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Tonino Gandolfo

Communitarian discernment


The journey of a parish in Northern Italy

The plan of God for parishes, like his plan for the Church and for the world, is one of communion. This is a practical experience, with typical fruits, about the importance of trying to discern God’s plan, and the ways to achieve it, in a communitarian way

While I was in seminary one of my recurrent “dreams” was to imagine myself in the courtyard of an oratory, in direct contact with young people, playing games with them, listening to their ups and downs and transmitting the light that I had received from my meeting with God.

A year before my ordination the bishop summoned me with one of my companions, in order to tell us that our “ministry” would be to stay in the seminary, as teachers, one of Literature and other of Natural Science. So three days after my ordination I was sitting my first exam in zoology. In time I discovered that this surprising call concealed a plan, and for years, as well as teaching, I did “part time” pastoral work.

The parish and the unexpected

 After twenty years, when I began to feel the need for a change, although I had put aside this dream, the bishop called me and told me the time had arrived for a change. I was to become a parish priest, in one of the most challenging parishes, because it was young and full of energy. What in some moments appeared to be an answer to something I had kept on hold for years, now felt like an enormous burden. Would I be able to face the changes that parishes had gone through since I was a young priest? How could I continue the life that my predecessor had set up in a communitarian way?

The gospel that day at mass was about the message that Joseph received, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” It would be the Spirit at work in my relationship with other priests and with the community, who would lead me to love people and situations. And that is how it was for the next sixteen years, in moments marked with the joy of building together a part of humanity renewed by the Gospel and in moments marked by darkness, confusion, and the temptation to give up...

Unity with fellow my priests

Among the priorities that I felt, two ought to be mentioned. The first thing had to be my unity with my fellow priests, beginning with my assistant parish priest and the others of my pastoral area. Ever since I was a young priest, I felt that before any task in the diocese, I was entering into a fellowship of priests, and I wanted always to make that visible. In our pastoral area, the priests all followed the saying, “Love the other’s parish as your own”. The meetings among us always had this form, with personal relationships and conversations as the basis of our pastoral programme. For about ten years I took on the role of area secretary, and one of the best compliments I received was, “It’s good to meet now as an area, because we know one another better and we can look at problems quickly and calmly!”

I lived with my last assistant for more than ten years. We never argued, and it was said that we were “the best team in the world”. When I left, the parishioners had prepared an album. The first message was from the assistant, who wrote, “Over the last ten years (a record!) we have really loved one another with God’s Love, and experienced the presence of Jesus among us!”

... and with lay people

The second priority was my relationship with the laity, starting with the Pastoral Council, the “heart” of a Church (the people of God). The style we tried to establish was one of listening, first of all to the Spirit, and to ask ourselves “What does God want in this moment from our community?” The start of each meeting was always “conditioned” by this affirmation: we are not here to manage a business or to put forward various attractive ideas, but in order to understand from circumstances, from people’s words, from the way the community is growing (it nearly doubled in ten years) what the Father wants us to “understand”. Mary who “kept and meditated all these things in her heart” was the background and the model for this journey.

We were helped by something Cardinal Martini wrote, when he was Archbishop of Milan, on “Counselling in the Church”. We were motivated by two of his expressions: “The gift of counsel, among the gifts of the Holy Spirit, is the point of reference for any advice in the Church, and in every Pastoral Council”; “The image of counsel means being able to go beyond the human level of prudence and deliberation in order to reach a higher plane that tries to look for and discover the will of God here and now.... Counselling is thus the form of discernment the Diocesan pastoral council uses to help the bishop and the local Church to understand what God is asking of it.”

Listening to the Spirit translates into listening to one another, trying to appreciate the ideas and proposals of each person. Not even the parish priest has a “magic wand” and can arrive at the Council with a prepared “programme” to be approved! We often had the experience that, by sharing ideas together without any attempt to impose them, a new idea emerges: an idea that is no longer mine nor yours, but one in which both yours and mine can be recognised in a new way.

It became clear that if the Pastoral council is the “heart”, it is not the “whole of” the parish community. And so it became the point of convergence of various areas of activity: finance, evangelisation, care of the buildings, liturgy and prayer, welcoming and assistance, catechesis of children, young people and adults, communication… and while each of these areas was represented by two or more people in the Council, there were behind them a considerable number of “animators” who speak for and animate the life of the community. And so an “enlarged” Pastoral Council was formed, the right place for ideas, projects, and the “dreams” of anyone in the community.

The parish was thus conceived and lived as a reality of concentric circles, which, like waves, move back and forth between the edge and the centre. One example was the welcome team. How could we include all the parishioners, especially the newer ones, in a reality that was changing continually? A simple and ingenious idea, which was shared by the first parish priest in the early days of the parish, concerned the condominium residents. They had no official title or authority, but they could create a whole series of relationships and friendships with their neighbours and link them with the “centre” of the community. Starting with twenty people, over time there were a hundred of these “neighbourhood animators”.

On this basis and with these means, we had enough courage to move forwards.

Discovering patiently together the signs of God

As a new parish of mostly young couples, there was quite a small income, just enough to cover the expenses!

The growing number of children and young people concerned us. Could we carry on holding catechism groups in places that were too small? And could we provide the “place of their own” that the young people so desired, that they could run themselves? We had also to think of the older people. We already had a Centre for Older people linked to the local authority, but they wanted a place that was more central.

We arranged for a survey among the parishioners. Obviously different views emerged, from those who saw this as an absolute and urgent necessity, to those who saw the Church as “poor” and were unwilling to begin a project that would require commitment, and maybe even be a bad witness. “The Father will show us a sign”, we said.
We did not act too hastily. There was an architect in the parish willing to help, and the project was modified four times before one imaginative parishioner, during a parish assembly, suggested the right location for the new building.

We were waiting for signs from Providence and these arrived in the form of unexpected financial help from Church associations, banking institutions and especially from families who promised regular contributions over a number of years. The “incubation” of the project lasted six years, and in that period we grew in awareness of being a “family” guided by a fatherly hand.

Our response to the increased number of young people could not just be a building, however necessary it was. It had also to take the form of assistance for their faith journey. The search for reliable catechists was always a priority, but we also needed to involve the families in a more responsible way in this mission.

It was from the relationship established between the Pastoral Council and the families that a courageous step was made. The parents became the leaders, also in a formal way in the catechesis of the children. “During the preparation of our children for baptism, you always told us that we are the first teachers in the meeting with Jesus.” This is how some of the parents presented it to me, recalling what the introductory words of the rite of baptism say, “Asking baptism for your children, you commit yourselves to educate them in the faith…” After a series of discussions between the families and the pastoral council, a choice was made to accompany “traditional” catechists with parents, or even to replace them with groups of “parent-catechists”, with various levels of experience as mothers and fathers of the children involved.

Day after day, year after year, we helped one another to discover the will of a God who is a Father, and we found the secret for this in the Word, which is “light for my steps”. Behind each project, in joy and sorrow, in uncertainty and in the discovery of new stages, the community’s journey was built on the discovery that “if anyone loves me, he will keep my words”, and hence “I will show myself to those who love me”, and “whoever listens to these words of mine… has passed from death to life”.

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