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Yes to God's plan for the parish
Possibilities for parish renewal
Fr Adolfo Raggio has been responsible for many years for the Focolare’s Parish and Diocesan movements, expressions of the Focolare movement whose purpose is to contribute to the renewal of parishes and dioceses through the practical commitment of their members to parish and diocesan activities, while living and spreading the spirituality of communion. This interview is based on some of the key ideas and approaches which animate hundreds of parishes throughout the world which are striving for renewal.
The model of Church-communionGEN’S: First of all a fundamental question. What are the methods and the signs that can help a parish community to understand and fulfil God’s plan for it?
Adolfo Raggio: The model we look to is Jesus and his community of disciples, the little flock that he chose and formed. His style of life was continued in the early Christian community, as described in the Acts of the Apostles . That period was something like ours, in which they had to be an alternative society, where relationships of mutual love were in clear contrast with those in the world around them. This is a model to which the Church over the centuries has always returned.
God’s plan for the parish can be determined from recent Church documents. It can be summed up as the “Church – communion” . John Paul II expressed it in a very important way, “God is communion because he is love, and being love he cannot be other than communion. Rooted within us we have this reality of God which is “communion”... That is how the Church is born... That is how the Church is born in every parish. In every parish, the Church has within itself this mystery of God who is “communion”... because he is Love.”
In a similar way Benedict XVI affirmed, “The first and foremost requirement is for the parish to be an "ecclesial community" and an "ecclesial family". This is the face of the parish community that God wants, “a brotherhood all of one mind”, “a fraternal and welcoming family home”
In order to leave behind a view of the parish that reduces it simply to a worshipping community, where mass is celebrated, sacraments are administered, and funerals are held, much time had to pass. The essential aspect of koinonia, of being a living community of the People of God, was something secondary.
It is now urgent to form people who are aware that the distinctive mark of the Church is fraternal love in Christ, people who are animated by a spirituality of communion and committed to making the parish a true family of God. Many communities are moving in this direction, also under the influence of the new movements.
The contribution of the spirituality of unityGEN’S: What contribution can the charism of unity make to the building up of a parish community? Is there something specific that the Focolare movement can offer?
Adolfo Raggio: Certainly. The spirituality of unity also contributed to an increase in the depth of my spiritual life as a priest, in many ways. But now I have to describe what contribution it can make to the parish.
First of all – and this is the premise for what follows - the charism of unity focuses on, and gives new meaning to, three key elements in the life of the community: the Word, the Eucharist and fraternal relationships. Chiara speaks of “three communions”.
We begin with communion with the Word. When I met the focolarini I was struck by their experience of the Gospel, lived in daily life. I started to put it into practice too.
Many parishes have learnt from this experience and hold Word of Life meetings. An essential part of them is to begin by establishing relationships of mutual love, so that Jesus the living Word may be present. What follows is not limited to reading and meditating on the Word, people also share experiences of living it.
GEN’S: It’s clear that the charism of unity was a great stimulus for these groups. But there is also the Eucharist...
Adolfo Raggio: We know that the community finds the fullness of unity in the Eucharist, as both its high point and its root. Jesus in fact asked the Father for unity among his followers after having instituted the Eucharist as its basis. It is the Eucharist that makes us one. We are completely one like the Father and the Son in the Spirit, through the Eucharist.
In order for this unity to be manifested, we have to do our part. A practice of the movement is therefore to make a “pact of mutual love”, striving to be ready to give our lives for one another. When this kind of relationship prevails in the community, the full effect of the Eucharist is manifest. It makes us one and the community shows that it is in a mystical yet true way, Jesus’s living mystical body.
This can be seen in a special way when a community united in this way gathers for the Sunday assembly. People who normally do not go to Church and who happen to be present in a celebration like this, are struck by the fraternal and evangelical climate they find and often say things quite publicly, “Here I found God”, “I felt I had to convert myself”, or “I felt at home”.
GEN’S: Two people who live the Eucharist in this way are sufficient to raise the tone of the assembly. We shouldn’t therefore think, “That is not possible here!” There is a third “communion”, though, in fraternal relationships.
In seminary I learnt to see Jesus in the Eucharist. I would go and speak to him in Church. But the thought never entered my head that the companion sitting next to me was Jesus. We were of course in the period before the Second Vatican Council.
Meeting the focolarini opened my eyes so that I could see Jesus in everyone. That changed all my relationships. When the vision that comes from faith, “you did it to me” animates a community, the atmosphere changes.
This is what we propose to the members of the Movement who are involved in parish life. One of them said, “We try to enable love to circulate in the parish community, welcoming people when they arrive in Church and saying goodbye when they leave at the end of the celebration. We see if they need anything, get chairs for those standing, and give the mass leaflet to those who haven’t got one. They are small things, but we try to do them out of love for Jesus. They build a family atmosphere, and they make people feel at home and feel loved. Some people come to the parish just because of the welcome they get.”
Adolfo Raggio: This faith-filled attitude towards one’s neighbour gives new meaning to charitable and social actions. It stimulates a special care for the poor, the elderly, the less able, immigrants, and marginalised people of all kinds. It promotes human dignity in a variety of social situations both near and far, bringing us together as much as possible with civil bodies in the effort to sustain values which are Christian but also fully human and universal. We recognise these activities as a service to Jesus living in the members of his Body, building up the “civilization of love” and carrying our God’s plan for humanity.
Becoming aware of the Risen Lord’s presenceGEN’S: Up till now, we have covered some basic ideas. What other characteristic features does the charism of unity contribute to parishes?
Adolfo Raggio: I would like to emphasize two. First of all, an enactment and a new understanding of the presence of Jesus in the community, and second, the discovery of Jesus Crucified as the key to unity.
Right from the start, the Apostles and first Christians had a strong sense of Jesus’s presence and proclaimed, “Jesus is risen! Jesus is risen!” The Fathers of the Church spoke a great deal about it, because they experienced it in the community. We know that up until the 12th century, the Church was considered the corpus verum of Christ, while the Eucharist was considered as the corpus mysticum. Later these two expressions were inverted and the Eucharist came to be understood as the corpus verum and emphasized as the “real presence”.
While the hierarchical structure of the Church gained in prominence, the reality of the Church as the Body of Christ remained in the background. It was not until 1943 that Pius XII, in the encyclical Mystici Corporis, presented this vision once again. It is remarkable to note that in the same year the Holy Spirit introduced a charism that would provide help in living the reality of the Mystical Body, by emphasizing the presence of Jesus in the community as announced in Mt 18:20.
Chiara Lubich said that Jesus among us, if we know how to focus on this, enables us to experience the living presence of the Risen One. It is not simply unity; it is the Risen Lord himself. “Wouldn’t it be amazing”, she said in 2005, “to build a local Church which is so alive that you could say to all kinds of people, “Come and see”?” “This may seem a dream, but it can come true” And the same year, Benedict XVI encouraged the animators of the Focolare’s Parochial and Diocesan Movements with these words: “Be a sign of the Risen Christ in your communities and all your walks of life”.
With this in mind, and with this experience, I have often heard parish priests say, “I’ve understood that focusing on the presence of Jesus in our midst has to be the main priority of my pastoral work”.
I would like to share a thought with you. A lot of people go to Church to attend mass, to receive the Eucharist, to pray, to fulfil an obligation, through tradition... I wonder how many go in order to renew the fraternal fellowship that makes us “Church”, Ekklesia (assembly), or “one heart and one soul” like the first Christians? How many go into church filled with the kind of love for everyone that “draws” the presence of the Risen Jesus into the community? How many are aware that when we come together for the Sunday assembly, even before feeding on his Word and on Him present in the Eucharist, the first priority is to compose his living Mystical Body, in the knowledge that without charity among all, the community cannot witness the presence of God in its midst?
This represents a change of attitude and mentality in both the church community and society, with huge personal, interpersonal and structural implications.
Recognising Jesus forsaken in sufferingGEN’S: Another key aspect is the discovery of Jesus crucified as the key to unity. It is easy to see how important this is.
Adolfo Raggio: We must not forget how central to the spirituality of unity is Jesus’s cry from the cross, “My god, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34), a discovery from the very early days of the Focolare movement and the new life that sprung up around Chiara Lubich.
To focus on that terrible moment of Jesus’s passion, is to understand how much love is required of a Christian in order to be a seed of unity. “Just as I have loved you, you must love one another” (Jn 13:34). On the cross, Jesus in his darkest moment gave a new meaning to love. He let us see in negative and difficult things, in doubts, the possibility of meeting him. When in sufferings we discover his face, and carry them together in communion, they become lighter and we have the strength to face them peacefully in faith.
We have noted that in parishes where people try to recognise and love this face of Jesus in personal, ecclesial and social trials, there is a feeling of serenity and trust. As a result of this appealing atmosphere, one of these communities was called, “the community of joy”.
Communitarian discernment and corresponsabilityGEN’S: To complete the picture, we ought to speak about what the Focolare can offer to parishes in the field of the various dialogues inaugurated by the Council, and also in the fulfilment of the Marian profile of the Church. However we simply ask: how can a community know what plans God has for it?
Adolfo Raggio: There are objective things that indicate God’s plan for a parish: the norms of the universal Church and Diocesan Church, the ecclesial and social context, and the actual circumstances at the time.
I would like to mention two existential conditions that can make God’s plans clearer, and also enable them to be carried out: listening to the voice of the Spirit and acting in communion.
All too often, we think we can provide orientation for the parish through pedagogical and pastoral formation, a proper sociological analysis of the area, and the application of personal experience and talents. All of these are useful but these are not the main preparation required to complete on earth the plan that God has drawn up for that community in heaven.
The first condition is to be open to the inspirations of the Spirit. This requires people who have chosen God, and who are seeking for what he wants for them and for the community. An inner attitude of “listening” to the Spirit is needed, the silencing of other voices, the readiness to set aside one’s own projects, one’s own ideas, one’s own attachments. This is the attitude that must be fostered in the parish community.
Recently a parish priest wrote, “We felt the need to form people’s consciences so that they could detect the signs of God’s plans and be ready to go along with them. We invited the members of the Pastoral council to attend a course where certain experiences of listening to the voice of the Spirit were presented. Now it is easier to find out together what God wants from our parish.”
God’s plan for the parish is a communitarian plan and has to be discerned in communion, with the light that comes from unity. The readiness of each person is not enough to discover and fulfil God’s plan, the parish has to move as one body. A second condition for God’s plan to be manifested is to look for it together in unity, in a synodical way, discerning in community.
This is a style that requires a change of mentality, from viewing the Church as a pyramidal structure, to seeing it as the people of God. But it requires above all a change of relationship between priests and laity in daily affairs, where lay people are not just collaborators, but are truly co-responsible for the running of the parish. It is in this arrangement of sharing with the other priests in the parish and with the lay faithful that the parish priest finds the grace to develop the community according to God’s plan. In that case Jesus becomes present and makes plain God’s plans, becoming the loud speaker of each person’s inner voice. The life of communion is essential for the leadership of a community.
GEN’S: Are there any practical helps for this communal search for God’s will?
Adolfo Raggio: There are structures for participation introduced by the Second Vatican Council. Among these, the Parish Pastoral Council has a special place. It has to be seen as more that a committee for organising pastoral programmes or for coordinating the various activities and realities of the parish. It should be above all a school in synodical processes and co-responsibility between priests and laity, rising above questions of who exercises power, and a place where everyone makes a constructive, detached contribution
It becomes a special place for being Church together. What is important is that all the members are working together listening to the Spirit to discover what God wants at that time for the parish. Different ideas and opinions have to aired, but in a detached way, as gifts to be received from one another and to be lost, if all things considered a different decision is better. In a climate of dialogue and listening there is more light for making decisions.
Unfortunately there are parishes where the Pastoral Council becomes a place for organising things, and even a place for clashes of opinions rather than somewhere to meet for the guidance of the Spirit. In order to avoid this, in some parishes time is dedicated at the beginning of the meeting to create an atmosphere of fraternal love and openness to others, using Church documents or spiritual texts that invite communion. On this basis, it is easier and also faster to discuss and programme activities that have a lasting effect and produce life, as a fruit of the light that comes from unity.
Cells of unity at the service of the communityGEN’S: Finally, what guidance do you have for members of the Focolare Movement who work in the parish, or in diocesan structures?
Adolfo Raggio: The long experience of the Parish Movement and Diocesan Movement has been written down in the regulations or guidelines of these two expressions of Focolare. They contain precious suggestions on how to contribute to the various realities of the parish and diocese, and on ways in which communion can increase.
The members of these two movements engage fully with areas of the parish entrusted to them, they are committed to parish projects and activities, and try everywhere to be a “leaven of communion”, promoting collaboration and fraternal union so that the parish community can become a living part of the Church, communion in action.
They are aware that they cannot give what they themselves do not have, so first of all they live a practical experience of unity together with other members of the Movement, with all its demands and stages. In the parishes where they live, they form “cells of unity” and mix with everyone. Through mutual and continual charity, they keep the presence of Jesus alive, radiate the Gospel and involve many in building the civilisation of love together.
These cells are often in districts, in apartment blocks or condominiums and give life to many small communities that are open to all, where people gather to explore and live the Word, in order to grow in unity and spread the sap of love in the society around them.
GEN’S: We hope that this testimony will encourage people to act “as a body” to discover God’s will for their own parish. The situation is very different however from place to place, in a variety of ways, in Italy or Germany, or in Africa, Asia or the Americas...
Adolfo Raggio: This is quite true, and it is important to keep that in mind. Experience has taught us, however that the key ideas and basic guidelines of the spirituality of communion that we have spoken about give – through both life and ideas - a huge impetus to renewal in the Church across all cultures, situations and latitudes. This is a view of the Church that makes it more holy, more attractive and beautiful, because it is more one. And at all levels including parish communities and dioceses.