Biblical reflection on a ‘vibrant’ parish
“As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. … There are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’ God has so constructed the body…that if one part suffers all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor 12:12-26).
St. Paul’s famous letter to the Church in Corinth, Greece, in the early 50’s AD (only about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection) presents the fundamental requirements of a vibrant parish.
The Catholic Corinthians were struggling both from within and without. They were surrounded from the outside by Greek paganism and moral depravity. From the inside their members experienced significant snobbery, jealousy over charismatic gifts, bad theology and hierarchical division and favoritism. But of his two surviving letters to them, St. Paul’s analogy of a parish community being similar to the parts of a human body is brilliant. That analogy speaks to us as clearly in the 21st century as it did to our ancestors in the 1st century.
A heathy (i.e. vibrant) parish is one in which all the members of the church depend upon one another. A diseased parish (i.e. dying) is one in which one or many parts of the body isolate itself with a malignancy either real or imagined. Just as the eye cannot say to the hand “I do not need you,” neither can the religious education teacher say to the pastor, “I do not need you.” Just as the head cannot say to the feet, “I do not need you,” neither can the usher say to the maintenance worker, “I do not need you.” The obvious conclusion is that there is an interdependent relationship among all the members of the parish body: pastor, religious education teachers, parishioners, administrative staff, altar servers, lectors, maintenance staff and choir members. That relationship is not just for efficiency (like running a business), but it’s for the sanctification of the individual members of the parish. Just as when all the parts of a human body are functioning well it leads to health, so too, when all the parts of a parish are functioning well it leads to sanctity.
Vibrancy, then, it not a question of membership, location or resources. It is a question of commitment and cooperation. That commitment is expressed as follows: “I contribute to the offertory collection because this parish needs me to pay its bills and I need a parish.” “I will teach religious education because there are children who need me and I need them to carry on the faith.” “I will help with the funeral luncheon because that grieving family needs me, and they supported me in my grief.”
Maintaining that co-operation requires a lot of grace, and that is why our prayer for the body — the parish — draws its strength from Jesus in the Mass.
The Mass is the heart that supplies life to all of the various members of the parish body. When the heart is removed from a human body death ensues. When parishioners absent themselves from the Mass, the death of the parish ensues.
The parts of the body are created for joy, however. St. Paul reminds his parishioners that a vibrant parish is ultimately a joyful one because of the love and cooperation to which its members have committed themselves in sustaining one another.
—Originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.