‘Parish Life Is Where It’s At!’

The first Sunday morning I was in Rome last March, for the departure of Pope Benedict XVI, and the preparations for the conclave that would elect Pope Francis, I took a long walk through the Eternal City.

It was a critical season in the Church. We had no Pope; the Chair of St. Peter was vacant; we were eager for a new Holy Father.

And yet, as I walked the cobblestones of Rome, I passed parishes where life was going on as usual! People were coming and going from their parish churches; there were the catechumens and candidates for the RCIA; children coming to prepare for first confession, first communion, and confirmation; choirs singing, people chatting, thousands worshipping; priests preaching to and visiting with their folks, meetings going on…the sacred life of the parish was going on full speed.

Parish life is where it’s at! Parishes are the front lines of the Church. We Catholics are grounded where we live. The Church is not some cerebral, amorphous ideal, or 108 acres in Rome called the Vatican, or at the archdiocesan offices on First Avenue. No: the Church is where our babies are baptized, our grandparents buried, our children educated and catechized, our young couples married, our sins forgiven, our elders congregate, our young people play basketball, God’s word is proclaimed, His very Body and Blood consumed, and the sick and poor embraced.

Parish life is where it’s at!

Three weeks ago, I visited the Albanian Islamic Center on Victory Boulevard on Staten Island. (Catholic New York covered it last issue, and I spoke of it on my blog—www.cardinaldolan.org—last week.)

That Islamic community had invited me to come, because they wanted to work more closely with us, their Catholic neighbors. They noted a list of similarities between the Islamic experience and the Catholic history in America. Both of us, they observed, came here for economic betterment, democracy, and religious freedom. We can learn a lot from you, they told me.

As I toured the facility, I thought to myself, “This is just like one of our parishes!” There were the children in their school (K-12); there were youth playing basketball in the gym; there were the elders volunteering and cooking in the cafeteria; there was the mosque where the people worshipped and prayed; there was a food pantry so they could help the hungry; there were the imams, like our parish priests.

It worked for us, and still does. I hope it works as well for our Islamic neighbors. From my visit, it sure seemed to be.

The parish! As I get around this vast archdiocese, I meet hundreds of you. Usually, after telling me your name, you let me know what parish you call your spiritual home. When I meet former New Yorkers during my travels around the country, odds are they tell me, not that they’re “from the Bronx,” but that they’re “from St. Francis”; not that “I’m from Staten Island,” but “I’m from Blessed Sacrament.”

That’s the pride we have in our parish identity.

This, of course, is another reason our pastoral planning is so important. People love their parish; people are loyal to their parish; people do not want to lose their parish!

That’s why we have to listen hard to our people and be extraordinarily sensitive when we plan to merge, or even close, parishes. This is a very delicate, difficult decision.

As essential as our parishes are, they are at the service of the entire Church. Parishes are a means to an end…the end, the goal, is the furthering of the Kingdom of God in our own souls and in our community. Simply put, to keep all of our present parishes going as usual is hindering the work of the Gospel. We can’t let that continue. We’ll have to expand some, maybe even start a new one. And, yes, we’ll have to merge and even close others.

We might have fewer parishes, but they’ll be stronger and more stable. Then our children and grandchildren can be as proud of their parishes as we have been of ours.

Stay close to your parishes. Become part of this planning process. We need you.