Christian Identity and Communities of Memory: Renewing the Public Life at the Parish Level (Final)

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: The Challenges of Individualism

Part 3: The Person, the Other, and the Community in communio Ecclesiology

Part 4: Affinity and Lifestyle Enclaves

Part 5: Communities of Memory

Part 6: The Parish and the Mission of the Laity

“Civic” Ministry

Having considered the role of the parish and the mission and responsibility proper to the laity, we can consider practical ways in which the principles of the public life can be fostered at the level of local parishes. We recall at this point our previous discussion of how the individualism that permeates American culture alienates the individual from the community to the point that he loses his sense of relatedness to others. The local parish can restore a sense of belonging among its members through many different ways. Initially, the parish should have small groups with different focuses (e.g. bible study groups, singles groups, married couples groups, book clubs). These are in addition to diverse ministries (e.g. catechesis, social justice ministry, liturgical ministry) that are assumed to be in place in most parishes. Also, the parish should have a structured series of social events such as socials, pot lucks, and festivals, just to name a few. These initial structures need to be in place because they allow parishioners to interact with one another in a casual way but also give them an opportunity to work together for a common goal as in the case of a children’s play or the organization of a festival. In addition, these structures are meant to provide a foundation upon which a “civic” ministry can be built, which I suggest next.

Empirically speaking, we can say that many Catholics who belong to their parishes do not actively participate in them beyond the Sunday Mass. There are a lot of socioeconomic and political concerns that naturally occupy the minds of the laity when they attend the weekly Mass, but despite the fact that the rest of the parishioners may share many of those same concerns, they nevertheless go unvoiced and unheard week after week, because nobody expects that the parish could be the place to discuss them. This contributes to a further alienation of parishioners from their parishes. Since their participation in their parishes is limited to Sunday Mass, some lay people may grow increasingly frustrated and disappointed with their parish community, because genuine concerns that affect their lives are never addressed. In such context, we should start envisioning the parish as a community of engagement and not of retreat,[1] which can be realized through the creation of a “civic” ministry.

In principle, the purpose of the civic ministry is to provide a space—a forum—within the parish in which parishioners can gather together, discuss, and actively work toward finding solutions to common problems that concern their community as well as other neighboring communities. It is also meant to serve as a training ground for parishioners to learn how to dialogue, listen, and resolve conflicts. The ministry can be subdivided into two groups or forums that will have two different focuses: distributive justice and commutative justice. The distributive justice group would focus on issues that are related to the allocation of income, wealth, and power in society[2] (e.g. poor allocation of resources in school districts). The commutative justice group would deal primarily with issues that pertain to “agreements and exchanges between individuals or private social groups”[3] (e.g. fair treatment of employees by employers). These two subgroups are only suggestions that allow enough flexibility for the parish to deal with different issues that may arise. The groups could also be named differently so that parishioners can have a better understanding of the purpose of each. In theory, the permanent members—or directors—of the civic ministry should be keenly aware of the problems that concern the parish community as well as neighboring communities. These issues would then be brought up in meetings where parishioners are invited to share their thoughts about them. If necessary, following meetings can serve to further discuss and decide on immediate and future action that needs to be taken.[4]

This civic ministry should not be conceived in isolation from existing ministries as if it were just as one option among many. Because of its nature, the civic ministry should draw from and feed back to all other ministries. For instance, permanent members of the civic ministry should be encouraged to be part of the liturgical ministry given the central role of the liturgy in the parish community. Similarly, these members can interact with the Religious Education group within the parish to coordinate sessions explaining Catholic social doctrine to the youth and adults alike. It is also important that, if possible, the civic ministry should work with other ministries and/or other parishes to organize weekend (silent) retreats and sessions that would focus on moral theology, Catholic social doctrine, and the teaching of skills that would help parishioners to dialogue and resolve conflicts effectively.[5] In addition, the civic ministry should be in constant dialogue with other parishes as well as with external organizations (e.g. The Metropolitan Organization in Houston) and the pertinent local authorities.

Concluding Remarks

The Second Vatican Council and the most recent papal encyclicals have made it clear that, because of their unique relation to the world, the laity have a responsibility to engage culture and to structure it according to the principles of the Gospel. The highly individualistic American culture poses enormous challenges to the task of evangelization, but if the efforts of individuals are joined together at the parish level, then the challenges may not be as insurmountable as we may be tempted to think. For the efforts at the parish level to be effective, however, there needs to be proper training and development of the laity in order to ensure that parishioners are well prepared to make an impact in the public square. Despite our best efforts, the results of our work may not always turn out quite as we expected. Thus, it is important that when we face obstacles in evangelizing, we remember the gift of hope that we have been given as well as the power of prayer, which is the “school of hope.”[6] And we must constantly recall the Lord’s promise that he will be with us always “until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

[1] Palmer, Company of Strangers, 120-121.

[2] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All, 70.

[3] Ibid., 69.

[4] The program these meetings would have to follow is crucial to their success. To describe such program would be beyond the constraints of this paper. I suggest that the  meetings within this civic ministry should follow a the model developed by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) that has proven to be successful.

[5] For more on the needs and principles of training of the laity for the apostolate and the roles of the clergy in such training, see Chapter VI of Apostolicam Actuositatem

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 32-34.

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  • David Raber

    Lately at Mass we have had readings from the Acts of the Apostles, the story of how our Church came into being out of the apparently failed life of a charismatic young Jewish teacher and would-be prophet named Jesus. The book is rich in lessons about building a Christian community. Your paper perhaps assumes these lessons as a basis for putting into effect your suggestions, but it is worthwhile to recall what makes everything else possible when it comes to building up a parish that has an impact on its wider community and the world.

    The Spirit has to be there, the fire, the deep commitment to following Jesus; the prophetic leadership has to be there on all levels; and we need to love one another, first of all within the community of believers as a basis for spreading that love outward.

    And how do we get all that? By seeking to be ever closer and closer to God, by asking for and being willing to accept God’s grace. In short, everything starts with the “spirituality”–prayer and devotion at the individual and community level. My best practical suggestion is that the Church and the parish first do all it can to promote that–and soon we won’t be able to stop getting busy with all the rest of the stuff that comes out of that and goes with that.

  • Great essay, Katerina!

    Interesting idea about a civic ministry. I wonder if anyone would show up? I think that builds upon David’s point.