(This is the first in a series of posts that will be an attempt to articulate how the experience of parish ministry has changed me as a theological reflector. Here is the introductory post.)
In the course of one day I met representatives of two very different, but equally sacramentally lost communities.
In the morning I went to visit a local reform school to hear confessions. A handful of teenage boys appeared for the sacrament, and for most it was their first time. Almost all were Hispanic and were confident that they had been baptized as infants, either in the home or in church. They reminded me of those St. Francis Xavier speaks of in his reading in the breviary, 'They only know that they are Christians.' I was impressed by their seemingly innate reverence and love for our Lord and our Lady, but I was amazed at their ignorance of the faith. They were praying people, but they didn't even know that there was a prayer that went with the rosaries they wore as amulets. The cultures of poverty, the absence of durable family structures, and especially the dislocation of immigration had taken the faith away from these young men. I asked each where he was from, and all but one told me about the dormitory at the school. They lacked a sense of being from somewhere apart from the juvenile corrections system. I realized that a visit to their world, a glimpse into their particular geography, was a trip into 'mission territory.'
That same evening I sat in the parish office planning a wedding with a young, delightful couple. They are the great-grandchildren of Irish and Italian immigrants. Their great-grandparents built the beautiful churches we have in this part of the country. Their grandparents and parents were the beneficiaries of the great American system of parishes and schools that catapulted European-American Catholics into the privileged and ruling classes of these United States. Thanks to all of that, and especially to the sisters, these young people sat before me with college educations, good jobs and good teeth. And yet, they seemed to have very little use for the faith that had done so much for their ancestors. They had received all of their sacraments, but had 'graduated' from the practice of the faith after their confirmation and were no longer practicing in any measurable way. Apparently, whatever religious education and sacramental formation they had received as children was no longer durable or relevant to their experience of themselves and the world. They weren't hostile to God or His Church, but were more or less indifferent to both. They did not have a sense of what it all had to with them and their concerns. Just as I had in the morning, I realized again that I was in a mission territory.
My point in relating these experiences is not to rant about them (I do it enough!) or even to blame anyone for this sacramental lostness. My question has to do with my own identity as a Christian and a minister, and the models implicit in the parish ministry as I have experienced it.
On the natural level, my job as a parish priest is one of 'customer service.' People appear and ask for things, i.e. sacraments, spiritual direction. I offer Mass and preach to the people who show up for it. The model of ministry is centripetal. If people want something, they come to the church to try to get it. Ministering in this fashion takes up most of my time, and staff is shrinking. When I came here this parish was served by three full-time priests, a full-time lay friar, and one retired priest who helped with Masses and confessions. Three years later, we are two full-time priests, a half-time lay friar, and another retired priest who helps out.
The ministry sails along on this model, which would seem suited to a kind of 'Christendom' situation in which the faith was fully planted and established. My experience suggests that we don't live in such a world, but in something more like a mission territory. This divergence between the ministerial model and the pastoral situation is precisely the dissonance that presses upon me, and it leaves me with three theological pressures:
The hermeneutic of suspicion angle: What are the conditions of possibility of living, preaching, and ministering in denial about the mission 'territories' all around the parish? What allows me to act like a priest who lives and works in an established Christendom when in fact this is not the case?
The practical. What would have to happen to free up preachers and ministers from the centripetal model of parish ministry, so that they would be able to 'go out' on mission, to seek those who have become lost? In other words, as staff and clergy continue to diminish, what changes in ministerial models will help us not to become burnt out and buried under the work of keeping house and free us up for the missionary needs that are right under our noses? Are we ready to hear about and imitate the God whose Love is so outrageous as to 'leave the ninety-nine?'
Preaching, catechesis, and inculturation. How can the Word be preached and the sacraments offered in a way that is compelling for the human person of today? What are the languages and articulations we need to make to help people see that the concerns of the faith are the concerns of their own hearts as well? This isn't a new question, of course, but what can learn from the errors in this area of which we heirs at this historical moment, move beyond simply condemning them, and be about the rebuilding of a compelling articulation of Christianity?