“What Does It Mean?” The Pewsitter’s Guide to Parish Renewal

“What Does It Mean?” The Pewsitter’s Guide to Parish Renewal

“What Does It Mean?” The Pewsitter’s Guide to Parish Renewal

Recently on Facebook, I came across a rather heated discussion about Vacation Bible School (VBS), summertime faith formation programs hosted by many parishes across the United States. These parishes are taking a cue from other Christian communities by offering this kind of special outreach – and at times are even using programs produced by evangelical publishers (rather than Catholic ones).

Some – well, one in particular, a self-proclaimed diocesan ‘expert’ – denounced this practice, arguing that (a) the Church’s primary responsibility is to form adults, not children and (b) VBS is nothing more than free babysitting, without any real catechetical substance. When I disagreed, having organized three such programs in my own parish, things got ugly(er). “I’ll bet you didn’t even teach the four senses of Scripture in your program,” he sniped. (For the record, I did – a little ditty you can sing to the tune of “The Adams Family Theme” that you can find here.)

It’s not the first time I’ve encountered such unpleasantness. For all I love about the Church – the beauty of sacraments and sacramentals; the consistency of Church teachings; the security of submitting myself to the authority of Church leadership – the reality is that the Church is indeed a “hospital for sinners.”  All the flaws and weaknesses in other faith communities are found here as well. The arrogant and self-centered, those prone to foment divisions and create strife, the intellectually lazy and spiritually compromised – all are “gathered in.” And thank God for that – there’s room for even me.

One of the faults I find hardest to deal with charitably, however, is the tendency to nitpick over some aspect of the liturgy (usually in the name of “reverence” and almost always citing some isolated canon law or rubric), forgetting that the purpose of the Mass is to draw us together as one body of Christ in an act of corporate worship, with the priest in persona Christi capitas, in order to give us the graces we need to live in the world.  But how is it possible to receive Christ with a thankful heart, if we focus on the imperfection of the offering? Isn’t that a bit like coming to the family dinner table and leaving in a huff because of a chip in the teacup?

When self-appointed “parish police” denounce priest and bishop alike – not unlike the Judaizers Paul denounces in the book of Galatians – whatever good that might have come from such “constructive criticism” generates more heat than light. To quote canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters: “Even canon law is dangerous in the hands of amateurs.”

So . . .  what’s the best approach for those who genuinely want to renew their parish, and improve some aspect of their faith community? Three suggestions:

  • Start with yourself. Often the things that most disturb our inner peace signal a need to grow in virtue ourselves. Perfect yourself in love and humility, grow in self-knowledge, and ask God what he wants to change in you.
  • Pray for the pastor and bishop, and actively support them in their ministry following the principle of “censure in private, praise in public,” and observing the Scriptural mandate for conflict resolution: When someone offends you, go to that person first. Once you’ve done that, offer it up and give the Holy Spirit a chance to work.
  • Serve with forbearance and kindness. Hate the music? . . . Join the choir! Can’t stand the “pap” children are being taught in CCD? . . . Offer to organize a catechist training seminar (assuming you are already a catechist yourself). Concerned about the lack of adult faith formation in your parish? Underwrite the cost to host a Scripture study such as “The Great Adventure: Bible Timeline” or the “Pillars” study on the Catechism (for more information about these programs, go to AscensionPress.com).

If you are willing to serve with humility and patience, God can use you to change the world.

Copyright 2013 Heidi Hess Saxton


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  1. Cindy Coleman on

    Wow, where is s/he at that was dissing VBS??? Lemme at ’em, I say– lemme at’em!!!!

    We are supposed to primarily form adults???? Guess we’d better close the Catholic schools in our parishes and I’;ll resign from being a catechist in our Parish Religious Education Program imediately.

    In all seriousness, I have been involved in VBS in 3 diocese for over 16 summers. We should be having them in every parish, this is definately an area where we can take a lesson from our separated brothers and sisters. Children resonate with stories and some of the best we have our those in the Bible. They are our “family stories” that form the basis of our faith for heaven’s sake. I have used both programs from Protestant publishers that were “catholicized”‘ (with imprimatur) and do prefer the ones that are now available from Catholic publishers. I love your allusion about leaving dinner before of a chipped tea cup. We are an imperfect fallen people and things are not often perfect but that doesn’t make them worthless.

    • Heidi Saxton on

      It was a he … clearly a he who had been working for the Church just a tad too long. Bless his heart.

      I like your observation about “family stories.” That’s such an important point to remember. When we teach our children the salvation story, we are teaching them OUR story. Thanks for writing!

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