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Pastoral Leadership in a Revitalized Church

Tips for a pastor to provide a glimmer of hope, address challenges and point to the road ahead

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Father Jason, the pastor of a downtown church, learned that Bill’s father was seriously ill in a nursing home. When the priest stopped to visit him, Bill was emotionally spent and ready to break down. After seeing his condition, Father Jason spent an hour walking with him in a nearby park until he regained his composure. After they returned to the nursing home, Father Jason lost track of Bill.

Thirty years later, the priest received a letter from another state. He opened it and learned that it was from Bill, his long-forgotten parishioner. In the letter, Bill described how Father Jason’s compassionate act of walking in the park gave him the courage to go on.

After reading the letter, Father Jason realized that it wasn’t what he did that mattered, but that he cared. He supported Bill when he needed it most. An inspirational sermon on suffering could not have influenced him more than this simple gesture of kindness.

Christianity is a religion of compassionate hope. In bleak times, its promise of new life counters what is dark and gloomy, and Jesus’ resurrection is the eternal reminder that a new day follows suffering and death.

In difficult times, pastors are called to be prophets of hope, giving parishioners confidence that better times are coming. They offer glimmers of hope, address challenges in the Church and point to the road ahead.

Glimmers of Hope

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A glimmer of hope for a new day is reflected in the great strides the laity made in active Church involvement since the Second Vatican Council. Many ministries, once performed by priests and religious women, are now carried out by dedicated laypeople, serving as catechists, social workers and liturgical ministries.

Their ministries grew out of the great work of priests, deacons and religious, who were beacons of hope, faithfully guiding the Church through post-Vatican II turmoil to implement the council’s directives to go into the world and proclaim the Gospel.

Today, new beacons of light emerge. They include clergy and laity — fewer in number and more traditional in makeup but committed to revitalizing the Church. This happens as faithful lay Catholics sacrifice to meet the challenges of the secular world and enjoy the blessing of faith-filled Catholic homes. Both single and married, they are the crown jewels of the Church and her hope for the future.

Challenges in the Church

Effective pastoral leadership recognizes internal and external challenges to the contemporary Catholic Church. Schisms, political squabbles, theological disputes, weak spiritual leadership and immorality have occurred within the Church throughout history.

In addition, persecution, wars, plagues, religious conflicts and secular concerns threatened the Church from without. Yet the Church survived and renewed herself, mindful of Christ’s words that “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

Similar challenges face the Church today. From without, secularism is rampant, as people search for happiness in pleasure, money and prestige, rather than in faith. Watching television and surfing the internet reveal a breakdown of moral values. People do not trust their leaders and ask, “Where can we find the truth?”

Secular culture is at a tipping point, as challenging problems preoccupy the news. A friend recently said: “Daily, it’s one serious issue after another. I can’t keep up anymore with what is happening.”

From within, the Church undergoes many challenges. Catholics, who lose trust in how the priest scandal was handled, leave the Church. The lack of priests and declining numbers of parishioners precipitate parish closings. Many Catholics no longer attend Sunday Mass. Some substitute internet participation for active Church attendance. Major differences exist between conservative and moderate Catholics, specifically between younger and older clergy. Solid pastoral leadership among Church leaders often is lacking. The list could go on and on, and faithful Catholics of all ages yearn for something to be done.

Pastors enhance the spiritual lives of parishioners by addressing such challenges. The pulpit is the perfect spot to do so by discussing them in light of the abiding words of Jesus and his message of hope.

The Church is at a crossroads. Throughout history, when reform was needed, she underwent her own purgation, with pastoral leadership coming from holy priests and laypeople leading the way. In trying times, spiritual reform is the only formula for successful pastoral change.

This gives pastors a clue about the path forward. The Church thrives where the message of Jesus is lived. Renewal happens not primarily through new programs, parish clusters or institutional leadership. These are necessary for the Church as an institution, but the Church is more than an institution. The People of God will be renewed by faith-filled and holy priests, bishops, religious and laypeople. Spiritual renewal is a key to new Church life. This requires intentional decisions with pastors leading the way.

The Intentional Road Ahead

I grew up in a Catholic environment. Most Catholics, active in their faith, did not make an explicit intention to live the Catholic way of life. They took for granted that they would remain faithful Catholics. When asked about their religion, the answer was simple, “We are Catholic.”

At the time, a person’s faith matured in a relatively closed society of believers. Here, the Catholic culture set the stage to interiorize one’s beliefs and practices. It was unnecessary to reflect explicitly on one’s commitment to being Catholic, even though the intensity of faith differed from person to person.

Catholics were faithful to their beliefs and practices. Little did they dream that massive changes in the secular culture and the social fiber of Catholicism would lead many to question their faith and leave the Church. As this happened, the Catholic culture that once held a solid grip on the minds and hearts of believers changed.

Pastors can no longer presume that Catholics will remain Catholics. In this environment, an intentional commitment to the Faith is important. This means that adult Catholics, especially parents, are encouraged to make an explicit intention to live their faith. This intention can be renewed every time they attend Mass and receive the Eucharist. Parents can encourage their children to do the same by practicing their faith from the earliest years.

Today, Catholics with varying degrees of faith are present in our congregations during Mass and at other sacramental celebrations. Some are on the fringe of belief and others are deeply committed believers. Since parishioners and visitors are all across the belief spectrum, wise pastors recognize their different faith levels, make them feel welcome and celebrate accordingly.

Pastors and other pastoral ministers are encouraged to keep in mind that because the Catholic culture no longer predominates in the lives of many Catholics, making an intentional choice to be Catholic is important. For this to happen, five suggestions are offered.

From Brokenness to Health

During the pandemic, many struggling parishioners asked the Good Shepherd for help. Beset with fear and concern, one pastor recalled for his congregation the episode when St. Peter, in danger of drowning in the stormy sea, asked Jesus to pull him into the boat. In response, Jesus stretched out his arm and saved Peter, before calming the winds. In a similar way, the pastor reassured his parishioners that Jesus is with them during their stormy times.

When difficulties arise, pastoral leaders need to encourage parishioners to pray for strength to endure whatever comes and to help others. Jesus invites us to extend a consoling hand to struggling family members or perform a charitable action for a neighbor.

Head and Heart

Special events move us to remember what is important. It may be the birth of a child, a wedding, prolonged sickness or a significant loss. Such times are matters of the heart, not of the head. They hint at a path forward for pastors to bring new life to their congregation.

After my ordination, I focused my teaching ministry on intellectual pursuits. Yet, when it came down to what really influenced others, it was not knowledge but matters of the heart.

Certain intentional events, like spending extra time with a troubled student or a grieving parent, challenges us to ask how we connect with people on a deeper level. By doing this, we learn that an intellectual approach alone cannot bring new vigor to a struggling person.

Relationships that manifest compassion in difficult situations are needed. They are the hallmark of every Christian, especially pastors and church ministers. Pastoral compassion opens new doors and furthers God’s Word when complemented by loving human relationships, especially at key moments in people’s lives.

In this era of uncertainty and doubt, it is critically important that whatever is done to revitalize the Church is rooted intentionally in Jesus’ love for us and our love of one another. This comes from the heart, as does any effective ministry.

From Institution to Family

When living in New York, I ministered in a large parish. The 5,000 children enrolled in religious education sessions were too many to catechize on parish grounds. Instead, the parish was divided geographically, with master catechists in each neighborhood directing catechetical formation in designated people’s homes.

Families worshipped in the main parish church and two satellite missions, but the center of faith formation happened in their homes. Here, children saw faith in action through love, kindness and forgiveness and learned about Jesus and his Church.

While pastors and pastoral ministers may speak of the parish as a community, many parishioners still think of the parish’s institutional aspects. Nonetheless, it is important to help parishioners intentionally shift their view of the parish from an institution to an assembly of families or domestic churches, where faith is nourished and grows.

In homilies, priests and deacons can remind parishioners that family is the main source of sharing the Faith. Every parish needs to intentionally regard the domestic church as an important pathway to revitalize Catholicism in the spirit of Christ.

From Hierarchical to Servant Leadership

A priest does not automatically become a leader when he is made a pastor. He becomes a leader through recognition by the parish he serves. Community acknowledgment enables him to be a real leader.

It is incumbent on pastors to mirror Christ’s words — “I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk 22:27 — by being servant leaders. Pastors are called to intentionally focus on ministry to the poor and needy. They are Christ to the world and serve as he did. Such servant leaders invigorate the Church and bring it new life.

True pastoral leaders have a positive spirit, filled with joy and made possible by their care for others. They reflect an atmosphere of enthusiasm and hope, setting the tone for fulfilling their pastoral and administrative responsibilities. Pastors model these qualities by reflecting the spirit of Christ, thus fulfilling their calling to serve as other Christs.

From Programs to Eucharist and Prayer

Dedicated pastors and other Church leaders, not parish buildings or programs alone, bring new life to the parish and enhance the faith of parishioners. To foster growth in faith, parish revitalization needs to center on Christ’s presence in the parish and in the home and focus on prayer, catechesis, Eucharist and other sacraments.

The life of faith begins intentionally in the home, largely through committed parents who teach the ways of Jesus and the Church to their family in an environment of prayer and lived faith. Such parents pray often, make sure their children are catechized, profess firm belief in the Eucharist and regularly participate at Mass and the sacraments.

Growth in the love of the Eucharist is the strongest beacon of light leading to a reinvigorated Church. Begun in the love that families share at home, this reaches its zenith at Mass as the community shares the Eucharist.

Christian families, supported by sound pastoral practice, play a central role in a renewed Church. Jesus’ command to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) begins in Christian homes, as neighbors and strangers alike see love in action and turn to Christ, the origin of all that is good.

FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.

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Evangelizing Today’s Domestic Churches

bookFather Robert J. Hater, Ph.D., in his new book Evangelizing Today’s Domestic Churches: A Theological and Pastoral Approach to the Family (OSV, $19.95), invites pastors and those engaged in pastoral ministry to take the lead in helping families recognize their responsibility before God to become vibrant domestic churches. Today’s domestic churches face challenges of materialism, individualism and secularism, coming through technology, media and contemporary culture, and the Church must respond to these challenges by seeking ways to minister directly to families. The future of parish life will depend largely on how a parish supports family life.

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