Every now and again I am blessed to gather with brother priests to discuss best practices and share pastoral experience. One of my diocesan brothers, Fr. Patrick Smith, Pastor at St. Augustine here in DC, often has memorable advice that tends to turn the tables on conventional wisdom and in effect shift the paradigms we use.
A Paradigm is first defined as an outstandingly clear or typical example of something. But in a more extended sense it is a philosophical or theoretical framework that commonly underlies our thinking or actions. We often adopt these frameworks and assumptions in an unreflective or even unconscious way.
To “shift” a paradigm is to bring it to consciousness, and either adapt it, apply it newly, or sometimes wholly reverse its parameters.
Fr. Smith is an excellent paradigm shifter especially when it comes reversing the parameters of a paradigm or to put it another way, “turn the tables” on common thinking. I’d like to offer two of his paradigm shifts that relate to evangelization and parish life.
Paradigm Shift 1. “We usually pray and ask God to bless what we are doing. Instead we should find out what God is blessing and go do that.” – In other words, we need to learn to follow God’s lead more. Too often we hand God our agenda and ask him to sign off on it. It is astonishing how little we really seek God’s will.
A typical prayer at the beginning of a parish meeting will go something like: “O God we just ask you to bless our efforts, (yes Lord!), bless the car raffle, and our spaghetti dinner and please help us in our effort to replace the Church roof with the money we raise. In JESUS’ Name!”
Its not a bad prayer, nothing evil is being sought. But it is a rather directive prayer that says, “God do this, God do that…” But when do we ever ask, “God what is your will? What are you blessing? What are you saying to us?” Why haven’t we saved enough money over the years to repair our roof? What is your financial plan for your Church? Do we have proper spending priorities? What works in our parish are you blessing? What works and efforts are you letting go fallow? What is growing and what is declining? Are we following your lead as we consider this?
In many parishes and organizations we too easily fall into a “we do this because we’ve always done this” mentality. And often, we ignore mounting evidence that a lot of what we do no longer makes sense or needs to be adjusted. Meanwhile we often resist new outreaches that are often being blessed by God in strange and mysterious ways.
- • Many pastors resisted the home schooling movement for years since it competed with the existing idea of running a Catholic School. Many homeschooling parents were labeled as kooks and troublemakers. Meanwhile God just kept blessing homeschooling.
- • Mother Angelica started a television network in a garage with $200. The Conference of Bishops staffers resisted her because she was competing with their efforts and the millions that had been poured into a television arm of the Conference, and EWTN had a traditional tone the staffers didn’t like. But God just kept blessing EWTN.
- • Many radicalized orders of women have continued down self destructive paths that assure the death of their orders. Meanwhile God just keeps blessing orders that wear habits, have a focused apostolate and live in fidelity to the magisterium.
- • Many pastors have irritation at certain new movements in the Church, be it charismatic movements, Communion and Liberation, Focolare, the Traditional Latin Mass, consecrated virgins, or any number of diverse movements. God is clearly blessing many of these, and while not every parish can or should do all of them, we do well not to discredit what God seems to be blessing.
- • I am a great lover of traditional Catholic music from the Latin years. But I cannot simply deny that God has blessed many contemporary forms of music that have reached many young people.
We need to look more at what God is blessing and follow God’s lead. Discernment is still necessary. The mere fact that something is flourishing is not always a sign of God’s blessing. Nevertheless, it may sometimes surprise us what God blesses.
Do we simply ask God to bless what we are doing? Are we willing to seek what God is blessing and do that?
Paradigm Shift 2. Parish Boundaries used to tell Catholics where they should go to Church. Now Parish boundaries tell the Church where we should go.
It is widely asserted today that parish boundaries are meaningless, people will go to church wherever they please. It is true that almost no Catholic feels obliged to attend the parish within whose boundaries they live.
But parish boundaries still have this significance: the entire world is divided up into parishes and every territorial parish is responsible for every man, woman and child living inside its boundaries.
As a pastor, I am not simply responsible for the Catholics who attend my parish. Neither am I simply responsible for all the Roman Catholics who live inside my parish boundaries. Rather, I am responsible for every man, woman and child, whether Protestant, Catholic, baptized or unbaptized.
And of course the pastor alone does not hold this responsibility, but rather the whole parish with him. As a pastor, I have taught my people that we have an obligation that human person within our boundaries has been invited to know Jesus Christ, to love him, adore him, accept him as their Savior and to live their faith in him in the beautiful Catholic Church that he founded.
Most Catholics do not think this way. Especially in an era commuter Catholicism were many shop around for a parish they like, too many Catholics drive into a parish they have joined, going past many men and women who have never had Christ effectively proclaimed to them. Most Catholics think little of the responsibility they have towards them: “They aren’t my neighbors.” Yes, but they DO live in the territory of the parish you claim as yours. So they ARE your neighbors.
Sadly, most pastors don’t think this way either. They look out the front window, or drive through the streets of their parish boundaries and many never think these are God’s people, and God has assigned me to care for them, and to call them to know him.
Too many parishes are clubhouses rather than lighthouses. People come in and form closed little circles, enjoy each others company, and certain types of liturgy, and then go home. Never mind that Jesus said, “Go make disciples.”
Demographic issues often intensify the problem. In my own parish which is historically Black, and situated in an historically black neighborhood, we have recently experienced rather significant and sudden shift, so that most of our new neighbors are White. In parishes like this where the attendees do not reflect the ethnicity or race of the neighbors the tendency is even stronger to say, “Not our folk…”
To the credit of my parishioners, a few naysayers aside, we have taken up the call to knock on doors, walk the neighborhood and make disciples. Up to forty parishioners walk on designated Saturdays to do sidewalk evangelization and door to door meetings. Most of my parishioners have well internalized our boundaries which I often recite: North to F Street, West to 11th Street, South to Pennsylvania Ave, East to the river. These are our folk, go call them!
Parish boundaries no longer tell Catholics where to go to Church, they tell the Church were to go.
Two paradigm shifts. Do you have any paradigm shifts…any ways of turning the tables on conventional thinking?