Visiting friends in New England recently, I listened to their lament about parish life. Boring liturgies, irrelevant homilies, insipid musicall this from devout Catholics tempted to bolt to a local Protestant church for a feeling of community and worship. It’s a familiar scenario to most of us, but does it have to be that way?
Paul Wilkes, a Catholic author and member of the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina, set out to investigate what is really happening in Catholic parishes across the country. But instead of tackling the problems head on and chronicling all that’s wrong, he decided to search out the really good parishes where something is happening. His search enabled him and his associates to compile a list of 300 Catholic parishes that can be rated excellent, eight of which are described in some detail in the first part of his book. They represent parishes in diverse settings: urban, rural, middle class, impoverished. Perhaps the heart of the book, however, is the list of 18 common traits that Wilkes contends characterize excellent parishes. In just 10 pages Wilkes offers a comprehensive vision that every parish should aspire to emulate. After reading the eight case studies, one absorbs this list in light of the concrete examples that illustrate the powerful effect of these values on the formation of a Catholic parish community.
Wilkes is not interested in sharpening any axes to push a liberal or conservative ideology. Though he is obviously more of the liberal persuasion himself and has little sympathy for what he would consider an overly exact or pastorally insensitive application of the law, his arguments and judgments are well within the center of Catholic pastoral practice.
One can quibble with the listing that Wilkes and his staff have compiled. There is no claim, however, that the list of excellent parishes is exhaustive or that the assessment is scientifically grounded. The intended effect, one surmises, is to show the contributions that the traditional parish structure can still offer as a spiritual force in the lives of Catholics and in the wider community.
As a pastor myself, I found some of Wilkes’s portraits and descriptions somewhat intimidating. The pastors, staff and parishioners of the eight excellent parishes described in detail seem almost superhuman, enjoying an extraordinary level of success. Although disclaimers are inserted at regular intervals to try to dispel this impression, nevertheless the rather one-dimensional profiles tend to blur together, because real persons do not emerge from the stories. If Wilkes had included more of the struggles and inevitable disappointments of ministry, his stories could have had an even more dramatic impact on the reader. But perhaps this is another book.
In any event, Catholics in America owe Wilkes a debt of gratitude for reminding us of what a parish can be and what many parishes in fact really are. Whether your own parish is an excellent one or not, it can undoubtedly be made a better parish if pastors, parish staff members and parishioners as well heed some of the wisdom Wilkes has compressed into a very readable and succinct book.