Parish and Diocese: Competitors or Partners?

(From Church Personnel Issues, NACPA Newsletter, February, 1990, 1-4)

The church in the U.S. goes on about the monumental work of transformation which was projected at Vatican II. We may be titillated by the occasional sensational items --- another papal extravaganza here or there, perhaps a misguided episcopal foray into partisan politics or an ecclesiastical celebrity laid low by one or other censure, that sort of thing. But we must not allow ourselves to forget that the real work is going on in thousands of local communities where people are slowly learning to re-image themselves, the nature and role of their church, and the unwavering fidelity of our God.

Each year we shed a little more of the incrustations which had protected us from being confronted by the Lord who comes to us from out of our future. We live our way into new forms of praying and ministering and relating to one another and to a world where the same Lord who builds the church is already at work before its arrival. The church is a vast, complex reality and the project envisaged at Vatican II was shattering in its implications. Social change at the level of fundamental paradigm takes a long time and involves a lot of growing pains.

Even at this early stage of the process, however (and we need at times to remind ourselves that we really are just at the beginning), some distinguishable new issues are emerging. We have amassed a body of new experiences and have reached a point at which the natural dynamic impels us to name some of its features. I propose here to focus attention on but one facet of this complex experience, in the hope that by naming it we may learn better how to deal with it constructively.

The issue is the appropriate relationship between the parish church community and the diocesan church.

We begin from a venerable theological axiom: "Ecclesia facit Eucharistiam, Euchristia facit ecclesiam." It is the people of God who celebrate Eucharist, but it is the celebration of Eucharist which fashions the reality of that people as church.

One of the major developments of Eucharistic or liturgical theology over a 30-year period leading up to Vatican II was the re-discovery of the realization that Eucharist, because it is sacramental activity, is a localized, here-and-now activity. It does indeed link the celebrating community to the universal communion of those who celebrate the lordship of Christ around the world. But what is linked is not some abstract, non-incamated body of angels, but this unique group of Christians situated in this unique place and celebrating their unique story, their unique experience of the Lord's workings among them: a set of concrete magnolia dei not experienced in the same way by any other group of Christians. Their sins are forgiven, their deaths transformed, their resurrections quickening them.

This re-discovery of the localized character of Eucharist has as its natural consequence the re-discovery of the local church. Whereas, prior to Vatican II, when we heard of "the church" we might have been inclined to think instinctively of a world-wide institution, the council urges us to re-direct and re-focus our attention and understanding. Church is always initially an experience of face-to-face encounter with embodied people who tell us the wondrous story of their experience of a merciful Lord in the face of their own continued sinfulness. Church is initially that, but that is not its whole reality. If it remains only that, it betrays its initial impulse and becomes sect. Unless the small local face-to-face celebrating community is stretching out into communion with the other celebrating communities, what it is celebrating becomes suspect: is this the Eucharistic prayer of the humble publican who reaches out for the Lord's mercy, or is it the pseudo-Eucharist of the Pharisee who thanks God because he doesn't have to trouble himself to enter into relationship with "people like that'?

So for Vatican II, church is primarily the experience of local-communities-in-

communion-with-one-another-and-forming-world-church. But having taken that major step of re-orienting our thinking and attitude toward church, the council left us with the intriguing next question: "Where is the reality of local church to be situated?"

Curiously, the council documents give two answers. In one, church is the local community of persons gathered in fidelity around their bishop. In the other, church is the local assembly of persons gathered in celebration around the Eucharist.

These are very different answers. According to one, since it stresses the person of the bishop, "church," local church, seems to equal diocese --- which may never gather all its members in a single Eucharistic assembly. According to the other, "church" could equal parish, or even a smaller reality such as a home-Mass gathering or a Cursillo or retreat group -- which may never have seen a bishop.

This is not to say that the answers are mutually exclusive, much less contradictory. The council simply gives us two answers to a single question. It evidently intends that the working out of the ways in which both answers can be true is a life task for the Christian people. It is not an abstract intellectual puzzle to be deciphered, but rather a paradox to be lived, a tension which is intended to be creative and life-giving. It might even suggest the image of a high-wire balancing act, providing spine-tingling entertainment to the spectators, if not to the performers....

A Review of Some History

We may appreciate the full implications of all of this if we put ourselves back into a few different stages of church history and re-live the evolution of the experience and therefore of the questions it raised.

First we are gathered in the Jerusalem community of Christians soon after Pentecost. It's all pretty simple from the perspective of our question. The lines are neat and clean: there is one single unit of folk; it has clear, simple leadership; and leadership of the community seems to have been coextensive with leadership of one Eucharistic assembly.

Shortly thereafter, under the missionary impulse of the Gospel the Apostles got out and found new communities, and those communities soon have new leaders called bishops. A bit more complex. There are now several local communities and therefore a new question to be faced: how do they stay in communion? But organizationally it is still relatively simple: each community has a single Eucharistic assembly, the assembly is co-extensive with the community, and leadership in one is the same as leadership in the other.

Another stage takes place as the city churches expand and the civic and Christian population spreads out into what we might call today the suburbs. People couldn't get to the single Eucharistic assembly, but they were clearly members of the community wishing to be part of the one local church, so the practice began of taking the Eucharistic bread from the one assembly out to them. Thus another new question arises: just what is the nature of these outlying gatherings? They're anomalous: they don't have some of the characteristics of new missionary foundations, they participate in the reality of church somehow.

At a still later stage these gatherings clearly have their own resident leadership (finally called "priests," a word the New Testament writers never applied to any individual person except Jesus). Their Eucharist is real. But something new characterizes it: it happens in another place and time --- Eucharist is local, remember --- from that of the bishop. "Church" is now a clustering of more or less autonomous Eucharistic assemblies, each with its own life-story and leadership, united to a central unit led by a bishop. And so we have arrived at our present question: how do you keep these different manifestations of the reality we call church in communion or integration?

The Trent-Vatican I Solution

There is one way you can attempt the integration, and that is by employing the policy more or less consciously chosen by the church from the time of Trent through Vatican I and on through to 1962. You integrate by standardizing. You standardize policies, procedures, directives, and sanctions throughout the whole world. (White shall be the color for joyful liturgical celebration --- even if white is the color of mourning for some Christians who happen 'also' to be Chinese...). You standardize the people required to make it all go, by having a uniform seminary system with a uniform curriculum and training, down to the most minute rubrical detail. And you guarantee its continuity by selecting the next generation of leaders out of the pool of those who give evidence of having learned 'the system' best (in less ecclesial arenas it's called "quality control"...)

It worked. And for over 400 years. We must never forget that fact even as we become ever better at naming the byproducts which eventually became heavier than its benefits and brought it down. It was a human solution (and it always remains that; the church had to fight those who held that Christ had only a divine nature, and we have to fight the same fight for the church's own humanity). And as with any human solution, it achieved some values at the cost of others. The price was just slower to become evident than the benefits. Finally, though, it had the effect of reducing the parish --- and even the diocese, to a large degree --- largely to an administrative unit in a monocultural system. The parts were basically interchangeable, just take out one pastor and put in another; not much room for unique stories, unique needs, unique gifts, the unique self-disclosure of God. Matteo Ricci and Chinese rites have little chance in such a solution. The standardization of the diocese and universal church become the over-riding concern to which the parish community is subordinated.

The Congregational Solution

There is of course another way to hold it all together: by making the parish assembly the superior element. "What do we need the diocese for? It's just an albatross around our neck. Diocese is just a bureaucratic structure to provide some people a plush turf and drain off all our resources." In caricature, this is the outcome of the Congregationalist solution. The "local church" is only the parish. Diocese, if it has any right to be at all, exists merely to care for the interests and needs of those Catholics already organized into parish communities (or, perhaps more accurately, for our parish: "what has the diocese done for us lately/") Diocese is in effect a federation of parishes only. Surely the diocesan church should not be so brash as to suggest that maybe other Christian communities --- much less some non-Christian people called "neighbors" --- are perhaps needier than us....

One prevalent evaluation would suggest that what we are confronted with in today's church in the U.S. is rampant parochialism: parishes totally isolated and unaccountable to any reality larger than their own needs. If that evaluation be on the mark, it should not be so surprising to us: it's only the church version of the contemporary civic phenomenon of the breakdown of any sense of the common good, with the result that every vested interest is determined to get 'our share' without thought of anyone else. In such a world we all become minorities --- of one.

Vatican II's Solution: a Peer Relationship of Co-ordinated Units

What's deeply wrong with either of these solutions is not that either the diocese or the parish is superior, but the underlying superior-subordinate mentality itself. Vatican 11's answer cuts through that false assumption. The truth of the matter is that the parish community and the diocese are called to be peers, each enjoying its own integrity and each dependent upon the other for its authenticity as church. Thus we can say things like these:


A diocesan church without vibrant, humanly supportive parish communities is an imposing facade which is actually touching the lives of no one.

A parish community which is not allowing itself to be challenged to look beyond itself to the hungers and needs of a larger world is at best a garbled distortion of the Good News.

A diocesan church which without consulting them "knows better" than its own parishes what they need is on the verge of arrogance, quite apart from its irrelevance.

A parish community which takes a passive-aggressive stance toward the diocese and projects all responsibility on ' 'them' ' because ' 'they" don't measure up to our standards is a petulant child with a large beam in its eye.

A diocesan church which does not help its parishes to tell and celebrate their unique journey of faith and develop their own local tradition is practicing ecclesial abortion.

A parish community which thinks its unique story entitles it to withdraw from the creative tension of interaction with other, less blessed communities is an organism feeding on its own body, practicing ecclesial anorexia.

A Counter-Culture

There are many born-again folk out there stridently calling out to the church to become a counter-culture. It's not a bad idea; we can certainly use some different models than presently prevail in our society. But I suspect that its achievement may lie in forms such people rarely think about. A counterculture is not generated by isolated individuals living even highly moral lives; it happens when a whole people internalizes and lives out of an entirely different paradigm, one which permeates all the corporate manifestations of its life as a people.

I would suggest that the deepest way our church could become counter-cultural in contemporary America --- or even go counter to the international phenomenon of rampant nationalism --- is to become a communion of communities: where local uniqueness is celebrated and simultaneously challenged to become life-giving for "outsiders"; where being part of the larger community both supports the smaller and makes it authentic; where communion is achieved, not by suppressing the individuation and dignity of the smallest community, but by respecting its singular experience of the Lord; where Eucharist is simultaneously the resting-place for a particular people on a particular journey and the stimulus which impels the assembly not to settle down until the whole cosmic body of Christ is fed.

If parish communities and the diocese are to become authentic manifestations of church as a local, sacramental reality, they will have to appreciate each other's place in reflecting the Lord's care for the whole of creation and collaborate creatively in that mission. It will require the participative development of creative tension. And that will mean nothing less than a conversion for all of us: bishop no less than pastor, laity no less that the ordained. The task is enormous. But it's at least a start if we can be clear about the goal.