Friday, December 9, 2011
The Parish: Encountering the Face of Christ
Last night was spent sitting around a conference table with four priests and ten lay people. The topic was developing a pastoral plan for the three parishes of Beverly (where I am assigned). The plan, among other things, needs to take into account that the day is fast coming when there will only be one priest in Beverly. Discussions like these inevitably involve facts, figures, graphs, projections, and statistics. They also involve emotions.
As I drove home from the meeting (exhausted), the priest with whom I live and I discussed how great the laity of our parishes are. The folks who serve on this committee (and other committees in our parishes) are remarkably intelligent and capable of bringing their expertise to these conversations. And, they have a love for the Church and a love for the priesthood. As a pastor, having lay people who bring these two gifts--intelligence and charity--to the table is such a huge relief and consolation.
When I was in seminary, some professors would talk about "collaboration with the laity" as though this idea had to be drilled into the heads of future priests because they suspected that we'd be naturally resistent to such a notion. What I've discovered in my parish experience is that, in large part, such collaboration comes rather easily. The people of parishes love their parish priests and actually want their shepherds to be shepherds. They respect and honor the vocation of the priest--a vocation that unites him to Christ as Head and Shepherd. Similarly, parish priests (I'm sure there are some exceptions) respect and honor the varied gifts that the lay men and women bring to their parishes.
Often, when I leave a meeting in my parish, I do so with tremendous gratitude that not only do the men and women who serve have expertise in particular fields (such as business), but that their expertise is enfolded within a deep and abiding love for the Church and for the priesthood. I'm always struck by the fact that these men and women are busy with work and family. They are not suffering from boredom or from a need for self-importance. Despite an already full plate, these men and women devote themselves to serving the Church. It is impressive. Whenever I spend time with them in meetings, at their dinner table, or at a baseball game, I leave more educated. They educate me not only about their specific areas of expertise, but also about my humanity and my vocation. They educate me in Christ.
My experience is that the parish is a place where we experience friendship in Christ and friendship with Christ. Absent this friendship, why in the world would tired and busy lay men and women give so much of their time and energy? Numbers, figures, statistics . . . these are all important and helpful. But, these men and women spend all day dealing with such realities. They don't need to come to another meeting at night to talk more about them (and not get paid for it!). Then, why do they come? They come because the face of Christ is encountered in the communion of the Church. A pastoral plan needs to be built upon a communion of life--a communion that cannot be created by force of will. It is a communion that is given by Christ and can only be humbly accepted and obeyed. When we receive this communion, love this communion, and obey this communion, Christ does beautiful things. He did this for his first disciples and he does it for us today.