I have never been part of a parish that was the center of my social or even my spiritual life. It would be easy and convenient to blame my respective parishes for this. I am as susceptible as anyone to filing out complaints that begin with “if only the parish would” and “why doesn’t the parish.” I seem to foster some kind of nostalgia for a reality I have never known, when the parish “would” and “did.” But the truth is that this imagined past is likely less idyllic than my idle musings suggest, and to be honest I have been far less desirous of moving more of the center of my life to the parish community than I would like to admit.
The pandemic stirred up a strange mixture of desires for parishioners like me. On the one hand, we have longed for the full return of liturgies, faith formation offerings, social events, and the like. (We want “normal,” which usually means a lot less Zoom.) On the other hand, we do not necessarily want anything more than what we had before, even if we are (for now) more appreciative of what we had before. I suspect that means that the regnant desire is for the parish to slot into the designated space in our lives that we want it to have, but to stop far short of becoming a primary interest or concern.
I have wrestled with these murky desires over the past year in three distinct but related contexts: first, as chair of my parish’s pastoral council; second, as a collaborator to the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s “Called and Co-Responsible” series; and third, in presenting to and consulting for dioceses and parishes seeking to renew parish life, especially following the pandemic. I have been led to very fundamental questions like, “What does it mean to be part of a parish?” and “Why does parish life matter?” In the back of my mind has been what I heard over a decade ago from administrators at a Catholic university (not my own) who said that we live in a “post-parish Church” and that their goal was to form young people who were independently resilient in their spirituality––i.e., who were not anchored by or tethered to a parish.
I do not believe in a “post-parish Church” because I believe the parish is essential to Catholic identity. But I also believe that we cannot just say the parish matters; we must instead show how it matters. And to do that, we must place life in a parish community closer to the center of our lives, prioritizing it rather than relativizing it. It is the difference between saying “the parish is part of my life” and “I am a part of the life of the parish.” The first tends toward slotting the parish into all the other things that make up my life, while the second tends toward accepting the gift and the responsibility of parish life. The rejuvenation of parish life might well come from rediscovering its foundation and building on its structural pillars, especially now as we imagine life following the pandemic.
What a Parish Is
We need a catechesis of the parish. I do not mean that we just need catechesis in the parish––I mean that we need a catechesis about what the parish is and why it matters. The parish itself is a prime candidate for developing what John Cavadini has called a “renewed pedagogy of the basics.” We need to start from the beginning and establish the most essential things. The Catechism of the Catholic Church––relying in part on the Code of Canon Law––identifies the basic character and mission of the parish in the following manner:
A parish is a definite community of the Christian faithful established on a stable basis within a particular church; the pastoral care of the parish is entrusted to a pastor as its own shepherd under the authority of the diocesan bishop” (CIC, can. 515). It is the place where all the faithful can be gathered together for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. The parish initiates the Christian people into the ordinary expression of the liturgical life: it gathers them together in this celebration; it teaches Christ’s saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love (CCC §2179).
Definite . . . stable . . . particular: the emphasis on concretization in the first line of this description is unmistakable. A parish is not just any community, but this community, which is stable. We have become sensitized to the quality of “stability” in recent years while so much has been unstable and uncertain. Monks who take a vow of stability have long known this discipline as they practice abiding together in one place amid changing seasons and circumstances. What has become more common in the modern world outside the walls of a monastery is impermanence and transience: the norm has become to stay in one place only so long as it suits us before moving along to find another place or group that suits us better, like migratory animals seeking out more favorable conditions. But the very definition of a parish demands a different kind of movement.
The primary characteristic of a parish is that it is that place where the faithful abide together. The parish is for disciples living “in the world” what the monastery is for monks who live “apart from the world.” To abide together is no simple thing. In fact, having a place and a people with whom to abide is among the most precious of gifts, but it is also and at the same time the most demanding of tasks.
The gift of a parish is that it gives stability to the faithful. How many places in the modern world allow us to be so human together? This is the place intended for people to rejoice and weep together, to speak and to remain in silence together, to praise and to repent together. The young and old are gathered together, as are the rich and the poor. A parish that becomes a sectarian, private, or ideological group is a contradiction in terms. A parish is intended to be a place to grow old, to struggle, to face sickness, to celebrate milestones, to change and argue, and to discern and discuss… together. Come what may, the parish is given as the definite community in which the faithful may abide.
The task of a parish is that the faithful must provide stability. This is the hard but necessary contribution every member of the faithful is called to make: it is the discipline and the responsibility to create a space for one another. If a parish is to be a place to abide together, then the faithful must cling to each other in joy and sorrow, life and death. In other words, abiding is something you do. It is the practice of sharing all things in common and of bearing burdens together. This is the task that is always, always before the faithful, because the parish is itself a work of co-responsibility, in communion with other parishes in the diocese, and through the diocese and its bishop to every other local church.
And yet the really essential thing about this stable community of the faithful is that the stability given and practiced in a parish is not first of all our own creation. The stability on which a parish is built is the stability of Christ himself. It is not incidental but essential that a parish is “the place where all the faithful can be gathered together for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.” Christ abides with this definite community in the Blessed Sacrament. The abiding that the faithful then practice is a response to and participation in the Lord’s sacrifice. All of the acts of abiding together as a parish community rest upon the discipline of the Lord, who never fails to abide with us on this altar, in this tabernacle, in this place. A parish is a stable, eucharistic communion in the world. The faithful in a certain place are given this gift, and, at the same time, called to present this gift to others. A parish is both a gift and task of stability.
The last sentence in that description of a parish from the Catechism further elucidates the “definite” quality of a parish community. Built upon the foundation of the Lord who abides with this community, a parish community develops from certain structural pillars. These pillars are ancient, reaching all the way back to the first Christians, of whom it is said:
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers. . . All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47)
These earliest Christians were not yet called “Christians,” and what they believed and lived was not yet called “Christianity” (see Acts 11:26). Instead, this life was simply called “The Way.” Those who followed the Risen Christ participated in this “Way.” There was no separation between what they said they were and what they practiced.
That “Way” of life sounds rather idyllic, and we might suspect ourselves of longing for some past that is too good to be true. But the fact of the matter is that the practice of Christianity and its persuasiveness––“And every day the Lord added to their number”––were tied up in showing, not merely telling. To be a follower of Christ meant studying the apostles’ teaching, breaking bread together, sharing life in common, and observing the periods and rituals of prayers (these are also the four pillars of the Catechism). In speaking of the formation for liturgical celebration, instruction in doctrine, and the works of charity, the Catechism recalls and re-presents the definite structure of those who followed “The Way” of Christ beginning in the First Century.
In returning to the “basics” of parish life in terms of its definition and its description, it seems to me that a recommitment to these four pillars of “the Way” is the key to rejuvenating parish life. These four pillars of Christian life did not, however, just “fit into” what people happened to be doing otherwise. Instead, these four pillars structured their lives. This calls for the unleashing of Christian desire. Rather than just wanting to get back to enough of “normal” for the parish to become a convenient and unobtrusive part of life for those who want it, heeding the gift and the task of parish life would reorient the priorities and the loves of the faithful. It will likely also “add to their number” now as it did then. We can and should expect this definite form of life from our parishes, but only as we also actively contribute to this life in our parishes. For my part, I want to speak to each of these four marks and suggest practical ways we might now begin this work of re-prioritization and reorientation for the rejuvenation of parish life.
Adoring Our Foundation
Christian life depends on the breaking of bread––specifically, the participation in the sacrifice of the Eucharist. It is not enough to consume the Eucharist. The Lord deigns to nourish us so that we may grow in communion with him. He intends for us to share his life, and for this we must change and grow in him and with him.
While the validity of the Sacrament does not depend on our preparation or intention, we do obstruct how the Lord seeks to work in us when we are unprepared to welcome him or unwilling to respond to him. Dare I say that few of us cultivate the kind of readiness and hospitality of a Thérèse of Lisieux, who said:
When I am preparing for Holy Communion, I picture my soul as a piece of land and I beg the Blessed Virgin to remove from it any rubbish that would prevent it from being free; then I ask her to set up a huge tent worthy of heaven, adorning it with her own jewelry; finally, I invite the angels and saints to come and conduct a magnificent concert there. It seems to me that when Jesus descends into my heart He is content to find Himself so well received and I, too, am content.
My colleague Timothy O’Malley has written a beautiful book about the importance of cultivating the spiritual senses for and from the gift of the Eucharist––a kind of formation that incites the reverence to which Thérèse witnesses. May aim here is to propose something smaller and more limited, not yet reaching to the full Eucharistic formation which every Catholic should receive and undertake. I want to suggest that if a parish community is founded upon the stability of Christ who dwells in our midst in the Eucharist, then as parish communities we ought to dedicate ourselves to growing in recognition of, appreciation for, and wonder at his stable presence. A parish-wide devotion to the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is one specific, intentional practice that nourishes this character in the community.
Many parishes have long cultivated this particular devotion, some even going so far as to build or dedicate a 24-hour adoration chapel. The beauty and simple power of this devotion sprung upon my own parish over the past year by accident, or perhaps by Providence. Our pastoral council had the idea to host Eucharistic Adoration for one day each week. It would be an opportunity for the parish to grow in prayer and it would challenge us dedicate time to ensure that there were also at least a few people at adoration. The first day of adoration was January 1, 2020, and the last day was supposed to be March 19, 2020: the patronal feast of our parish. That end date coincided with the suspension of Masses in our diocese.
What began as a seasonal, seemingly nonessential commitment suddenly became the only form of in-person prayer available to members of our community. In the weeks and months to follow, the weekly adoration became a source of vital connection to our parish, both for those who attended and for those who did not. While everything else seemed so unstable, there was Christ: stably present in the Blessed Sacrament, abiding upon the altar of our ordinary parish, surrounded by a few of his disciples at every hour of the day.
Now that Masses have resumed and “normal” parish activities are all but back in place, it is tempting to deprioritize this one practice that remained when everything else ceased. To the contrary, now is the time for parishes to more fully commit to a practice like this. If Christ is the foundation of parish stability, then the regular practice of adoring him in the steady silence of the Blessed Sacrament schools the community in clinging to our sacred foundation. Together, we practice abiding with him who never fails to abide with us. He teaches us how to abide with one another.
The Question of Communal Life
In her celebrated essay on school studies and prayer, Simone Weil says that the love of neighbor begins from one simple question: “What are you going through?” When the first disciples devoted themselves to the “common life” and shared their goods “according to each one’s needs,” they practiced love of neighbor: attending to one another and responding in charity by sharing both bounty and burdens.
We had a small taste of this at our parish, again right at the outset of the pandemic. A group of parishioners organized a phone-based outreach to every registered household in the community. The goal was simple: see how people were doing, ask them if they needed anything, and invite them to let our parish know if they knew of others who needed help of any kind. To use Simone Weil’s language, the point was to ask, “What are you going through?” and then be available to respond as a parish community to whatever emerged.
Again, now that things are returning to “normal,” it is easy to forget a practice like this because the experience of seeing each other in person is resuming. But seeing is not understanding. There was a kind of directness and urgency to checking in on others during those unusual months. While a phone-based outreach may not be the right approach now, practicing “life in common” does demand that we share the stuff of life together. A parish is a community where burdens are borne together, but that does not happen automatically.
Seeking after and responding to the needs of others is a task for the faithful, and it is one that ought not stop at the parish boundaries but instead open to the surrounding community. For a downtown parish (like my own), that means paying attention and responding to the needs of our neighbors undergoing hardship. This is what Cathy and John help parishioners at our parish to do as they lead the effort to provide dinner to hundreds of persons experiencing homelessness every month. For a suburban parish, it may mean looking in a different way for wounds and burdens in your community, and then seeking to share in and respond to the pain others feel. Regardless of the setting and circumstances, the key is to actively perceive and then willfully respond to what our neighbors are going through.
The Prayers in Between
My friends were recently having a conversation about how to best pray at Mass with children. I said that I did not think Sunday Mass was for prayer. I only sort of meant that, of course. My point is that we expect too much out of Sunday Mass. For people like me and my group of friends who are usually trying to corral children unsympathetic to our spiritual desires, expecting to enter deeply into prayerful repose at Mass is likely asking too much.
The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, which means that there is a life that comes from and goes back to the Eucharist. That life ought to be a life of prayer that comes from and returns to the “Sunday celebration of the Eucharist,” rather than being solely located there.
The gift our parishes may give is to help form parishioners in prayer, in direct and intentional ways. The responsibility parishioners themselves take on is to commit to praying regularly, to guide one another into prayer, and to offer the fruits of our prayer each week at the Sunday Eucharist. This calls for a revival of Catholic devotions (including Eucharistic Adoration), teaching and observing the liturgy of the hours, and initiating sodalities for the rosary and the veneration of the saints.
The right question is not necessarily “How can I pray better at Mass?” but rather “How can I pray better from and toward the Mass?” Yes, parishes have a responsibility to help parishioners deepen these lives of prayer, but parishioners also have a responsibility in initiating these habits with one another. Forming smaller, focused communities in which prayer is learned and practiced is crucial to the vitality of parish life.
Handing On the Faith We Received
At a parish I attended recently (not my own), I saw a blurb in the bulletin asking parishioners to assist with the parish’s religious education program. The post noted that “no experience or qualifications are necessary, just a passion for sharing your faith.” There is something lovely and enviable about this, since the responsibility of passing on the faith is not solely the responsibility of some professional class ministers. It is the duty of all disciples (conversations about the “ministry of the catechist” pending). But do we not know that both competence and confidence are crucial to handing on the faith well, to offering a “Way” worth living and committing your life to? Burn out in catechesis is guaranteed if you do not feel like you know what you are doing, and one of the best ways to ensure you feel like you do not know what you are doing is to actually not know what you are doing.
The commitment to the “teaching of the apostles” is a shared commitment. Augustine would have called this doctrina. It is both the content of the faith and the ways in which the faith is practiced. To form newer disciples requires the ongoing formation of more experienced disciples, and it requires sharing not just information but also habits, mannerisms, and above all a pleasing witness.
I have a lot to say on this matter since it comes quite close to my own areas of professional life. In the following essay, I will provide an example of how to form people for the Sacrament of Confirmation––including through RCIA––that requires and depends upon the investment of a community of more mature disciples, who are themselves not just sharing their passion for their faith but also becoming more competent and confident in how they form others in faith. I will also provide an approach and a rationale for how parents can directly, personally, and substantively assist in the formation of their children for First Communion.
When people like me are tempted to offer soft complaints that begin with “If only the parish would” or “Why doesn’t the parish,” there is a sly little trick of language at play. Notice how the “parish” is someone else, or something else, and not the definite community of which I am a part. When we say “the parish,” do we only mean “the pastor” or “the small and overtaxed parish staff”? Are we not in the habit offloading our own responsibility for parish life to others, maybe the professionals?
This is not to question or diminish the authority of the pastor or the crucial work of parish staffs. Quite the opposite: it is more about respecting and cherishing that authority and that work. The pastoral care of the parish community includes the primary duty of cultivating the Christian identity of the members of that community. That Christian identity entails receiving the gift of the stable, definite community of the parish, as well as empowering the responsibility each parishioner shares for providing that stability and vitality to this local communion. The pastoral care of the parish means respecting and cherishing the dignity and the mission of the faithful. The responsibility of the faithful begins with doing the same.
 For a compelling account of this discipline of abiding together as the distinctive mark of the presence of the Holy Spirit, see Joseph Ratzinger, “The Holy Spirit as Communion: Concerning the Relationship of Pneumatology and Spirituality in Augustine,” trans. Peter Casarella, Communio 25 (Summer 1998): 324–37.
 I find paragraph 1 of the Catechism especially beautiful in this regard.
 Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, trans. John Clarke (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1996), chapter 8.
 See, for example, St. Vincent de Paul parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana: Jodi Marlin, “Adoration Chapel Invites Visitors to Spend Time with the Risen Lord,” Today’s Catholic, January 12, 2021, .
 Simone Weil, Awaiting God: A New Translation of “Attente de Dieu and Lettre a Un Religieux,” trans. Bradley Jersak (Maywood, Connecticut: Fresh Wind Press, 2013), 64.
 For more on this, see my “Why Community Is Needed Now More than Ever,” Our Sunday Visitor, March 16, 2020, https://osvnews.com/2020/03/16/why-community-is-needed-now-more-than-ever/.
 For a compelling account of how this dynamic of perceiving and then acting constitutes the virtue of mercy, see Miguel Romero, “The Call to Mercy: Veritatis Splendor and the Preferential Option for the Poor,” Nove et Vetera 11, no. 4 (2013): 1205–27.
 See my Turn to the Lord: Forming Disciples for Lifelong Conversion (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2021), which I will draw from in the follow-up to this essay.