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A reading of the new instruction by the Congregation for the Clergy

The Vatican has published an Instruction focusing on the evangelising mission of parish communities. Bruce Botha provides an assessment of the document and places it within the context of the South African Church.

On 20 July 2020, the Congregation for the Clergy — the Vatican Office dedicated to guiding the pastoral activities of the clergy — issued an Instruction entitled “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church.” Although the document brings nothing new, it is a pertinent and timely reminder of the continued mission of the parish in the service of the wider community.

The document notes that parishes can sometimes become inward looking, self-referential, almost fossilised in the way they think about themselves and their practices. When this happens, they are no longer focused on their most essential aspect, the call to be missionary disciples in the world. Pastoral conversion is the process by which all members of a parish community, and the very structures of the parish itself, are reoriented towards its missionary identity.

The value of this document is that it brings together the tradition of the Church, particularly the teachings of Vatican II, recent papal teachings on the nature of Church and its mission in the world, and sets it within the framework of canon law. The Church is normalising a new way of being Church, a Church that is more focused on the imperative of the gospel than on the survival of its comfort zones.

Instruction echoes Pope Francis’ vision for pastoral activity

What is pleasantly new in this Instruction is the evidence that the “Francis mindset” is percolating down to the different congregations that make up the Vatican administrative bureaucracy. The instruction, targeted at those with leadership responsibility in local church communities, is a call to both personal conversion and action. It makes normative a new way of being Church, as described in the recent apostolic exhortations Christus vivit, Gaudate et exultate and Evangeli Gaudium.

The instruction is a call to both personal conversion and action.

As I read through the document four things immediately struck me:

  1. The Instruction reaffirms the hierarchical model of parish, centred around the pastor.
  2. The laity have a unique and indispensable role in the parish community.
  3. The nature of parish has evolved, from one which was geographically delineated to one which is centred on common interest, purpose and relationships.
  4. The essential purpose and raison d’etre of the parish is to evangelise.

On the first point, one would hardly have expected a Roman document to say anything different. This is to some extent ameliorated by the second point, where the clergy are reminded that being pastor of a community is a position of service, and that we share the responsibility of leadership and stewardship with members of the Parish Pastoral Council and the Parish Finance Committee. Furthermore, the document emphasizes that the Church consists of the entire people of God who all share a common mission.

The Instruction recognizes that the territorial affiliation of the parish holds little sway over most Catholics but does not suggest alternative ways of formalizing membership in the faith community. This is a question that we are all struggling with, particularly in this time of COVID-19, when so much of what we think of as Church has migrated to digital platforms and virtual communities. Where does the geographic parish fit in when we can get virtual mass and virtual Jesus from anywhere in the world, in the comfort of our own homes and at our convenience?

The Instruction recognizes that the territorial affiliation of the parish holds little sway over most Catholics but does not suggest alternative ways of formalizing membership in the faith community.

Paragraph 9 highlights one of the dangers of a virtual community: “Interpersonal relationships risk being dissolved in a virtual world without any commitment or responsibility towards one’s neighbor.” Does the new parish, whatever that is, make it easier for us to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our brothers and sisters?

South African Church takes steps to be more missionary

If our new model of parish makes explicit the idea that the Church and its members do not exist only for themselves and their own benefit but for others, then our new trans-locational parish will produce the fruit of the Spirit needed for the living out of its baptismal identity: being missionary disciples of Christ.

The conversion of structures, which the Church must undertake, requires a significant change in mentality and an interior renewal.

This is what the Divine Renovation program, excellently articulated by Fr James Mallon, attempts to do. The Archdiocese of Johannesburg is trying to implement Archdiocesan Synod resolutions and the Pastoral Plan developed by the Southern African Bishops’ Conference.

As the document makes clear in paragraph 35, “The conversion of structures, which the Church must undertake, requires a significant change in mentality and an interior renewal, especially among those entrusted with the responsibility of pastoral leadership.”

This instruction is a useful aid in assisting the South African Church and her pastors on the journey of conversion and renewal, so that her ministry can become increasingly more outwardly focused and missionary.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.