Fr. Gregory over at Koinonia has posted these great, thought-provoking notes from a retreat he recently gave. He is speaking from an Orthodox perspective (Orthodox parishes are unbelievably tiny by our standards - so they can commit suicide quite literally) but so true to my experience around the Catholic world.
Fr. Ted Bobosh, the priest of St. Paul the Apostle Church (OCA) in Dayton, OH, has a very helpful way of thinking about the parish. In a blog post, "Seeking Christ: The Parish as Crowd," he begins by observing that:
Every parish gathering is a time for people to come to be near Christ. As in the Gospels, people came to Christ for all kinds of reasons - some to hear Him, some to see Him, some to oppose Him, some to touch Him, some to be healed, some to be fed, some to trap Him or trick Him, some to be His disciples, some out of curiosity, and some out of animosity, some in hope, some in despair, some to debate Him, some to stop Him, some to be comforted by Him, some to learn from Him, some to be praised by Him, some just to touch the hem of His garment and some to be glorified by Him. Whatever the reason, they came and crowded around Christ - friend, foe, follower. And He allowed it. He didn't chase away the curious or the hostile, the needy or the greedy, the hungry or those full of themselves. And just as the bishop notes in Leskov's novel On the Edge of the World, some really do just want to touch the hem of His garment and not become His disciples or his ambassadors. He welcomes them all blessing some, bantering with others, shepherding and being lamb, teacher and foil, giver of light and lightening rod.
As I have thought about this, and especially as I have thought about this in light of our conversations here, I have come to see the value of Fr Ted's observation.
During His earthly ministry, the vast majority of the human community was unaware of the events happening in Israel. Of those who may have had some awareness, most were indifferent. Of those who weren't indifferent, some were hostile, some were believers, but the vast majority were somewhere in the middle.
And even among those who were followers of Jesus Christ, there were two different groups: disciples and apostles—an outer circle and inner circle of believers. We can draw from the Gospel a typology of the Church that lets us see three concentric circles of believers: the crowd (who are the vast majority), the disciples (who were once part of the crowd but now have drawn closer to Jesus Christ as students who form their lives around Him and His teaching) and the apostles (those disciples who have said yes to a personal call to be ambassadors of Christ).
But again, we need to keep in mind that at any given moment, the majority of parishioners are going to be members of the crowd. These men and women are not—at least not yet—disciples, much less apostles, of Christ. This does not preclude them from the life of the Church, from her liturgical life or the sacraments.
As with the crowds who surround Jesus in the Gospels, they have their own motivation for coming Liturgy on Sunday, for receiving Holy Communion, baptizing their children, for having their marriages blessed, and it is important that we not put any obstacles in their way. The temptation of disciples and apostles is to send the crowds away, to leave them to their own devise, and to refuse to feed them from the bounty they have received from Christ. When they do this, when they drive away the crowds (whether passively or actively, by word or deed), the disciples and apostles fail in their own obligation.
This then raises a question: What is the obligation of the disciples and apostles to the crowd?
The task, the vocation of disciples and apostles, relative to the crowd is to invite the men and women in the crowd to become themselves disciples. This is hard work and work that is often met with frustration. But it is essential that those who are disciples and apostles within the Church understand that they are no more or less members of the Body of Christ then are those who are in the crowd. And just as those in all three groups are equally members of the Body of Christ, so to they are members of one another and they need one and other.
Events such as this one, retreats, workshops, pilgrimages, visits to monastic communities, adult education classes, preaching that has as its goal the spiritual formation of those who listen, all of these things need to be supported in the parish by those who are disciples and apostles. And they must encourage—and even make possible—the participation of those who are members of the crowd in these and other events that have as their goal awakening people to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Where we usually go wrong in the parish, is in one of two ways. First, and this is more the shortcoming of converts and communities in which converts are prominent, we want to exclude the men and women who are in the crowd. When I was first ordained, I did damage I think to people because I wanted a parish of all disciples and apostles. While this might seem a noble goal I wanted to be more successful than Jesus.
The second mistake that we often make is that we fail to distinguish the different groups within the parish. At the risk of being offensive, we cannot entrust leadership positions in the parish or the diocese, to the crowds. Discipleship is the prerequisite for any leadership position in the Church. Members of the crowd are certainly member of the Body of Christ, but they can't serve as parish or diocesan council members or church school teachers. Those who are not disciples, can't undertake the apostolic works of outreach and evangelism. And they cannot be seminarians and they certainly can't be ordained into the clergy.
Unfortunately, this is often what does happen. We are often so concerned to get volunteers, that we entrust leadership roles to those who are themselves not disciples of Christ. Doing this is it any wonder that we have some of the problems we have in the Church?
Let me conclude by encouraging you to take seriously the necessity of a personal commitment to Christ. And let me encourage you, no, better yet, let me beg you, to support your priest in his limiting leadership roles in the parish to those who have demonstrated by the integrity of their lives, their commitment to the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, their stewardship of time, talent and treasure and their life of philanthropic involvement to others (whether inside and outside the Church), their commitment to Christ.
Leadership in the Church cannot be simply a matter of functional skills, much less a popularity contest or a frantic attempt to fill slots. Christian leadership is the fruit of a personal commitment not only to Christ and His Church, but also to the poor and all those who the world deems marginal and even useless.
I often hear from people that their parish is dying. And every time I've heard this, and heard the reasons why this is so, I have also seen possibilities for life and growth that people simply weren't taking. Parishes, I have concluded, don't die. They commit suicide.
The Way of Life for our community, your community, is by embracing all who are members of Christ, not only those who are disciples and apostles, but also those in the crowd. But not only this. We must understand that Christ has called to serve as leaders in the Church only those who are disciples. Having said this, though, we must remember that those who see themselves as disciples, as leaders—whether lay or clergy—must never tire of inviting, encouraging and sustaining those in the crowd to become disciples.