This fall my parish observed its closing celebration of the Eucharist. For many this is a time of sadness over the loss of parish community and the familiar surroundings. There is also reflection on how did we get here? What went wrong?
Possibly there is another way to look at the closing. It may be liberation. No, not the liberation in the modern sense, that is, freedom from God, but a freedom from the human constraints to discipleship that are found in any parish. The principle obstacle to discipleship found in the parish is the business of the church.
Parishes have a dual nature. They are a corporate business entity whose purpose is to support a spiritual mission with temporal goods. While the business should sustain the mission, it is often the case that the mission is driven by the business. The concern for the business blinds us to the nature of the mission. The business side of the church is plagued by the quest for power -- influence and control -- in the service of self.
Business-oriented questions consume us. We become obsessed with concerns over revenue. We define success by the size of the offertory collection, or by the number of customers, or parishioners in the seats.
We are concerned about giving the customer what he wants. Does he want a short Mass, a Mass without music, and a homily free of the challenges offered by the Gospel? If business metrics are used to evaluate the success of a parish, by all means yes, we must deliver the product demanded so as to keep the customer happy.
We delude ourselves into believing that business success equates with a vibrant, faith-filled community. We are pleased with our faith formation programs because there are a large number of enrollees. We give the customers what they want, convenience, and a good time for the children. Never mind that 75 percent of the enrollees may report they do not attend Sunday mass. That's a shame. As Dietrich Bonheoffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis for his resistance, declared, "It is wicked sophistry to justify the worldliness of the church by the cross of Jesus."
We have been blessed with a certain freedom amid the opportunities that open up during the formation of a new parish. As we look to the future, our efforts need to focus on discipleship and how we draw each other to become disciples. This will require an end to parochialism in our organizational groups, from in-parish committees, schools, volunteer groups to parish, cultural, and political boundaries.
In order to focus on mission we might start with the use of words that have extraordinary meaning. For example, the word "mass" can be exchanged with "the celebration of the Eucharist". The economy of words that causes us to refer to the Body and Blood of Christ as the "body" or the "host" and the "cup" might better be replaced by the richer terms "Body of Christ" and "Precious Blood". We need to say what we believe; it reminds us and teaches others.
The unintended, by man, consequence of the pastoral planning business is the freedom to think beyond the status quo, to look to the Universal Church, to believe that we are faced with extraordinary challenges as we are called, individually, to be Christ.
(Mr. Dansereau, a Catholic father and long-time parish leader, lives in Albany.)