Since the early ’70s, the focus of my ministry has been the Catholic parish in its many facets and variations. From traveling across the country, I can confirm that fewer Catholics are attending Mass or getting involved in their parish. The reasons are varied, but one is that people do not see their parishes as fitting into their limited time.
There are many ways to turn this perception around. Any parish adopting the five practices I list below will become more attractive to active and inactive parishioners alike. No one parish that I know of is doing them all, but I have seen each practice taking place somewhere and have witnessed what a difference it can make.
Worship. In this ideal parish, every door at every Mass on every weekend has a family or a few individuals welcoming people into church, even remaining outside to greet those arriving late to the liturgy. Greeters are also present at the end to say goodbye, especially to those leaving early.
The music is geared to the age and culture of those attending each particular Mass so that the entire congregation is singing with joy and spirit. Some of the hymns are sung in parts or rounds or alternating verses for subgroups, such as men and women, younger and older congregants, and those seated at one side or the other of the church.
The readings at the Masses go to the heart of those attending, perhaps with brief introductions to help people understand the context and background for the Scripture text.
The homilies bring the Scriptures to life and provide age-appropriate applications to people’s everyday experiences, all within a reasonable length and delivered with an appealing and convincing style.
Faith Formation. In this parish, there is a monthly gathering of families and individuals of different ages, cultures and lifestyles to experience spiritual learning and growth through both large- and small-group interaction.
The weekend Masses include two-minute explanations each month about some aspect of Catholic faith and practice based on questions from parishioners, including issues related to the Mass, Scriptures, the saints and Catholic traditions.
Adults of all ages, cultures and interests are offered a variety of faith-enrichment opportunities throughout the year that include spiritual direction and sharing, Scripture study and reflection, and book or movie discussions.
Community-building. In this parish, those of different cultures and backgrounds are invited to attend regular parish events at which each person can share their unique gifts and customs, creating a way of joining as a single community with new understanding and acceptance.
Hospitality is a hallmark of the parish, so that all newcomers and visitors are welcomed into the community, all groups and ministries are open to new members, and all events are joyful celebrations of unity.
All who volunteer for a ministry, committee or project know what will be expected of them, are appreciated for their work, are held accountable, and serve for a limited time so others can take their place.
Reaching Out. In this parish, the ministries of pastoral care, Christian service, peace and justice, and connecting with inactive Catholics are well-known by the parishioners, are publicly affirmed by the leadership and attract new members to join their ranks.
Those who no longer attend church regularly are personally contacted by trained parishioners who listen to the stories and concerns of each person, answering questions and offering assistance as needed.
Leadership. In this parish, the pastor, pastoral council, staff and lay leaders continually inform parishioners about any decisions and plans they are making, along with the reasons why certain choices were made, inviting the people’s feedback and insights.
Parishioners are challenged to be stewards of God’s gifts, by including time for daily prayer, becoming involved in at least one area of parish ministry and service, and returning a portion of their financial livelihood back to God, either through the parish or other outlets.
Spreading the News
The ideal parish soon becomes known, and the news gets around. Young adults find a home and an outlet for their desires to serve others. Families discover new traditions that draw them together in the midst of their busy lives. Seniors delight in sharing their wisdom and insights with other generations. Priests enjoy helping out when needed, making an extra effort to contribute to the spirit and vitality of the parish community.
How can these steps be implemented? Begin with trust that the Spirit will bring it about where there is a strong desire to do so. Then form groups to plan and implement each step when the timing seems right. For example, a band of liturgical ministers in a California parish organized a welcoming ministry for all of the weekend Masses. A choir director at a Wisconsin parish led the congregation in singing four-part harmony, going over each voice for the first four weekends in Lent—which culminated on the fifth weekend with the entire congregation raising the roof in triumph. The parishes in the Saginaw, Michigan, diocese introduce each of the first two readings for the weekend Masses with a brief explanation written by the late Bishop Kenneth E. Untener.
All of the steps do work. I have seen it happen. So have those who have witnessed the life and vitality that these practices help to create.