Once some friends came to visit me and, though I had given them directions as to how to get to our house, they thought they knew better. So, when they arrived in our section of the town they asked the way to the local parish house. However, to their great surprise they did not find me there. The parish priest explained that I was living in our formation house and not at the parish. He then asked a young man to bring them to the right place. This simple incident shows how many people associate the missionary (priest, religious brother and sister) with a parish set up. Most of us have had to answer the question: “what parish are you working in?” And if we are not working in a parish, it can be difficult to explain what exactly our ministry is. It is true that the missionary ministry is not limited to a parish context but the parish is a fundamental locus for missionary activities. It is a focal point for the life of a Christian community. Meaningful Christian living cannot be divorced from a parish community.
The reception and interpretation of the missionary orientation of recent Chapters might have given the impression that parishes no longer have to play a central role in the pastoral activities of the Missionaries of Africa. Our last Chapter reminds us that the parish is not only a means of our collaboration with the local Church but that it is the place where we can put our charism into practice and make it visible and attractive. To reinforce our insertion in parish ministry, the Chapter gave some specific guidelines. A parish under the direction of a community of Missionaries of Africa should be characterised by its openness to primary evangelisation, interest in the formation of the laity, special attention to the existential peripheries, search for justice, peace and reconciliation, commitment to the integrity of creation (our common home), involvement in ecumenical relations and dialogue with Muslims and those of other religions.
The parish is not just a geographical entity or a canonical category but, above all, it is a human, social and ecclesial reality. It is a human community: the community of the Disciples of Christ and the People of God. The Parish is a pastoral tool for the spiritual and pastoral animation of God’s People. Each parish has its own specific characteristics, which need to be taken into account if it is to have a meaningful pastoral ministry. These elements can be influenced by its geographical location (urban or rural), the presence of believers of other religions among the local population… the stage of evangelisation as well as the pastoral orientations of the diocese. However, a healthy pastoral approach will certainly aim at improving the faith of the Christian community, bringing about better human relations among the different social and religious groups that compose the local population. This implies bringing the Gospel values into the lives of the human community.
Regarding its organisation, the different groups involved (age, gender, socio-professional, languages spoken …etc) have a role to play in the life of the parish. Inspired by the inclusive attitude of the Good Shepherd, the pastors welcome everybody in view of building up a fraternal human community: that of all the Children of God. Therefore, it becomes imperative that special attention has to be given to people or sections of the parish that present specific challenges. In this perspective, the passage in Luke’s Gospel regarding the disciples of Emmaus summarises the required pastoral attitude: Jesus joins the two disciples on their journey and to dispel their frustration he explains the Scriptures to them … this awakens the fire of faith and their hearts burn within them… in their turn they became messengers of the Good News of the Resurrection… the fire of faith spreads like wildfire.
Therefore, a pastoral approach, based on the experience of the disciples of Emmaus, involves taking people from their daily life experiences on a journey through the Scriptures to the joy and hope of the Resurrection, to an encounter with the Risen Christ. It means accompanying the community on its journey. The life of a parish can therefore be organised on four pillars: scriptures, prayer life, celebration of the sacraments and fraternal love, which should be visible among its members as well as those people living around them. Basic Christian Communities (BCC), (or Small Christian Communities), has championed this way of building the Christian experience based on these pillars. As grassroots structures in a parish, they have made the Christian faith lively and attractive. Therefore the Shepherd accompanies the Christians in their search for Christ in their daily lives and events.
A witnessing community of pastoral agents is a blessing for the running of a parish. Collaboration in teamwork, which has been a hallmark of our missionary approach, has led most of our communities to the elaboration of apostolic projects. The apostolic project outlines the aims, objectives and the means of achieving dynamic parish communities. If it is to be successful, there is a great need for good communications among the members of the community. An apostolic project has the advantage of being a reference point for the evaluation of the health of the parish. When a parish pastoral team has not been able to elaborate an apostolic project for the running of the parish, it will be very difficult for them to find out what has or has not worked, all the more so when it comes to deciding what needs to be corrected or given priority in future years. It gives a common vision to pastoral work in the parish. This approach is very important today because of the great mobility of confreres. A clear apostolic project makes things easy for a new pastoral team to take over the reins of a parish. Experience has shown that well planned and coordinated pastoral work (be it at the parish, deanery or diocesan levels) bears much fruit. It is a source of new missionary dynamism.
However, since pastoral work involves human lives, such a project needs to be flexible, taking into consideration the socio-political, economic and human circumstances of the particular situation. Pastors must therefore be familiar with reading the signs of the times. The parish pastoral council is an important instrument in this context. It is also a representative, consultative body that helps the pastors take the appropriate decisions for the animation of the community. It is of paramount importance that such a council is composed of people from different sectors and groups in the parish. As a pastoral council, it is meant to discern the appropriate ways of living the Christian faith in their particular or specific circumstances whilst providing evangelical solutions to the legitimate aspirations of the people. Such a council is a grace in the life of a parish.
To all intents and purposes, a parish should be a community of love and prayer that radiates the gospel values through its simple presence. The gospel should impact on the lives of the people. The pastor should work towards bringing the transformative power of the gospel into the lives of the people. In a world that is changing very rapidly there are new pastoral challenges that require a creative prophetic spirit in our ministry.