What only parish can teach

I never really wanted a parish job. But now that my work at St. Maria Goretti has come to a close, I'm so glad I spent six years in ministry at the parish level. There are many good memories and friendships I'll take with me -- and just as many lessons learned. I'm grateful to have been part of a parish pastoral team because doing so has convinced me that there are things about ministry that can be learned only in a parish. Here are just a few of the operating principles I've been privileged to observe at St. Maria's.

First, one spirituality does not fit all. Souls come in all shapes, sizes, and dispositions. While there may be only one Good Shepherd, there are as many leading graces as there are sheep to be led. That's why it is important to offer a broad variety of opportunities for spiritual growth. No matter how good a program or idea is, not everyone will be served by an hour of adoration, or a Christmas concert, a Lenten mission, or family stations of the cross.

Second, increased activity is not the same as an increase in sanctity. Filling the parish calendar with all kinds of events doesn't actually indicate that the people of the parish have a more active faith. On the contrary, it may be a sign that the staff lacks cohesive vision. Following Jesus, after all, isn't just another extracurricular.

Third, there is no substitute for good liturgy. No religious education, service, or faith formation program can replace good worship in calling people into the presence of God. By "good" liturgy, however, I don't mean entertaining or highbrow liturgy. I do mean praying prayers rather than reciting them; proclaiming Scripture rather than reading it; preaching the Gospel, rather than what some might consider a more relevant message; and ministering through music, rather than performing it. Worship lies at the heart of what it means to practice our faith in Christ. Mass is why every parish exists. When it comes down to it, we can do without everything else.

Fourth, there are always plenty of well-intentioned but impractical and sometimes even wrong-headed new ideas. Parishes don't need to do something new, as much as they need to do the simple things well. We ought to focus ourselves on addressing real pastoral needs, not fulfilling imaginary pastoral pipe dreams.

Fifth, people are always better than programs. There are all kinds of programs for catechesis, prayer, faith formation, and renewal. Ultimately, though, no one's life is changed by a program. Many lives, though, have been changed by personal connection, personal witness, and personal relationships. Saints make saints and disciples make disciples. God sends people, not programs, into the world.

Sixth, if half of life is showing up, 90 percent of the spiritual life is giving up. That applies to ministerial service as well. Good ministry is a living witness to what it means to offer one's life as a sacrifice of praise. It means giving up our plans, our hopes, our best ideas for the sake of the work God is doing in a specific time and place. We can waste energy griping, or we can pledge ourselves to the kind of unity that is a foretaste of eternal communion. That kind of unity demands complete surrender, the kind that doesn't fit into the parameters of a part time -- or even full time -- job.

Seventh, people need priests. As a trained lay minister, I know that there are things I can do but shouldn't unless there is no other option. I can stand with a parishioner at the bedside of a dying family member, I can visit the sick with Holy Communion, but I cannot really take the place of a priest. It isn't because lay people aren't competent. It is because God gave us pastors for a reason. We need them, and in deeply challenging circumstances of life, most of us want them.

Eighth, nothing teaches the faith better than practicing it. Learning about a God who is distant, or about a faith that is largely unobserved, quickly becomes dull and uninteresting. On the other hand, if we encounter God personally, we will look for ways to learn more about him. It is critical to communicate to our people that knowing about God isn't the same as knowing God; and knowing about our faith doesn't mean we are living it.

Finally, as hokey as it sounds, what the world needs now really is love. When you minister to people and with them, you are called above all to love them. That doesn't mean that you won't get irritated. It does mean that you will dedicate yourself to doing whatever it takes to reach them when they aren't listening, or find them when they don't even know they are lost. Early Christians were known by the love they had for one another, and all Christians will be judged by the quality of that love.

Parish is where most Catholics can be found. It is the place where sinners find forgiveness and aspiring saints find strength. It is also the place where sinners and saints find one another. In parish we learn how God works, how God serves, how God loves, and how God makes his house a lasting home for every one of us. You can certainly serve God anywhere, and should; but there are some things that only parish can teach.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.

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