By Bishop W. Shawn McKnight
It’s summer, and for some it’s a time of vacation and relaxation.
For our pastors and parish pastoral councils, it’s a time to gather the discernment of parishioners and develop their parish pastoral plan.
All parishes will be submitting a pastoral plan to me by July 31.
These plans are being built from the input of parishioners, specifically from those who participated in the faith-sharing groups in the weeks leading up to Easter and Pentecost.
That process, known simply as “Better Together,” focused on three ways our parishes can fulfill our Catholic Christian mission of witness and service to the Gospel: deepening their ability to engage in charity and mercy, embracing a stewardship spirituality, and empowering an understanding of the co-responsibility of laity and clergy in this effort.
As Pope Francis wrote in “Evangelii Gaudium,” “The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be ‘the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.’” (No. 28)
While all three of these pillars are necessary for a thriving parish, empowering an understanding of the co-responsibility of laity and clergy is perhaps the most challenging concept to understand.
Yet, we can recognize it if we see it.
John Cavadini, director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, tells us the word “co-responsibility” was first used by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Dr. Cavadini writes that the phrase appears “in two scantly publicized speeches of Benedict XVI. He delivered the first on May 26, 2009, speaking as the local bishop in his cathedral, the Lateran Basilica of St. John, his address to the Pastoral Convention of the Diocese of Rome, entitled ‘Co-responsible for the Church’s Being and Action,’ with the subtitle ‘Church Membership and Pastoral Co-responsibility.’ The second echoed this earlier speech. He delivered it in 2012 on the occasion of the 6th Ordinary Assembly of the International Forum of Catholic Action.”
While the word may be new, the concept is integral to Church teachings, especially the documents of renewal that were published in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council.
The responsibility of the laity, alongside clergy, to participate in the “being and acting of the Church” (Pope Benedict) is found in the Scriptures and early Church teachings.
Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, along with others, tell us this understanding of Church runs counter to clericalism, which can be defined as an understanding that the clergy alone are the Church.
Or, as Pope Benedict writes, clericalism is the “tendency to identify the Church unilaterally with the hierarchy, forgetting the common responsibility, the common mission of the People of God, which, in Christ, we all share” (2009).
On the other hand, co-responsibility does not mean “everyone” is responsible for everything. Each person, according to their state in life and by virtue of their baptism, talents and position, has a unique role in the common mission of the Church.
Our parish leadership and management, especially the pastor and the pastoral and finance councils, have the responsibility of setting the culture for the parish and discerning its current state. This becomes defined in a parish’s pastoral plan.
A pastoral plan answers four essential questions:
Who are we together?
Where are we going?
Where are we not going?
Have we got what we need to get there?
The pastoral plan provides a means for the parish to organize itself.
With a plan — a vision for how the parish can be “the presence of Christ in a given territory” (Pope Francis) — parishioners can decide together how to get the right people, the best systems, sustainable funding and the structure to execute the plan – while monitoring progress and celebrating successes.
But what does this really look like?
Many of our parishes found themselves needing to pivot quickly after the pandemic required them to cease public gatherings, including publicly celebrated Masses.
In some instances, parishioners came together (via video conferencing, of course!) to determine that the most important thing they could do was to reach out to fellow parishioners.
They did this for three reasons: to maintain a sense of community, to check if they needed anything, and to inquire if there were others in the community who could use help.
In other parishes, parish members have been providing food, transportation and health care products to families especially hard hit by COVID-19.
Sometimes, this means assessing where the resources are and matching them with the needs, such as one week when the California food pantry was overflowing with groceries, while a neighborhood in Marshall was in great need.
These efforts occured under the pastor’s headship, but the implementation required minimal “hands on” from Father. Rather, instead of micromanaging, he encourages these parishioners to accomplish these acts of solidarity in an organized and coordinated manner.
As a result, their efforts to help people remain “in communion,” despite not being able to celebrate the Eucharist together, may very well be the most important reason why their communities will emerge from the pandemic as “the presence of Christ.”
How do we recognize co-responsibility? Perhaps it starts by looking in the mirror.
Yes, it’s me and you!