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In praise of the parish

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Parishes are important. In any larger discussion about the role and direction of the church, we can't forget that the structure and mystery of the church are actually experienced in the local faith community. The parish is the place where church happens, not as an abstract ideal or as an administrative structure but as an expression of real human lives, a rich but frustrating work in progress, diverse lives united by common hungers and hopes.

The local church comes in many forms: small rural parishes, old urban core parishes, large suburban parishes, merged parishes with hyphenated names, new immigrant or mixed bilingual or trilingual parishes, campus parishes, prison parishes, military base parishes, far-flung mission stations and virtual communities created by outreach to the sick and homebound.

The phenomenon of small Christian communities - both within parishes and independent of formal structures - suggests that size matters too. Plato recognized that community ceases where personal relationships become impossible. A kind of sensus fidelium - the intuitive grasp by the laity about what works and doesn't work - will continue to shape parish life, especially where megachurches are proposed as the solution to the priest shortage. Catholics who want a personal scale or ecumenical sharing or a deeper justice focus for their lives will continue to form the kind of communities they need.

Just as small, distinctive neighborhoods are a corrective to urban size, small faith communities nourish parish life. They arise out of felt need, especially among parents determined to pass their faith along to their children. They share a history with the house churches that nourished early Christians.

Baptized people are meant to be in community. It is a loss to all of us when some feel so discouraged that they leave their local church. We know those (or have been those) who, for varying reasons, have needed to "go away for a while" or who have found safe haven and nourishment in other communions. We know all about the sometimes depressing realities of many parishes - the coldness of some Catholics; the lethargy or heavy-handedness of some pastors; the sometimes deadening homilies. Yet, like the anonymous Christian, the anonymous church exists everywhere. People get together over coffee to talk about life. They tell stories, rediscover the scriptures, break bread, drink to common purposes and to making a difference in the world. And like the formal church they have left, they become two or three gathered together, disciples on the road to Emmaus, coming full circle.

Here are some challenges. Parishes need such pilgrims. The most important evangelization effort needed in the church is to welcome home her own. But this will happen only if we also welcome the de facto diversity of the church as a mystery that defies homogenization, head-counting, personalized envelopes or even regular attendance. Because change will happen only from within, self-exiled Catholics of all stripes ought to belong to a parish - a challenging one, not a comfort zone. It is a good way to stay in the game, at the family table where all the arguments about the future, good and bad, are taking place. But this will be possible only if we accept the mess, the imperfect, painful process of being human together.

Because the essential work of the church is reconciliation in the world, this starts with us, at the altar, where forgiveness is the miracle we witness in the death of the Lord. Parishes are centers where this grace waits to become flesh in us.

See you in church.

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