The parish that facilitates conversion
A number of years ago I helped a pastor at a small country parish move a very heavy baptismal font. As we moved it, he grimaced, not because of the weight, but because there was dust on it. “You never want to have dust on your baptismal font,” he commented.
Baptisms are the wellspring of parish life.
The Church and our parishes exist to share the saving mission of Jesus Christ with the world as He commissioned us: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit … (Mt 28:19). When we share this beautiful Gospel message, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we invite people to orient their lives toward Christ; that is, to conversion of life in Jesus Christ. Baptism is the visible and sacramental sign of our conversion.
At a recent conference on parish transformation, Father James Mallon, author of “Divine Renovation,” noted: “The Church is not a club. A club exists to serve its members. The Church is the only organization that exists to serve those outside of itself.” Our Church and parishes exist to help bring every person to conversion of life in Jesus Christ; both for those who do not know Jesus Christ yet as well as the ongoing conversion of its members.
Are conversions happening in our parishes? When Jesus met the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they commented, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us…” (cf Lk 24:32). Does our parish life help those who come to it to encounter and come to know the source of love, the one who loves us completely; do our hearts burn within us? Are people coming to know, love and serve our Lord more fully in this life, so they desire to be with Him forever in the life to come? Do we have an active Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program in our parish that serves to assist adults on their way to becoming Catholic? Are those of us in the pews striving for ongoing conversion as we seek to more fully live the life Christ is calling us too? These are good questions for us to be asking in our parishes.
Using Pope Francis’ model of missionary discipleship — encounter, accompany, mission — as well as our own personal experiences, we can consider some ways a parish can foster conversion of heart.
Encounter: Do people encounter Jesus Christ as they enter our parish community? This can be seen in the warm smile from the usher or greeter or even from the people in the pews as they sit down. Do they encounter Jesus Christ in the beauty, words and richness of the music? Are they able to clearly hear the Word of God proclaimed, and in the periods of silence that the Liturgy calls for, allow it to marinate in their hearts? Do they encounter Jesus Christ fully and consciously in the gift of the Holy Eucharist? In my early 20’s and finding my way to the Catholic Church, I remember being awestruck at Mass when I realized the profound nature of what was taking place and how the actions of the priest and ministers gave witness to the magnitude of the Paschal Mystery being made present in the Eucharist. In his most recent document, Pope Francis gave us one word describe this attractiveness of Christ in our parish life: Holiness. In it, he noted, “Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church” (“Gaudete et Exsultate,” 9)
Accompany: Both St. John Paul II and Pope Francis have commented that there should not be any “anonymous Christians” in our churches. In other words, we should acknowledge, know and walk with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is with good reason that our Lord didn’t send His disciples out “one-by-one” but instead “two-by-two.” We are meant to walk with each other and support each other in our Christian lives. In order to accompany our brothers and sisters in Christ, we must go outside of ourselves and our comfort zones and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to each other. When someone is going through difficulty, is the parish supporting and being present to them through its members? When a new baby is born, does the parish celebrate and support that new birth with concrete gestures such as a meal? Do others say of our parish communities, as they spoke of the early Christian communities, “See how they love one another?” (Tertullian)
Mission: The Gospel of Matthew ends with the Great Commission in which Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim the Good News to all the world, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Mt 28:19-20). This was not an optional invitation, but a directive. We end every Mass with “Go” followed by a directive such as “and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” We are directed to do our part in sharing this message of salvation and the resulting call to conversion with the whole world. Do we equip and inspire our parishioners to do this in their various environments and circumstances, family, work and social organizations — with whomever the Lord brings them too?
Pope Francis sought to call our parishes to bring the Gospel to all those we meet, wherever they are when he stated: “In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey and a centre of constant missionary outreach” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” 28).
If we follow this model of encounter, accompany and mission, maybe we can avoid having to dust off the parish baptism font from a lack of use.
Deacon Phil Lawson is the executive director of evangelization, catechesis, divine worship, marriage and family and respect life for the Diocese of Burlington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.