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For average Christian, parish isn't true home.

Most parish priests and lay ministers think their most fundamental responsibility is to "build community" in the parish. To that end, they schedule Masses, develop "programs" and offer various services. "This parish is your true home,' they seem to say, "this parish is your community. So you need to participate by volunteering and by attending the various programs and activities we offer.'

Priests and lay ministers wonder why so few who attend Mass on Sundays ever show their faces for other parish activities. Sometimes they grow irritated at all those anonymous Catholics in the pews who think that all they have to do is attend Mass and drop some bucks in the collection basket and that makes them good Catholics.

Many ordinary Catholics believe the "community" stuff, too. They feel guilty because they don't volunteer enough "Someday, when the kids are grown and gone, Ill have time to be a good Catholic by participating more in the life of the parish."

That line of thought reflects a model of the parish guaranteed to malfunction. It assumes the parish is the most basic ecclesial unit, the church's bottom line, socially and theologically. Wrong.

The church's most basic unit is not the parish, it is the various forms of family life that constitute the parish, Traditional two-parent families, single-parent families, blended families, married couples without children, single people and widowed people in the context of their extended family and/or network of friends: These are the church's bottom line. Many parish ministers don't see this, but others do.

Take the pope, for example. Time after time, John Paul has said that the family, in its various forms, "constitutes the church in its fundamental dimension." While visiting this country, he said, "Family life is the very substance of parish life."

A few years ago, an ad hoc committee of the U.S. bishops published a long document that encouraged parishes to adopt a family perspective on all aspects of parish life.

But who listens? Certainly not most parish ministers. For them, the status quo will do nicely. We offer programs and services; you come to us; you participate in the life of your parish; that's how it works. Otherwise, you're a bad Catholic. Tsk, tsk.

The reason so few parishioners attend parish programs is that most understand intuitively that their most important role, even as far as the church is concerned, is outside the parish. Not that that always takes ideal forms: Some people stay home and watch TV. Still, the instinct to be at home is correct.

If families aren't healthy, the parish won't be healthy. If families aren't living-faith communities, the parish won't be a living-faith community.

It's revolution time. The unthinkable must become thinkable. Every study ever done reveals that one-hour-a-week religious education programs for children are a waste of financial and human resources. They all should be scrapped. Nourish the parent-child relationship and evangelize and catechize families, first through the liturgy and in-home resources - that!s the best thing we can do for the religious education of children. Anything else we do for kids is, and should be, supplemental.

Scrap all programs and services that do not at least have the potential to nourish family relationships. Start looking at the people in the pews as, first of all, members of home churches and take that critical fact into account in the way we design and celebrate the liturgy. Adopt a family perspective on all aspects of parish life.

Parish staff should stop browbeating people to attend parish programs. Parish ministers should stop trying to justify their existence that way. Their purpose is not to organize meetings; their purpose is to nourish the small cells of Christian life that constitute the parish, to help home churches be stronger.

If parish ministers don't get cracking in a society that is economically and culturally antifamily, Catholic families will look someplace else for the support they need. Then where will the parish be?

Mitch Finley is author, most recently, of Your Family in Focus: Appreciating What You Have, Making It Even Better (Ave Maria Press) and Everybody Has a Guardian Angel ... And Other Lasting Lessons I Learned in Catholic Schools (Crossroad).
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Author:Finley, Mitch
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:May 7, 1993
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