Too Big? Too Small? Just Right?
ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
42. But because it is impossible for the bishop always and everywhere to preside over the whole flock in his Church, he cannot do other than establish lesser groupings of the faithful. Among these the parishes, set up locally under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop, are the most important: for in some manner they represent the visible Church constituted throughout the world.
And therefore the liturgical life of the parish and its relationship to the bishop must be fostered theoretically and practically among the faithful and clergy; efforts also must be made to encourage a sense of community within the parish, above all in the common celebration of the Sunday Mass.
Paragraph 42 confirms a practice dating back to Apostolic times, the local gatherings of the baptized to celebrate the Eucharist and share a common life to some degree. The prototype of a “local church” is found in the Acts of the Apostles by St. Luke, though scholars have questioned whether Luke’s description of common life is idealized. The letters of Paul, notably 1 Corinthians, do not reflect the same degree of fraternal bliss, but Paul and Luke agree that Christians gathered regularly as an identifiable group. As the Church grew in the post-Apostolic era, the structure we recognize today came into clearer focus: a mother church guided by a bishop, and sub-churches in network with the bishop. Para. 42’s translation “lesser groupings of the faithful” to describe parishes leaves a bit to be desired, since these “lesser groupings” are the one outward sign of church reality that most believers will experience.
Para. 42 directs that a parish must foster a healthy liturgical life and encourage a sense of community within the parish centering around the Sunday Mass. This Vatican II directive was very influential in the development of the new rite of the Mass—the 1970 rite of Pope Paul VI we use today. The new rite incorporates antiphonal prayer involving the entire congregation, congregational singing, the Kiss of Peace, the sharing of the cup, interactional architecture with better sightlines of the rites, etc. example, in the instruction on the distribution of the
Vatican II makes itself very clear on the need for a communal dimension to the sacraments. The theological reasons for this are so obvious that I won’t belabor them except to say that unity among participants on the practical level is a much higher priority in the Mass of Pope Paul VI. However, the term “community” is one of the most pliable phrases in the post-Conciliar Church; every time I hear it I think of Justice Potter Stewart’s observation during a Supreme Court free-speech/obscenity trial: “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”
One thing we can safely say: no two people in the same parish define community in the same way. The largest parish in the United States is reported to be St. Matthew’s in Charlotte, North Carolina, at 10,000 registered households. (The national median is 761 households.) America Magazine interviewed staff and members for a cover piece a few weeks ago. What emerges is the story of an energetic and visionary team of priests, religious, and lay leaders, energized by a demographic anomaly [the abnormally sudden growth of the Catholic community immigrating from northern states], the decreasing number of priests, and the sheer challenge of engaging 25,000 people with “a sense of community” as para. 42 defines.
By the 761-household median, St. Matthew’s constitutes 13 average-sized parishes. There is considerable debate in recent times about Catholic mega-parishes like St. Matthew’s in Catholic journals, periodicals, and blogs—including an interesting piece here from the Catholic blog of Texas A&M. It is possible that with consolidation of parishes a common strategy for priest-strapped dioceses, there is the flicker of hope that the revitalization of Catholicism in the United States might come about by realignment to fewer but larger parishes.
There is no shortage of hard-cover analyses of parish life and structure, either. While it cannot be denied that the future of the parish is intimately tied to the men who will lead them and their availability, Sacrosanctum Concilium has had a great deal to do with our thinking about what constitutes a “healthy parish” in terms of engagement. At some point in early Church history, experience led its leaders to extend mother churches with satellite communities, a movement toward our present-day structure. It would be very interesting albeit impossible to ascertain the social reasons for this development from the vantage point of, say, 250 A.D. Certainly the image of the Last Supper and the experience of breaking bread together on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection exerted a wholesome “pressure toward the center” that influenced the theology and the structuring of the parish.
The staff of St. Matthew’s acknowledges the question of whether a mega-parish exerts enough charisma to draw one closer to the Eucharistic altar. One of the parish’s strengths is attention to its statistics and questionnaires, carefully tallying attendance at every Mass and looking for gaps in its age demographics. Moreover, the parish owns responsibility for “gaps” and inadequacies, a refreshing change from the typical administrative response that symptoms such as low Mass attendance is the sole fault of secularism and/or laziness of the laity. Even so, the parish is still searching for ways to provide better small faith group experiences, and has studied Rick Warren’s famous Saddleback Evangelical Church for models of mid-week faith-sustaining group experience and spiritual/catechetical guidance.
St. Matthew’s staff believes its mega-model is the template of the future of American Catholic parishes. I am not quite as sanguine about that. As I hinted earlier, Charlotte, NC, is something of a demographic anomaly in terms of regional growth, numbers of immigrating Catholics, and—a key point—ecclesiastical vision, most notably at the pastoral level. Otherwise, one would expect to see the St. Matthew model replicated across the South. There are large parishes in my own diocese, but they are simply expanded versions of the “761-median model.” The amount of administrative demand in a St. Matthew’s model is greater than most priests are trained for, and many clergy would not want such a position anyway. (Consider that St. Matthew’s recruits over 500 catechists for its religious education program and owns a lift fork to move its on-site supplies of goods for the needy.)
Consolidation of parishes into a mega-parish does not always translate into a stronger mother parish. St. Matthew’s offers Sunday Eucharist at a separate local campus and a neighborhood Episcopal Church, because there is a finite distance that most families will drive to attend Mass. Geography comes into play, particularly in the “flyover states,” as they say. Moreover, a mega parish begins from strength, not as a last resort. In my home diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., consolidations seem to occur among a large cluster of parishes in financial and attendance difficulties. Moreover, the surviving central church is often saddled with the cost of upkeep a closed parish churches no longer in use. In some cases, consolidations have staunched the bleeding, but the process is not manufacturing mega churches, either.
Taking the idea of parish life into the mega church model overlooks another sociological reality. CARA research indicates that the average weekly offering from a Catholic household tends to be higher in smaller churches than in the large ones. It may be that the bigger the church, the less sense that “my contribution counts.” Does this spill over into other areas of church life—even attendance? These are important questions, at least in the United States. I might add here that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is holding its annual November meeting this week. One wonders if such questions of parish life come up there?
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