Salvation of souls, not structures, mission of parish

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Dcn. John Grek presented on the topic of parish mission for the Jan. 21 diocesan-sponsored Professional Development Day in Hayward. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

“Beyond the Walls” was the theme of the second of three Professional Development Days offered by the Diocese of Superior for clergy and lay leaders. Dcn. John Grek, who serves as the Director of Diaconal Life, presented the seminar Jan. 21 at St. Joseph’s Parish Center in Hayward.

The deacon wanted to help participants resituate the role of parishes’ mission in relation to physical space of their church buildings. Drawing from canon law, personal experience and reflection, Grek encouraged discussion and focused on solutions.

The Air Force veteran, who serves as deacon at St. Michael’s in Iron River, invited participants to “talk about what we need to do to get where we need to be.”

Those attending included two priests, permanent deacons and one in formation (and their spouses) as well as catechists and parish leadership.

A focus on solutions acknowledges there are problems to address, the deacon said.

Dividing the material into four sessions, Dcn. Grek’s starting point was to be up-front about necessary conversations regarding parish life, enlightened by a “back to basics” perspective.

After beginning with the diocesan vocations prayer, Dcn. Grek quoted a sixth-century saint, Caesarius of Arles. He read, “God does not dwell only in structures fashioned by human hands, in homes of wood and stones, but rather he dwells principally in the soul made according to his own image.”

“The mission of the Church is not to build buildings,” Grek said. “It is to take the Gospel into the world. To evangelize.”

In the early church, and for many parishes in the diocese, Christian communities sprang up in homes, gathering for teaching and the celebration of the Eucharist. Church buildings were required by increasing numbers, and decreasing numbers now make some buildings seem superabundant.

Dcn. Grek drew the connection between the Church’s mission and that of a parish.

“It is the same – to evangelize,” he affirmed.

He broke that down into how parishes fulfill their mission – practicing and passing the faith to the next generation through catechesis that includes devotions and active liturgical participation. Topics discussed included how to attract parents who are bringing their children to religious education back to Sunday Mass; how to teach, and re-teach, a basic understanding of the Eucharist; how to live the Mass more fully; how to provide rich and engaging liturgies, and how to witness stories of faith and personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Explaining the definition of parish as an “extended family,” Dcn. Grek presented four characteristics of effective Christian communities based on the Acts of the Apostles: Living the Gospel, attending to the community’s needs, devotion to prayer and the breaking of the bread. A parish’s vibrancy should be seen, as in extended families, in the involvement of people of all ages in all areas.

To end the session, Dcn. Grek said, “A parish is more than a building. A parish is a community of people and, if properly formed, a parish can exist and thrive without a building.”

Two sessions focused on key aspects of canon law.

These included to whom pastoral care of a parish could be entrusted if there is no priest, a reality in the Diocese of Superior, where varying parish leadership roles are filled by permanent deacons and lay leaders; while most deal with administration, some are involved in pastoral care and faith formation.

Grek acknowledged many priests “actually prefer ministry over business management.”

He also addressed priests’ responsibilities, not only in terms of parish, deanery or diocesan administration, but in the number of parishes in the cluster system, where up to five and six parishes share one priest.

A priest’s primary obligations are teaching, sanctifying and governing in cooperation with clergy and assistance from lay faithful, he said. The primacy of preaching was affirmed, and he addressed the misunderstanding that proclamation of the Gospel and pastoral care is limited to registered parishioners. By canon law, the priest’s obligation is to proclaim the word of God “in its entirety to those living in the parish,” inclusive of all the Christian faithful within the geographic territory of the parish.

That canon’s second paragraph deals with the Eucharist as the center of the parish assembly.

Diocesan Director of Administrative Services Dan Blank observed Bishop Powers’ desire “to return to our roots,” with the Eucharist as the center of the life of the Church and the faithful.

“To be Christ for others and see Christ in others,” the deacon explained, as the discussion turned again to evangelization.

Grek hoped they “would be on fire enough to want to” share belief in Jesus and his Church beyond the church walls.

Much of the conversation centered on lay engagement. Face-to-face relationships and personal invitation were highlighted – in fellowship and shared responsibility for the needed resources of time, talent and treasure.
Regarding treasure, Blank spoke of transparency on the parts of both former Bishop Peter Christensen and Bishop James Powers, as seen in actions such as publishing annual fiscal reports and making difficult budget cuts.

The reduction of the diocesan budget by one-third during Bishop Christensen’s tenure could be seen as both prudent long-term and beneficial short-term, limiting the financial support sought through the Catholic Services Appeal.

Blank also encouraged fostering “a mindset of delegation,” where parishes are encouraging, and even training for, regular turnover of volunteers. This harkened back to the personal relationships and a resourceful attitude of getting to know who has what talents, personal follow-up where adjustments are needed and fostering consistent acts of gratitude.

Two permanent deacons in attendance were Dcn. Rick Miech (Diocese of Green Bay), who serves St. Peter the Fisherman in Eagle River, and Dcn. Brian McCaffrey, serving St. Ann in Cable and St. Joseph in Hayward.
Discussing evangelization, Dcn. Miech said it is essentially “sharing the relationship with Jesus Christ you have,” not exclusive to formal catechesis. A lot of faith formation happens in one-on-one conversations washing dishes or setting up tables for parish events, he said.

Dcn. Grek’s final session focused on Bishop Powers’ four concepts guiding diocesan planning: Catholic, Eucharist-centered, evangelization-focused and leadership.

Dcn. McCaffrey added a Eucharistic perspective to the sense of shared sacrifice, where all have to give some for the betterment of the whole. He reflected on what happens during the Mass, where “we are called to bring our own sacrifices to the altar” as the gifts are presented. They are then received, transformed by Christ into himself that he then shares through his divine sacrifice. Any effort, when done for the right reason, can become fruitful.

Dcn. Grek ended with a quote from John Wood’s book “The Light Entrusted to You: Keeping the Flame of Faith Alive”: “The parish does not exist for itself. The goal is not just to get people to be members of the parish. The goal is to get people to the destination – heaven. The goal is to form saints. The parish is not a business trying to please customers. It is a family trying to build disciples.”

Focusing on the eternal destination, and the bigger picture of the purpose of the Church – beyond the walls of the parish – is, and needs to continue to be, the goal today and moving forward, Dcn. Grek said.

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