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An "Obligation" or a "Community"?

For those of you who are not aware, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has been focusing on improving their "on-line" presence and communication.  It began with the re-branding of our old weekly newspaper, the Tidings, into the new Angelus news magazine.   Included in this media blitz is the Monday-Friday daily email from the Angelus team that not only highlights the saint of the day and other Angelus news items, but they highlight interesting articles of interest from other publications (usually from other Catholic media, but not exclusively).

Today's Angelus email highlighted an article from the Catholic Herold, a Catholic publication from the UK:

This article from Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith makes some very valuable observations between Catholic parishes and other Christian parishes.  In it he notes that we Catholics have a tendency to view Church through the prism of "obligation" rather than "community." An "obligation" is something you're told you have to do. Joining a "community" is something you do because you want to.

I've been a Catholic all my life. I was raised in the faith and educated through Catholic schools.  Even after all that indoctrination, as an adult, I made the conscious decision to embrace my faith.  I became active in my own parish, and with the larger young adult community at that time.  Whether going to Mass with friends or seeking out opportunities to go to Mass while traveling, I have been to quite a number of parishes for Mass.  While Fr. Luce-Smith's article may make it seem like all Catholic parishes are in dire straights, I can say confidently that I have been to many parishes that do have a genuine sense of "community."  Even so, I'm forced to admit that even among those parishes with a a strong and vibrant community, there are still those parishioners who see their faith as an obligation rather than a gift that should be freely accepted.  The go to church because they think, they believe, they have to... not because they want to.

So while I don't think the sense of community is entirely missing from Catholic life, I do have to admit that Fr. Lucie-Smith has some very valid points, and that I too have been to a few parishes where all sense of "community" has been left to die on the vine.

But what is causing this?  Fr. Lucie-Smith notes that this lack of community starts at the top with our pastors.  He makes a good point about how our parish priests have an every growing amount of responsibility put on them... responsibilities that were not part of their calling to the priesthood and pastoral life. And yes, with fewer priests, the responsibilities on those that we have only increased.  I have to concede his point has some validity.  After all, we the members of a parish, take our queues from our pastors.  I've noticed that a very active and vibrant parish typically has an active and vibrant shepherd giving direction.  These are active living communities.  Similarly, unfortunately, I've seen parishes that look as tired as their pastors, hanging on only through a sense of obligation instead of a sense of life from the Holy Spirit.  These are extremes, of course, but there are many parishes that fit somewhere in-between.

So how do we fix this?  The clarion cry for these past 20 years has been a call for "more vocations."  It's a valid call.  We do need more vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and we do need people to see a vocation like this as a viable life choice.  But while I cannot deny that this isn't needed or desired, I don't think it's the "silver bullet" so many think it will be.  We could double vocations and we still won't resolve a lot of the root issues plaguing the institutional church and parish life in our modern age.  We owe it to both her priests and her laity to look more deeply into these issues so as to re-invigorate community into parish life.

Now least I be called a rebel on the side of liberalism and modernity, I need to point out that any considerations for any issues we face must also include a careful and honest study of the past.  Only by knowing where we've been can we determine where best to go.

And here is one truth we cannot escape:  that in times past, and still in some countries today, the seminary or the convent was a "way out" of their current situation.  One cannot deny that a vocation in the Church can provide opportunities for those living in poverty or oppression in the undeveloped nations of the world... opportunities that would not be available outside the Church.  Without giving any disrespect to these servants and their vocations, we also have to admit that one of the reasons vocations are down in the developed countries of the world is because people have so many more options for meeting both their physical means and their  educational and personal aspirations.  If you were growing up in the poverty and famine of Ireland 150 years ago, it's easy to see how one might more easily act on a calling from God if it meant a better life.  Mind you, I'm not commenting on the sincerity of their vocation, I'm just recognizing that certain life circumstances can make it easier to hear that calling.

Now with fewer priests and religious, the same amount of work needs to be done by fewer hands.  Not only that, the day-to-day business of running a parish has gotten much more complicated.  Running today's parish is like running a small business, dealing with an array of civil regulations and obligations unimagined in years past.  Back in the day, when rectories and convents were full, it was easy to fill certain jobs with those individuals who had particular knowledge and skills.  One would take care of the finances while one would take care of the personnel while one would take care of the community's Sacramental needs.  Today, this all falls on one pastor, sometimes spread between more than one parish.  The job they signed up for, the job they trained for, to be a priest for God and his community, has a much different reality.

Not only has the nature of vocations changed, but the medieval model that has been governing the Church is woefully insufficient to her needs.  The world has left behind these ancient forms of governance in recognition of the education, skills, and resources found in her citizens.  While recognition of the role of the laity has been greatly advanced since the Second Vatican Council, it still falls short of its potential.  Part of building a community is allowing the community explore and use their gifts in service to the greater community.  To make them feel a part of something larger than themselves.  To give them the chance to contribute, learn and grow.  To be "invited" rather than to feel "obligated."  To give them the chance to do the work that needs to be done.  To be of service, rather than being served by their priests and ministers.

There are a lot of issues here, and a lot of points of view and perspectives to be looked at.  I only point out a few.  Our way out of this current community and vocations crisis isn't going to be solved by prayers for more vocations.  Prayers also need a call to action.  The Second Vatican Council was not an accident nor was it an extraordinary moment for the Church.  It was an example of how we come together to get things done.  A problem or issue arises and the Church calls for a Council.  How does that happen?  We start talking.  To our deacons, our priests and our pastors.  To our bishops and local bishops councils.  It happens with local Synods.  It happens with theologians and historians and experts, not all of whom might be ordained, researching and writing and speaking.  It even starts with perhaps a few rambling thoughts from blogs like this.  I've said it before and I'll continue saying it... there's a lot of issues around ordination, priestly and religious service, and church governance that need to be looked at... not only to help resolve the problems we've seen in recent years, but to rebuild the foundation for the future.  It's time for another Council.


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