He inspired me to attempt my own report on the Instruction, which I had already half begun to think about. Why? Because I’m finding the document hard to decode without some examples to apply it to.
Here is a copy of the Instruction in English, 27 x A4 pages in length:
Don’t worry, it isn’t as quite as much reading as that; the last 8 pages are references for footnotes.
I was part of a covenant community at the time they were applying to be recognized as an Association of Christ’s Faithful. Because of this experience, I understand the tensions between an organization that gathers and serves beyond a parish’s boundaries and the parishes where the members of that organization regularly worship.
I also understand, first hand, how it is possible to be members of more than one parish simultaneously, eg weekday parish vs weekend parish; the parish you go to when you are rostered on vs the parish you go to when you are not rostered on; the parish you go to for most things vs the parish you go to for confession; and in these pandemic times and in times of chronic ill health, the parish you live in vs the parish/es you visit for live-streamed Masses.
This would also be the case for those who belong to one of the Eastern rites of the Church, but who also attend the Latin rite. Ditto for those who attend a Traditional Latin Mass regularly but also attend Novos Ordo Masses. Then there are those who attend Masses as part of a national chaplaincy service (eg Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino etc) as well as local parish Masses. Similarly there would be members of the Anglican Ordinariate who from time to time would attend a local parish Mass or non-Ordinariate Mass when on holidays.
The Instruction begins by referencing Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium 27, and this Instruction could be considered a response to that papal challenge.
“I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with Himself.”
The traditional view of parish, in living memory, is situated in a specific geographical location and ministers to the people who inhabit that location, and where you would expect most people to be baptized, married and buried from the parish in that location. In modern society this lifetime identification with a single location is now more the exception than the rule.
It also makes building sustainable ministries quite difficult. A pastor of an inner city parish expressed the difficulty to me something like this: As an inner city parish he had lots of couples who had moved in to be close to work in the CBD, but by the time he had got to know them, they had received an interstate or international transfer with work, or had moved out of their apartments to a location in the suburbs more conducive to bringing up their first child or welcoming their second. The average length of stay of these couples was 3 years. By the time you got to know them, found a fit for their ministry passions and talents, within 6 months they were gone. When the ‘bricks’ keep on moving, it is hard to build anything.
In this context, section 9 of the Instruction makes sense:
9. As a living community of believers, the Parish finds itself in a context whereby the territorial affiliation is increasingly less evident, where places of association are multiplied and where interpersonal relationships risk being dissolved into a virtual world without any commitment or responsibility towards one’s neighbour.
Not all parishes and pastors are equal, and people do vote with their feet if it is convenient to do so. While parish leadership may consider parish loyalty a virtue, in reality many parents choose to attend the parish that has the greatest chance of engaging their children (children’s ministry, youth group, better than average preacher, better than average music, convenient time, ample parking) and adults go where they feel they are receiving the most spiritual nourishment even if they have to travel 30-50 mins away to do so. The concept of staying within the parish boundaries to receive sacramental ministry is quite foreign to many, especially those who don’t live in rural and outback locations.
I do know of current experiments where non-parish faith communities have been given permission to have chaplains and to administer sacraments to their members. What I can’t remember is whether that non-parish faith community was linked to a television-and-parish-mission ministry or whether it was linked to an ecumenical covenant community’s Catholic fellowship. Not that it matters too much, because I can see the logic in bringing someone into sacramental participation among the same people who evangelized them rather than sending them to his/her local parish where they have no personal connection. It also makes some degree of sense that if the person to be initiated into sacramental life has taken on the sense of mission and is growing in the charisms given to that non-parish faith community, then receiving the sacraments within that community will strengthen and support that vocation. Obviously, a non-parish faith community would have to be of substantial size to receive this kind of permission, and would have to demonstrate processes of keeping in communion with the universal church.
But we also live in an age of online communities and movements. Think of Bishop Barron and Word On Fire and of Fr James Mallon and Divine Renovation. It could be argued that they lead far more than the diocesan and parish responsibilities entrusted to them. With their online content, and offline content, they have attracted many people from across the globe who look to them for spiritual nourishment and who have formed online communities of shared faith.
It seems to me that if you are feeding God’s sheep, online or otherwise, and those sheep engage with you in a substantial way, eg sign up for email newsletters, follow on social media, participate in on-going online discussions (eg Alpha, Bible Study, mentorship, online training course, then you have ipso facto pastoral care for them until such time as they have been successfully integrated into an in-real-life parish community. It further seems to me that this Instruction is acknowledging that this pre-evangelism, evangelism, catechesis process is taking place outside the traditional parish model, and also giving it the green light to be explored and developed further.
At minimum, if by sharing the Word of God with people online or offline, we are feeding them, then we should also be praying for them consistently and regularly, even if we don’t yet know what their names are, nor where they live. And this applies as much to lay people and religious, as it does to those ordained to be pastors.
Here’s what the Instruction actually says:
14. With the Parish no longer being the primary gathering and social centre, as in former days, it is thus necessary to find new forms of accompaniment and closeness. A task of this kind ought not to be seen as a burden, but rather as a challenge to be embraced with enthusiasm.
16. The Parish territory is no longer a geographical space only, but also the context in which people express their lives in terms of relationships, reciprocal service and ancient traditions. It is in this “existential territory” where the challenges facing the Church in the midst of the community are played out.
18. Ecclesial membership in our present age is less a question of birthplace, much less where someone grew up, as it is about being part of a community by adoption, where the faithful have a more extensive experience of the Word of God than they do of being a body made up of many members, with everyone working for the common good.
These are some other excerpts that caught my attention
24. In these times, marked as they are by indifferentism, individualism and the exclusion of others, the rediscovery of brotherhood is paramount and integral to evangelisation, which is closely linked to human relationships.
25. A Parish must be a place that brings people together and fosters long-term personal relationships, thereby giving people a sense of belonging and being wanted.
27. The Code of Canon Law emphasises that the Parish is not identified as a building or a series of structures, but rather as a specific community of the faithful, where the Parish Priest is the proper pastor.
29. The Parish is a community gathered together by the Holy Spirit to announce the Word of God and bring new children of God to birth in the baptismal font.
I think these excerpts give us permission to think about parishes as groups of sheep under a shepherd, and to loosen our focus on parish buildings and sharpen them on relationships; relationships between pastor and parishioners, and between parishioners who are on a discipleship journey through pre-evangelisation through to missionary discipleship.
What a very different place/community our parishes would be if the commitment to building long term faith-sharing relationships was normal and had some primacy in our structures of accepted/cherished values!
The Instruction has to speak in terms that are universally applicable. It is possible that they had the concept of a personal parish in mind. If you want to know what that looks like in practice, read this article about this parish in Pittsburgh USA:
The team at Divine Renovation also did a 5 part video series discussing this document. It is worth watching/listening to.
Hopefully this link gets you to the playlist for the full 5 parts:
The Instruction also goes into some detail about what is, and isn’t, possible according to Canon Law, and the various ecclesial structures other than the traditional parish which are considered legitimate. That section takes some ploughing through, but it is useful information for everyone to be familiar with. Many of these non-traditional structures are quite common in places considered to be mission territory, and I recognized some of them from my studies in early Australian Catholic history and from conversations with a missionary priest resident in South America.
If God is bringing about something new and more pastorally effective in this post-Covid era, then the recommendation about putting new wine into new wine-skins applies. If the familiar structures are no longer suitable for the mission, then we need to be open to different structures, and to be willing to explore them, as the Holy Spirit leads. This Instruction functions as high octane motivation power to get that exploration and innovation started.
May God bless, protect and empower those who are called to take the permissions given in this Instruction seriously, and who called to be pioneers of the new things God wishes to come forth in this new era.
Our Lady, Queen of the Apostles, pray for us.