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Co-workers conference explores 'Building the Life of a Parish'

Participants sing a closing song at the April 4 Co-Workers in the Vineyard Conference for pastoral workers and clergy held at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton. Pilot photo/Christopher S. Pineo

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NEWTON -- Lay pastoral workers and clergy of the Archdiocese of Boston gathered to discuss the life of the parish in the new evangelization during the 7th annual Co-Workers in the Vineyard Conference, held April 4 at Our Lady Help of Christians Parish in Newton.

The Theological Institute for the New Evangelization's Master of Arts in Ministry Program, Saint John's Seminary, and Our Sunday Visitor Institute cosponsored the event themed "Building the Life of a Parish."

During the day-long gathering attendees heard from a pair of Catholic authors on fortifying parish life, discussed new realities of parish collaborative life with a group of panelists, and received an update on the progress of the archdiocesan pastoral plan "Disciples in Mission" from Father Paul Soper, director of the Office of Pastoral Planning.

In his remarks, Father Soper gave an update on the implementation of the pastoral plan, and how it fits into the new evangelization -- which he said he could summarize in 20 words.

"Parish-based evangelization works, and we can train for it, but we need strong parishes in order to do so," he said.

The plan calls for collaboratives to share not only common pastors, but also pastoral teams, parish staffs, parish finance councils and pastoral councils. The archdiocesan plan organizes its 288 parishes into approximately 135 parish collaboratives.

"'Disciples in Mission' calls every parish -- notice I say there parish not collaborative -- calls every parish of the Archdiocese of Boston to be a strong, stable, effective, and intentional center of evangelization," Father Soper said.

The first phase of the pastoral plan grouped parishes into collaboratives with pastors assigned to each group in June 2013, and training began recently for pastors in the second phase of the plan.

He said moving forward the plan will continue to provide training to help staff in collaborative parishes, but also stress that the responsibility for evangelization lies with individuals.

"It's not a program. A program can unlock evangelization, a program can open opportunities for evangelization, a program can create structures to ensure that evangelization happens, but evangelization is always one-on-one," Father Soper said.

A panel of pastoral staff from first-phase collaboratives shared their experiences in collaborative ministry in a discussion with conference-goers.

The panel included Father Paul E. Ritt, pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Maria Goretti in Lynnfield; Obed Blaise, finance and operations manager at a collaborative in Salem; Donna Delahanty, director of ministries at a collaborative in Lynnfield; and Rachel Keeler, a pastoral associate at a collaborative in Belmont.

Father Ritt said making the collaborative ministry work can be difficult on an interpersonal level, dealing with staffing issues, personality issues, and even some resistance to new needs.

He offered two pieces of advice for parish leaders as the process unfolds.

"Be patient and be resolute. Be patient. Not everything is going to work as you like. Not everything will be received well, with applause and positive reactions, but if we are resolute and focused in on the mission, it seems to me, you will get where the Lord wants us to be," he said.

Keeler said being part of a collaborative parish team made her aware of two essentials in building parish life in collaborative ministry.

"The first, is that we have to be really open to the new things that God is doing in our midst, and the second is that we have to be deeply convinced that the work that we are about is God's work," she said.

Keynote speakers Father Michael White and Tom Corcoran, authors of "Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter," shared their vision of how churches can make the Mass relevant for Catholics and bring people back to the pews.

"Your parish is a neighborhood, however compact or far-flung. Your parish is essentially a neighborhood, and your neighborhood is where you join the Lord in building a movement at the table of God in our generation," Father White said.

Corcoran spoke about how building up the neighborhood can be accomplished. He attacked the idea that Church outreach can either satisfy existing members or reach new people, but not both.

"Nothing could be further from the truth. They are two sides of the same coin. When people ... follow Jesus and fall in love with Jesus, they naturally bring other people into a relationship with him," Corcoran said.

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