WHERE DOES THE stagnant parish turn for a spiritual kickstart? When development has drifted into maintenance, numbers at Sunday Mass have dropped off, the SVP and parish prayer group disbanded through apathy, the obvious course of action is to consider external help.
Today's trouble-shooters of the pulpit are not liable to come from the ubiquitous head office of the Bishop's House, but more likely from outside the diocese. Aside from a small number of dedicated religious orders such as the Redemptorists, the Catholic Missionary Society (CMS) is perhaps the best-equipped outfit to bring in when the going gets tepid.
Fr David, parish priest of an east coast church, is about to hold a parish mission to offer such a kickstart. He has turned to the CMS, believing that its team members, as diocesan priests who have served in parishes themselves, as best equipped to know the needs of churchgoers in modern society. "You can catch the spirituality of a religious order, but you sometimes need to capture the spirituality of a busy world which is where most of my parishioners are," he says.
In the 1990s the parish mission has become a more sophisticated beast. The faithful no longer need (or would welcome) a Catholic timemanagement study that will preach hellfire and brimstone at them in order to foster regular attendance of the sacraments.
Although a mission does involve some for f recogni tion of the wid ighbour hood, a bodyco of converts is not unlike the efforts of more evangelical brothers and sisters the primaryTaim.
Rather the thinking is that the parishioners themselves would be best suited to reflecting Christianity in their local town or village. A mission team, like the CMS, sees its role as laying down a solid foundation for the spiritual regeneration of the parish from where it can subsequently turn to the outside world. Missioners today will, if you like, help a parish mission team write
up God's business plan for them over the next few years.
A different mission demands a different approach. Rather than the eight-strong CMS team headed by new director Fr Paul Billington setting the agenda, parishes are encouraged to talk through how to overcome their problems and weaknesses, while not losing sight of the strengths they already possess.
Taking a further tip from the sophistication of the business world where residential training conferences have become an increasing norm, the CMS has launched in the past 18 months its own in-house overnight stay for parish members about to embark on a mission.
Three or four parishes at a time attend these "overnights" at the CMS's north London headquarters, about a year before the mission week itself. Some are just represented by the parish priest, others bring a mixed team of clergy, nuns and laity. Frequently the CMS team will have a geographical and demographic mix to allow participants the chance to see that problems are more often than not replicated elsewhere. Such an atmosphere encourages a surprising candour.
Growing materialism, lone-, liness of elderly parishioners, a lack of spiritual direction, unemployment and drugs: the barriers to parish growth frequently repeat themselves across the country.
Sometimes an enthusiastic priest will be at a loss as to how to encourage people beyond the Sunday Mass-onlysyndrome. "1 call them the frustrating fringe," says Fr Kieran, whose parish is preparing for a mission. "They come to Mass, and we should be grateful for that, but it is very hard to find anything else for them to be involved in." Other clergy, arriving at a new parish with a new agenda will often discover a similar reluctance to develop. Fr George, a parish priest from Lancashire, says: "I was sent in to change things slowly, but that causes resentments. Then, there is a fragmentation between parishioners."
CMS members have found the "overnight" experiment a crucial step in the success of mission preparations. By taking clergy and active laity out of the parish setting for a day or two, they are able to sit back and view the situation more objectively. Fr Billington takes up the tale, explaining that the stay allows both sides to come to a better understanding of the mission's aims.
"It allows more time to assimilate what is going on, if nothing else it takes priests out of day to day telephone calls and disturbances and At to grips with the complex
demands of a mission. We can't have a cottage industry approach to the Church, we need to be more professional," he says. Such professionalism creeps into the whole approach. Take for example one priest's view of publicity for a mission: "Posters and information should be as good as possible because you are in competition with Heinz Beans for the attention of your audience," he said, "You have to publicise everywhere one parish I know stuck a poster in a field outside town and attracted a lapsed family who saw it during a picnic."
So what do parishes want the mission to achieve? Fr David outlines some of the early aims for his parish mission: reaching out to the lapsed, awareness by older churchgoers of young people, a growth in prayer and spirituality, as well as social action. "I would hope to see a new awareness of the universality of the Church, extending beyond the parish to the diocese and the outside world," he said.
As chaplain to his town's sea port, he is particularly keen to increase the parish's awareness of the ministry to seafarers, especially foreign Catholics staying in a strange town.
Lay people, especially those given some sort of responsibility, often flourish in the process. lan, a lay member of a parish team, explains: "I got to the stage where I wanted to deepen my faith. My parents were Catholic, I went to a Catholic school, but my wife is a convert and probably knows more than me! This has been a good opportunity to rectify that."
If individual parishes have long benefitted from this expertise, whole dioceses are now starting to turn to the CMS for guidance as consultants for diocesan-wide reviews. Hexham and Newcastle, and Plymouth have called in the team in recent years, and now the new director is keen to develop the service. "We are about the re-enlivening of the Church at every level," says Fr Billington.
Some of the names in this article
have been changed.