Our parish communities - a new Vatican document

By Father Philip Inch

At the beginning of summer (20 July) the Vatican issued an instruction which Pope Francis had signed at the end of June. It is called: The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church. That is something of a mouthful, but the document is a reflection on the Parish.  
Why did the Pope sign, and the Vatican issue such a document?  
For many of us the way we experience the Church is through our parish, through its priest(s) and so is it a timely reminder to all of us what the parish is all about and particularly at this time when we have been through ‘lockdown’ and so have been made to think again and afresh about what it means to belong to a parish. The document clearly says that nothing new is being proposed here – it is gathering together the riches of church teaching, practice and law.  
The document reminds us of three important things:
  • The Parish exists for pastoral conversion. The Parish must be missionary.  
  • The situation of the world today means we have to rethink what it means to be a Parish. It can no longer just be defined as a territory in which we live. We have to be open to new ways of being a Parish.  
  • The structures that exist in a Parish are at the service of its mission and we must not be afraid to try new and innovative expressions of Parish.  
1.  Pastoral Conversion  
Pope Francis repeatedly says that Parish communities must be places that are ‘ever more conducive to an encounter with Christ.’ He says: ‘We should be disturbed by the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters live without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Christ, without a community of faith to support them.’ (EG 49)  
The Word of God dwells in our midst, hence the importance of the Parish, a home amongst the homes of an area. And in order for the journey of the Word to continue the Catholic community must make a determined missionary decision: ‘capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.’ (EG 27)  
2.  The value of the Parish in a contemporary context
According to the new instruction, the current model of Parishes no longer measures up to most people’s expectations: Whereas the parish church was once a community’s primary gathering space, people now have many other places – in person and virtual – to gather, weakening their commitment to their geographic neighbours. As a result of this change, the document says ‘any pastoral action that is limited to the territory of the Parish is outdated, which is something the parishioners themselves observe when their Parish appears to be more interested in preserving a nostalgia of former times as opposed to looking to the future with courage.’ A missionary Parish, rather than remaining focused on preserving the existing community, is ‘called to reach out to everyone, without exception, particularly the poor.’  
3. The Parish and its structures within the Diocese  
This is the longest section of the document and it talks about restructuring parishes. It reminds us that parishes must be led by priests, but clearly in the context of working with others. The priest has a role, but he cannot carry this out if he is not in collaboration with others, with priests, with religious, with deacons and with lay people. There is a stress on parish councils and on finance committees.  
Any reorganisation of parishes within a Diocese must be done in consultation with people. The Pope compares it to the way he is trying to reform the Roman Curia – you have to take people along with you. It is no good imposing from ‘the top.’ There is seen in the instruction a clear role for emerging lay ministries. It talks about lay-pastoral associates, about lay funeral ministers and about people in different parishes working together.  
The document reminds us that there is already in place the mechanism for trying new ways of restructuring our parishes, always for the good of the people they serve. It is clear that we must not be afraid and we must not be tied down by the ‘old ways’ of doing things.  
I hope this short article will have given you the encouragement you need to read the whole document: you can find it here: http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2020/07/20/200720a.html