Yes, parishes CAN become spiritual communities

13 Aug 2008

By The Record

By Father Herbert Weber
When I was asked to found a new parish three years ago, I read the Acts of the Apostles for possible insights in establishing a new church congregation.


A mosaic depicting St Paul. All parishes can learn from him, says Fr Herbert Weber. Photo: CNS


Since it was shortly after Easter and Acts is a staple for that liturgical season, I soon found myself immersed in the travels and challenges faced by the apostle Paul.
All churches can learn from Paul’s efforts. Long-established parishes and new congregations alike need to see themselves as evangelists, enthusiastic about sharing the message of Jesus and willing to take a journey of faith.
Only one time in my priesthood have I encountered an American adult who never heard of Jesus. That person, after following the Stations of the Cross around the church, pointed to the image of Christ, asking me, “Who was that man, and why did they do that to him?”
It would be a mistake to assume that people already know the fullness of the Gospel message. Many Christians, in fact, have trouble understanding the significance of Jesus’ life and death, much less know how it affects them in a secular world. Consequently, imitating Paul is necessary.
Those who follow the footsteps and the spirit of Paul can begin with the road to Damascus. For Saul, this journey provided a conversion experience, a direct encounter with the Lord. In the flash of a light, Saul received a new beginning which is symbolised by the new name, Paul.
All evangelisation begins with one’s own encounter with the risen Lord. People don’t usually see a blinding light. But there has to be an awareness of the Spirit’s activity in their lives, calling them to something important and unique.
When our parish was barely six months old, I introduced the concept of small faith groups. With concentrated periods of weekly Scripture study and sharing, these groups are one of the ways we provide people with faith encounters. Other opportunities include weekend retreats, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a family-inclusive faith formation program and the Sunday liturgy itself.
The goal of all these activities is to provide a setting in which people may experience the movement of the Spirit. Put in another way, before Paul was able to preach to others, his own faith had to be enflamed. Paul spent time with the Christian community before beginning his great missionary journeys. He was immersed in their prayer and in sharing their way of life.
When I was growing up, I often heard from various religion teachers that good Catholics don’t have to preach; they can lead by giving a good example. Practising their faith and living their morals will speak loudly to the people around them.
After more than 30 years as a priest, I no longer believe that is enough. People need to speak about their faith and be willing to express their beliefs.
For those who want to follow Paul’s footsteps, doing this will be one of the biggest challenges.
Sharing one’s faith is not the same as talking about church events or parish politics. It involves going deeper and expressing the core of one’s beliefs, that which gives direction and purpose. It centres on a relationship with the Lord.
Many Catholics feel their faith
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stories are so private they don’t know how to share them even if they want to. So I’ve been teaching people how to talk about their faith. Paradoxically, it begins with listening and not talking. As other people enter into conversations of trust and start to focus on what matters to them, the listeners try to focus on their own longings and hopes, finding answers to their own longings too.
The word “preaching” has many negative connotations, but this kind of dialoguing is how the modern-day Paul would preach. And it is consistent with what Paul did in Athens when he addressed the crowd regarding the altar to the Unknown God (Acts 17:22-31). Noting that Athenians were religious and had a place even for the God they had not yet discovered, Paul spoke about their deep desire to know this God. He used their anonymous longing as a way to share his story of the Christ.
Another aspect of Paul’s ministry that relates to today’s congregations can be found in his first letter to the Corinthians. Aware that the church at Corinth was conscious of the gifts of each of its members, Paul was also troubled that there was divisiveness and competition.
Using the analogy of the body with many parts (1 Cor 12), Paul emphasised unity and the use of each gift for the good of all.
As contemporary congregations seek to help each member of the parish grow, they often use gift-discernment processes. When parishioners discover their talents to be used in service of the community, they usually become more engaged in the church. With that their faith grows; they, too, are evangelised.
Paul’s work of evangelising took place nearly 2000 years ago, yet the process of discovering faith, sharing it, and enlightening others still goes on.
Father Weber is the founding Parish Priest of Blessed John XXIII Parish, Perrysburg, Ohio.