e-mail us

Fall Ministries

Parish ministries form building blocks for social change

NCR Staff

In Iowa a mother of three peeks through the parish “peace tree,” and the local daily newspaper photographer snaps her picture. In Silver Spring, Md., a former Catholic Worker prepares to lead a parish to a deeper understanding of Catholic social teaching.

In Springfield, Mass., a pastor returns home enthusiastic from a national conference, having once more seen his parish as part of the bigger U.S. Catholic picture. And in St. Louis, Jim and Kathy McGuiness field the telephone at their Parenting for Peace and Justice Network headquarters.

Too often when Catholics look at the church, they see the local and not the aggregate. Parishes are rarely able to stand back and examine their own vital contributions as building blocks for the broader structures of social change.

Maybe America’s 20,000 Catholic parishes are like leaves on a tree. By holding themselves open to God, they experience a spiritual sort of photosynthesis. As sunlight courses down, the “Catholic tree” sends its roots deeper into the political, economic and social soil, helping to promote growth.

Call that growth “social justice.”

The evidence suggests that simple acts at the local level can be of enormous utility when added together. Take those parishes where the people are always signing letters to the governors, state legislators and the like. They’ve done it for years at Blessed Sacrament community in Sioux City, Iowa.

Blessed Sacrament, the first Catholic church listed in the city’s Yellow Pages, gets called on to do many things in the community. But it is parishes like this that give the Iowa Catholic Conference -- supported by the state’s four dioceses -- its muscle.

Bernardette Rixner said, “Iowa’s Catholic Conference works very hard setting legislative priorities for the state in four areas -- social concerns, pro-life, education and family,” she said. The conference depends on the pressure built up when parishioners contact elected officials’ offices by phone, mail or in person.

“Catholics generally are educated people. They know how to do it. They know it’s an integral part of how we build social change,” said Rixner, who heads Blessed Sacrament’s peace and justice committee. But they may know more about practical politics than about the content of the church’s social mission.

At St. John the Baptist community in Silver Spring, Md., social justice minister Kim Lamberty uses first Eucharist preparation to explain to both the children and the parents that the church has a social justice tradition. “For a lot of people,” she said, “it’s the first time they’ve heard that. I try to help them make the connection -- even though it may be obvious to some of us. Each parish needs a blueprint to learn and proceed,” Lamberty said.

In three years, St. John’s Parish task force on social justice in religious education has developed specific goals for specific categories: for elementary school children, build a foundational understanding that service/charity/justice are gospel imperatives basic to Catholicism; by high school, encourage a more advanced understanding of Catholic social teaching and its basic theological foundation, explaining the differences between charity and justice, and developing a capacity for reflection; for adults, according to Lamberty, a former Catholic Worker in Washington with an MA in theology, the task includes explaining reconciliation and social sin. “Some have never heard of that, either,” she said.

Making it personal

Lamberty uses a page of the weekly parish bulletin to offer adult education on issues from sweatshops to the World Bank/IMF debt issue. There’s community service, delivering food and a sister parish in Haiti. “It uncomplicates things when it’s personal,” she said.

She knows what every parish team member understands: It’s hard to get people to come out. But Lenten programs are particularly successful. Connecting social justice talks to fasting, she said, is “very consciousness-raising.”

Fasting programs are also a way to reach younger parishioners -- the high school age Catholic, contends Kathleen Carlisle, outreach coordinator for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.

“A food fast program is an opening to hunger awareness,” said Carlisle, whose organization distributes (in conjunction with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development), a handbook for 14- to 22-year-olds titled Catholic Call to Justice Activities. The “Food Fast” program is billed as “24 hours that last a lifetime.”

Lamberty and Carlisle both gave workshops at the July 15-18 Jubilee Justice national gathering in Los Angeles (NCR, July 30).

“Most parishes aren’t into the church’s social justice teaching yet,” said Lamberty, “because they don’t know how to proceed.” There’s a proliferation of help on hand. Jubilee Justice, for example, was called as precisely such a here’s-where-we-go-from-here strategy and tactics conference for all sorts of Catholic groups.

“I went for ideas,” explained Jon Moro after his return to Holyoke, Mass., where he teaches Latin at Holyoke Catholic High School. At the 400-student school founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph -- several of them are still on staff -- “we’ve instituted a program called Advisory,” said Moro. “It’s basically home room, and I meet 20 minutes a day with 10 to 15 students. So I went [to Jubilee Justice] for ways to make social justice issues come alive in that 20 minute period.”

Justice in school

And got what he wanted.

“The workshop most useful to me was the one about integrating social justice into Catholic elementary and secondary schools, given by Joe Sullivan of the St. Paul, Minn., diocese. Great! He had a ton of energy and lot of practical materials. Look, if you teach math, these are things you can do. If you teach social studies, try these. They have a Web site. Great! And I went to Fr. J. Bryan Hehir’s talk -- good, as usual.”

Moro said he wants the students to realize -- and he himself again realized in Los Angeles -- the extent to which Catholicism is a big church with niches for everyone. “Everyone can find a place. And work to do.”

Said inner-city pastor, Fr. Paul Manship of Holy Family Church in Springfield, Mass., “We know social justice is not an option. It’s essential.” The question becomes, he said, “What are things that there’s no compromise with and what are the things we need to continue to discern? Doesn’t matter which, but we’ve got to be doing something. I think we lose our identity when we become apathetic.”

In a culturally diverse parish (40 percent African-American, 40 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Anglo “with a smattering of Asian families”) there is a strong commitment to community organizing through the Pioneer Valley Project.

“It’s so important to see the faith in context,” he said, “see that it’s God and church -- not just you and me, or only me and my faith experience. We all do a lot of work on issues that are frustrating, with seemingly overpowering forces against you.”

One benefit of the Jubilee Justice gathering, Manship said, was the realization that “I can relax a little bit. We don’t have to tear down the terrible machines in order to get anything done.” Looking for direction, he went to the “Pastoring in the Next Millennium” workshop.

Surveying the church of the past quarter-century, Manship concludes, “We’ve had growing pains. A lot of people perhaps left when they thought they were sold a bill of goods or were made promises we weren’t going to fulfill. And now we’re coming into a certain greater maturity, saying, no, no, no, now wait a minute, my faith is my responsibility.

“It’s related to the church and it can be nourished by the church, but it’s still my responsibility. Is it all right to stand on the sidelines? No, it’s not. And in saying no, there’s a growing sense of solidarity.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999