Parish communities are greater than the parish priest

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I am frustrated by the Vatican’s recent instruction on “The pastoral conversion of the parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the church,” issued on July 20.

At first, the document evokes an expansive vision of parish transformation by citing Pope Francis’ call for “creativity” in “seeking how best to proclaim the Gospel” and that “the Church, and also the Code of Canon Law, gives us innumerable possibilities, much freedom to seek these things.”

Then the instruction tantalizes reform-minded Catholics by saying, “Parish communities will find herein a call to go out of themselves, offering instruments of reform, even structural, in a spirit of communion and collaboration … for the proclamation of the Gospel.”

But I find no structural instruments of reform here.

With one notable exception, the instruction is essentially “all hat and no cattle” as my Texas friends like to say.

The Congregation for the Clergy’s instruction restates (somewhat defensively) long-standing church rules that mandate a male-celibate-priest-centric and priest-controlled vision of parish community.

This vision is already moribund in both the global north and the global south because — news flash — there are too few priests to serve the world’s expanding Catholic population.

Too many bishops were (and are to this day) treating parish communities like Starbucks franchises, rather than the body of Christ that they are called to shepherd — not to sell

In Germany, the instruction was interpreted as an effort to stop moves by German bishops to encourage both priest and lay leadership in consolidating parishes and providing pastoral care. One German canon lawyer succinctly said the instruction “answers today’s questions with yesterday’s answers.”

In a pastoral letter to his Magdeburg Diocese, German Bishop Gerhard Feige wrote, “I won’t let myself be paralyzed and blocked by their restrictive orders, since much in it is quite unrealistic — especially with regard to our extreme diaspora situation, which they evidently cannot imagine — and since no positive solutions are indicated in view of the mounting lack of priests.”

Feige also fears Rome’s instruction will turn lay Catholics away from working for the church at all.

His concern was echoed by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who, while defending the instruction, also said it would have benefited from “more positive, encouraging and appreciative language” about lay leadership. Kasper tactfully suggested the world’s bishops’ conferences should have been consulted before the document was issued.

The prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, has invited German bishops to Rome to discuss the issues. I hope our German brothers can get through to presumably well-intentioned Vatican officials who seem to have little understanding of the realities of parish life in a time of fewer priests.

A caveat — there is one big positive in this document: It gives laypeople significantly more leverage in canonical appeals to preserve their parish communities.

For 14 years, I have worked closely with FutureChurch’s Save Our Parish Community initiative to support countless ordinary Catholics accessing their canonical right to appeal the closure (and eventual sale) of their vital, solvent parishes and churches.

Too many bishops were (and are to this day) treating parish communities like Starbucks franchises, rather than the body of Christ that they are called to shepherd — not to sell. Continue reading

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