The Personalist Project

Let's suppose our parish had had a mature and well-functioning lay association of the faithful when the Covid crisis hit. What might have been different?

By mature and well-functioning, I mean one that comprises the large majority of active parish members, who (thanks to it) know one another and relate to each other regularly in all manner of extra-liturgical capacities. Members know who their elected leaders are and how to reach them. They have at least a general idea of who has what resources and abilities. (This couple has a large farm that can be used for open air gatherings; that woman runs the food pantry; Maria is practically the matriarch of the entire hispanic community among us; Bob, who heads the hospital ministry, knows who's sick; there are at least several doctors in the parish, a number of lawyers, and various people who work in local government. Joe is a wiz at data analysis. The in-house web guru can easily set up a new page at our site for Corona-related news and information...) The association has legal recognition, a governing structure, a bank account and budget, and handy vehicles of communication. Maybe it even has a building with offices and meeting rooms both large and small.

Think how much better prepared such an association would be to meet the needs of the local community in a pandemic than the newly-installed Archbishop in the city an hour's drive away, or the local pastor for that matter. He's maxed-out trying to figure out how to live-stream masses, get the sacraments to the dying without spreading the disease, field complaints, keep up with and implement diocesan mandates for sanitizing the facilities, etc. He has no time for anything else.

The potential of the association, though, is boundless. Here are some things it might have been able to do:

1) Post up-to-the-minute information about how many cases of the disease are in the parish, helping us all understand whether what measure and policies we might need to adopt are about containment or prevention.

2) Have a website platform for identifying concrete needs in our community: who's sick; who's out of work; who's grieving; how many of us are in the vulnerable category?

3) Coordinate ways of meeting those needs. For instance, the association's building might serve as a temporarily warehouse for dropping off and distributing key supplies. Its kitchen might ramp up its free meal service. With many members temporarily out of work, new modes of volunteering can burgeon: Zoom English lessons, for instance. A prayer ministry. Or a phone ministry for keeping in touch with people who are suffering from loneliness and fear and isolation.

4) Establish a committee to work with the priest and to propose ways of getting the Sacraments to people without violating government mandates. Open air masses maybe, or private masses in the meeting center with a rotating list of attendees, so we don't violate social distancing mandates and the diocese won't be legally liable if an outbreak occurs.

5) Establish a committee for outreach to the wider community: offering prayer, food, errand-running service for shut-ins, ways of bringing cheer to those cut off in nursing homes, etc.

6) Have an online forum for raising concerns, offering suggestions, debating issues, etc. Create a web page for sharing testimonies of God's work among us, of answered prayers, of spiritual resources...

The list could be extended infinitely, because the gifts, charisms, ingenuity, creativity and generosity of the faithful are infinite. But they have to be unleashed, and they have to be recognized, gathered, organized, and channelled, if they're to be experienced and effective.

I could write about how this imaginative picture contrasts with the awfulness of the status quo, but readers know that already from their own experience.

Comments (9)


#1, Jul 19, 2020 4:44pm

I regret that it's taken me so long to get around to reading this. It is a beautiful vision, and full of ideas of practical value. You'll forgive me, I hope, if I don't prose on in response now: I must think about this for a while.

It would require a great upset of my own habits etc, I know that. I go to the parish church to hear H. Mass (but confess elsewhere)-- which verb I use in a sort of self-mocking way because I cannot abide the liturgical and musical pabulum on offer-- and contribute toward the budget as best I can but don't otherwise participate in parish life beyond the occasional special event.

Being now retired, am attempting to decide whether I can move to another city (and whether it would be prudent to move to another city) where is a parish that celebrates the Liturgy in a more fitting way.

Much food for thought in your post. Pax et bonum!

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jul 20, 2020 9:09am

Marc, you are not alone. I think many of us conservatives have sort of checked out of parish life. We go for the sacraments, and that's it. We hate the degradation of the sense of the sacred; we abhor the aesthetics. Not infrequently the homilies are banal, if not heterodox. Personally, I'm often oppressed by the feeling that many priests might as well have a neon "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT" sign flashing on their foreheads. I get mad about the rank clericalism, the paternalism from the priests, the passivity of the laity...

Then there's another subset of Catholics: those with experience among evangelicals. (I count myself in this category too.) They are scandalized by the apparent lack of living faith among their fellow parishioners and by the lack of community. It's weird and demoralizing.

Anyway, I sincerely believe lay associations of the faithful are the answer to all these problems, as I've been trying to say for two years now.

Just think how easy it would be for those in the parish who love sacred music and who have training can find each other and start a chant choir, for instance. 

We are suffering now as a body of believers, because, basically, we lack communal bodilyness.

Rhett Segall

#3, Jul 20, 2020 9:25am

Katie you opine:

"Just think how easy it would be for those in the parish who love sacred music and who have training can find each other and start a chant choir, for instance."

The choir will argue, some will go to the pastor for judgements, the congregants who want simple hymns will complain.

I'm afraid the cliche is accurate: "The Church is not a democracy." This doesn't mean it's a dictatorship. Let's argue (constructively) our perspectives. But let's remember Socrates' dictum that DvH so often reminded us of: "It's better to suffer injustice than cause it."

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jul 20, 2020 9:46am

Rhett, who's proposing injustice?!

Have we no such thing in our experience as functioning clubs and associations? Clubs and associations that don't fall apart through infighting?  

Have we nothing in human experience but democracy and dictatorship? What about family? What about marriage? What about 12-step programs? What about Knights of Columbus? What about the local bowling league? What about business partnerships? What about representative government with checks and balances? 

"The Church is not a democracy" is, sorry to be blunt, an empty assertion in the context, as I tried to show in a recent critique of a Bishop Barron homily.

No one claims that it's the democracy, nor I am proposing that it become one. 

Rather, I'm proposing that the laity organize themselves for the sake of taking up their actual, God-given, Scriputral, historically-precedented, and Canon-law affirmed responsibility for the Church in their local communities.

The model you seem implicitly to be defending, whereby (as in the status quo) only the parish priest has decision-making power is, as I've been arguing for two years, against the dignity of the person and against the teaching of the Church.

It's also against the personal witness of Dietrich von Hildebrand.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jul 20, 2020 9:55am

About the chant choir:

Why would anyone go to the pastor? What has he got to do with a group of parishioners forming a choir? His opinion would only be relevant if the choir, as a group, wanted to use the church and/or sing in one of its liturgies. 

And why would a choir who can agree with itself enough to stay together want that?

Or maybe the pastor himself would like to join the choir, since he loves chant and has a beautiful singing voice. If he did, I'm sure he'd be welcome. And then he'd have a vote in the affairs of the choir just like every other member. 

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 20, 2020 10:00am

A pastor is responsible for the integrity of the liturgies in his church. Therefore, he will naturally have terms, established in accord with the local ordinary, for liturgical music.

Any group of parishioners who wanted to supply music for one of the masses, then, would naturally have to meet those terms.

Consider this too: Someone could say truly to every engaged couple: "You're going to fight." So, that mean they shouldn't get married?

Rhett Segall

#7, Jul 20, 2020 11:06am

The injustice I'm talking about is a pastor who disregards the legitimate pastoral needs of parishioners. Rather than causing turmoil with confrontation between pastor and groups of parishioners with different perspectives a point of cooperation will have to start. 

I thought your chant choir was in prep for the liturgy. By all means if it's just a chant association go to it!

Parishioners organizing for pandemic help goes without saying. Hopefully those with leadership and organizational charisms will step up to the plate. But obviously this isn't against the Pastor but in cooperation. In a nearby parish a group of volunteers calls every parish family once a week to see how things are going and if anyone needs help. This certainly fits in with your reflections on mature Christian responsibility.

Rhett Segall

#8, Jul 20, 2020 1:25pm

Apropos of this exchange the Vatican Congregation for priests has issued new instruction on the role of non ordained in parish leadership. America magazine has an article with a link.

Key points is that when a non priest is appointed they, he/she are not to be referred to as pastor, co-pastor, chaplain but should be referred to as pastoral cooperator or pastoral assistant.

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Jul 21, 2020 8:34am

I look forward to reading it. We have the grandchildren with us this week, so I may be delayed!

I have two immediate reactions to the the key points you mention, though:

1) The lay leadership I'm talking about is not appointed by the clergy, but elected by the laity. You seem to be referring to lay assistants to the clergy, which is a totally different thing. I'm talking about a complementary opposite to the clergy of the parish, not a subordinate.

2) Of course the lay leadership in my scenario would not be referred to as pastor! The whole point is to substantiate and perfect the lay vocation, not to usurp the clerical vocation.

I deny that a lay association will cause turmoil, though it may "make messes" at first. "New truth" typically does.

The organization I'm speaking of here precedes pandemic help, because it precedes the pandemic or any other event. 

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