HAT MAKES for a successful and vibrant parish? This is a vast and deeply complex topic; there is no one simple “one size fits all” answer. Each parish is unique and has its own strengths and weaknesses. But in today’s Post-Conciliar Era—an age in which Mass attendance declined precipitously long, long ago—parishes can no longer take Mass attendance for granted. The Church must contend with the reality of “parish shopping” and a shifted mentality that “fulfilling one’s obligation” no longer is enough to fill the pews and coffers.
In some ways, this may be a good thing. Parishes, forced literally into survival mode, must engage the faithful with greater spiritual substance, even with a sense of healthy competition, hopefully upping everyone’s game.
While God is truly the only judge of what makes a “successful” parish, there are three pillars that must be in place for a parish to sow the seeds of growth and vibrancy. These are intended not simply to get people through the door, but to nourish and feed them with true spiritual food when they arrive, hopefully again and again. One or two of these on their own are a good thing, but the parish still may not survive. Cultivate and nurture all three, and a parish community has a chance to not only survive, but thrive.
1. A PARISH MUST BE A GENUINLY WELCOMING COMMUNITY.
This sounds rather simple, but it isn’t. It is also the most important of the three because it is a prerequisite to all else. If a person doesn’t feel welcomed, nothing else about the parish, no matter how wonderful, will matter. This goes well beyond the surface of friendly greeters. Genuinely welcoming parishes value the dignity of everyone in attendance, no matter how unattractive some of our fellow worshipers may be. There is recognition that we are all united in the love of Christ, and all have a place in God’s plan.
This message comes from the top—from the pastor, perhaps in word, but always in deed. (This message has come loud and clear from the very top: Pope Francis. OK, even higher: consider whom Jesus sought out to spent time with!)
Working toward a welcoming environment is a responsibility that therefore extends to every person on a parish staff and to every volunteer. This in turn becomes the culture of an institution which is propelled and magnified even further at the grass roots by parishioners themselves. To welcome the stranger and serve each other is a central aspect of Lex Vivendi—that how we live stems from our prayer and belief.
A welcoming environment is not about watering down the doctrine and teachings of the Church for the sake of accommodation. But it is a recognition that we are all sinners who all require the mercy, forgiveness, and redemption of God, and very importantly, that it is available to all. We all have something to work through and improve upon. Speaking for myself, I have a plank to remove from my own eye.
A welcoming parish is often what first attracts someone to stay in a parish because they have found a home—a home in God’s house.
2. WELL PREPARED, THOUGHTFUL, ENGAGING HOMILIES.
The quality of preaching has untold influence upon the vibrancy of a parish. It has more influence than music to keep people coming back week after week. (Consider, a musician is writing this.) While I am in no way any authority on homiletics, I know that homilies have the power to attract or repel, to draw the faithful ever closer “in the Spirit’s Tether” or to have people tune out and look at their watches. Homilies are not about entertainment or popularity, in fact quite the opposite. Nor is one required to have a charismatic or lively personality, as not all priests possess such gifts. But it is about being genuinely prayerful and thoughtful.
While finding away to engage the faithful is a challenge, and it is essential. As a Jesuit friend told me about how to approach giving homilies: “Believe, connect, and disappear.” This requires genuine belief and a love so strong for it that one cannot help but engage, connect, and therefore nurture the faithful. Words may be fleeting, but the impact may be long lasting. As such, one need be ready.
Consider that preaching in some other Christian denominations is everything. My experience in one such church was that the preachers would prepare an hour for every minute in which they speak. As a conductor, performer, and composer, I can attest that the ratio of hours of preparation per minute of music is often far greater.
If our priests prepare for several hours for a seven minute or eight homily (a recommended length by Pope Francis), our churches will fuller than they are now. More importantly, so will our hearts.
3. WELL PREPARED, VERY WELL DONE, PRAYERFUL MUSIC.
Roman Catholics posses the greatest treasury of sacred music—such that it is the foundation of all Western Music. Furthermore, Vatican II states:
“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, §112)
The neglect of our very own music is tragic. Instead, we are rather used to, if not content with, mediocrity. This is astonishing. Such desertion has contributed to the decline of liturgy, prayer, and therefore evangelization.
Our liturgical music is wedded to the Word, specifically accompanies the liturgical action, and as such helps us pray the words of the Mass. This in turn allows us to participate fully both externally in our singing and internally in our meditation on the Word.
And it must be done well. VERY well. In the last fifty years, we have set the bar exceedingly low. This is a tragedy for which we have paid dearly. For liturgical music is not merely entertainment or there to satisfy our own desires. It is there to point to God and not us.
Regardless of style, all liturgical music must be filtered through the lens of reverence. But, this does not preclude energy, excitement, or joy. Like a well-prepared homily, it is must engage. A musician must believe in the Word of God that they sing. A musician must connect with and engage the faithful. Prepare the music with love, competence, and hard, hard work, and our pews will be fuller. But more importantly, so will our prayer.
Many parishes conceded qualitative liturgical music as unobtainable. But it need not be extensive, complex or flashy. Prayerful and well-executed simple music goes a very long way.
But to accomplish this, one must hire carefully. It is not enough to find competent musicians. One must find well-trained musicians who have a love for the Church, love for its liturgy, and possess knowledge of the Roman Rite and Vatican II documents. And they must be paid a fair and livable wage, just as a parish would any other staff.
For on a pragmatic level, music is an investment. After preaching, it is the singular most powerful tool to get the faithful not only through the door, but to keep them coming back.
ALL THREE PILLARS MUST WORK IN CONCERT. If any one of them falls, the others suffer. Musicians cannot keep a parish alive by themselves. Preaching alone will not reach fertile hearts if the parish does not welcome all our brothers and sisters to seek God. Welcoming new parishioners does little good if we do not provide substantial spiritual food.
Finally, what truly defines success? Only God can judge this, but perhaps it is to do God’s will by serving him and each other. Do so, and our Church may flourish.