Want an Amazing Parish? Begin with the Liturgy.

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Last week approximately 500 Catholic leaders and their pastors from around the country gathered in Denver, Colorado for the first Amazing Parish conference to “brainstorm and swap ideas about improving parish life.” As reported by the Catholic News Agency:

“The newly-founded Amazing Parish movement seeks to provide resources to pastors and parish leaders so they can create a thriving parish life. The conference…featured Catholic speakers and workshops on topics such as parish leadership teams, formation programs and evangelization.”

There is an entire industry which has developed in recent years trying to solve the problem of steadily declining attendance and participation in Catholic parishes across the U.S. I have no reason to question the goodwill and sincerity of the people involved with conferences such as this one. From their website:

“The Amazing Parish movement is the work of a group of committed Catholics from around the United States who love the Church and don’t want attention or acknowledgment; they simply want to help parishes be amazing by connecting them to great resources.”

Noble and worthwhile indeed.

The resources at Amazing Parish are broken out into 7 categories, what they call the Seven Traits of an Amazing Parish. They are:

A Reliance on Prayer
A Real Leadership Team
A Clear Vision
The Sunday Experience
Compelling Formation
Small Group Discipleship
Missionary Zeal

These seven traits, and their subcategories, total approximately 45 distinct pages of information on the site. Here is the problem: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass gets almost completely ignored. The supreme prayer of the Church, and the very reason for a parishes existence, is relegated to one paragraph. This is it…in it’s entirety:

“The purpose of this section – which is nothing more than the paragraph that you are reading – is simply to reiterate that the heart of the Sunday Experience is the Mass, and the heart of the Mass is the Liturgy. While everything on this site is intended to help amazing parishes enhance the Sunday Experience so that more people will come to know Christ and His Church, it is critical that the Liturgy be honored, respected and preserved. The Real Presence of Christ surpasses anything that people could organize or produce. That’s all.

We thought this was important enough for its own section. God bless.”

In his memoirs Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger famously wrote, “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy.” It would seem that a movement looking to create amazing parishes might be more focused on the sacraments, most notably the Sacrament of the Altar.

At a time when many well intentioned people in the Church are looking to rebuild parishes and to seek the lost, implementing a business consultant approach has become the new norm. Instead of looking at what our Catholic parishes have lost over the decades, such as a sense of the sacred, a continuity with tradition and an emphasis on the sacraments, too many are simply looking for some new program to implement. Unfortunately the restoration of beauty to the liturgy is typically absent from most programs.

In the 1992 presidential election the Clinton-Gore campaign team, led by strategist James Carville, coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” This mantra of sorts, purely for internal consumption, was meant to remind the team that ultimately no other campaign issue mattered. They would win, or lose, based on the performance of the economy.

Not to be profane, but every pastor and parish council needs to recognize that the “disintegration of the liturgy” is foundational to the loss of the Church’s relevance to the faithful, and to boldly declare, “It’s the Liturgy, stupid.” It is about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and restoring the sacred.

Archbishop Alexander Sample of the Diocese of Portland, Oregon clearly understands the foundational role that the liturgy plays in rebuilding our Catholic faith:

“I am solidly convinced that an authentic and faithful renewal and reform of the sacred liturgy is not only part of the New Evangelization—it is essential to its fruitfulness. The liturgy has the power to form and transform the Catholic faithful. We must live by the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing). What we celebrate in the Mass expresses the essential content of the faith, and it also reinforces our faith when celebrated well and with fidelity. The liturgy both teaches us and expresses what we believe. If we do not get the sacred liturgy right, I fear that we will just be spinning our wheels rather than getting the New Evangelization going in the right direction. If we are transformed by the sacred liturgy, then we, as believers, can help transform the culture.”

There is one last item of concern about the Amazing Parish site and last week’s conference. Both incorporated the “Weekend Experience” strategy of Father Michael White and Associate to the Pastor Tom Corcoran of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD. They are better known as the authors of the book “Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost and Making Church Matter”. This book, in a relatively short time, has become the blueprint in parish after parish seeking to engage the faithful and fill the pews.

Father Michael White decided to rebuild largely by studying Evangelical mega churches and then making changes to the parish, based on those observations, including within the liturgy. The below video explains how they are “All About the Weekend Experience” at Father White’s parish. It is important to remember that this is the approach more and more conferences and dioceses are incorporating, hailing it as the solution to building amazing parishes.

I will end with this brief exercise. Watch the below video and count the number of times you hear the words “Mass”, “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass”, “Eucharist” or “Jesus Christ.” In contrast, count the number of times you hear the words “weekend experience”, “service”, “professional looking band”, “cafe” and “donut.”

As Archbishop Sample said, “If we do not get the sacred liturgy right…we will just be spinning our wheels rather than getting the New Evangelization going in the right direction.”

 

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