A Missionary Parish: Casting a Wide Net with Parish Help
St. Agnes will hold a PARISH HELP fair next weekend after all Masses, opening wide the doors of our many volunteer and outreach ministries. St. Agnes offers a wide variety of service, outreach, faith, prayer and social opportunities. After all Sunday Masses on May 6 and 7, staff and volunteers will be present at information tables in the school gym, representing many of our outreach and volunteer organizations. They will be available to discuss and answer questions, give out contact information, and take signups for anyone who wishes to volunteer or who just wants to learn more. Everyone – saints, sinners and the unaffiliated – are invited to get involved. To top it off, there will be donuts and treats. Come by and check it out.
What is a parish? It’s a community of “missionary disciples” of Jesus Christ whose lives are formed by His death and resurrection. The death and resurrection of Christ, also known as the Pascal Mystery, is made present at every Sunday Eucharist. Sunday Mass is the centerpiece of it all. It’s the deep root from which every Christian community draws its life. By “life,” I mean the “divine life,” or the “life of grace,” which we receive in the sacraments. But this life is not something that we keep to ourselves. We must give it away. As Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16). A parish is not just about the parishioners. It’s about parishioners bringing the life of Christ to world in which they live. As Pope Francis says, it’s not just about being “disciples,” but about being “missionary disciples.”
Church history shows that missionaries are most fruitful when they work together. A welcoming and joyful community is inviting. It casts a wide net. When the diverse groups of a parish are united in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and rooted in Sunday Mass, the Holy Spirit permeates everything they do. They touch the lives of people – many of whom are hurting – in ways that give them fresh hope and a sense of belonging. Parish “groups” are neither cliques nor closed circles. Rather, they are more like a variety of flowers that make up a single garden, giving beauty to the parish. The Catholic faith becomes attractive. Grace works more fruitfully. In my experience, most people who have either joined the Church, or returned to it, or just became friendly toward it, did so because of some positive and welcoming encounter with other Catholics.
I recall my chaplain days at the Catholic Campus Ministry at UMW. We often had a Friday discussion followed by adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. An atheist student, who was invited by a classmate, joined us that evening. Even though he did not walk away a believer, he stuck around for while and said, “It’s really nice that you all do this.” Who knows what this happy encounter will mean for his life down the road. As the Holy Father says, we must at times be willing to get “a little dirty.” Not everyone whom we deal with will be in perfect condition. We may have to walk with someone a good while before the life of grace makes sense to that person. In matters of faith, many of the people we invite may have a long way to go before their lives become more fully conformed to the Gospel. It often takes awhile, and a lot of patience, before grace makes a visible impact in someone’s life. We may never see it ourselves. But love and grace do their good work in time. As G.K. Chesterton said, a person doesn’t become lovable until they’ve been loved. Therefore, we must walk with people. The Pope calls this “accompaniment,” that is, walking with a person on their life journey to God.
The Parish Help program, about which Fr. Rich and I are speaking at all the Masses today, is about just that: building a healthy community. When a parish community is active, involving and welcoming, more people come to Sunday Mass, go to confession, seek baptism, have their marriages blessed, learn about the faith, pray before the Blessed Sacrament, pray at home, help the poor, reach out to the marginalized and so on. By getting more involved at St. Agnes, in any way, you are making not only a contribution to this or that event or cause, but you are becoming an important part of a bigger picture. You become an instrument of God’s love and providence.
As you know, St. Agnes is located in a dynamic and diverse area. Families and individuals move into Arlington and come to our parish from all over the country and the world. Many of these people will be with us for only a few years before their careers take them elsewhere. Nonetheless, everyone needs a Christian community to call home. Also, there are many people who are connected to our parish in some way but do not attend Mass on a regular basis, or haven’t been to confession in years, or have marriage situations that need to be worked out, or want to learn more about the Catholic faith, or want to learn more about prayer, or simply need a sense of belonging. A strong community is an occasion for everyone, no matter what their circumstances may be, to find a more life giving relationship with Christ. The Parish Help program is an excellent opportunity to continue building the Body of Christ. No contribution of time or talent is too small. Please join us in this great event next Sunday!
Parish Help and Mercy Sunday
Mercy Sunday (the Second Sunday of Easter) celebrates the first thing that Jesus did after rising from the dead: He authorized his Apostles to forgive sins in his Name. “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained’” (John 20:22-23). These words of the risen Christ explain the mission that He gave to Simon, Andrew, James and John when they were first called: "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Forgiving sins is key to this mission. But forgiveness is not just the mission of the clergy when they baptize and hear confessions. It’s a mission that is given to the entire Body of Christ when it receives the “breath the Holy Spirit” in Confirmation. When confirmed, we receive “a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by words and action a true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1303). Our mission is to attract people to the Mercy of Christ.
The Holy Spirit works within the “living stones” of the Church’s members. Every parish community has the God-given gifts to bring people to Christ’s Mercy. However, this work can be hindered if a parish loses sight of its mission. A parish, like any community, can easily fall into a trap: turning in on itself. Some people might say that a parish is there to take care of Catholics. Of course, that’s a key part of it. But if we limit a parish to that, it would fall short. It would not be fully working with the graces of Baptism and Confirmation. It would be like comfortably enjoying your oxygen mask in a depressurized airplane while the person next to you suffocates. Once we’ve been blessed, we must reach out. We must share the blessing. This is not say that everyone will want to join us. Of course, we can only accompany the willing. But still, we must give it a good sporting try. I leave you all with these good words of Pope Francis from his letter “Joy of the Gospel”:
In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (Matthew 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries,” but rather that we are always “missionary disciples.” If we are not convinced, let us look at those first disciples, who, immediately after encountering the gaze of Jesus, went forth to proclaim him joyfully: “We have found the Messiah” (John1:41)! The Samaritan woman became a missionary immediately after speaking with Jesus and many Samaritans come to believe in him “because of the woman’s testimony” (Jn 4:39). So too, Saint Paul, after his encounter with Jesus Christ, “immediately proclaimed Jesus” (Acts 9:20). So what are we waiting for?