Is the parish still capable of fulfilling its mission today or are its days numbered? Has it degenerated into a “spiritual gasoline station” so that many of us approach the parish only to “fill-up” a certain spiritual void or to attend a religious and social function?
We are all in one way or another related to a parish; even if we are not a Catholic, or the things of the Church don’t concern us as members of another Christian or ecclesial community, or of a religious movement or association. Sooner or later we will come in contact with a parish, maybe when attending a friend’s wedding or a child’s baptism or the funeral of a relative. The parish is already part of Filipino culture.
During the time of Jesus there was not even a parish, so why talk about it? The fact is and we have come to know how Christians who lived the words of Jesus spread rapidly during the first centuries of Christianity giving rise to small but very active communities. We learn from the Acts of the Apostles that these communities placed everything in common—sharing goods, services and their faith; a bishop was responsible for their well-being and he was assisted by a council of presbyters and deacons, who provided for the needs of widows and the poor, often from their own resources. The leaders of the community then spread the teachings of the Apostles by both word and example, living in such a way that non-Christians around them exclaimed: “See how they love one another”. Even persecutions were unable to break up those communities. Those communities were all quite independent yet bound closely together by a common faith, and they often helped one another. At first they were called churches: like the church of Rome, of Carthage, and of Smyrna etc. Then the word “parish” came about to describe the local church organised around the bishop.
What is its real origin and model?
A true Christian community with its own internal dynamics originates not because of any external end or purpose however good it be, but from its members’ free decision to love one another as Christ loves them- it is the love that is practiced eternally by the Trinity. Its origin is then heavenly: as in the life of the Holy Trinity who is the model for Christian love. If we could all help one another live like this, similar to the life of the Trinity, we can become one in charity, wherever we are in our particular locality. The internal divine dynamics of the Holy Trinity (theologians call it as pericoresis) lies in the three persons loving one another infinitely. Jesus, the second person of the Divine Trinity brought this life of heaven down to earth through His incarnation, revealing to us concretely through his person, his words and actions how to live the life of the Holy Trinity. In fact, before He died, he left us the Eucharist, and through his new commandment put into practise, he made it possible for humanity to live on earth as in heaven. This Trinitarian life is the model and the source of true Christian community and it finds it’s concrete expression in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is also at the same time Christ’s sacramental memorial of the giving of his life for us, an eschatological sign of what is to come.
A community of pilgrims
The term “parish” comes from the Greek word paroika, which means “to live with”. A person who “lives with” somebody is not a permanent resident, but a person on a journey. Abraham, an exile in Egypt, was a paroikos, a foreigner, one who was away from his homeland, and resided elsewhere. During the time of persecutions, that’s exactly how Christians viewed themselves, as foreigners in pagan cities, inhabitants of this world, on their way to their real homeland which is heaven.
So the “parish” means “provisional residence”, “temporary dwelling”, and is in fact for the Christian, a transient community. St. Paul affirmed: “…here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come”. The word parish therefore reminds us that we are a community of pilgrims, who travelling together towards the true homeland–Heaven, and we help one another to get there.
A community of communion
The new Code of Canon Law defines the parish as “a community of the faithful”. Some authors say that this word “community” derives from the Latin word “communus:” to put together one’s gifts. The parish therefore is a community where the sharing of goods and talents is lived, and where this communion is offered to the world as its well-spring.
In fact “the original vocation and mission” of the parish is “to be a place of communion of believers in the world, and also a sign and an instrument of the vocation of all to communion”. The parish is a community, as in a family, where goods are circulated: everyone places in common his abilities, people live for one other, each one helps the other and there is mutual love among all.
If we ask: who makes an authentic Christian community? It is not only you and me, nor only the parish priest or his assistant/s, not the parish council, not even the ecclesial movements, Basic Ecclesial Communities, nor any religious association – but it is Jesus Himself, His words when we put them all concretely into practice. The radical foundation and cause of true communities in the parish is none other than the words of Jesus lived concretely where persons become similar to Him. Now since Jesus is one, through Him and in Him, all the faithful can become and grow into an authentic Christian community in a locality. St. John Paul II when he was still pope explained how the parish originates when persons live concretely the words of Jesus.
This year, in a special way, each person, family, and association, all movements, groups, and priests are called and invited to live like this. This is not something added on the church but, we could say, that it is the very DNA of the church: Charity in Trinity; diverse and distinct communities but one in charity – unity in diversity – a communion of communities. In this way, the universal Church cannot be just the sum of the particular Churches, or a federation of particular Churches. Whoever belongs to one particular Church belongs to all the Churches; since our belonging to the Communion, like belonging to the Church, is never simply a particular fact, but is by its very nature always a universal one (cfr. Lumen Gentium, 13).
We, Christians, men and women of good will, must provide a place where such communion is possible, where the presence of God, in those who love one another, is accessible and relevant to modern men and women, where the civilisation of love is not something one just talks or dreams about, but is lived out in everyday life. This place is the “oasis”, or simply the parish.
This is an invitation facing us all today in order to give to the world the God whom it seeks, and in order to give a soul to the structures of our parishes which are losing their attraction by forfeiting their own identity, vocation and mission. They have to rediscover themselves as authentic Christian communities – this is the challenge that you and I are called to offer, to give our contribution to our parishes today.
Fr. Am Mijares, Ph.D