Great Catholic Parishes

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Review of William E. Simon's "Great Catholic Parishes: A Living Mosaic." Ave Maria Press, 2016. 224 pages. $17.95.

The thing I like best about the Catholic Church is how it breaks right through illusions. It does not promise us a rose garden. It promises us a life of suffering and taking up the Cross. It teaches us to turn evil into good, with grace and guts. “Look up at the Crucifix,” it says. “That’s what God did to His own son. Think he will be softer on you?” It is Freud who always struck me as living under illusions.

Why describe “great” parishes? The parish is where we Catholics kneel in front of the Crucifix. The Catholic faith, contrary to common opinion, is not a moral code or a list of beliefs. It is a life to be lived, Christ’s life. That means a lot of suffering but, hovering over it, an unmatched joy. (If you haven’t experienced this, ask doctors you know: Who, empirically, endures suffering more patiently, faces death more calmly, and finds more meaning in life— Catholics and other believers, or those without any faith at all?)

The parish is where we most directly meet Christ as a community. There we are one with the poor first apostles, the long lists of martyrs, the builders of the West from the ruins of Greece and Rome, and from all previous times, universally. Parish life is mostly humble and prosaic, partially laden with administrative details. But it is also where day by day, week by week, we meditate together on the stories of Christ’s daily life as told through the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. We struggle to find how to live.

You will find some 17,000 Catholic parishes across the U.S. in farm communities, suburbs, and all sorts of city neighborhoods. In some ways, the Catholic parish is the most egalitarian of all Western institutions. It brings together people of all professions, occupations, social classes, and races. Within it—before God’s judgment seat—the poorest woman has equal rank with the highest archbishop. The Catholic parish is, in fact, the birthplace of the dream of equality in Western civilization. Greek and Roman culture did not believe in equality.

By soliciting advice in all regions of the country and by conducting visitations, William E. Simon Jr. and his researchers chose 244 of the greatest parishes among us. His researchers then conducted rigorous interviews, asking his respondents, “What makes a Catholic parish ‘great’?” An unprecedentedly high percentage spoke of four distinguishing marks.

First, great parishes distribute leadership. The great parish is not a one-man show led by its pastor and fellow priests. Maintaining a large staff of laypersons and bringing in professionals of many different fields of expertise is good in itself, and also one way of dealing with the shortage of priests experienced in recent decades. Shared leadership is not learned all at once; it faces many initial obstacles, mistakes, and failures. All these issues are treated—Mr. Simon’s book is nothing if not practical.

Second, the most important thing a parish does is to foster in its parishioners a life more like Christ’s. Without this work of “putting on Jesus Christ,” becoming more like him every week, a Catholic parish is actually pointless.

In the beginning, there are in every parish greatly underutilized assets, sleep-walkers, fence sitters, and both oversharing extroverts and strangers who do not yet emotionally trust each other. There are proven, practical ways for making communities one in prayer, and in growing and working together.

Third, every Sunday marks a dramatic beginning at the Catholic Mass: a living through of the way of the Cross and the Crucifixion. While this may be the apex of parish life, it should be continuous with other engagement throughout the week. Parishioners should be drawn into parish life by an engaged online presence and by distinctive architecture, by a warm welcome and the presence of the pastor there at the door. At the end of the Mass, all should be primed with some practical resolutions, projects, weekly reflections, and takeaways.

At Mass, a host of obstacles must be overcome: not least, the American habits of busyness, high efficiency without quiet, contemplative prayer. Today, these obstacles include the invisible poison gas of relativism in the American air, which has by now infected even 11-year-olds. Yes, you can hear even 11-year-olds saying it is sheer bigotry to announce that one thing is good and another thing evil. “Everybody has a right to decide what they think is good and bad.” (These little ones have no idea that they are mouthing justifications for every abuse of human rights when they say that everything is relative. Under relativism, the strongest will dictate what can be done and not a peep is effective against them.)

Fourth, great parishes are not inward-turning. They do not stop after the hour of worship or inside the Church door. Christianity is not a one-hour-a-week vocation, but a way of life. It is a missionary vocation that demands constantly going outward.

The Catholic parish is also the first of all global institutions. “Go teach all nations” was Jesus’ challenge. Not just one nation, or one continent, or one race. More and more parishes are adopting “sister parishes” in South America, Africa, and even Asia. Many of our priests these days come from these parts of the world, and we send many lay people to help out parishes in other lands.

Great parishes are global. The Catholic Church today is larger than ever, at least 1.2 billion parishioners and growing rapidly, especially in China and Africa. We are all in this together. It is a joyful time. And a time that must also be darn practical.

Michael Novak recently received the Lincoln Literary Award of the Union League Club of New York, an honor bestowed on several other “outstanding American authors,” including James Michener, John Updike, David McCullough, Neil Simon, and Henry Kissinger.

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