This article is culled from ZENIT’s interview of Fr. Nikolaus Schöch from Apostolic Signature about the challenges priests face and traits that should characterize parishes. He gives advice on how to organize schedules and the importance of fostering intergenerational friendships among priests, as well as cooperation between parishes.
THE WORK OF THE PARISH PRIEST
Q: What is the main service a parish priest should render to the people of God?
A: These days priests are faced with a plethora of challenges. Not only are pastoral duties increasing, but they have to deal with present day culture and lifestyle and hence, the need for constant formation. Parishes are expected to welcome and serve all and sundry in such a way as to make the grace of God readily available. This is not possible except in an atmosphere of order, hence the need to conform to the laws of the Church, which seek to promote pastoral activity. The mandate to head and shepherd the faith community is given to the priest by Christ himself through the bishop.
Q: What should guide how the parish is organized to effectively discharge its duties?
A: The settlement pattern and movement of people, together with how new trends, habits, fashions and timetables are assimilated should guide parish activities. Parish programmes should be scheduled to meet the needs and convenience of majority of the people, rather than just those of the priest, while at the same time, minding those who have limited time.
Q: How can parish priests combine effective administration of the parish and the task of saving souls?
A: As the visible representation of Christ, the priest should become a unifying factor, "to make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God's plan and respond to the world's deepest yearnings." ("Novo Millennio Ineunte," No. 43). He must unite rather than divide on the basis of the people’s characteristics.
It is impossible to carry out his mission in isolation. Thus, he must collaborate with his co-workers, older or younger, with mutual understanding in balanced relationships. The Second Vatican Council entreats older priests to understand and sympathize with younger priests; younger priests should likewise trust and respect older priests for their experience.
PRIESTS AND LAY PEOPLE
Q: The role of priests may be unique in the community of faith, nevertheless, the cooperation of the laity is critical to their success. How can laypeople assist priests to carry out the mission of the church?
A: Priests are to ensure that parish activities are performed in accordance with sound doctrine and Church discipline. It does not mean, however, that they are to do everything on their own. With the aid of the Holy Spirit who inspires, shapes and molds all vocations, he is to help his parishioners both to discover and fulfil their calling within the community and thus enhance their particular spirituality. Since lay people’s apostolate is largely exercised through associations and movements, these groups ought to be encouraged, supported and guided by pastors to cut out excesses and ensure efficient operation. Individualism in the parish should be avoided.
Q: What is a parish priest’s main challenge in contemporary society?
A: Apart from having to deal with the challenges of a postmodern culture the Church is faced with a growing number of non-practicing Catholics, many more people leaving the church, whilst at the same time the so-called Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic sects are growing rapidly. For this reason, the New Evangelisation targets baptized Catholics who have not been sufficiently evangelized. In confronting these challenges various channels of communication should be explored in order to reverse the expansion of a culture that rejects God, manifested in secularism, relativism, scientificism, religious indifference and sometimes, militant and antireligious secularism.
Q: What aspects of pastoral activity should be the priority in the world today, considering the future of the Church?
A: As indicated by Saint Pope John Paul II in “Novo Millennio Ineunte” these are holiness, prayer, Sunday Eucharist, sacrament of reconciliation, the primacy of grace and listening to the Word and proclaiming the Word. The priest’s pastoral activity usually centre around the administering of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and penance. Sunday Masses are thus vital to the building up of the faith community. It is enjoined on priests by Vatican II (cf. “Christus Dominus”, No. 30) to make sure that Eucharistic celebration becomes the centre and culmination of community or parish life. A place must be found for individual confessions and spiritual direction so priests can assist the people in their spiritual life and journey. Vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life should be pursued as a matter of pastoral priority.
Q: How can priests imitate the holy Curé d'Ars, St. John Vianney, in their priestly ministry?
A: St. John Vianey went out of his way to assist sick priests from neighbouring parishes and offered his permanent service as confessor and director of souls to thousands of faithful who came to him from all over France.
Two ways of looking at the priesthood have since emerged. The first, from a social functional point of view sees the priesthood as service to the faithful particularly in terms of proclaiming the Word. The second viewpoint, which is ontological-sacramental and relates to the primacy of the Eucharist in the binomial “priesthood-sacrifice”, considers the priesthood as the sacramental gift of ministry given by the Lord through the Church (see J. Ratzinger, Life and Ministry of Priests, in Elementi di Teologia fondamentale. Saggio su fede e ministerio, Brescia 2005, p.165).
Q: Is the parish an outdated institution? What role should it play today?
A: The parish is a concrete "communitas christifidelium," with a stable existence within the sphere of a particular Church, and whose pastoral activity is entrusted to a parish priest as its own pastor, under the authority of a diocesan bishop. Therefore, the parish will always be valid, it will always have a future. The parish is not destined to disappear. But changes may occur such as the merger of parishes and the emergence of “pastoral units” in some parts of Europe due to changing demographics. Large parishes may also have to be divided to allow for more effective and accessible pastoral care of the faithful. This is common in Africa and Latin America. Interparish cooperation and coordination are becoming more and more common. Transport and communications should play a key role in future cooperation between parishes.