priests from neighboring parishes but offered his permanent service as confessor and director of souls to thousands of faithful who flocked in ever surging numbers from all over France.
Often, both in theological environments and in concrete pastoral practice, and in clergy formation, two different visions of the priesthood become distinguishable and are sometimes in confrontation, as described recently by Benedict XVI:
a) A social functional vision that defines the nature of the priesthood as a “service” to the community in the fulfillment of a function. The vision of service relates to the primacy of the Word and to the service of proclaiming it.
b) The ontological-sacramental vision which, while not denying the servicial character of the priesthood, “sees it anchored in the existence of the ministry, an existence that was determined by a gift called a sacrament and granted to him by the Lord through the Church” (J. Ratzinger, Life and Ministry of Priests, in Elementi di Teologia fondamentale. Saggio su fede e ministerio, Brescia 2005, p.165).
The ontological-sacramental vision is related to the primacy of the Eucharist, in the binomial “priesthood-sacrifice.”
ZENIT: What role is the parish supposed to fulfill in the world today, or is it an outdated institution?
Father Schöch: The parish is a concrete “communitas christifidelium,” with a stable existence within the sphere of a particular Church, and whose pastoral activity is entrusted to a parish priest as its own pastor, under the authority of a diocesan bishop. Therefore, the parish will always be valid, it will always have a future. The parish is not destined to disappear.
This does not mean there is no need for change. In several parts of Europe, there are parishes more than 1,000 years old, whose boundaries have remained unchanged for centuries. It should be hardly surprising if parishes merge, since some of these regions are depleted of parishioners due to migration, or are now occupied mainly by non-Catholics.
In other places, the clergy is insufficient to provide for all the services requiring a parish priest. In many dioceses of Africa and Latin America, the task of dividing overpopulated parishes to allow a closer pastoral service to the faithful is still pending.
City parishes are overpopulated. It is impossible for the parish priest of a parish with 100,000 inhabitants to continue to know his flock personally. Such parishes will have to be divided into smaller and more accessible units. A priest from my country was a parish priest in a rural parish in Bolivia bigger than a diocese in Europe, and including 50 communities. In these cases too, new parish boundaries should be marked, to contribute to easier pastoral work, closer to the faithful.
Parishes undoubtedly have a future. The point is just how much restructuring will be required in some regions so that parishes are able to fulfill their tasks. In the future, transport and communications will make it essential to improve cooperation between parishes.
In several European countries, “pastoral units” are arising, under particular diocesan regulations. These pastoral units are made up of several parishes which, in conjunction, are called upon by the bishop to constitute efficacious “missionary communities” working within a specific territory, under the diocesan pastoral program. It is therefore a form of cooperation and coordination between two or more bordering parishes. Parishes are not going to be suppressed, but mutual cooperation is being organized.
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