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Bringing Salt and Light to the Parish

The gift of our Catholic social teaching

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In his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium), Pope Francis stresses the importance of missionary discipleship: “The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him ‘to go forth’” (No. 20). He envisions a Church that goes out to the margins and peripheries to proclaim the Good News — with great joy!

In order to accomplish this mission, according to the pope, it is necessary to redirect our efforts from an internal focus to a vision that is expansive and especially directed outward to the needs of the poor and the marginalized. This requires more than reorganizing the Church into a more efficient operation. Rather, Pope Francis invites us to an encompassing ecclesiastical renewal, rooted in the fidelity of the Church to the original calling. The Church must be a community of disciples, called by God to go forth, ready to accompany and walk with those who need to be supported, especially those in the peripheries.

In an interview shortly after he became pope, Francis was asked what the Church needed most at this time in history —- what kind of Church he dreamed about. He answered with an unexpected image. He imagined a Church that resembled a “field hospital after battle.”

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Spreading the Gospel with Joy

On Nov. 24, 2013, on the feast of Christ the King, Pope Francis issued his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). Issued at the beginning of his pontificate, it was a proclamation of his vision for the Church.

It has become obvious that this vision, according to Father McKenna, was not extemporaneous, but rather, was a long time in the making. “The Joy of the Gospel” manifests many of the influences that shaped and influenced Jorge Bergoglio prior to his papacy, including his Jesuit training and leadership, his time as archbishop in Buenos Aires, and his work with the Latin American episcopal conference, especially at Aparecida. This Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in May 2007, where Cardinal Bergoglio was elected to be the principal architect of the final document, provided him with the opportunity to develop many themes that would emerge in “The Joy of the Gospel,” including challenging injustice, the call to creative missionary discipleship and the plight of the poor.

“The Joy of the Gospel” is made up of five chapters, which propose an outward thrust for the Church. He warns against an overly internal focus, and he is concerned that we do not turn the Church into a museum that belongs to a select few. He warns pastoral workers of “spiritual worldliness,” a subtle way of doing ministry for one’s own interests and not that of Christ’s. The pope invites us to a missionary transformation that will prepare the Church to face with confidence and courage the present challenges of this world.

He is particularly concerned about an “economy of exclusion” that has created an idolatry of money and prevents us from seeing the special place of the poor. The cure for this approach is missionary discipleship, a Church that constantly goes outward with joy, focused on Jesus Christ, and a commitment to the marginalized of the peripheries.

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What is needed most now, he said, was a Church that healed wounds and warmed the hearts of the faithful. It was important, he explained, that the Church properly diagnose wounds, especially those of the heart, and apply the correct therapy. “You have to heal the wounds,” he said.

hospital tent
Doctors with protective masks assist a man with
coronavirus inside an emergency triage hospital
field tent. fabrus/AdobeStock

In a 2014 article in America magazine, Joseph Kelly reflected on the Church and this field hospital image. He observes that field hospitals are normally set up in tents, without the luxuries of modern clinical facilities, without the fancy medical resources of a modern hospital. The field hospital is strongly dependent on teamwork: “Risks are all around … the staff must rely on one another. They quickly develop a sense of equality, cooperation and teamwork. … Creative solutions and maximum flexibility are the name of the game. So too with the Church.”

But such an approach requires a serious change in pastoral perspective, one that stresses flexibility and agility in facing the myriad of opportunities in a parish that demands a healing touch.

Any needed structural or organizational reforms for the Church, the pope would say, are secondary —- and follow the most important reform: a change in attitude. He identifies this attitude as one that flows from communion with God: “Pastoral activity needs to bring out more clearly the fact that our relationship with the Father demands and encourages a communion which heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds … to respect others, to heal wounds, to build bridges, to strengthen relationships and to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Gal. 6:2)” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 67).

This message invites us to leave the confines of our parishes and to go out to the peripheries and minister to those on the fringes. Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, in an interview with Pope Francis in America magazine in 2013, quoted the pope as saying, “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner … preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.”

We are especially sent to the poor, to invite them to be a part of the Church. We must not only provide nourishment. We are also called to address the structural causes of poverty — including access to health care, just wages and education. The Church, says the pope, is a home for all and not a small chapel for a certain elite. There can be much darkness in the peripheries, but it is there that the Church can heal most powerfully because it brings the light of hope.

Art of Accompaniment

How do we proclaim the Gospel and bring light to the darkness? Pope Francis answers this question in “The Joy of the Gospel”: by exercising the art of accompaniment. He notes the morbid fascination in today’s culture with the lives of other people — seen perhaps most frequently in social media.

By contrast, the pope invites us to look instead to others with a contemplative gaze, that looks with reverence at our sisters and brothers and teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). “The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 169)

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Father Kevin McKenna is the author of “A Concise Guide to Catholic Social Teaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95 ). The third edition incorporates the teachings of Pope Francis in references to Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia to help Church leaders and parishes navigate the vast teaching of social justice.

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This art of accompaniment particularly emphasizes careful listening as we journey with others. As the pope explains, listening is more than just hearing. “Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. … Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives” (No. 171).

When we accompany another, we do so knowing that each person can never be fully known. They remain always, in some way, a mystery. This keeps us from making judgments about motivations and culpability for actions. Once we have patiently and compassionately begun the journey with another, we can enter into the mission of evangelization as missionary disciples. This is particularly helpful in walking with the disenfranchised and ostracized. As we walk with others who experience brokenness, we come to know our own deficiencies and appreciate the common humanity that binds us in our common journey. Pope Francis has often reminded us that the poor have much to give us: “In their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them” (No. 198).

Interior Renewal

In the “Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis invites the Church to a conversion, an interior renewal with a missionary thrust. Such a renewal requires a redirection of ecclesial structures, especially but not limited to the parish. This renewal of the “missionary option” cannot be postponed, says Francis.

The Church must be missionary directed with an outward impetus “capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (No. 27).

The pope sees the parish as an essential tool in the Church’s mandate to go to the peripheries. It is not an “outdated institution” but rather, due to its great flexibility, an instrument of missionary creativity. It is an environment for “dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration …. a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach” (No. 28).

A parish must be a community of missionary disciples. The parish is the center from which the mission can go forth, getting “involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives … touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others … standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be” (No. 24).

To begin such a renewal requires abandoning the mindset that “‘We have always done it this way.’ [We must become] bold and creative in this task of rethinking … structures, styles and methods” (No. 33)

soup kitchen
Volunteer Bud Courtney serves lunch at the Catholic Worker’s St. Joseph House in New York City. CNS
photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

A Road Map

The U.S. bishops also have called parishes to a more outward-directed mission by inviting them to an intense wrestling with the Catholic social justice tradition. In “Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish,” issued in 1992 (revised and updated in 2006), the bishops provided parishes with a road map for embracing social ministry as a core value of parish life: “Our parish communities are measured by how they serve ‘the least of these’ in our parishes and beyond their boundaries — the hungry, the homeless, the sick, those in prison, the stranger (cf. Mt 25:31). Our local families of faith are called to ‘hunger and thirst for justice’ and to be ‘peacemakers’ in our own communities (cf. Mt 5:6,9).”

The bishops are emphatic about the integrity of this outward mission: “A parish cannot really proclaim the Gospel if its message is not reflected in its own community life. The biblical call to charity, justice and peace claims not only each believer, but also each community where believers gather for worship, formation and pastoral care.”

How can our parishes better serve the poor and vulnerable of the peripheries and work toward building bridges among peoples of different languages and cultures?

See, Judge, Act

One methodology that has been effective in pastoral ministry is “see, judge, act.” In Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Mater et Magistra (1961), he challenged young people to grasp this method and bring about change in the Church and in the world. This approach could appeal to youths because it moved beyond abstraction into the practical — action.

See, judge, act had its roots in the work of Joseph Cardijn, a Belgian priest and later cardinal, who founded the Young Christian Workers about 1919. The bishops’ conference of Latin and Central America (CELAM), after the Second Vatican Council, at their meetings at Medellin, Colombia (1968), and Puebla, Mexico (1979), used this methodology to address structural injustices in society, establishing the relationship between social, political and economic progress.

At the Fifth General Conference held at Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007 (at which Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, later Pope Francis, was extremely influential in its final document), this method was described as “viewing God with the eyes of faith through his revealed word and life-giving contact with the sacraments, so that in everyday life we may see the reality around us in the light of his providence, judge it according to Jesus Christ, Way, Truth and Life, and act from the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ and universal sacrament of salvation, in spreading the kingdom of God.”

The bishops would dramatically demonstrate action, similar to the Medellin and Puebla meetings, in working for structural change in society and the Church to alleviate the suffering of the poor.

At the Parish Level

See, judge, act is an effective model for a parish social ministry committee or parish council to bring about social change and to further justice. It begins when an injustice in society is recognized in the environment of daily life, followed by an intense reflection and the realization that some change is needed (SEE).

Second, questions are raised about how the injustice occurred. Included in this step is an analysis of the issue, which can employ many disciplines: sociology, psychology, theology, biblical study, etc. Is there data available which will clarify the issues that give rise to the inequity and injustice? Does Scripture address this issue? What does our faith tradition teach about this concern? (JUDGE).

Third, comes action. After analyzing the situation, what can (and often what must) be done to bring change and address the issue? What action(s) can address the root cause(s) of the injustice? How can the relationships and/or structures that created the injustice be alleviated or transformed? (ACT).

Marvin Mich, in “The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social Teaching” (Orbis Books, $22), provides a similar framework for analyzing social injustice called the “pastoral circle,” which includes the same important questions that must be addressed when we see inequalities: Why are so many people coming to our soup kitchens and homeless shelters? What are the root causes of poverty, and how can we address those causes?

Application to Situations of Injustice

The Catholic Church has produced over the last decades a helpful compendium of Catholic social teaching that has helped clarify and explain how the Gospel can be applied to various circumstances and situations of injustice. Beginning with Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1991), which addressed issues related to employers and employees in the emerging Industrial Revolution, various popes have reflected on matters of concern to humanity and to the Church and have articulated, on the basis of Scripture and various Church teachings, how the Gospel could address these concerns.

Bishops’ conferences, including our own in the United States, have also issued documents relating to questions of inequality and injustice — for example, “The Challenge of Peace” in 1983 and “Economic Justice For All” in 1986.

In 1998, the United States Catholic Conference provided a key framework for discussing Catholic social teaching in their document “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions.” The bishops helpfully offered seven key themes which provide an organizational framework for examining issues related to social justice:

1. Life and Dignity of the Human Person

2. Call to Family, Community and Participation

3. Rights and Responsibilities

4. Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

5. The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers

6. Solidarity

7. Care for God’s Creation

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has become particularly concerned with the need to promote Catholic social teaching. Toward that end, many parishes have developed social ministry committees or their equivalents. The framework provided by the bishops identifying major themes in the Catholic social tradition can be an effective means for analyzing issues of justice.

A social ministry committee, as it becomes more aware of issues of inequality present in its area, can productively use the see, judge, act method to identify a concern that needs to be addressed: How did this come about? Why is this happening? The committee can then reflect on the situation, the second stage of the see-judge-act process (judge), reviewing Church social documents that provide scriptural and Church teachings. A thorough reflection by the committee on the Church’s teaching and other pertinent data can helpfully inform action steps, the third part of the process.

Into the Mud

In my own parish in Rochester, New York, our parish council and social ministry committee became aware of the worsening plight of the poor in its neighborhood. They saw a need.

Then, after reviewing an in-depth report and analysis of poverty that had been recently published in Rochester, they were shocked to see the depth and the urgency of the problem. They invited the primary researcher of the report to a council meeting for an intensive exchange of questions and answers. They also reviewed demographic information provided by the diocese that provided current data about the level of poverty in their neighborhood. Reviewing Church teachings about social justice, they then decided to act — to create a food pantry for the parish, to be called Joseph’s Place, a neighborhood outreach to be characterized by an environment of courtesy, respect and compassion for those needing assistance.

Thus, by using the see-judge-act paradigm, the parish council and social ministry committee were able to read the signs of the times. They became more aware of the dire situations that many in the neighborhood were facing. The data that emerged were alarming. They analyzed the situation, assisted by reports that had been recently issued about the depth of the poverty that surrounded them.

They used theological and scriptural teachings from the Church’s social justice tradition to evaluate the situation as they found it and to act on what the Church’s tradition encouraged them to do. The parish ministers of Joseph’s Place have begun implementing further initiatives to attack the systemic causes of poverty: developing a wellness center that will offer basic health screenings, including blood pressure, pulse and weight. They have decided to initiate a program for those who come to Joseph’s Place that can offer tutoring for high school equivalency certificates. They are also providing information about drug-rehab opportunities.

As the bishops of the United States have reminded us, when parishes engage in outreach to the peripheries, they are not called to an “extra or added dimension of our faith.” Rather, the Church’s social mission is an “essential measure of every parish community.” In this effort we answer the invitation and the dream of Pope Francis: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” So let’s get into the mud!

FATHER KEVIN McKENNA is pastor and rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral Community in Rochester, New York. He is past president of the Canon Law Society of America and former vice-chancellor, chancellor and director of legal services for the Diocese of Rochester.

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BECOMING COMMUNITIES OF SALT AND LIGHT

“Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections of the Social Mission of the Parish” was a document first published by the U.S. bishops in 1994. It was revised and republished in July of 2006.

Father McKenna promotes it as a resource for pastors, pastoral leaders, parish staff, parish councils and parish social ministry committees who would seek to strengthen their commitment to social justice. It provides a framework for integrating the various elements of the social mission of the parish: prayer and worship, preaching and education, outreach and charity, and advocating and organizing for justice within the community. Also addressed are some of the dangers and challenges to the integral social mission of the parish, including isolating it to the margins of parish life, the need to avoid divisiveness and any effort to try to do too much. But “Communities of Salt and Light” is quite emphatic that a “parish cannot really proclaim the Gospel if its message is not reflected in its own community life.”

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