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Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive
by william e. simon, jr.
ave maria press, 202 pages, $17.95

What is a Catholic parish? The Code of Canon Law states: “A parish is a certain community of Christ’s faithful stably established within a particular Church, whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor” (canon 515). A parish is made up of a priest and his people who come together to worship God, to receive the help of the sacraments, to hear God’s word proclaimed and explained, to carry out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and to bring the good news of salvation to those who do not yet know Christ or His Church.

In Great Catholic Parishes, William E. Simon, Jr. has undertaken to set forth what makes for dynamic parishes. Simon earlier founded an organization, Parish Catalyst, to study parish life in America. Simon calls the staff of Parish Catalyst the “co-authors” of this book, which is the fruit of extensive interviews with 244 pastors around the country (60 percent drawn from the Northeast and Midwest, 40 percent from the South and West).

As a pastor who has served in two parishes in New York City during the past eighteen years, I found Simon’s book eye-opening—as when I read that 10 percent of the parishes surveyed take in over two million dollars annually in the offertory collection. Wow.

But money cannot buy dynamic parish life. Simon proposes, instead, four important characteristics: Great parishes share leadership; they foster spiritual maturity and plan for discipleship; they excel on Sundays; and they evangelize.

These characteristics of healthy parishes are not controversial. What may be controversial is the order in which Simon proposes them. Simon seems to imply that the first thing a parish needs in order to thrive is shared leadership. In practice, this means the involvement of both paid and volunteer lay people to carry out tasks that in the past were mostly done by the pastor and his priest assistants, often with the help of women religious. In this scenario, the success of a parish is highly dependent upon its ability to hire a stable staff of lay people. This of course requires that the parish have sufficient income to cover the costs involved. Wealthy parishes will have the means to hire what Simon calls “lay professional ministers.” Many parishes, in my experience, are not in a position to do this.

I would have preferred that the third characteristic of thriving parishes (“they excel on Sundays”) be the interpretative key that guides the discussion of the other three. Simon rightly emphasizes the importance of good preaching and sacred music at Mass. People are more motivated to attend Mass regularly at a parish where the homilies and the music are good. This has always been true, but it is perhaps more important today than in the past. Why? Because of the breakdown in our day of the previous discipline of Sunday attendance at one’s geographical parish.

The Code of Canon Law specifies: “As a general rule a parish is to be territorial, that is, it is to embrace all Christ’s faithful of a given territory” (canon 518). But 26 percent of the parishes surveyed for Simon’s book are identified as “destination parishes,” meaning that a significant proportion of the parishioners live outside the “territory” of the parish. These parishioners travel the extra distance because they like the way the Mass is celebrated, and they like other features of the parish. This practice is good news for the receiving parish, and bad news for the geographical parish.

This relatively new reality of “destination” Catholic parishes forms the unspoken backdrop of Simon’s book. In some ways, these destination Catholic parishes are coming to resemble Protestant mega-churches in size and style and wealth. They may be the only parish in the area with a Catholic school, and thus come in contact with a much wider group of Catholics. They can afford a large lay staff to run multiple programs, and they can meet the costs associated with professional choirs, musicians, and technological innovations. They are indeed, in some clear ways, very successful parishes. But they are not numerous, in my experience. And their success in some cases may be a result of the relative failure of the neighboring parishes to be “competitive in the marketplace.”

Given the realities of shifting and aging populations and the number of easily reachable neighboring parishes, most parishes rise and fall on the conscientiousness of the pastor and, if he is so blessed, his priest associate(s) in carrying out their priestly duties. Absent that, the parish will likely fall somewhere on the spectrum from struggling to just getting by. In parishes where the pastor and parochial vicars focus on sacramental life and on preaching and teaching the faith at Mass and at other opportunities, there will be a renewal of the faith of the parishioners. But even in the best cases, this renewal will not occur overnight.

Simon accurately identifies what can be a major problem for parishes seeking to thrive: the transfer of the pastor after six or twelve years. A number of the thriving parishes in this survey have pastors who have been with their parishes for longer than twelve years (the range of time as pastor went from one year to thirty-nine years). One benefit of a pastorate without a set term is that the pastor is able and motivated to assemble a team of parishioners and, as feasible, paid co-workers to pursue a plan of action that over time becomes the rhythm of life of the parish. This pastor has no “shelf life” issue limiting his efficacy or causing him to lose interest in his parish. In my experience, it takes more than six or twelve years for a pastor to build up his parish.

In Great Catholic Parishes, Simon has gathered a useful set of facts and analyses. His conclusions should prompt all Mass-goers, including pastors, to ask themselves whether they are doing their share to make their parishes thrive.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is pastor of Holy Family Church in New York.

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