Fr Adrian Smith calls for a return to what the parish was originally meant to be: a Communion of Basic Christian Communities.
IT COMES as a surprise to many Catholics to learn that the parish as we know it today, the focal point of their Church membership, does not stretch very far back in Church history.
While certain features found in Church life originate from Jesus himself and are referred to in the New Testament — the ordained ministry, the sacramental life, the command to preach the Good News of the Kingdom — there is no mention in Scripture of the parish.
But what is very clear from Jesus' words, is that he intended his followers to be a community people and not to live their response to his call in isolation. This is not really surprising when we consider that our Christian life is our initiation into union with God who is community.
So we can call the parish a human rather than a divine, institution, in that it is a structure which arose in order to answer a human need. Since all structures are set up to answer the contemporary needs of a certain element of society, and these needs change as society changes, their usefulness must constantly be re-assessed.
At the time of their creation they are designed to enable that society, in that particular culture, to attain its purpose. If they are not periodically evaluated against current needs, they not only cease to be life-giving but frequently become life-smothering. Their perpetuation begins to absorb time and energy: the tail begins to wag the dog.
This is why the Church, in our own day is taking a new look at one of her fundamental structures: the parish.
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians formed themselves into groups. Not because groups were in themselves part of the gospel message but because such groupings were necessary as a structure with which to respond to the gospel message. We notice from the Acts of the Apostles that the forms the groups took (the "Churches" as St. Paul calls them) were quite varied from place to place according to the requirements of the locality.
But the parish is more than a mere human institution. It exists for a spiritual purpose. Namely, to provide its members with the means of growth to the fulness of their Christian life . . . which means the fulness of their human life as God wishes that to be: a life in community.
The heart of Jesus' message was not about a new way of worshipping but about a new way of living. Specifically, about a new way of relating: of relating to God on intimate (Father-child) terms and in consequence, of relating to one another as brother and sister of a common Father.
Jesus wanted this new way of relating for all mankind. But after nearly 2,000 years, only a small percentage of mankind has accepted to live this way. We call ourselves Christians: our grouping together is called the Church. And the Church, according to Vatican II's understanding or her, is to be a sign of the world of the unity to which all mankind is called.
Consequently any structure which groups us together as Christians — in this case, the parish — must be such as to enable us not only to grow in our relationship to one another as brothers and sisters having the same Father, but also to give a witness to the world around of the joy to be found in living in this manner.
Are our parishes today a witness of the Good News of Jesus to their neighbourhood? If the primary relationship between priest and people is that of their respective roles, then something is wrong; if our relationship with our fellow Catholics is confined to what we do on the church premises, something is wrong; if the responsibility for the growth, in depth as well as extent, of the Christian community is left to its leader, something is wrong.
There are rare occasions in the life of the most of us when we experience our Church membership on a large scale: on the occasion of the Pope's visit to Britain, during a pilgrimage to Lourdes, at a diocesan gathering. For the majority of people however, their Church membership is experienced only in the setting of the parish.
It follows that all Catholics should be able to experience within their parish life those characteristics which are proper to the Church as awhole: those characteristics which have been given a new shift on account of Vatican 11's understanding of the Church. A shift from a static institution to a dynamic institution — a "Pilgrim People", a people constantly on the way, open to taking new directions, always searching for the more perfect way. A shift from being a hierarchical structure to being a community — the New People of God — in which there is a hierarchical function as a service to the community. A shift frombeing a'Church for the people, to being a Church (of) the people, in which people are not objects of a service provided for them but are subjects responsible for their Church. A shift from taking herself as the centre of everything, looking at the world only through her own interests, to a Church which exists to be at the service of the Kingdom of God; to being a Church which exists for
For these shifts in Church life to be experienced at parish level requires above all that the members of a parish are able to relate to each other as members of a community.
When the last reform of parish life took place — at the Council of Trent, 400 years ago — the structure then proposed admirably suited life as it then was. People lived in small, mostly rural units, where everyone was known to everyone else and the Church was the .centre of village life. Society has changed it shape since then: towns, cities, have grown up, the mobility of people has increased. Our parish "communities" today are counted no longer in tens but in thousands. Sociologists tell us that for a group of people to be a "community" it should not exceed 40-50 adults (20-30 family units). Beyond that number we are unable to relate to people at any depth. The number of our friends is limited. There is a limit to the number of people most of us can know by name. Yet our response to the gospel message requires that we relate to our fellow Christians not merely at a social level but at a deeper faith-sharing level.
The parish today provides an example of a structure, which was life-supporting at the time of its formulation, having been overtaken by changes in society so that it can no longer provide all the means for our complete growth as Christians.
So a change of structure is longoverdue: a shift from one model to another. What is required is the insertion of a level between, on the one hand our family unit in which we nourish each other in faith (a unit too small to provide the fulness of Christian life) and, at the other extreme the multitudinous parish of today. That 'intermediate level in which to experience the fulness of our Christian relationships is called, today, the Basic Christian Community.
This is not a new structure. It is in fact a return to what the parish was originally meant to be. It does not replace our present parish but it re-models it in such a way that the parish now becomes a Communion of Basic Christian Communities.
It is a "sign of the times" — in the biblical sense of a sign of God's spirit at work among men — that without any concerted plan or Vatican directive, such Basic Christian Communities are simultaneously spring up all over the world as the new way of being the Church,
They are better known in Latin America, in Africa and in the Far East, than in the Western Church. But they are beginning to emerge in Europe and there are isolated signs of their emergence in different forms in this country.
They are coming about as a response to a felt need in today's world. There is something in that form of living the Christian life which is responding to some of mankind's deepest aspirations today.
Fr Smith is author of Tomorrow's Parish published by Mayhew McCrimmon.