'The Mass is the source and summit of our faith, therefore, everything that happens before, after, and during Mass, warrants attention.'
Having examined three of the seven traits of amazing parishes as described by the Amazing Parish project, we look this week at #4, the Sunday Experience, and #5, Compelling Formation.
"Sunday Experience" seems an unsettling, way to describe Holy Mass, but the phrase neither negates nor diminishes the fact that Mass is the most important thing the parish does. The Mass is the source and summit of our faith, therefore, everything that happens before, after, and during Mass, warrants attention. Amazing Parish names nine components in the Sunday Experience starting with "Getting People There." (Complete list at amazingparish.org) Finding out Mass times and navigating the parking lot are part of the "Sunday experience" and are among the things that deserve -- demand -- attention. If people don't know the Mass times or church address or where the parking lot is, they can't (or won't) come. Up to date parish websites are as necessary to making the parish known as the attractive sign out front.
The pastor and leadership team at the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md. (the parish in the book "rebuilt") identify three M-s that contribute to bringing in the lost and keeping the faithful coming back:
-- Music -- "all (people) have one thing in common: they don't like bad music.... Poorly performed, distracting, inappropriate." Music should be good, it should encourage people to sing, "whether your parish is doing traditional hymns, modern praise and worship music or Gregorian chant."
-- Message -- good homilies are delivered with a sense of passion that bring Scripture alive, they call us to holiness of life, and are relatively short and to the point.
-- Ministers -- first impressions are powerful. Greeters should welcome with sincerity and joy, and be able to answer questions.
With so much talk about the peripheral pieces of the "Sunday Experience," Amazing Parish cautions readers/ parishes to keep their eyes on the prize: "the heart of the Sunday Experience is the Mass, and the heart of the Mass is the Liturgy. While everything on this site (amazingparish.org) 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." Amen!
Trait #5 is Compelling Formation. Children deserve and have a right to solid, age-appropriate formation and education in the faith. Amazing parishes provide this, not only for children and youth, and not only for sacrament preparation, but for all ages and stages. "People don't become disciples by accident, and not without provocation. An amazing parish will provide opportunities and programs to help parishioners know Christ personally, and share Him with others...."
Amazing Parish says we are "provoked" to discipleship. Interesting thought. The Church unequivocally tells us that faith formation must be lifelong. To help parishes fulfill this mandate, our archdiocese established an office for Lifelong Faith Formation and Parish Support. Church documents from Rome and from national conferences of bishops throughout the world stress that adult faith formation must be a priority in parish life. This does not mean that children are neglected. On the contrary, parishes must form and educate the next generation of Catholic adults and, just as important, attend to their spiritual development now, in their childhood and adolescent years. Compelling formation must be "both-and" youth and adults. An amazing parish recognizes its responsibility to assist all ages in their faith journey.
In addition to formal programs, study series, speakers, retreats, and missions, the parish teaches and forms people in the faith as intentional disciples by its day-to-day mode of being. To paraphrase an old saying, a parish doesn't have a faith formation curriculum, the parish IS the curriculum. Outreach to those in need -- economic, physical, or spiritual -- can convey a compelling "lesson" on the Works of Mercy. Mentoring young adults and young families, teaches what it means to be a member of a faith community. Amazing Parish mentions things such as concerts of Sacred Music, art exhibits, and movie with a message nights as formative activities. Many parishes in our archdiocese offer Soup and Stations during Lent, and this month, many parishes will hold a prayer vigil or Holy Hour for Life in solidarity with those who are at the March in Washington. All of these teach us and form us in living our faith.
Again we say, many parishes in this archdiocese are amazing and many more are working intentionally to become amazing.
SUSAN ABBOTT IS COORDINATOR OF PARISH OUTREACH FOR THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON'S OFFICE OF PASTORAL PLANNING.
Susan Abbott is the former Coordinator of Parish Outreach for the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Pastoral Planning.