SOMETIMES, I IMAGINE that there is a safe containing a secret formula for parish renewal — if only it could be found! A struggling parish looks across town and sees a burgeoning parish with a thriving school. Pastors and parishioners wonder, “How do they do it?”
The question is crucial. In many places, Mass attendance has declined for decades, as has sacramental practice — the number of baptisms, confessions, confirmations and marriages. But such statistics do not tell the whole story. Some of us remember not only a time when parishioners packed churches for Sunday Mass, but also a time when parishes functioned as centers of community life.
A lot has changed. Neighborhoods are not as cohesive as before, while options for socializing today seem to be unlimited. People no longer remain Catholic just because their parents were Catholic. Upheavals and scandals in the Church, combined with a dearth of priestly vocations, all contribute to the declining vitality of parish life. And as parishes face challenges, the very idea of evangelization can seem more and more elusive.
Many concerned pastors and lay leaders are looking for effective paths of parish renewal. Is it a question of tapping into a suitable parish renewal program? Offering certain amenities or establishing a youth group? Ensuring that parishioners receive a friendly greeting before Mass? Such things are important, but programs and tactics are not enough to transform a struggling parish into a vibrant one.
Our founder, Blessed Michael McGivney, knew something about renewing parish life. When he arrived at St. Mary’s in New Haven, Conn., the pastor was chronically ill, the parish was burdened with debt and pastoral challenges abounded. Yet, even as a newly ordained assistant pastor, Father McGivney transformed St. Mary’s into a thriving parish.
He saw to it there were plenty of parish activities, such as picnics and plays, to complement the parish’s sacramental and devotional life — but he did not introduce them as tactical ploys. Rather, he brought to St. Mary’s Parish the same vision of life in Christ that led him to found the Knights of Columbus, a vision expressed in our core principles of charity, unity and fraternity.
‘Father McGivney brought to St. Mary’s Parish the same vision of life in Christ that led him to found the Knights of Columbus, a vision expressed in our core principles.’
I would submit that these same principles are key to building, in God’s grace, vibrant parish communities. They are not abstract ideas but summaries of the Gospel — keys that unlock a living relationship with Jesus Christ in company with others. Indeed, they have the potential to make parishes pulse with life and joy.
When a parish community expresses the love it shares in the Eucharist by extending itself in various forms of hands-on charity, it is likely to grow. Just as we are drawn to the love and mercy that flow from Jesus’ heart, even the unchurched are drawn to parishes that actively care for the poor and vulnerable.
Moreover, a parish united around the person of Christ, a parish that is joyfully one in professing and striving to live the Church’s faith, is a most attractive alternative to the polarized culture that surrounds us. Parishes that know how to dialogue, forgive and work together are also more likely to welcome new members and make them feel at home. Jesus prayed that all of his disciples would be united — “that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21).
Pope Francis has challenged our parishes to be “islands of mercy in a sea of indifference.” Fraternity is contrary to indifference. It is a strong sense of responsibility for and solidarity with one’s neighbor. This is expressed by reaching out to one another in times of hardship, illness and death, visiting elderly parishioners, helping bear one another’s burdens.
There is no panacea for declining parishes, but I believe Blessed Michael McGivney, the quintessential parish priest, was truly on to something!
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