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Cover story

Great parishes

NCR Staff

Paul Wilkes went to the Church of the Presentation Parish in Upper Saddle River, N.J., in 1997 to give a pre-Lenten mission. What he received was a whopping dose of inspiring church life and the idea for an ambitious project to find excellent parishes.

He has found them in abundance.

The noted Catholic author, who has written extensively on religion, particularly Catholic issues, had a hunch that Presentation was not the only exciting Catholic community out there. Wilkes, who first wrote about his visit to Presentation in the April 11, 1997, issue of NCR, in effect has since parlayed a common Catholic story -- the disgruntled parishioner in search of a better place -- into a massive national search for church excellence.

“Only when I returned to my home parish and a certain sadness came over me did I realize the dramatic difference between that parish and my own,” he writes in the introduction to the book that resulted from his search. Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices, published by Paulist Press, Mahwah, N.J., is due out next month.

A companion volume, Excellent Protestant Congregations, which Wilkes also wrote, will be published in April by Westminster/John Knox Press.

Those volumes, in turn, will be the basis for a Pastoral Summit, a gathering of leading Catholic and Protestant pastors and lay leaders from across the country May 30-June 1 in New Orleans.

“There were surely other parishes like that one in New Jersey, I assumed, and over the next year, with the generous support of a grant from the Lilly Endowment, I and two researchers set out to find them,” he wrote. The Lilly Endowment is a philanthropic organization headquartered in Indianapolis that regularly funds research into religious topics.

Wilkes and his researchers in the Parish/Congregation Study found excellence in parishes large and small, Hispanic and African-American, rural and urban, with resident priests and without, conservative to moderate to liberal and everything in between -- 300 in all. Wilkes makes no claim that those 300 are the only excellent parishes. There are, after all, nearly 20,000 parishes in the United States and, by most predictions, that number will continue to grow. Although the priest shortage and demographic shifts and other forces have acted to dramatically reshape parish life in recent decades, most Catholics still identify the parish as their fundamental religious community.

Parish is the place

While approaches to spirituality proliferate in contemporary culture, “the parish remains the place most Catholics go for sustenance,” writes Wilkes, an active Catholic and eucharistic minister. “In fact, two-thirds of all American Catholics are registered parishioners.” And while one can find a great variety of religious expression in parishes, the people in the pews “are not as polarized as one might think. They are looking for -- albeit in many different ways -- a transcendent connection to God and guidance for their life’s journey, a place where they will be at once nurtured and prodded.”

What he has compiled, he believes, are compelling examples of excellent churches and, what’s more, they all exhibit points of excellence that those involved in the project are convinced can be reproduced.

If Wilkes took a common Catholic wish and went national with it, he also did it in a way that most of us can understand at a visceral level. This is not a sociologist’s treatise. This is a record of a pilgrim’s search.

The parishes that made Wilkes’ final list were discovered through conversations with experts in parish renewal, Catholic newspaper editors and specialists in various aspects of parish life who were asked to recommend the best parishes they knew. The publisher has embargoed the list until after the book is published, scheduled sometime next month. The list also will be available after publication on the project’s Web site: www.pastoralsummit.org.

In the book, eight of the 300 Catholic parishes are profiled: Our Lady Help of Christians, Newton, Mass.; St. Pius X, El Paso, Texas; Catholic Area Parishes, a consolidated group of five parishes in Benson, DeGraff, Danvers, Clontarf and Murdock in Southwestern Minnesota; Holy Family, Inverness, Ill.; St. Peter Claver, New Orleans, La.; St. Francis of Assisi, Portland, Ore.; St. Francis of Assisi, Wichita, Kan.; St. Mark, Boise, Idaho. In the eight profiles, at least, we meet these parishes at a deeper level, in the stream of their own history and that of the wider church. Wilkes, who teaches classes on creative nonfiction and documentary filmmaking at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, is a wonderful storyteller. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and is the author of a number of books, including, The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics and Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life.

One of the parishes profiled, St. Pius X in El Paso, is a mostly Hispanic parish, bustling with lay ministries and on the cutting edge of changing life in the poor neighborhoods surrounding the church:

The sun slips behind the imposing bank buildings and high-rise hotels that flank Interstate 10, busy now with the beginning of afternoon rush-hour traffic. The last of its blazing shards, streaming across a broad expanse of plaza just a few blocks away, strikes and set ablaze a bronze statue of Jesus Christ. It depicts not one of the usual images of Christ, the triumphant savior or the bleeding crucified one, but the peasant Christ, with a rough-woven serape over his shoulders, a walking stick in one hand, a small bag in the other. [It] seems an anomaly here in this quiet sanctuary, yet so close to the world of commerce and the bustling Bassett Center Mall.

As Fr. Arturo Banuelas stands beneath this at-once unassuming and imposing figure, the soft sounds of tumbling water from a three-tier fountain impart a sure peace to the place. Behind him sits the stately, mission-style stucco church of St. Pius X, now burnished to gold by the setting Texas sun.

“El Paso is a border town -- between the United States and Mexico,” he begins. “Hispanics are on the borders of the Anglo world; to be a Catholic is to stand at the edge of a secular society. Even today, the church is still on the border between the old ways and new ways, the traditional church of Sunday devotion versus the church that we carry into the world each day. So, it was appropriate that our ‘Border Christ’ would be the symbol of our church -- always on the move, not ever at home, willing to go where he is needed, wearing the simplest of clothes, carrying no more than he needed but, because of his marginalized status, capable of entering all cultures and bridging all people as one.”

Fr. Banuelas’ modest assessment of his parish and its signature statue belie what has happened here. St. Pius X has wedded ancient Hispanic values and faith with a Vatican II vision of a modern parish, infusing each with new meaning. St. Pius X -- or San Pio X to its largely bilingual congregation -- is considered not only one of the most outstanding Hispanic parishes in America, but one of the best, period. With hundreds of its members solidly trained as lay leaders, new ministries springing up virtually weekly and liturgies that appeal to everyone from los jovenes to los majores de edad, this parish indeed serves as a ray of hope for Hispanics. … As well as for the church at large.

As I spend time at St. Pius, talk to parishioners and witness some of their 39 different ministries, it quickly becomes clear that this parish has thrived for two primary reasons. The first is the positive, willing-to-risk attitude of its pastor. The second is a concerted lay training program based both in periodic parish evangelical retreats that lead people into small Christian communities … and Tepeyac, a comprehensive lay institute that provides theological underpinnings for ministry.

In the final analysis, Wilkes and his team came up with 16 traits common to the parishes they deem excellent. These “somewhat eclectic characteristics” are grouped under the categories of approach, institutional life, community, the work and spirituality. (See accompanying box.)

The book also includes a “Points of Excellence Index” that matches up some of the parishes selected with six areas: worship, education, evangelization, outreach, spirituality/inreach and organization.

Though the parish project began with lay people and is being carried out by lay people, one aspect of the profiles in the book was telling: Often at the heart of a good parish is an innovative priest, open to the possibilities of lay leadership and ministry. Ordained clergy, both hierarchy and parishioners understand, are not easily duplicated. And clergy like those in Wilkes’ profiles -- priests who see their role as essentially empowering a community to act and to raise up its own leaders -- may be in diminishing supply these days. But where they exist, unusual attitudes prevail, and some unusual things happen.

For instance, Fr. Banuelas tells Wilkes at one point, “I am a dinosaur. Lay people are the future of the church. This is no quick fix. This is a long haul. And we need to make changes, especially for Hispanic Catholics. We are losing them to other churches, because in the Catholic church, instead of honoring and utilizing their rich faith and heritage, we are still trying to assimilate them, make them into Eurocentric Catholics. They are not.”

Later, in discussing the place of priests, he says that clergy “must break down the barriers with the priest up here and the ‘miserable’ people down there.” He sees, instead, a new vision of church where “people are equals with the priests and the priests will lead, but they will always listen to the wisdom and the breadth of experience of the people. We must welcome them -- that is what other churches are doing, and people flock to them -- and not put up barricades.”

Said another pastor, “Don’t say much and the people will let you know their needs. Then set about to meet them.”

Parish can do more

And yet another priest referred to a female administrator in a parish without a full-time priest as “the future of the church.” With a lay person in charge, he said, “you have much more lay involvement, so the result is actually a parish that is able to do far more, not less, because of not having a priest here.”

If the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was the focus of reform in the church’s modern era, then in places like St. Pius X and other parishes where the primary membership is nonwhite and non-European in background, there is a renewal occurring within the renewal.

In such settings, the reawakening of faith and discoveries of the possibilities of community and culture can be simply but powerfully transforming.

St. Peter Claver is, by Wilkes’ account, in a poor and desperate area of New Orleans. The story of transformation there, while deeply interior and personal for certain, is also measurable in the neighborhood. Crime is down, people in the parish organize to fight crime and prostitution, the school is filled with kids who belong to the parish, lay run ministry is abundant and the parish runs a strong adult education program. New hope is in the air.

Transformation was also visible one day when a bishop came visiting. St. Peter Claver did not jump to take the usual official instructions on all the liturgical niceties the bishop desired. This parish, Fr. Michael Jacques told his flock, never put on airs and didn’t need to for the bishop. It would simply be itself.

When the bishop arrived, he was greeted “with fierce drumming and elegant dancing,” welcomed “as the chieftan he was.” And by the end of the ceremony, “tears streamed down his face.” He was choked with emotion and admitted that he had never, in all his parish visits, had such an experience. Such confidence and purpose, such community, did not come quickly or easily.

Fr. Jacques, a native of Maine, was white. He had started in religious life as an Edmundite brother, serving for a time as a cook. His had all the earmarks of an inauspicious religious career, and his ordination to the priesthood was almost a fluke. When Fr. Jacques arrived at St. Peter’s [in 1984] and looked around his new, rundown assignment, he saw not devastation but potential, not black Catholics who needed to be more Catholic but, rather, needed to be more black -- and Catholic. He approached his new assignment almost as if he had been sent to a foreign country. He needed to understand the culture of the people of St. Peter Claver, the people on the dismal blocks surrounding the parish, the people who had once proudly attended but who now rarely returned to their old neighborhood. As in an earlier era, he went door to door talking to the people. They told him of the problems: Absentee landlords ran buildings into the ground, then abandoned them; the parish school was terrible; streets were unsafe; drug traffic proliferated. Hope was considered a foolish concept.

After familiarizing himself with the area and its residents, Fr. Jacques traveled to Xavier, New Orleans’ premier black university, to educate himself about a people and a culture mainstream Catholicism knew very little about. “I had Avery Dulles’ five models of the church -- herald, sacrament, institution, servant, community -- in mind, but to make that happen at St. Peter’s, I needed to be schooled in a whole new theology, not Eurocentric but Afrocentric,” Fr. Jacques recalls. Among his teachers was the legendary black nun, Sr. Thea Bowman. Slowly, he began to put into practice what he learned.

Despite his efforts, parishioners regarded him somewhat warily during the first two years; he did not receive a single invitation to a wedding or baptism reception. He appalled older members of the church by incorporating dollops of African music and dance into the liturgy. For them, adaptation to the white world was the key to success.

“You have to realize how unique this was for our community,” says Alena Boucree, 38. “Our culture had never been integrated into the church. It was absolutely separate, as if it was so inferior that it shouldn’t be allowed to taint this pristine, uniform Catholic image. Father Michael was showing us something about ourselves we didn’t quite realize was there. After all, the Saints Perpetua and Felicity, whom we pray to in every Mass, are not only women; they are black women. Most of us didn’t know that.”

It is not just adaptation to culture that is driving change in the church. Some of the change is coming from within, out of necessity.

The prayer of the faithful heard at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Portland, Ore., includes: “We pray for Pope John Paul; our archbishop, John Vlazny; and our pastor, Valerie.”

As Wilkes explains it, “Valerie Chapman, a divorced mother of six, may have the title of administrator in the Official Catholic Directory, but to her parishioners, to the priests who come here to preside at the liturgies, and to the homeless men and women who come to the parish dining hall each day for dinner, she is most decidedly the person in charge.”

As Valerie herself puts it: “I was made for this job. What better training for running a poor, inner-city parish than being a single mother, raising six kids on a shoestring?”

Chapman is indicative of both an enormous problem facing the church in the United States -- the growing priest shortage -- and the answer to that problem. And the problem, in Wilkes’ estimation, will be one of the determining factors in the shape of the future church.

The number of priestless parishes has grown steadily in recent years. In 1990, the number of priestless parishes was up to 210. Today it is estimated that 17 percent, or more than 325 parishes, are without a full-time priest.

Those statistics, no matter how ardent the campaigns to attract new generations of priests and nuns, are forever changing the face of the church. Chapman, for instance, “is one of thousands of lay people who have completed religious studies and who will be joined by the 30,000 now in training.” It is they, writes Wilkes, who will be responsible for most of the day-to-day activities of the church, for the training of ministers and education of the young, as the numbers of Catholics increases and the number of ordained clergy continues to drop.

Two priests and three sisters oversee the workings of five parishes in Benson, DeGraff, Danvers, Clontarf and Murdock, Minn. Catholics there were not enthusiastic when conditions mandated that five parishes consolidate their operations. Twenty-two years later, their thinking has changed. “The way it worked out is simply amazing,” one woman told Wilkes. “We really got the best of all worlds, better programs. Because we could do one well rather than five half-baked, and five pastors instead of one.”

Patience of farm life

Urban crowding is not the problem here, where church leaders face the task of coordinating programs for a thousand families scattered across some 400 square miles. Seeking unity -- of purpose, of work, and in prayer -- is a principal task.

And if the pace here still reflects the patience of farm life, it also means more time to consider innovative ways to conduct parish life.

For instance, writes Wilkes, “So that no one assumes that ‘father’ has a more important role than ‘sister’ in these five parishes, both priests and nuns receive the same salary.”

A high degree of lay involvement is “required,” and that shows in the attitudes of priests and people. According to Fr. Steven Verheist, pastor of St. Francis in Benson, “While I am the presider at the liturgy, it is the assembly that is important. They are the people of God; from this extended family comes the Spirit. And they need not be territorial; shared resources mean that everyone can benefit. And it has caught on. I’ve heard it over and over again from our parishioners: ‘These used to be priests’ parishes -- now these are people’s parishes. That is a high compliment; that is ownership.”

In real-life terms, it means, perhaps, what Tim Matthiesen, operator of a Do-Mats Supermarket, feels: “I feel like leaping into the air when I leave church. I do. I actually do. Something is happening here, and we all can feel it.”

His claim points to the universal reality tying these stories together. The feeling that something extraordinary is happening -- whether it be rediscovery of a prayer life, a new involvement in social ministry, finding acceptance or simply experiencing a sense of being “home” -- is the force that seems to keep these parishes engaged in and essential to the lives of their parishioners.

There exists no “best” or perfect parish, concludes Wilkes. The parishes profiled continually work on “becoming a place of refuge and welcome, a spiritual fountain where the thirsty might drink, a replica of the kingdom of God on earth.”

In a telephone interview from his home in North Carolina, Wilkes said he had come away from his research with the conviction that all Catholic parishes could be doing what the great ones do.

He concludes in his book that what is lacking in the Catholic church in this country is not priests or resources, “but vision, energy and hope. It is not an oppressive church structure” that hampers parishes, nor are they hindered by uninterested laity.

“The majority of our parishes are simply not reading the signs of the times. While this may seem a highly secularized culture, its very fragmentation, mobility and institution-averse nature find their antidote in the Catholic parish. Here one may find built-in community, acceptance, safety, growth and spirituality. Here is a path to God, to holiness and true happiness, both in tending to one’s needs and those of others.”

Tom Roberts’ e-mail is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 26, 2001