Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Mission of a Parish is Given by Christ

Oftentimes, when a priest is ordained, he prints up prayer cards with some passage from scripture or from a saint to commemorate the event.  When I was ordained, I chose the last two verses of St. Matthew's Gospel: "Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing the in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching the all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always . . . (Matthew 28:19-20).  For me, these words contain everything that the Church is.  It's all there.  Trinitarian, sacramental, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, discipleship, Merciful, Eucharistic, missionary, doctrinal, communion, the abiding presence of Christ, and evangelical.

The key, of course, to this great commissioning is that it arises from the Heart of Christ.  The mission and the identity of the Church is not something that we develop. It is something given by Christ.  It is something that is given in every age and in every place.  It is something that is manifested in particular places and times in varied ways.  It is animated by the power of the Holy Spirit who blows where he wills.  The mission of the Church is not something we determine for ourselves, but rather is something given to us by Another.

While the mission of the Church is, in one sense, always the same, it also has a certain flexibility in terms of emphasis.  A good example might be the differences we see between the pontificates of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.  In Pope Benedict's pontificate there was some emphasis placed upon the dignity of the Liturgy.  This didn't exclude the missionary nature of the Church nor its focus on the poor, but it was a different emphasis.  Now, with Pope Francis, there appears to be less emphasis on the Liturgy and more emphasis on charity toward the poor.  The Church is able to navigate such shifts in emphasis because its mission is not dependent upon each new pope.  Each pope may emphasize a particular aspect of the whole mission, but the Church's mission is given by Christ.

Although parishes benefit greatly from the expertise of various fields of business, law, communications, and other such areas of life, we still have to be cautious about adopting things that can serve to undermine the distinctive nature of ecclesial realities.  One such model often brings with it the idea of each parish self-identifying itself through mission statements.  The risk with this is that a parish can become like a club setting up its own identity.  "We are the parish of social justice."  "We are the parish of good Liturgy."  "We are the welcoming parish."  "We are the parish that focuses on adult education."  "We are the parish that thinks the Bible is a good thing."  This method seems to solidify particular aspects of the mission given by Christ into a permanent totality and the only way to change that is to go through another mission writing process or to ignore the mission statement.

The issue of mission statements (and similar corporate approaches) also raises, I think, a question in regards to pastoral authority.  Does a parish's particular mission statement die with the pastor?  After all, the pastor is the one responsible for shepherding the parish.  Each pastor--in cooperation with consultative bodies within the parish--ultimately is responsible for setting the course of the parish.  Relying upon the grace of Holy Orders, the pastor shepherds the flock.  While a previous mission statement might be of some guidance, the mission statement would have been the work of a previous pastor.  It would seem then that mission statements are less about the parish than they are about the pastor who approves the mission statement.

Obviously mission statements and things of this nature have no binding authority on a pastor or a parish, but they can give the appearance of being a quasi-permanent definition of this particular parish.  This could run the risk of stifling the work of the Holy Spirit.  If we are the parish that emphasizes Adult Education, what if the Spirit is moving us to become the parish that emphasizes service to the poor?  Do we need a new mission statement? Do we resist this movement as being inconsistent with our mission statement?  I grant that these questions are a bit silly, but it raises some questions about the value of such efforts.

The Church really only has one mission.  It is the mission entrusted to her by Jesus Christ.  Unlike religious orders with particular charisms or Catholic Hospitals and Campus Ministry programs that are entrusted with very specific aspects of the total mission, parishes are more like microcosms of the universal Church--entrusted with the totality of the mission--and need to be flexible enough to read the signs of the times and react according to the Spirit's promptings.  In exercising his pastoral mission, a pastor does not need to appeal to a static statement written at a particular moment in time and in particular circumstances.  

Instead, a pastor has the joy and comfort of appealing to the Shepherd to whom he is configured and to the people with whom he lives.  Relying upon this closeness to both the Shepherd and the Faithful, the pastor can determine the best way to lead his flock in fulfilling the mission entrusted to them by Christ.  This closeness is not something static.  This closeness to Christ and to the people entrusted to the care of the priest is something that is constantly renewed and always deepening and growing. Through ordination, the priest is configured to Christ as Head and Shepherd.  This configuration is trustworthy and gives the priest what is uniquely necessary to direct a parish.  It also works.

The Mission of the Church doesn't change.  It was given once and for all by Christ.  In the day to day living out of that mission in each parish, there needs to be an incredible amount of flexibility.  A good pastor knows how to live this flexibility.  Parishes will more effectively become centers of the New Evangelization the more that the bonds established by Christ are deepened; the bond between the pastor and Christ the Head and Shepherd, the bond between the Faithful and Christ, and the bond between the Faithful and their priests.  

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