“What is a parish?”: a homily for September 15, 2013

Today, traditionally the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, is also my parish’s feast day. Late yesterday, the parish administrator said, “You wanna throw together a few words for the 11:30 Mass?”  Okay, I said.  Here they are. 

Yesterday, as I do every month, I met with families to schedule baptisms. And I’m always surprised at the number of people who show up, wanting want to have baptisms here, even though they aren’t, technically, a part of the parish.  By church law, you’re supposed to have your children baptized in the parish where you’re registered, which is usually defined by where you live.  But we get people from Long Island and New Jersey, even from California and sometimes from overseas. When I ask them why they want to be baptized here, sometimes they’ll say, well, it’s a pretty church, or they once attended a wedding here and liked it, or it’s big enough to hold a lot of family.  I’ll try to steer them back into their own neighborhood.

But sometimes, there are other reasons.  “This is where I grew up,” they’ll say.  Or “This is where I was baptized.  This is where I had my first communion.  Where I went to school. Where I got married.  I wanted to come back to baptize my children here.”

And you realize: this is about more than sentiment.  A parish is more than just geography and it’s not necessarily measured by a zip code.

Today, as we mark our parish feast day, I wanted to reflect on just what a Catholic parish is. It defines so much of our lives. Msgr. Funaro understood that.  It’s one reason he wanted us to celebrate this feast every year.  In many ways, this occasion is part of his legacy—a beautiful reminder of who we are and the bond we share.

We are a parish.  But what does that mean? What is a parish?  If you dip into the church’s Code of Canon Law, you find this:

 A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor under the authority of the diocesan bishop.

That doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

A parish is something lived, experienced, shared.

What is a parish?

A parish is the cry of a baby on the day of her baptism.

It’s the rustle of dresses from girls nervously walking down the aisle to receive their First Communion.

It’s the sound of the school bell, and the laughter of kids on the way to class.

It’s the thunder from the organ as the wedding march begins and a woman in white appears at the end of the aisle, setting out on a journey that will change her life.

A parish is the chorus of voices around you at Sunday Mass reciting the creed, beginning with those two simple but profoundly important words: “I believe.” 

A parish is a million small memories and sensations. It’s curls of incense and the flicker of candles.  It’s silence on Good Friday and trumpets on Easter.

It is things you can’t even describe. Reconciliation. Forgiveness.  Renewal.

The gospel we just heard is about finding what is lost, and rejoicing.  Well, here we also find what we thought was lost.  We find hope.  Love.  Mercy.  Grace.  And we rejoice.

A parish is a thousand points of light at the Easter Vigil and a thousand voices at Midnight Mass, crying out “O come all ye faithful.”

It is “all ye faithful.” It’s people.  Those we know, and those we don’t.  It’s those we spend years praying beside, and worshipping with, and embracing at the sign of peace—and it’s those who might just be passing through, for a day or a week, joining their prayers, however briefly, to ours.

It’s flight attendants in uniforms, dragging their rolling luggage behind them, coming here to pray on their way to Boston or Chicago or London.  It’s secretaries who stop by on their lunch hour for daily Mass.   It’s scores of people who never come to this building – those in nearby hospitals and nursing homes and apartments, connected to us by prayer and faith.

It’s community: a band of believers joined together by the love of Christ, and love for one another.

We worship together.  We struggle together.  We celebrate together.

It’s all of us, here right now:  the Body of Christ.

And in community there is also, literally, communion: the Eucharist.  Christ’s body, blessed and broken at this altar, drawing us here, week after week – calling us to this sacred celebration, to receive the Eucharist and to carry that grace we have received out into the world.

The parish is where so much of that happens. It’s where we mark our beginnings and our endings and so many milestones in between.

And at this parish, of course, we do it with a special devotion to our patroness, Mary, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. She is our companion, our protector, our mother.  Or as a beautiful prayer puts it: our life, our sweetness and our hope.  I never cease to be moved by the displays of love for Mary around this church—flowers at the altar, notes left at her statue in the garden. We do this for one simple reason: we know she listens. A mother can’t help but listen to her children.  And because of that, she is never far from us. Mary is the unseen parishioner at every Mass, the quiet presence kneeling beside us at every benediction, the one weeping with us at every funeral and rejoicing with us at every baptism at that font.

In fact, she understands more profoundly than any of us what it means to be a parish. Mary was part of the first parish: those believers gathered together in the upper room, living in expectation and hope, waiting for God’s Holy Spirit to guide them. They left that room on Pentecost, and changed the world.

There is a lesson there, I think, for all of us.

I’ve said in the past that Christianity is not a solitary endeavor. It is meant to be lived with others, shared with others, carried into the world to help change the world. And that, too, is fundamental to being a parish. That is part of our calling.

On this parish feast day, we remember that.

And we remember, too, Mary’s role in the life of this parish.

With Mary as our patroness…we pray in thanksgiving for all that God has given us—and we pray in hope for all that is yet to be.

And with Mary as our model…we pray that we may do God’s will in the world and be witnesses to his love—here in Forest Hills and beyond.


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