I have been asked to speak about my experience in parishes, in the parishes entrusted to the Congregation of the Mission. I have to admit that this is not an easy theme to discuss. At the same time I have been asked to be as brief as possible. Harmonizing both of these elements is going to be complicated … but, we will try.
In the legislation of the Congregation we find criteria that place limits on our parish activity. We have not always been mindful of said criteria at the time when we have accepted a parish or when we have ministered in those parishes. Nevertheless we should be mindful of these when evaluating and engaging in a process of discernment regarding our present involvement in parish ministry. Are we? I believe we go around and around as we discuss many issues involved in parishes ministry but we do not really engage in a consistent process of discernment and evaluation … and yet both discernment and evaluation are urgently needed.
At the present time we have become aware of the fact that the Congregation of the Mission has undertaken the administration of many parishes … probably too many parishes. Are the characteristics of a Vincentian parish clearly manifested in these places? Is the matrix of Vincentian spirituality a lived reality? Do we need to abandon some parishes? Which ones? You will tell me that we have at our disposal the criteria to decide this issue. Yes, I agree with you, but we minister in parishes whose buildings belong to the Congregation and then we minister in other parishes that belong to the diocese. Which ones will we leave if after a process of evaluation we realize that we have to leave some or all of our parishes? Will we leave those that belong to the Diocese? Will we hand over our buildings that are part of the patrimony of the Congregation of the Mission? Should we not engage in an itinerant form of parish ministry?
I believe the time has come to engage honestly in a process of evaluation with regard to our parish ministry … and we must use the criteria and the characteristics that are most applicable to our Vincentian identity and once and for all take a position to become present in those places that meet the criteria established in our Constitutions and Statutes. As we evaluate our ministry let us use these criteria regardless of whether the buildings are part of the patrimony of the Congregation … let us put aside our nostalgic memories and our long ago formulated responses that lead nowhere. Let us decide to engage in parish ministry but let us do so with contracts that place time limits on our stay in a particular place.
Diocesan and Vincentian at one and the same time
Every parish in which the Congregation of the Mission ministers is, in the first place, a parish that has been entrusted to the Congregation. In other words, the bishop of a given place has offered and then granted us the responsibility of ministering in a specific parish. We should never forget this reality.
To accept the responsibility for a parish brings with it certain obligations. Our parishes have to develop and carry out in an effective manner the corresponding diocesan pastoral plan. The Missionaries who serve in these parishes ought to feel that they are members of the diocesan presbyterate. The bishop does not offer a parish to a religious order or an institute so that said parishe becomes an island or a ghetto. Rather the bishop hopes that the members of the parish will experience themselves as part of the diocese and that the ministers will live in communion with the bishop and the diocesan clergy. Therefore it is hoped that the Missionaries will integrate themselves into the activities of the diocese and participate in diocesan gatherings and thus experience themselves as priests who are part of the presbyterate that gathers around the bishop and acts in accord with his desires.
At the same time a bishop who requests the help of a religious order or an institute of apostolic life to minister in a specific place for an agreed upon time realizes that the order or institute must minister in accord with its own spirit and thus leave the imprint of its proper spirituality on the parish.
To forget one of these two realities would demand a readjustment and would provoke a situation of disorder and in fact would create an unjust situation with regard to the diocesan spirit as well as the spirit of the congregation or institute. Therefore when the Congregation of the Mission accepts the call of a bishop and commits itself to minister in a specific parish it ought to be aware of the twofold commitment that it acquires, a commitment that could be summed up with the following words: a diocesan commitment and a commitment to the Congregation.
I believe that at the present time our parishes do not fulfill these two demands which have to exist together in a consubstantial manner. At times, though perhaps very seldom, the diocesan dimension is emphasized and the spirit of the Congregation is neglected. At other times the diocesan dimension is neglected and the Missionaries deceive themselves as they speak about being satisfied with the manner in which they are developing the Vincentian charism. In both instances the true reality is not authentically present and the proper spirit of the parish is diminished. Neither “master” is served but only the whims of the present pastor are advanced. The results are devastating for the faithful in that they are shaken by the rapid turnover with regard to personnel and they do not know where they stand.
In my parish experience I have seen that not all the Missionaries who are assigned to parish ministry participate in diocesan meetings and gatherings and also do not develop the ministry that is proper to a Vincentian Missionary. Many live like secular priests but are “free” in the sense that they do not have the relationship that every secular or diocesan priest ought to have with his bishop. At the same time these individuals do not distinguish themselves in their ministry as Vincentians or Missionaries. In summary the parish that has been entrusted to us suffers as the result of a lack of a diocesan perspective but also does not stand out because of its Vincentian characteristics.
Three aspects to be mindful of: service of the Word, liturgical service and the service of charity
Every parish ought to be known as a pioneer in three forms of service: the service of the Word, liturgical service and the service of charity. These three forms of service encompass the essence, the identity and the witness aspect of a parish. If this is proper to every parish, it must be prominent in every parish that is called a Vincentian parish.
How do we exercise these three services? Are we known as pioneers and examples in these areas of service? Vincentian spirituality originated from the reading and the interpretation that Vincent de Paul and his first companions gave to the events that occurred in Gannes-Folleville, Châtillon-los Dombes and Marchais-Montmirail. It is very easy to comfort ourselves with the fact that during liturgical and sacramental gatherings we read the Word of God and we explain the word in a more or less acceptable manner … it is easy to comfort ourselves with the fact that in our parishes the charitable activity is more or less organized. But again, I say it is very easy to deceive ourselves.
Vincent de Paul and the first Missionaries became aware of the ignorance of the people that resulted from their material poverty and their spiritual poverty. Their spiritual poverty was the result of bad and/or inadequate pastors. In light of those needs of the people Vincent de Paul and the Missionaries became concerned about forming people and preparing pastors to guide these people who were born anew. The principal means that the Missionaries utilized was not preaching but formation. They opted for a process of evangelization and not for some passing process of preaching. Yes, they opted for a process of profound evangelization that changed people’s life and enabled them to create a new life in accord with the Spirit of God. It would be good for us to be mindful of that reality in our present ministry.
Popular missions and catechesis, as understood by the Missionaries, provided this formation and made the process of conversion possible. This conversion was sustained by the new pastors who had also engaged in a process of formation. In order to form other people one must give of one’s time … one must give much time. This is a process that demands patience, much patience and it is a process that demands that we walk slowly, very slowly. Perhaps today we allow ourselves to be caught up in rushing about here and there and looking for instant results! The fruit of authentic formation, however, is created slowly and also comes to maturity slowly. Now is the time to interact with the faithful in small groups and to form groups around the Word of the God and the catechism and moral theology and the social doctrine of the church … I dare to say that we have to dedicate more hours to this slow educational process in the faith than to the cultic celebrations.
I echo here that which some of you have heard me say and that I summarize in the following words: Today it is urgent that during the week we close the doors of our Churches and only open them on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. During the week we need to open the doors of our parish centers and as often as possible offer opportunities for formation and education in the faith. Why do I say this? Many people have become “consumers” of cult and not persons who truly celebrate during the time when we assemble together to worship. At times these individuals participate in worship celebrations and yet they long for a process of formation. They lack even a rudimentary knowledge of the Word of God, the sacraments, the Creed, Christian morality, etc. There are serious gaps in their knowledge. They do not live what they celebrate, but as I have stated, they have become “consumers” of our cult and thus there is a need to become converted anew, to be reconfigured in accord with Christian principles and Christian piety.
Many will say that this demands a restructuring of the traditional habits of our community life! This is very true … and I would add that there is absolutely no doubt about this fact! A new evangelization of people is both necessary and urgent. Therefore if we want to provide for people at this time we have here one of the possible paths that I believe is most appropriate in this regard. This will become a sign of the mission and a sign of the new mission … a sign of the mission that evangelizes with a new ardor, with new words, with new methods. Perhaps a sign that now speaks in a clearer manner. This sign that is clothed with the original ardor and with words that were formerly spoken but now these words have become a lived reality. This sign utilizes a simple method that draws us closer to people and allows us to communicate the presence of God … thus, a method that Vincent de Paul practiced and earnestly recommended.
So what are we speaking about? We are speaking about the mission ad intra that is so necessary for people who come together in what we consider to be our parishes. In other words, we are dedicating time to form new laypersons united together in their faith and in their life as Christians. With this formation of the laity we will have new men and new women who give quality witness to their faith and who are missionaries who reach out to those who are alienated from the Church or who are unbelievers or who have become lax in their practice of the faith. Now with the example of life that these new Christians offer to others, they will experience a powerful ardor and an urgent need for the Word of God … with a hunger and thirst they will come to those who offer a way to satisfy said hunger and thirst. Do we not find reflected here the icon of the Good Samaritan? Are we not discovering a new path of encounter, a new road to Emmaus on which the Risen Christ is revealed? How wonderful, for at one and the same time we are also engaged in a mission ad extra, a mission on behalf of non-believers, incredulous persons and those who are alienated. What did Vincent de Paul teach the Huguenot? How did Vincent de Paul understand “the missions”? I believe Vincent taught that which we have just spoken about and highlighted? Do we not often sin by believing we are reaching out to those who are alienated, incredulous and non-believing when in reality we are acting in a rushed manner and have not given sufficient consideration to the most significant method that stems from the very origins of Christianity, namely, the example and witness of the life of the faithful? I do not have any doubt about this.
At the same time we cannot forget about the dimension of charitable activity. In our parishes the service of charity is operative, the most urgent needs of people are provided for and the most basic human needs are attended. But this is not enough for a parish that calls itself Vincentian as well as diocesan. The ordinary exercise of charity is not enough; the ordinary service of charity is not enough. Our parishes should be characterized a social outreach that has a broad scope. All our parishes should have this dimension of outreach and this in turn becomes a mark of its holiness and sign of its identity as a parish, as a Vincentian parish,. The manner in which this can be done is wholly dependent on our creativity and our imagination. In accord with the individual particular circumstances, the place and available space, our parishes could become involved in social outreach such as: soup kitchens, shelters, residences for different groups of people, child care centers, houses of welcome, day care centers, etc… services that are provided on behalf of the poor, transients, marginalized, immigrants. All the branches of the Vincentian Family ought to collaborate in this ministry. The Vincentian Family, besides collaborating in the financial aspects of social projects should become the primary training center for volunteers who want to minister in some specific charitable work. Was this not Vincent’s idea when he established the Confraternities of Charity in those places where missions were preached and in those places where the Missionaries and/or the Daughters of Charity ministered.
A secondary problem: parishes for a limited period of time.
The activity of the Vincentian Missionaries in parish ministry cannot go on forever. We are aware of the fact that the Vincentian Missionaries, specific individuals, are in the parish to which they have been assigned for a limited period of time. Perhaps this time is too short, at least for pastors and parochial vicars. This issue would have to be reviewed and our Constitutions/Statutes reconfigured to reflect a new reality. The faithful frequently complain, and I believe they have reason to complain, that six or nine years (which are often the maximum number of years allowed) are too few. The number of years in which one remains in the same parish, however, should not be more than fifteen … at the most twenty-five.
But here I am not speaking about the personal activity of the Missionaries but rather the activity of the members of the Congregation of the Mission in some area of a diocese. If things are done well, then a prudent amount of time is more than sufficient. I do not speak with any certainty with regard to the length of time. But if in a period of twenty-five years we have not been able to form the faithful of the parish into a living community, a communion, a people renewed in every aspect, then, something has gone wrong. We cannot, through force of habit, continue to work there for more time unless we present a new team that will confront the obstacles and resolve the errors of the past.
The Congregation of the Mission should never again build a parish complex. This is a task that corresponds to the Diocese. Any contract of the Congregation with a diocese that requests our collaboration ought to stipulate said matter as well as our commitment to minister in accord with diocesan guidelines as well as Vincentian guidelines, to live in a state of on-going mission during the time that we administer said parish and, at the end of time stated in the contract, to hand over a renewed parish community, a lively community that lives in communion and in solidarity with all people, especially with those who are poor and forgotten by the larger society. Perhaps these are the new popular missions that are demanded during this modern era.
So that all of this does not remain on the level of mere words, it is important to form the Missionaries for this new manner of ministering. Furthermore, it would be good to prepare all the Missionaries to work as members of a team and in said teams we must guarantee the participation of the laity. In the parish priority should be given to insuring the full participation of the laity. Thus, the laity must be prepared, encouraged and educated. The lack of vocations to the priesthood in general, and more specifically, the lack of Vincentian Missionaries, demands a greater participation of the laity. This is time for the laity … this was stated some time ago but this remains to be concretized.
I am convinced that missionary activity at the present time takes place either within the context of the parish or it does not occur. We, the sons of Vincent de Paul, have to be aware of this reality and prepare ourselves to minister in these modern parish missions. In other words, we must dedicate ourselves to parish ministry in the midst of situations of poverty and we must engage in this ministry for a determined period of time during which we minister as missionaries and organize the charitable activities in the parish. Is this not what is expected of us in as much as we are Vincentian Missionaries, the servants of the bishops? At the same time we must unite the parish community and then leave the parish and move on to minister in another place.
With these reflections I believe I have made known my point of view with regard to parishes. This reflection is a summary of my desires and hopes as well as a summary of the things that I have been able to accomplish or, at the very least, the things that I have been able to initiate. It is not always easy to bring to a conclusion that which one has dreamt about and hoped to accomplish. As long as we minister there will always be obstacles and difficulties, impediments and inconveniences. Some of these will surface as a result of the situation in which we find ourselves and others because of our own human weakness and/or the weakness of those with whom we minister and/or the weakness of those to whom we minister. At the same time it is not always easy to work as a member of a team or to encourage and involve members of the wider community in ministry or to discuss and debate various ideas. Nevertheless something is being done and something is also being achieved. Therefore it is necessary to venture forth and work toward the desired goal. As a result, with the blessings of heaven and the protection of the Blessed Virgin and Vincent de Paul, we can offer a parish ministry that is in accord with the demands of the present age and the new evangelization. But this also means that we must accept our ministry as a mission that will have time restraints … thus our ministry will be intense and tiring and will leave us with the same feelings as those which the first Missionaries experienced as they returned to their place of residence after a mission. This is my conviction and my hope for these new times.