Vibrant parishes: It's about living the message

Friday, May 11, 2018 - Updated: 11:59 pm

By Matthew Peaslee Associate Editor

With any change in life, it’s easy to worry about how hard it will be to adjust in a new normal. It’s uncomfortable to stray even slightly from familiar ways and operate with fresh ideas.

But small, unfamiliar steps can produce great results.

“Evangelization begins with each one of us and our willingness to be a friend and make a friend for Jesus,” said Dr. Linda Ritzer, secretary of parish services. “It’s that simple.”

A friendly greeting with a smile and handshake can be the basic building blocks of evangelization, as people are made to feel welcome and appreciated in a parish.

Because family members first taught us how to behave and make friends, we can take those principles and let God use them to build his kingdom.

The Church of Pittsburgh was built on family relationships. When Catholics first came to this region as immigrants, there were few priests and fewer formal religious education programs. Families provided the basics of faith formation.

But families today are often incapable of establishing that foundation, both because the nature of family has changed and because parents often don’t know enough about the faith to explain it to their children. Even the habit of attending Sunday Mass has been fading away. But many parishes still operate as if just opening the church doors will fill the pews.

Today’s parishes were developed generations ago to serve a reality that no longer exists, said Father Samuel Esposito, episcopal vicar for On Mission for The Church Alive!

“We were once the place where people come,” he said. “Now we have to become the place for which people go.”

That’s his paraphrase of Pope Francis’ constant refrain to “go forth.” The command at the conclusion of Mass, Father Esposito said, is to go forth and announce the Gospel. But it will take a shift of mind, heart and soul for many Catholics to put that into practice.

At Holy Apostles Parish in South Pittsburgh, Father Steve Kresak has seen such a shift since September 2016, when four struggling parishes in Baldwin and Pittsburgh’s Carrick and Overbrook neighborhoods merged to form a new parish. The shift is about far more than the buildings that made up the former parishes.

“We can talk all we want (about the Gospel message), but if we don’t see it in the way we act and treat others, no one is going to buy it,” Father Kresak said. “We’re called to go out into the world and be the presence of Christ. We need to go out and be the eyes of Christ, the ears of Christ and the hands of Christ.”

That is what Father Kresak has seen in his parishioners.

When an 8-year-old boy passed away in a house fire in Carrick, Holy Apostles parishioners reached out to help the young family. That neighborhood has experienced a recent surge in Asian immigrants, most from non-Christian backgrounds. This created opportunities for longtime residents to welcome their new neighbors and talk about the faith with them in a joy-filled manner.

“That’s how people can experience the heart of Christ — through us,” Father Kresak said.

A similar merger occurred in 2013 when four northern Beaver County parishes became St. Monica Parish in Beaver Falls. Father Esposito praised those parishioners for their faith-filled discussion and shared dreaming and envisioning of what the perfect parish would look like. Today, with nearly 6,000 parishioners, St. Monica is thriving.

“People surfaced all kinds of things, and that kind of became the template to building a vibrant parish,” Father Esposito said.

There are, of course, some large, mostly suburban parishes that are already vibrant. With sizable congregations and programs for parishioners of all ages, they can provide ideas for creating vibrancy in other areas of the diocese. As parishes in each grouping begin to pool their resources, money may be found for types of ministry and outreach that weren’t possible in struggling communities.

Currently, “everybody doesn’t have the same wherewithal to do what they’re doing,” Father Esposito said of the large parishes. “Bishop Zubik’s dream is that everybody would have that, and resources would be allocated in a way that we have not thought about before and that allows that to be possible.”

The vision of each parish will be different, as new groupings discern how to approach the mission fields of their communities. Demographics are different in each corner of the diocese, and neighborhoods vary widely across the six counties. As new relationships are formed among parishioners, and they begin to raise new suggestions, vibrancy can quickly begin to grow.

“Working to form a new parish community is an exciting opportunity,” Ritzer said. “We want parishioners to invest and work together in this process. It is essential that we all understand the true mission of the church and fashion a vision for our parish communities, incorporating strategies and practices that best support that mission.”

That won’t all happen overnight, leaders say.

Clergy teams have been given a flexible blueprint that can help guide discussion and decisions about staff, ministries and resources for the future. Guidance is also available from diocesan staff members who have expertise in areas such as youth ministry and communications. The goal is for the parishes to be defined not by buildings, but by their faith in Christ. Ultimately, it is the parishioners who make a parish vibrant.

“The main focus in the first year will be creating relationships in and among parishioners, and fostering intentional hospitality,” said Ellen Mady, parish services concierge. “Building relationships will lead to a deeper understanding and experience of what it means to be the body of Christ.”

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