What makes a CICM parish different from a parish served by the Franciscans or the Jesuits? How is our presence in a parish any different from the presence of the diocesan clergy? What does it take to make an ordinary parish into a missionary parish?
Our General Councils, our Provincial Assemblies, our gatherings of confreres for recollections, as well as individual confreres themselves have been searching for answers to these and similar questions for as long as I can remember. Most recently these questions reemerged for me during the early meetings of the General Committee on Mission, and now again as we were preparing for the 10th Provincial Assembly of the US Province. Although we may grow weary of searching for responses to questions that seem to have no definitive answer, we should continue to reflect and to search, for these and similar kinds of questions go to the very heart of our identity as missionaries and to the predominant task that our Congregation undertakes in the world, the staffing of parishes.
Over the years, numerous assemblies and authors have drawn up various check list to evaluate whether a parish is (or at least is on the way to becoming) a missionary parish. These tools of evaluation can help a confrere to determine whether the primary focus of the parish is on maintenance or on doing mission. Bobby Vidal, a Director of Evangelization in Santa Clarita, California, offers such a list: - Is the focus on sustaining structures and the number of people who come to the sacraments or is it on sustaining a culture of dis- cipleship and nurturing individual charisms? - Is the focus on formation that helps people to take up leadership roles in the parish or is it on for- mation which helps people to discern their God-given vocations. - Is the focus on maintaining the buildings and paying the bills, or is it on finding ways to fund the vi- sion and mission of the parish? - Is the focus on getting people involved in parish activities, or is it on helping people encounter Jesus and experience conversion? - Is the focus on providing formation for ministries exercised in the parish only or is it on providing formation that can help to transform the secular world?
Sherry Weddell summarizes these contrasts in her Book, Becoming a Parish of International Disciples when she writes: “Is the goal to get people to come to the parish plant or is the goal to leave the parish plant to go out into the neighborhoods of the parish?”
Pope Francis added his voice to this discussion when he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, #27, Is our goal as pastors one of “self-preservation” (maintenance) or of helping people to encounter Christ in today’s world (evangelization)?”
But having a check list to evaluate our performance doesn’t tell us how to do it. How does one go about changing one’s own focus and that of an entire parish community from maintenance to mission? And why should we expect CICM missionaries to be capable of this?
A few weeks ago, I happened to meet up with Jan Van der Paer, in the workshop that he has carved out of a storage room at Missionhurst. Jan, now 98 years-old, is retired, but neither retirement nor age has slowed him down very much. While he puttered around fixing one thing or another, we got to talking about his experiences as a parish priest in the African- American communities of Columbus Ohio and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jan came to the US in 1947, worked for a few years in Columbus, and then, by 1952, found himself as an associate pastor together with George Vermeiren, at St Charles Borromeo Parish in South Philadelphia. From 1981, after the death of George, Jan continued alone as pastor until his 75th birthday in 1995.
In the 1950’s momentous changes were happening in the big cities of the United States. With the great economic boom after World War II, thousands of poor black families from the southern United States began migrating to the industrial cities of the north like Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, and Philadelphia in search of work. By the early 1960’s these families were settling into the inner city’s decaying row houses, while the white population was fleeing to suburbia with its individual dwellings, 1⁄4 acre gardens and two car garages. In fact, the confreres, “fresh off the boat” from Belgium, were com- pletely unaware of the vast social changes that were occurring, as was the general population of the US or the families who were bringing these social changes about.
These changes presented a challenging situation for the Catholic Church and for the foreign-born missionary, as old ethnic parishes were abandoned by their affluent, white, catholic communities, and replaced by ones that was poor, black and protestant. Since no one knew what to do with these decaying parish structures and everyone was at a loss as to how, or even if it was desirable, to convert Black Americans to Catholicism, Bishop Dougherty of Philadelphia sent for the missionaries that he had known as a young cleric in the Philippines.
As Jan wrote years later to the people of St Cyprian, Columbus Ohio:
America was a strange land to me. I was completely ignorant of the American way of doing things. I didn’t know anything about the racial make-up of this country. I did not have the vaguest idea of what racial segregation meant in real life. I did not have any experience with parish life or ministry. Everything was new and so very different. But here I was, none of this seemed to have been a problem at all for the people of St Cyprian. They welcomed me the way I was! In return, I learned to accept them the way they were. What a wonderful, indispensable lesson for ministry among people!
In another article for Missionhurst Bulletin, Jan wrote: This was our apostolate and we were proud of it! We did not always know how to do it, but we would learn. People would teach us proper English and slang. They would tell us about their needs and their concerns. The Lord had sent us and He would show us what to do. The people did accept us and it worked. We learned from the peo- ple how to talk and how to walk. Praise the Lord!
Jan and the other confreres realized that the Black Americans were not going to come to the parish— they were Protestants after all and had their own Churches and ministers—so the parish was going to have to come to them. Through their school, scout troops, a roller skating rink, and a community hall, Jan tried to make St Charles Parish in Philadelphia a part of the local community.
As a member of the parish wrote:
These priests would make the whole parish their home; every street and every alley, and every corner and every empty lot was home! All parishioners would become family.
Once when asked how Fr. Jan did it, being all alone in the parish, a black woman replied, “They think he’s black.”
In 1993, The American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia wrote in its records: Because of Fa- ther Jan’s presence and personal commitment to the people, St Charles has become a safe island in the midst of a South Philadelphia sea of poverty, crime and ne- glect.
Acceptance of the people without distinction of color or religion, having the humility to admit that he didn’t know anything and asking the people to teach him how to talk and how to walk, and a personal commitment to listen to the needs and the concerns of all the people, these were the missionary attitudes which guided Jan in extending the parish boundaries and influence of St Charles beyond the parish plant to “every street and every alley, and every corner and every empty lot.”
A check list as to what makes for maintenance and what makes for mission in a parish can be very useful. Programs that reach out to fallen-away Catholics and the unchurched are commendable. But the change from maintenance to mission, that is to say, evangelization that goes beyond the boundaries of a parish to a whole community, will not happen if it isn’t modeled by leaders who are non- clerical, inclusive, have a concern for social justice and are willing to share power. These are the missionary attitudes that Jesus himself modeled for us and that we as CICM should be eager to adapt as well. ■
Rev. Jan Van de Paer, CICM Rev. Tim Atkin, CICM