Pope Francis’ Game Plan; Part Seven: His Vision of Parish Life

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Parishes are established for the good of souls. Each local community is made up of persons of various ages and unique gifts, young and old, rich and poor, saints and sinners. The vitality of our families and parishes is an accurate gauge of the vitality of the Church in a particular territory or country.

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese's Catholics.

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese’s Catholics.

It is not surprising, then, that Pope Francis writes about parishes in his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” His words give us insight into some of his top priorities as the Bishop of Rome. It is worthwhile, then, to look briefly at what he writes about parish life today.

A center of evangelization

Christianity is not an ethical system but a community of faith whose origin and identity are founded in the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. This is why the Holy Father writes (#28), “The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of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.”

Jesus calls His followers to speak the truth in love, to go forth in His Name, to make disciples of all nations. As we respond to His charge, it is important to keep in mind His words (Mt 28:20), “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Not by our own strength or our own plans does the Gospel reach the ends of the earth. It is all God’s work. His loving presence is the heart of the Good News.

The local Church, then, continually draws life and light from its Savior, who remains present through His Word and the Sacraments. As the Holy Father writes (#28), “It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.”

Focus on what?

Pope Francis knows well the tough realities of the poor and the destructive nature of a “throw-away” society. He is not hesitant, therefore, to call for reforms within society and also within the Church. At the same time, he urges us not to focus so intently on contemporary problems that we lose sight of the Redeemer who saves us from them. He wants us to avoid the mistake singled out by Hosea who wrote (Hos 8:14), “Israel has forgotten his maker.”

“Today, our challenge is not so much atheism,” writes the Holy Father (#89), “as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God.” As St. Augustine wrote, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. God created us with a longing for Him that is well expressed in Psalm 63 (vs. 2), “O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.”

Militant atheism may be an accurate description of what the Church is up against today in large sectors of secular societies; but we must not be preoccupied with fighting it. Faith is a gift of God, not a human construct. Atheism, then, can only be solved by God who chooses to work through His Church. Our parishes should focus energy on praying for atheists, not on condemning them; and on helping them to recognize in their own hearts a spiritual hunger planted by our Creator. While aggressive secularism certainly deserves condemnation, what overcomes it is loving witness to Christ. Jesus never said, “Hate atheism”; He said (Mt 5:44), “…love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” It is not for us to fret about the “-isms” of our day. It is for us to trust God and His mercy, to rejoice in His forgiveness and to bring the joy of the Gospel to the lowly.

Not self-absorbed but mission-oriented

As we can see, Pope Francis brings a fresh perspective to parish life. He wants parishes to be (#28) “environments of living communion and participation, and …completely mission-oriented.”

Pope Francis’ Game Plan

Read more columns from this series by Bishop Olmsted.

There is an understandable but regrettable temptation for parishes, when facing grave challenges as we indeed do today, namely to withdraw into safe strongholds, to become “a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few.” What our Holy Father calls for is something quite different. Jesus said (Mt 10:16), “Behold, I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.” The dangers of being a friend of Jesus are real; they are not figments of our imagination. Unless we take up our cross each day and follow Him, we cannot be His disciple. But the dangers are nothing compared to the rich blessing of being followers and friends of our Savior.

The vision of a parish that Pope Francis places before us has nothing to do with timidity, but everything to do with holiness. He writes (#28), “The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers.”

Let us ask the Lord to bless all our parishes with this missionary spirit.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003. Since 1974, Bishop Thomas James Olmsted has been a member of the Jesus Caritas fraternity of priests, and thus has been deeply influenced by the witness and wisdom of Charles de Foucauld and by the prayers and encouragement of many brother priests. For 16 years, Bishop Olmsted lived in Rome, Italy, where he obtained a master’s dgree in theology, a doctorate in Canon Law, and worked more than nine years in the Secretariat of State of the Holy See. During the nine years of serving in the Holy See, he resided at the Pontifical North American College and assisted seminarians with spiritual direction. Having been reared on a family farm on the Kansas-Nebraska border, he attended a single-room grade school near Oketo, Kan., and a small rural high school in Summerfield, Kan. His first contact with Catholic schools came when he entered St. Thomas Seminary College in Denver, Colo., from which he graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

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