Reinventing the Parish at Easter

Cambridge, MA. Here in the Boston, as in many other cities around the country, the Church is of necessity rethinking parish structures, often drawing parishes together in collaboratives. Much of this has to do with the declining number of priests and diminishing congregations. Yet this rethinking, despite all the problems it raises, also presents an opportunity to think about how small Christian communities — including parishes — can best fulfill their mission. I mention this because I was preaching this morning in my (weekend) parish in Sharon, MA, and I found — with the congregation — that today’s Gospel (Luke 24; April 19, 2nd Sunday after Easter) sheds light on how a new, renewed Christian community is and works, at its best. (That a Resurrection story shows us how to be community is no surprise — all the great Easter stories do this.) I will put before you just four of the points I made, in relation to parts of Chapter 24.

1. We all have had experiences of Christ; it is those experiences, not the lack of them, that brings us together:

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That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying,  ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (33-35)

The two disciples who met Jesus on the road had their experience of him; the apostles are brimming with the news that Peter has seen the Lord. Neither Peter, nor the apostles, nor the disciples, have a monopoly on the experience of Christ. No one is merely in need, as if to learn of Christ only from others. But such individual experiences bring us together, and together we share them.

2. But such experiences, even as they bring us together, do not predict fully what happens when the community gathers. When we gather, Jesus will be present again, in a new way:

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them,  ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. (36-40)

Jesus knows that they have gathered because of their experiences of him. But the personal experiences of individuals never add up to all there is; when we gather, there is always more. That is why Jesus stresses the materiality, physicality of the experience: See me, touch me, look closely at my hands and my feet. The intense reality of Christ in the community is something more, beyond all the experiences that brought us there in the first place.

3. The next step in this process is simple enough: if they are truly to recognize Jesus, he needs to eat with them. We recognize Christ in the meal, in the meals we share. Here we might immediately return to the now familiar symbol, “breaking the bread” together — as if it must always be through bread, the Eucharistic bread, that Jesus will be specially present. But not so:

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them,  ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (41-43)

Such a simple question: “What have you to eat?” Whatever you have, let that be the meal, and you will recognize me there. Bread, but also fish — but also every other meal we share — can be the place where we meet Christ.

4. This could well be the end of it: they recognized him in the breaking of the bread; in his encounter with Peter; and now even in the eating of fish. But there is one more step, enlightenment:

Then he said to them,  ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. (44-45)

These are special, chosen people, who have experienced the Risen Christ, more than once; they have seen him, touched him, shared the meal with him. And yet, they cannot build the church by sharing this truth with everyone, unless Jesus opens their minds to the full and fulfilled meaning of his words. Then they can carry those words with them along still other roads, and to still other upper rooms, that once again they might share their experiences of Christ with people who have experienced him in other ways.

Much else can be said about this part of Luke 24, but if we are trying to build Christian communities in our changing, sometimes diminished parishes, the points I’ve noticed here will get us quite far:

1. Everyone who comes to the parish has already experienced Christ. No one owns the experience of Christ.

2. When we come together, we experience Christ in a new way, beyond all our individual experiences. Let’s not settle for what we already know.

3. When we share a meal — the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but other meals too — Christ will be with us again, vividly, close up. So let’s figure out what we have, and share it.

4. All the experiences in the world are not quite enough, until Christ opens our minds to the meaning and inner power of his words. Let’s pray for the opening of our minds. Pentecost is not that far away.

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Bruce Snowden
2 years 7 months ago
One “comes” to the Parish already experiencing Christ. Totally true! Parishes come and Parishes go, they always have in some way. “Closings,” parochial comings and goings, a pretty common, yes, necessary manifestation of the Holy Spirit at work, evident throughout the Christian millennia. As I understand it, the word “parish” in relation to Christ is just another word for Christianity and it’s very clear that Christianity, I mean Jesus Christ, is all about “coming” and “going.” He said “COME follow Me,” also “GO into the whole world” two example among others of the “coming” and “going” charismatic gut of what being Christian entails – “no lasting home” here, activity and forward movement necessary to be faithfully Christian. Christians effectively and affectively are busy bodies, embodiments of Jesus in the world around them, eager beavers to tell everybody the good news – He has risen, just as he said! Breathlessly, but without anxiety, on fire, but not burned up, or out, we meet Jesus, sometimes as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said, distressingly disguised in the poor, or perhaps as Holy Father Francis might say, as shepherds smelling like their sheep, definitely not in flowing crimson with exaggerated mile long trains, powder puff primates and wannabe royalty! No, you won’t find Jesus there as his kingdom is definitively elsewhere! I’ve found Jesus in repented sin, also in wells of goodness flowing from his heart into mine, but not just mine as Jesus wants to be everybody’s best friend, and wants everybody to be his best friend too. Yes, in Pentecostal open-mindedness , “Everyone who comes to the Parish has already experienced Christ,” in ways uniquely singular as well as in ways so regular even common, that one may in prayerful surprise say “There too, Jesus?” I hope this comes across a lot better than mere babble, although it is difficult to tell without feeling lost, yet comfortably at home, “I have seen the Lord! Does this not speak to Jesus' unique nature, also pointing his disciples (Believers, us) to the world to come?
Agustin Paz
2 years 7 months ago
There is always room at the table for the meal Christ offers us daily. Only we can exclude ourselves when we ignore the poor and marginalized in the world and also when we ignore our own poverty of spirit. This is the table of the fellowship meal that begins with the family, extends to the parish, and is guided by the diocese in synodal union with each other and the Holy Spirit as the Body of Christ. O dear Jesus, the frankness of your resurrection request, "Do you have anything to eat?" is still with us today in your Spirit among the poor.. May we learn to feed you with our poverty while we feast on the Glory of your Cross. Lord, feed me as I learn to break the bread of your poverty on the cross with my brothers and sisters in the communion of the saints.
Joseph Healey
2 years 7 months ago
Thanks for these insights. Here in Eastern Africa (the nine countries of the AMECEA group) we capitalize the term Small Christian Communities (SCCs) because it is a key pastoral priority in our parishes and dioceses. Unlike the USA it is "the church in the neighborhood." Today we have over 160,000 SCCs that are pastorally oriented and mainly parish-based neighborhood groups. More information can be found on our Small Christian Communities Global Collaborative Website and “Facebook Page” (www.smallchristiancommunities.org) and in our free online Ebook called "Building the Church as Family of God: Evaluation of Small Christian Communities in Eastern Africa" (http://www.smallchristiancommunities.org/ebooks/47-ebooks-.html). Welcome!
Mike Evans
2 years 7 months ago
Yet the difficulty in both Africa and South America is that SCC's have become a substitute for actual parishes and a stop gap measure to gather the people for prayer and self-study but not the Eucharist. What would Jesus think?
Joseph Healey
2 years 7 months ago
Readers may also be interested in the book Joseph Healey and Jeanne Hinton (eds.), "Small Christian Communities Today: Capturing the New Moment," Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005; Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2006; and Bangalore: Claretian Publications, 2006. Available as an Ebook on Amazon (for Kindle), Google and Barnes and Noble (for Nook). It refers to a background paper for the “International Consultation on Rediscovering Community” at Notre Dame, Indiana in the USA in December, 1991 that compiled over 3,500 different names, titles, terms and expressions for SCCs/BCCs worldwide.
Mike Evans
2 years 7 months ago
While bemoaning the closure of so many parishes, the author blames the priest shortage and dwindling congregations. What is the ideal parish size? Certainly not the 4,000 family megachurch with 8 mass times every weekend. The smaller parishes which exist in a framework of historicity are much more likely to foster intimacy and community in its congregation and between its people and their leadership. If all that is really missing is enough priests to staff these already operational parishes, then let's solve that problem. Ordain the married, restore those who left ministry to marry, ordain women at least to the diaconate, and retrain all pastors in the care and feeding of a close-knit community instead of one demanding so much in CEO skills.
Luis Gutierrez
2 years 7 months ago
One possibility is to ordain women (especially nuns and other qualified celibate women) to the priesthood. We need both ordained men to be "fathers" and ordained women to be "mothers" in the church at all levels, and especially in parishes. Patriarchal families are becoming dysfunctional families, and the church is no exception. Signs of hope: "The way in which Jesus Himself regarded women, in a context that was far less favorable than our own, casts a powerful light illuminating a road that takes us far, on which we have traveled only a short distance. It is a road we must travel with more creativity and boldness." http://www.news.va/en/news/general-audience-the-complementarity-between-man-a "Sin generates diffidence and division between man and woman. Their relationship is undermined by a thousand forms of abuse and subjection, of deceptive seduction and humiliating arrogance, including the most tragic and violent. History bears their traces. Let us think, for instance, of the negative excesses of patriarchal culture." http://visnews-en.blogspot.com/2015/04/general-audience-man-and-woman.html But what about the church as an ecclesiastical patriarchy? The patriarchal priesthood is not a dogma of the Catholic faith. Based on the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” and John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” my understanding is that the ordination of women to the priesthood would be in perfect continuity with apostolic tradition: Ordination of Women in the Sacramental Churches http://www.pelicanweb.org/solisustv11n04supp6.html#section9 This is a visceral issue that cannot be resolved by reasoning alone. But this is not about what women (or men) want either. This is about discerning what Christ wants for the Church in the 21st century, for the glory of God and the good of souls. Would Jesus, in today’s globalized world, choose 12 males to represent the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel?
Joseph Healey
2 years 6 months ago
Mike Evans' comments are helpful. Here in Eastern Africa we have more and more Small Christian Community (SCCs) Masses in the homes. More and more of the life of lay Catholics takes place not in the big physical parishes but in the "Church in the Neighborhood" (our name for SCCs). I hope Jesus would like this.

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