What is the Church for? If a member of an uncontacted tribe entered a typical Catholic parish today, how long would it take him to learn an accurate answer to that question?
Recently, Fr. James Grant wrote in these pages about putting the parish mission into action. He points out clear problems in the Church: our parish congregations are dwindling, as are vocations to the priesthood; priests are overworked, sometimes stretched across several dying parishes; among the laity, “frustration at not having sufficient parish pastoral care is increasing,” and parishioners are particularly demoralized in places where their parishes are being shut down and combined with others. Fr. Grant rightly concludes, “we are in survival mode.”
In response to this evident crisis, he argues that parishes must “do mission” by choosing a Catholic value to live out in practice. He gives the example of a parish supporting impoverished single parents as a way of living out Catholic pro-life and pro-family values. He also writes that we need to “move away from the idea that the exclusive role of the priest or parish is about getting new people to join—yes, mission churches expect that to be an outcome but not because you are offering programs, progressive ideas, extra Masses, or more prayer groups. Underlying mission is the critical idea that mission is Catholic culture in action.”
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While Fr. Grant’s article makes some important points, I believe it, and many other conversations about the problem of dwindling church attendance today, ultimately overcomplicate the issue. These conversations too often forget to root themselves in that initial question: what is the Church for? If we do not start there, we cannot know what the parish is for, and we cannot put its mission into action.
Firstly, it is a mistake to say that a parish chooses a mission, even a work of mercy so important as supporting single parents. Obviously, the works of mercy are crucial for the Christian life, as illustrated by Jesus’ words (“I was hungry, and you fed me;” “Sell all you have and give to the poor”) and by the lives of so many great saints who poured out God’s love in service to their neighbors. Supporting single parents or another work of mercy would be an excellent parish apostolate. But it is not the parish mission. The parish mission is not something a parish chooses for itself but something given to the entire Church ready-made.
What does “mission” mean? It comes from the Latin missus/missa/missum, meaning “sent.” It is the thing we are sent to do. (Significantly, it’s also where we get the word “Mass.”) The Church’s mission is the Great Commission given by Our Lord at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
In other words, the mission of the Church, and therefore of every parish, is to save souls. The way to save souls is to baptize them, to provide the other sacraments as needed, and to instruct them in faith and morals—that is, teach them to observe all that Our Lord has commanded us.
Obviously, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are part of what Our Lord has commanded us, so a parish must teach us to do those things too. But these works flow from things even more fundamental: our belief in Jesus Christ as our God and Savior, and the charity for one another that can only come through prayer and the sacraments. We must know and love God in order to love our neighbor, and we must love our neighbor in order to do good in the world.
Our Lord and the saints would agree in a heartbeat. Jesus often went off alone to pray, temporarily ignoring the throngs who wanted His miracles. The Missionaries of Charity spend hours in prayer every day, including Mass and Adoration, in order to fuel the fire of love they carry to the poor for the remaining hours. Lay people are no different: any good works we do will flow from a relationship with God and reception of His grace.
Here, the layperson’s frustration with a lack of pastoral care is relevant. Parishioners who already feel that they are, spiritually, running on fumes are not likely to jump at the chance to volunteer for a new works-of-mercy initiative. The already-overextended pastor who signs his parish up for such work will probably find himself spending inordinate energy begging for volunteers, or doing much of the work himself.
And that is not his job; Acts 6:1-7 describes how the apostles found that they could not preach the Word of God effectively while also serving the needy adequately. So, they decided to ordain deacons to take care of the poor. As pastors of fledgling local churches, they had to prioritize their unique work: bathing souls in the Blood of Christ and feeding them His Body. Anyone can distribute ordinary bread, but only an ordained minister can provide the sacraments.
Strictly speaking, parishes do not need to have charitable apostolates. I do not say that parishes should not have them; they should. But charitable works are secondary to the core mission of the parish. They certainly should not fall on a pastor’s shoulders or a parish budget in this time of “survival mode.” Instead, parish priests must prioritize the things that are necessary for survival.
Let the struggling pastor wipe his slate clean, then simply go through a list of the seven sacraments and ensure he is providing them adequately to a flock that is prepared for them. Is it easy for parents of a new baby to schedule a baptism within a few weeks after birth? Are there reasonably convenient confession times that even working people can attend? Are parishioners aware of the importance of receiving Holy Communion in a state of grace and how to prepare themselves? Are young men given a chance to serve at the altar and talk to a priest if they are considering Holy Orders? Do parishioners know how to reach a priest quickly if someone is in danger of death?
Next, a priest should take a hard look at his preaching and make sure he focuses on sound, important subjects. While I have never been a priest, I suspect it is much harder to write an original homily full of lofty meditations or pop culture references than to preach on the basics from the Catechism. Yet many priests seem to think they need to go to great lengths to be amusing and profound. Just like parish apostolates, amusing and profound homilies are good things, but they are not necessary for survival. (The truth, proclaimed boldly, is amusing and profound anyway.)
Let the pastor in “survival mode” preach on the things that are necessary for his flock to survive: the Ten Commandments, the eight Beatitudes, the seven Sacraments, and the four Precepts of the Church would make excellent topics that can do double duty as children’s catechesis and RCIA in a pinch. Once a soul understands those things, she pretty much has all the necessary knowledge of faith and morals. Sprinkle in a few homilies about important saints on their feast days and a few exhortations to private prayer—the Rosary and lectio divina in particular—and you have a repertoire of sermons that could be repeated with minor adjustments for years to come, without running dry.
Parishioners who listen to these homilies and take them to heart will probably become people who want to serve God in whatever way they can, including through the works of mercy. They may even recruit lapsed friends and make converts. But even if they do not, they have been given what is necessary for salvation. The parish has fulfilled its core mission, and the Church as a whole will survive in the current generation and the next.
This brings us to another aspect of the issue: that of recruiting new members. Again, what is the Church for? To go and baptize all nations. In other words, the mission of the Church is to get new people to join: not to keep the parish afloat artificially, like a club or any other organization, but to adopt new members into the family of God. If we really believe in Creation, the Fall, Heaven, Hell, Jesus Christ, and the need for redemption, we must realize that nothing is more important than spreading the Good News to every soul on earth. This might mean street evangelization and mission trips for those who are called to those more obvious missionary gestures. But for many, it simply means immersing ourselves in prayer and the sacraments, handing on the faith to our children (new members!), and being knowledgeable enough to answer questions from friends and colleagues about our beliefs.
What a relief, joy, and challenge, all rolled into one, to realize that it is so simple and yet that the fight is never over. No baby is born Catholic; we all need evangelization even to stay out of Hell. Missionary work is generational as well as geographical. Again, the works of mercy are crucial, but even Christ’s healings were accompanied and often preceded by that greatest work of mercy, the forgiveness of sins (a reminder that ample Confession times are also crucial, if I ever heard one).
Children who do not see their parents praying will not believe prayer is important; Catholics who do not see their priests providing the sacraments and stressing the universal need for redemption will soon cease to see Catholicism as important. Perhaps that, more than anything, is why parishes are dwindling to begin with.
Allow me to illustrate all this with a final example, an illustration of how backward things become if the Church’s true mission is widely forgotten. Like many, I lived the spring of 2020 and the COVID-19 lockdowns in a state of confusion, grieving the loss of the sacraments. I assumed, at first, that this deprivation was necessary, and that the bishops only had the best interests of their flock in mind. After all, spreading a potentially deadly disease would be uncharitable, a work of un-mercy, if you will.
But one day, emblazoned on some parochial or diocesan website or signage or bulletin—the exact circumstances escape my memory, though the substance remains—I read the sentence, “The health and safety of our parishioners is our primary concern.” In a flash, the world that had been upside-down in my mind for those many weeks, or perhaps all my life, was righted with a sickening jolt. “Your health and safety is our primary concern.”
The Church’s primary concern should be her mission. The Church’s primary concern should be the salvation of my soul.
Perhaps, if our shepherds are willing to speak again of sin and redemption and sacramental grace, their flocks will realize how thirsty they are and come back to drink, and the parishes will dwindle no more.
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