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Parish: Common Ground, Holy Ground

Philip J. Murnion
December 1999

A pastor was leading a session for fellow pastors on the theme, “One Parish, Many Spiritualities.” To say “theme,” however, is to impose a category on what was for him simply a combination of practical pastoral wisdom and instinctive openness to diversity.  The parish he served was a combination of nationalities, generations, and educational levels.  Consequently, the parishioners approached their relationship to God and church in a variety of ways, for each of which he had provided a home. He described each: those whose spirituality is expressed and nourished almost entirely through the liturgy, those with Marian devotion, participants in the Charismatic Renewal, those whose Eucharistic piety enjoyed times before the Blessed Sacrament, those whose spirituality had a decidedly social orientation.  Not that these were all mutually exclusive, but neither were they equally significant for all.
“Room Enough to be Together; Room Enough to be Apart”

A former pastor of mine once set as a criterion for a good apartment in public housing that it should provide room enough to be together, and room enough to be apart—large enough living room for all the family, enough bedrooms for all the members.  The pastor leading the workshop represented just such a model, though for him it was not so much a “model” as a basic disposition. To the extent that there is room enough to be apart—space to be with “people like me”—people will feel that there is “room” enough to be together, acceptance of themselves in parish liturgy and life. The experience of sharing common ground may precisely depend on not always having to share everyone else’s spirituality. I should note that the Code of Canon Law codifies this principle by stating that each person has a right to his or her own spirituality, while all have the responsibility to strive for unity.

All this is by way of introduction to a reflection on Catholic Common Ground and the parish. As the example illustrates, parish is ineluctably a place where people with significant differences enjoy “common ground” in a whole host of ways—from unity in Christ and sacrament to unity in faith and church.  Of course, this is especially true in principle of territorial parishes. Admittedly, some parishes that are formally territorial become congregations in effect, that is, self-selecting communities.  This can be true simply because the quality of parish life and worship attracts people from beyond the territory: either emphasis on liturgy, lay participation, and social responsibility on the one hand, or emphasis on doctrinal authority and devotional piety on the other. Yet, the territorial parish, combined with the practice of infant baptism, is in principle a powerful declaration that all people are sacred, all are welcome, all are a matter of concern to the church, irrespective of any quality, merit, or commitment on their part.  All the baptized Catholics belong to the parish; all the people within the ambit of the parish have a claim on the community of the parish.

For the People

The example also points out that parish as “common ground” does not originate in an ideology, but in a pastoral instinct or even a pastoral assumption.  The adage I learned many years ago in the seminary, sacramenta propter homines—the sacraments are meant for the people (not vice versa)—encouraged a presumption that the parish should be open to a great variety of people and their respective dispositions and devotions.  Every reasonable effort should be exerted to make the sacraments accessible to people without evacuating their meaning,  and, by inference, to make the parish hospitable to the many ways that people express their faith. One could say that this was a former expression of “inculturation,” namely, that the life of the parish should be a blend of what is foundational and universal in the church with what is custom and particular expression of the particular people in a particular place at a particular time.  Inculturation is an expression of incarnation.  In one respect it is inevitable and, for most pastors, instinctive, for parishes to be communities like this even though today parishes have to be more self-conscious about inculturation, more deliberate in appreciating and engaging their many cultures.  Furthermore, transition from one culture to another culture or more has become the normal state for many parishes.  They have to struggle, as does the church at any level, not to be trapped in an earlier cultural expression that no more enjoys canonicity than the new cultures.  Here I am reminded of Pope John Paul II’s cautioning a group of French bishops against defensiveness in the face of today’s pastoral challenge: “It’s not a question of blaming anyone or of nostalgia for an often idealized past.” (Italics added)

Parish Movement

A third aspect of “common ground” illuminated by the workshop example is the fact that, while the parish is open to movements—Charismatic Renewal, Marriage Encounter, and the like—it is not itself a movement.  A movement is sharply focused and calls for clear commitment.  Of course, movements can breathe life into various aspects of parish life as did the various “encounter” movements for family life, youth, and prayer. Movements can also complement parishes, reaching out to and engaging people in ways that parishes cannot. But the parish isn’t a movement.  It has space for all varieties and all levels of conversion and commitment: it is catholic in being Catholic.

This is a challenge these days, as parish priests and pastoral ministers try to elicit personal commitment from parishioners, commitment to discipleship and commitment to stewardship. It’s even a challenge as parishes try to know more about the members and communicate better with them.  To accomplish this, parishes urge parishioners to “register” and work to find ways to intensify parishioners’ commitment to faith and church.  They can come to think that one leads to the other. While the practice of registration is not only understandable but necessary, it can also lead to two mutually reinforcing and mistaken inferences.  One is interpreting registration as a criterion of membership, when membership belongs truly to any baptized Catholic in the territory.  The second is interpreting registration as an expression of commitment, when it may really be but a claim of entitlement—one must register in order to be entitled to a baptism, marriage, funeral or registration of one’s children in the parochial school. Again, parishes can and ought to be hospitable to movements, but the parish is not a  movement, the church is not a movement. Conflicts occur when the leadership of the parish or a group in the parish acts as if it were a movement.

All this is to say that parish is common ground and that, as Cardinal Bernardin’s funeral homilist declared to ringing endorsement from the vox populi, the congregation, then common ground is holy ground.  For there is no community that more fully expresses common ground than the parish—a community whose very life is centered on Jesus in Word and Sacrament, in ministry and assembly, in the members and the marginal, especially the poor and oppressed. The parish makes evident the Body of Christ in all its incarnational particularity.

Pastoral Origin and Goal

That parish is or should be common ground was intimated in the very origins of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.  For what led to the development of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative was a simple “letter” from Cardinal Bernardin to the parishes of Chicago.  In that letter he urged that the parish make room for diverse groups, specifically the young and the old, those whose spirituality is largely liturgical and those with a more devotional spirituality, and the laity and the clergy.  Reflection on that document led to discussion of other ways in which divisions can occur in the church and specifically on ways in which polarization was infecting the church.  Admittedly, the Cardinal’s concerns about polarization largely had to do with difficulties in discourse among church leaders, those leading organizations and movements and even the bishops themselves.  This concern took the issue beyond the level of the parish.

Andrew Greeley’s take on the Cardinal’s initiative was that the analysis of polarization fits church “elites,” but is less relevant for most Catholics among whom, he argued with his data, there is less polarization. Yet, as we will note, the compartments of the church are not so sealed off from one another.

The pastoral origin of the Initiative and what Cardinal Bernardin saw as the pastoral purpose of the Initiative were, however, welcomed by pastoral leaders throughout the country, especially pastors and pastoral ministers.  In fact, it could be argued that the more closely people were connected to pastoral ministry, the more likely they were to welcome the Initiative (and even to understand its limitations). They know first hand how hard it is to balance unity and diversity in their parishes, not necessarily because groups are in conflict with each other, but simply because of the diversity itself.

In one all too obvious respect many parishes experience daunting diversity because in recent decades pastoral policy has been to serve most ethnic groups that speak different languages in what become multicultural territorial parishes, rather than establish separate national parishes. But other types of diversity also pose a challenge to parish unity—the differences of culture, expectations, and spirituality to which I have referred as well as the significant differences related to generation, gender, and situation in life.  These differences seem to be more important to people in our time than once was true.  Each “market segment,” to use one pastor’s term, feels entitled to “niche marketing.”

Polarization and Alienation

The reaction of pastors has suggested a broader agenda for the pursuit of Catholic common ground than was originally intended. They see the urgency of dialogue for overcoming alienation as much as or more than polarization.  The challenge for them is not so often competing camps with ideological differences, but estrangement of people who, justifiably or not, feel that their voices are not heard in the community of the church. These pastors see the need for dialogue among the “elites,” for they often feel hampered or at least unaided by what they see to be ideological disputes among church leaders regarding worship (texts and practices), women (in general and regarding church roles), leadership (participation in ministry and in church governance), and the relationship between the church and the socio-political world (different ways to handle the gap between church teaching and both economic life and public policy). The absence of dialogue among church leaders suggests a tone-deafness to how controversial issues are experienced at the parish level. It also forestalls the forging of a common mission that can engender hope and set priorities for parish life. The pastors and parish ministers who have responded with great enthusiasm to the Cardinal’s initiative see a connection between elite polarization and parish effectiveness.

But there is more to the pastoral response than that.  As important as is the dialogue among bishops and between bishops, theologians, and others in leadership positions, equally important is the need to engage those who have become distant from the community of the church. Pastors and parish ministers worry about the young people whose absence from church seems to be more than just the typical phase in growing up; about those whose failed marriages seem to keep them from the Eucharistic community; about the many Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians who don’t seem to regard the parish as their spiritual home; about the poor who can see the church as discouragingly middle-class; about others whose difficulty with church teaching is encouraged in a culture that shows little respect for any teaching authority. For parents, I find, it is especially the absence from the church of their grown children, the famous baby boomers, that worries or saddens them.  They are less privy to internal church disputes, theological, liturgical, and pastoral.   Their hope is that the pastoral life of the church, at the parish or in any form, “make the rough ways smooth” so that these young people can find ground to stand on.

In the view of many pastors and parents, dialogue can clear the space between the parish and estranged people.  They wish to convey a spirit of true dialogue in which the teaching of the church remains clear but is offered as an invitation rather than as a mandate, and the church sincerely listens to and obviously respects  the cultures and questions of the estranged. Of course there is more to it than this.  There are other grounds for alienation, certain features of church life that warrant challenge and, equally, certain styles of people’s lives that need to be challenged. Yet, as the Pope said in that same address to French bishops I cited earlier, it is not a question of blaming anyone, but of finding a way to be faithful to Gospel and church and respectful of the people for whom the mission is intended: the one-vs.-ninety-nine policy.

This was not what Cardinal Bernardin had in mind when he established the Initiative (though the founding statement did refer to some of these issues).  It embraces both the original insight and what Greeley and other critics consider the greater problem in the life of the church. In other words, the pursuit of true Catholic common ground, not as a protected turf, but as a space as capacious as the rich tradition of the church calls for, needs to address both polarization and alienation.

Common Ground:  Lessons from the Parish

Great ideas open up horizons broader than originally intended.  The call to dialogue to broaden Catholic common ground as a  zone of faithfulness has inspired a whole host of initiatives.  It seems to me that each of these responses is to be respected, but especially the desire to reach out to those who are alienated from the church and feel that there is no forum where they can be heard and can hear, really hear, the message of Christ and church. Just as the origin and goal are pastoral, so the best model is pastoral and the epitome of the pastoral is the parish.

We know from thriving parishes that unity is achieved when each different expression finds a home and is not forced to defend itself or compromise its expression in relation to others—there is room to be different while there is room to reach beyond the differences.  We also know from history, as Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, Catholic Common Ground chairman, recently recounted in an address to the Canon Law Society of America, that common ground has often been reached through vigorous disputes in the church (think just of the achievement of the document on religious liberty in Vatican II). As they say, not all is “sweetness and light.” Yet, dialogue and the pursuit of true dialogue, which Cardinal Basil Hume in the first annual Catholic Common Ground lecture defined as “seeking the truth together,” is critical to the process. It is an important step toward overcoming both polarization and alienation.  It is a process of speaking and listening with profound respect for one another.  Ultimately it is not only a pastoral strategy but a theological conviction that the Spirit is inspiring people in myriad ways and an evangelical obligation to reach out to those who are apart from the community.