Who Are the People in Your Parish?
Patrick De Laroche, Parish Pastoral Council Chair, reflects on what makes a Church parish – and identifies what a healthy parish should look like.
Most people would understand a parish as a grouping of people who come to church on Sundays. But originally the word referred to a locality rather than a grouping of people.
In this case, your parish should consist of three groups of people within a geographical area: those in the pews; those who are house-bound and unable to make it into the pews; and those in the area who are not in the pews, for whatever reason.
The Parish – 3 Groups of People
Admittedly those in the pews are also there for various reasons that create their own challenges.
Jesus commissioned his disciples (church) to go and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19). That is in essence what a Parish Pastoral Council is commissioned to do: to organise a community that builds up discipleship in the neighbourhood.
Discipleship requires the participation and collaboration on the part of those in the pews. It is not a “spectator sport”.
Taking Communion to the home-bound, visiting the sick, bereaved and lonely within the community, taking them meals — those are essential parish ministries. This form of apostolate provides the home-bound disciples with a vital link with Christ’s body. We show that we care and think about them.
The third group of people are those who for whatever reason have no interest in being in the pews, who may be materially or spiritually poor, or may not even have a relationship with God.
They may easily be perceived as being “outside” of the parish. They may be apart, but they really are a part of what a parish is. Pope Francis refers to them as being “on the fringes”.
People Who Are on the Fringes
They may view those in the pews as unaccepting and intolerant of differences, exclusive rather than inclusive, conditional in their acceptance of others rather than unconditional, part of a closed institution, stuffy, boring and self-righteous. People they cannot relate to. So they remain on the fringes.
This may be because of their marital or co-habitation status, their sexual orientation, their different beliefs, their chosen lifestyle and life choices, their social standing, their different views on the existence or non-existence of God, or whatever other reason.
The people on the fringes are the very people Jesus would have reached out to and engaged with. “I have not come to call the righteous,” Jesus said (Mk 2:17). He met them where they were at and without precondition to conform.
In imitation of Christ, we need to guard ourselves against the closed doors and walls of self-righteousness.
Church – A Field Hospital
What are we in the pews doing about this? Hopefully not just staying in our pews.
Pope Francis refers to the Church as a “field hospital”. A field hospital is messy, and so is life. It does not limit itself to primary-care medicine.
Maybe we are afraid of whom we might let in if we open our doors too wide. Perhaps Jesus himself may slip in with the crowd — and then, what will he ask us to change?
So when we think about who is in our parish, also think beyond our pews.
Patrick de Laroche is the chair of the Parish Pastoral Council in Victory Park, Johannesburg.