Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Recently, at a Legatus meeting of local business and professional people, a guest speaker by the name of Dan Celucci (Catholic Leadership Institute or CLI) made an excellent presentation. After giving us some sobering statistics — his organization keeps up-to-date track of demographical data on Catholic parishes throughout the United States — he was asked if there are any parishes that buck the trends, which often seem downward.

Before doing that, Dan remarked that one of the most often cited statistics that causes alarm is the so-called “priest shortage.” Actually, he said, the decline of engaged and regularly attending Catholics is much more precipitous than the shrinking pool of clergy available for sacraments. He suggests that if rates continue as they are at present, there will be no priest shortage since there will be fewer people seeking their ministerial gifts and charisms. A sobering thought. 

To the question posed, however — is there any research about what does attract people to a parish? — he remarked that as he and his associates have studied the parishes that are bucking all these trends, there are four factors that seem to be in play, regardless of where the parish is located. Healthy parishes display four significant marks.

First, the parish has a targeted or segmented plan for the spiritual growth of their people. The parish recognizes that people are all at different places in their spiritual journey, and effective leaders have strategies, programs and outreach for people all along that spectrum of faith journeys — from those who are in the initial phases of seeking, to those who are ready to be sent out on mission, and people in between. A question that such leadership always asks is, who is not here that should be? How do we reach out to them and engage them? Targeted strategies matter.

Secondly, successful parishes have a strong and healthy culture of shared leadership. The pastor does his job well, but everyone else from the councils to the staff to the volunteers see themselves as a critical component of building the culture. They have a plan for the future and growth. They hold each other accountable. They offer feedback regularly and constructively. They measure their effectiveness. They are team players who support one another. 

Thirdly, the quality of Sunday worship is their central concern. We know it’s where we will meet 90 percent of our active parishioners, so the parishes that are thriving really invest in making sure that worship is as intentional, prayerful and participatory as possible. In his research, Dan says, there is not one style of worship that seems to be more prevalent among these parishes, simply worship done well. This means good homilies, excellent sound systems and lighting, safe and comfortable facilities and a reverent celebration of the Holy Eucharist. This goes beyond the “welcoming” that everyone says they want. It embraces a true love for the Mass and a passion to get people involved.

Lastly, and probably most difficult for us, is that these parishes really embrace a “missionary impulse,” as Pope Francis has urged. They understand the larger community in which they are located, and their activities, strategies and hospitality — their primary focus — is on building relationships with all the souls in their territory. This includes more than just the Catholic community, an evangelizing spirit. 

This last factor is especially significant at a time when we are entering into the synodality — or listening to the Holy Spirit alive in us — process. Although there are doubtless many things we would like to say that need to be heard, about what we feel is right in the Church and for the  Church as well as what is not, an equally important question is, to whom and from whom are we eliciting these questions.

When we think of “Church,” we often tend to think only of hierarchy, or of clergy and people who are in leadership positions, such that the listening process may seem at first like laypersons telling things to the “authorities.” This would be, indeed, to assume a very clerical model of the Church which, for many, is doubtless seen as a big part of our problems. But the mission of the Church is not only the “people in the pews” or to somehow seek reform on how we do Church governance — both of which are essential, of course. We can not forget that the Great Commission of Jesus is addressed to all of the baptized, not just the ordained, to go into the whole world and tell the good news.

Brought down to the level of parish families, it means that everyone of us, regardless of our ecclesial status, is essential to the prime mission of the Church, which is to spread the good news to our neighbors and, not only them, but to those “in the highways and bi-ways” of the world. That would include disaffected Catholics, the baptized who have left active practice of the faith, or maybe felt themselves excluded because of relationship issues, such as being divorced or in a marriage or some other kind of difficult situation. It would include those who have moved away from the Church because they were wounded by a member who used or abused them, or treated them in a very cruel or dismissive manner.

It would also include those who have suffered and are suffering from anger, fear, hurt, despondency and all the thoughts and emotions that surround a pregnancy, before, during or after it, that is unwanted, difficult, filled with anxiety or even induced or surrounded by violence. People who are afraid because they are trapped in unhealthy or violent relationships and do not know whom they can trust. 

If you are looking to hear more about such concerns, and would like to be heard, I would encourage you to attend the listening sessions being held all around the Diocese in our synodal preparation process. Have not fear. So many people today are afraid to express thoughts and concerns because they might be shouted down. This is rampant all over society, a kind of cultural “lockdown” mode that censors and dismisses thoughts and feelings before they can even be expressed. This is not the attitude of a community that accompanies all seekers with respect and patience. “Come and see,” Jesus said. This is the posture of a listening Church which also reflects the mind and heart of Christ the Good Shepherd, always seeking out the lost and guiding them home.