Moving from community parish to Mission

extending the parish

Father Jean-Luc Gebelin leads a cluster of parishes in a large rural area of the Diocese of Nîmes in Southern France.

He explained to Mélinée Le Priol how he embraced a more collaborative view of ministry and being Church through the parish missions carried out by visiting religious order priests.

La Croix: Your parish extends over 20 towns and villages. What does the mission consist of in these rural areas?

Jean-Luc Gebelin: There are 40 kilometres between the two most distant towns of my parish! The main obstacle to Church life here is fragmentation, dispersion.

In a world where being a believer is no longer a given, Christians need to come together to live out their faith.

This observation was one of the starting points for the popular itinerant missions that took place here beginning in the 1980s, at the initiative of the former bishop of Nîmes, Mgr. Jean Cadilhac.

These missions, entrusted to the Lazarists [also known as the Vincentians], provided a powerful moment for the Church in the villages, bringing people together.

Personally, I took part in the missions in the different parishes where I was parish priest almost continuously from 1999 until 2020, before the first lockdown…

How are they going?

I will speak in the past tense because, unfortunately, to my knowledge, there are no more today due to a lack of succession among the Lazarists.

In the past, a missionary team of a few Lazarists would come and spend three weeks in a group of two to four villages.

The parish priest and the laity also took part in the mission, which mixed different states of life. During these three weeks, we all worked at the same task.

But once this bond was created between the people, and even once the Lazarists left, I said to myself that we had to continue!

Every year in our villages, for about fifteen years, we organized events with the laity. It was a way to extend the three weeks of the initial mission.

In any case, we had a lot to learn from the Lazarists and their missionary charism, with this capacity to always go elsewhere, without settling down too much.

What was the issue? Mobilizing beyond the parish circle, by reaching people who are sometimes far from the Church?

Yes. A team of volunteers went to all the houses in the few villages that hosted the mission, to bring the invitation to the residents. This invitation took the form of a leaflet detailing the events of the mission (celebrations, shows, walks, Bible stories, etc.).

To do this, we had to overcome a lot of reticence because it requires involvement to ring the doorbell of your neighbours while presenting yourself as Catholic!

It was not easy for me either…

I had never done this before, going to strangers’ homes to invite them to Church events.

You wonder how you will be received. But the reception was almost always favourable. People were touched that we were interested in them.

This is perhaps what we Catholics miss the most: being aware that, as long as we are not intransigent, people are happy to meet us.

In what way were you, the laity and the Lazarists “co-responsible” in the mission?

We were above all responsible for a very concrete project!

Choosing activities, designing a poster, reserving a room with the town hall. Organizing the mission called on the skills of each one of us, on our knowledge of the territory, on our close relationships, etc.

In the various shows we put on, on the Passion or on the Emmaus witnesses, there were up to forty of us on stage!

For each mission, we also wrote a prayer to distribute to the people with the invitation leaflet. Each person would come up with his or her own ideas and we would share them.

I reread some of these prayers years later and was moved to see that they were partly answered.

What fruits did these missions bear?

We remain fragile, and there are not many more of us in church on Sundays. But I am convinced that if we still exist today, it is because of that.

Most of the current members of the pastoral animation team in my parish have been involved in missions.

That says a lot about how they have welded our community together and pushed Christians to get involved. We have experienced that doing something together is possible.

So even though we can see the metamorphosis of society and of the Church, we say to ourselves that there are still resources and that not everything has been exploited. We have a great future ahead of us.

Moreover, one of the fruits of these missions are the “Gospel Houses”, which are spreading today in our diocese of Nîmes, allowing people to meet around the Word of God.

Why do you think the complementarity between priests and laity is so central to the missionary dynamic?

Simply because one cannot do a mission alone!

The mission – just as, more broadly, the Church – is a collective work.

In the Gospels, Jesus much more often addresses his apostles in the plural rather than the singular. And he asks them to pray by saying “our father,” not “my father”.

Carrying the pastoral load together is so much easier! On my own, there are many things I would not do. For the mission, we must pool our strengths and our weaknesses.

I insist on the weaknesses because otherwise we are tempted to believe we are all-powerful, and that cannot work.

As a priest, you don’t have a position of authority?

No. I always start from the principle that we have to do it together. If you want people to be involved, then you have to get involved yourself.

In the missions, I have always remained at the side of the parishioners, for example by playing a role in the shows, just like the others.

The mission is also for us priests: we need it a lot! It stimulated me a lot.

In any case, I like working in a team. On my own, it drags, I don’t know where I’m going.

In a team, the vision is broader and, sometimes, light breaks out. Succeeding together brings me a lot of joy.

We learn to receive from each other, we realize that we do not own things. The diversity of our talents makes something happen that was not planned.

In your opinion, what will be the proper place of the priest in a more synodal Church?

It is clear that for the future of the Church, priests alone will not be able to do anything.

I find that lay people help us to get out of our sterile oppositions between priests of different sensibilities: they help us to go further.

For me, being a priest means above all being a servant of dialogue between people.

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