A 12-step Advent examen on what it means ‘to be parish’

iStock

They may well be the loveliest words in Scripture, redolent with care and concern. We hear them in the first Sundays of Advent, many centuries after the Prophet Isaiah received them from the Lord.

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the Lord
double for all her sins (40:1-2).

Notice that these words do not come as a promise. They are delivered as a command, something that Isaiah is to do, and, as these words were destined in God’s providence to become God’s word to us, something that we must do as well.

Advertisement
Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.

The Incarnation, calls us to encounter the God, whom we cannot see, in the humans, whom we can.

Today the words “spiritual” and “religious” are often juxtaposed, even pitted against one another. Religion is, of course, a way of being spiritual. An essential way, really, when you consider that the Latin word religio means to bind together or to bind up. If being spiritual were nothing more than a manifestation of our own longings and preferences, it need not be bound up with anything or anyone beyond ourselves. But then it would be nothing more than an expression of self, like hobbies and hairstyles.

When spirituality truly encounters another, it calls us to come out of ourselves toward the other, to make ourselves receptive to the other. The core of the Christian faith, the Incarnation, calls us to encounter the God, whom we cannot see, in the humans, whom we can. That being the case, the role of the parish in the life of a Christian is much more than a dispensing station of sacraments, the local branch of a worldwide corporation.

To be parish is not simply to encounter others who happen to be there at the same time as we are, like the neighbors whom we see in the supermarket or the local library. To be parish is to be a place, to be a people, where God’s command to comfort the other is fulfilled. Parishes are not distribution centers, which we choose on the basis of our preferences in schedules, music and preaching. They are living circles of comfort, communities with faces that hold real meaning for each other.

To be parish is to be a place, to be a people, where God’s command to comfort the other is fulfilled.

Allow me to describe the cares and concerns of those sitting near you. Do not waste time much time in trying to tie a name to each description. What is true for us this Second Sunday of Advent in 2017 is true every Sunday, in every parish around the world. So reflect for a moment, and in no particular order, upon 12 types of people. Call it an Advent 12-step examen in preparation for the 12 Days of Christmas. Consider:

  • Those who are approaching their first Christmas after the death of someone, whom they have dearly loved.
  • Those who come to Christmas to celebrate the Word made flesh, knowing that cancer or some other disease has invaded their own flesh.
  • Those who are, late in life, once again raising children in their home because unless they do their grandchildren will have no nurturing home.
  • Those who, advanced in age, live in fear that this will be their last Christmas in their own home, still able to live life in their own way.
  • Those who struggle to make Christmas something their children will always remember but only add to the mounting worry about bills that cannot be paid.
  • Those who came to this country, desperate to find a new life, and who now live in fear that everything might be lost.
  • Those who want to live in the freedom of Christ but are still held captive by addiction.
  • Those who try to spread holiday cheer and comfort, all the while returning to homes where discord and distrust hold reign.
  • Those who are growing up different than others, in communities where young people are expected to mature in well-worn ways.
  • Those who are alienated from their family and friends, cut off from the faces meant to give them life.
  • Those, who think that they are alone in struggling with unbelief and with questions about their faith.
  • Those who are not here in the parish most Sundays because it has never been a place of comfort for them.

If a face or two has come before your mind, realize that God has given you a gift. You have seen the suffering of God’s cherished ones. Now it is up to you to decide how to make this command of God into the promise of your parish.

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord God,
who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care (Is 40:1, 10-11).

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 2 Peter 3:8-14 Mark 1:1-8

Nora Bolcon
6 days 17 hours ago

•Those who are not here in the parish most Sundays because it has never been a place of comfort for them.

This comes close but does not hit the type of person that our church always forgets - the kind of individual I am.

Those who are oppressed by their church and bound up due to our church's bias and sexism never taught to them by Christ. Women who are equally called to ordained priesthood by God in our Roman Catholic Church but are ignored, chastised, told to shut up or that they are crazy for thinking God would call women, or worse are outright excommunicated.

Our church needs to add these people to its list and then work to make it so this category no longer exists in the future.

Happy Advent to All and Peace

Sandi Sinor
5 days 1 hour ago

Those who are not here in the parish most Sundays because it has never been a place of comfort for them

I am 70 years old. I have never in my entire life experienced any parish as a place of comfort, as a real community. The churches in the suburbs hold hundreds of people at each mass, people who dutifully complete their Sunday "obligation" to go to mass, and quickly leave. Many do not wish to engage anyone they don't already know and they certainly do not wish to engage with those dealing with problems or grief.

to be parish is to be a place, to be a people, where God’s command to comfort the other is fulfilled. Parishes are not distribution centers, which we choose on the basis of our preferences in schedules, music and preaching. They are living circles of comfort, communities with faces that hold real meaning for each other

You have an ideal of parish, of Catholic community in mind, but very few Catholic parishes reflect your ideal, especially in an era of Catholic megachurches as parishes continue to be closed or "consolidated" by the hundreds. The reality is that most Catholics do choose a parish based on convenience, music, and for decent homilies, if possible. The last item is often hard to find, so people will choose based on music and convenience..

Kester Ratcliff
3 days 22 hours ago

What to do when you live in a parish which operates exactly like "a dispensing station of sacraments, the local branch of a worldwide corporation. ...simply encounter others who happen to be there at the same time as we are, like the neighbors whom we see in the supermarket or the local library."?

I came from a parish with a very strong sense of community and most parishioners are regularly engaged in corporal and spiritual works of mercy *together*, most people know each other, and in the most practical ways do support each other when needed. It's a majority African parish in the UK and I guess more than half are refugees or second generation from refugee parents. The priest in my home parish, I won't name him here, but I think a lot of us honestly feel he's a saint. I love and admire him and it feels completely natural for me to call him Father, as a charismatic rather than an institutional title, altho he prefers just his name. He makes a big effort to make sure the parish activities are not centred on him and encourage other people to take responsibility for leadership too. Actually he's trying seriously to prepare people for the time when he'll no longer be there. I find it hard to relate to other parishes and other priests which are almost always disappointing compared to my first experience of a Catholic parish community. Once I did meet another parish which was about as vibrant and really a functioning community. The priest's homilies were different but also wise and interesting, not just formulaic.

I hoping and planning to move closer into town, and ideally I'd like to be near Sintfranciskirk, which is less ceremonial than the cathedral but the priest is wiser, humbler and more interesting. Actually I'd really like to start a Communita di Sant'Egidio branch here, and particularly organize within the Dutch branch of Sant'Egidio to try to get an agreement with the Dutch government like the Italian, French and Belgium branches of Sant'Egidio have done to collectively organize and assist refugees in Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey mainly with applications for humanitarian visas and support their reception and integration here (I already do this but just with other volunteers online, and I cooperate with the chief legal officer of the Sant'Egidio project, but only online so far), but I think that this city might just be too tiny to find enough people interested or willing to get that committed. There is a branch community in Amsterdam, but not here in Groningen yet. I'd be fine with it being an ecumenical variety of Communita di Sant'Egidio or an ecumenical Catholic Worker group, but I've tried the local Taize branch and it was too much of a performance - better singing than I'm used to, but the amount of emphasis on the performance made it feel like it was focused on performing rather than prayer.

Small city blues.

Michael Barberi
2 days 19 hours ago

"Those who are not here in the parish most Sundays because it has never been a place of comfort for them."

I agree we all should pray for them. However, I mean no disrespect but as I read your article I could not stop thinking about the divorced and remarried and gay and lesbian Catholics.

When local bishops refuse to permit Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, as Amoris Laetitia is now a magisterium teaching per Pope Francis's approval of its interpretation by Argentina Bishops, then perhaps all the bishops should ask themselves why they will not make their parishes a place of comfort "for them". As for Gay and lesbian Catholics, let's get real here. Their parishes are not a sense of comfort for them. They are essentially outcasts who have been told that they have an innate intrinsic disorder that leads them to sin. If they are in a same-sex union they are told that they are living in mortal sin. They can't marry another person of the same sex but must live a life of sexual abstinence. More importantly, most the bishops have no idea how to treat gay and lesbian Catholics with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Perhaps you should send them a copy of Fr. Martin's book "Building a Bridge" as an Advent Examen. I realize that this may not be practical. Nevertheless, I hope you will pray for them and our Church.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

It is no coincidence that saints often come in pairs.
Terrance KleinDecember 14, 2017
I never wanted to be a priest. But here I am. Newly minted Father Brendan, and still wondering how I got here.
Brendan BusseDecember 13, 2017
Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 13. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)
"We don't go to Mass to give something to God, but to receive from him that which we truly need."
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" hits theaters on Dec. 15th.
Jason WelleDecember 13, 2017