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Living for the city
The parish is called to play a full part in the surrounding society.
When this article was written the author was on temporary leave from his diocese, in order to spend a few years working at an international level for the promotion of the spirituality of unity among diocesan priests and permanent deacons. Given the experience of fraternal relationships created, and the joint projects undertaken at the service of the community, his choice had caused puzzlement and aroused curiosity among his parishioners and also in the town.
An open communityIn 1994 a community began at Mindelheim, a town in Bavaria of 14000 inhabitants. We were three priests: the parish priest, a curate and a youth pastoral worker. The parish was already involved in the settlement of refugees from Russia. Retired parishioners were in the front line offering important help, with language lessons, form filling, and introduction them to the local culture.
Our work for the local community and help with this process of integration into the life of the town had aroused the admiration not only of the citizens but also of local authorities. Over time, we met people in the offices and shops and discovered that many of them were Christians, either Catholic or Lutheran.
There were a lot of Christians working in the service of the community as firemen, first aiders, and in the various forms of local volunteering, in groups and associations. Not all of them were “practicing”.
We began to go to where they went to relax and to meet: the firemen’s celebration or the local band, for instance. We also went to the offices of the local authority, and to the Red Cross, to express our support for their work and to assure those who were Christian that by loving their brothers and sisters in all these ways for society, they were loving God in a practical way.
It was a pleasant surprise to meet a fireman one day, rushing to put out a fire. “Where are you going?” I asked. Turning to me, he said “I’m going to my mass!”
One day the mayor asked us to participate in a project called, “Agenda 2000”, which involved all the groups working in the town in an effort to understand how to tackle pollution, and to save water...
As a priest, I was entrusted with a mixed group that was to look at both mental and spiritual pollution. Some years later, in the development of projects for the future, I and other members of the parish took part in a group looking at culture and how to transmit our values to young people.
Actually, the majority of the population of Mindelheim is Catholic. But not all of them are strong in their faith. Over the years a team of 600 people has grown up who are involved in various activities, like Caritas, catechetics, the liturgy and social projects.
The vita communis I referred to, the life of our group of priests, deacons, and seminarians in the parish house, had an effect and could be seen in the communitarian style of the different parish groups, around 50 of them.
The parish as a meeting placeWe often met with the more committed members of the Lutheran parish. A good relationship developed, not only among the clergy, but also between the communities. In working together for the town, we have not had any ecumenical disagreements!
The parish house gradually became a centre for meetings and for advice, where people of all kinds, from street cleaners to doctors and teachers, and even the mayor himself, came for advice, or to find a “neutral” place to meet together. There was at one time a big disagreement among the various parties on the local council, and they held the meeting in the parish hall. At the end we invited them all for a drink in the parish garden. The situation was not resolved, but it did them good to see that they could argue, look at their differences, and air their grievances, on Church property.
After a few years I asked the mayor if he would say a prayer during the “Corpus Christi” procession, in the town centre. The procession stopped in front of the town hall, and in his own words he entrusted the town to the guidance and protection of God. A great silence descended on the square, followed by a joyful rendering of the “Te Deum”. It was a very special moment. It was clear to all that religion, the life of faith, has its place in the houses and streets, in public and private life, and in each person. Everyone became more aware of their responsibilities.
We understood that the people need priests, because they are thirsty for the sacred. They wanted us present, both Catholics and Lutherans.
As a result, the Red Cross invited us to the final session of their first aid course, to say something about the dignity of the human person, and Alcoholics Anonymous invited us to their spring festival.
During Advent we received so many invitations that we no longer ate at home. Everywhere we were asked to say a few words, even just a few minutes each time, but those moments were sufficient to affirm the presence of God.
I began to have doubts about all these invitations, and so I asked the parish council whether they thought it would be better to turn these down, and invite everyone to celebrate Christmas all together in Church in a single celebration.
One of the councillors spoke for everyone, in favour of going out, to the places where people meet. “It doesn’t cost you anything”, he said, “they organise the gatherings, and you bring your message. With your presence you offer them you gospel style of life.”
The community and timeAfter fourteen years as a parish priest, the diocese allowed me to spend five years at the priests centre in Grottaferrata, serving the diocesan priests and permanent deacons from all over the world who draw inspiration and guidance from the Focolare’s spirituality of unity, renewing themselves and their ministry.
The people asked themselves: what is the parish priest of little Mindelheim doing, by going away to the Focolare’s international centre? Nobody understood. If it had been a career move, that would be understandable, but it wasn’t even that!!
So the mayor and the councillor for cultural affairs were sent to find out what I was doing in Grottaferrata. They brought with them many greetings and good wishes, confirming the interest, the sympathy, and the friendship of so many people, and proving how relationships continue beyond time and distance.
I must admit that the change from a lively parish to a “specialised” job, although important and necessary for many priests, and therefore an important service to the Church, was not easy, and I was initially quite nostalgic. But I threw myself totally into God’s will, and began to see what I could contribute with my experience, providing encouragement for many priests in their daily challenges, with the life and wisdom of the gospel.
During the visit of the mayor and his colleague, they quickly understood what the former parish priest was doing, and were able see the universal Church in the way it can be experienced here in Rome, and also to understand it from the point of view of the charism of the movement. They met people from all backgrounds, young and old, of all professions and callings, interested in politics, in ecology and so on... as well as those of us immersed in the world of priests and deacons.
At a certain point the mayor drew me aside, and told me that my successor was a very suitable and committed young priest. He had noticed however, that during my tenure the parish had looked outwards towards the town, and the common good. Now he had the impression that almost without realising it, the parish had become more inward looking, which from the mayor’s point of view meant the parish had become simply one among many associations of the town.
We agreed that it was understandable that a new parish priest had first of all to get to know his own parishioners. But the mayor had raised an important question for me: what should be the objective of our communities?
The mayor’s perception threw a new light for me on the nature of parish commitment, something that gladdened my heart. What should I do about it now?
At the end of his visit, the mayor said, “I’ve understood here that I ought to help look after the parish too, so that it can fulfil its mission.”
Some time has passed since that visit, and my impression is that they have kept their word.