Last month I attended the final Mass at a neighborhood parish. There were wake-like elements: tears, hugs, conversation, laughter, and stories. It had finality: parishioners would never assemble again in this church.
As I looked at the congregation in which walkers and bifocals far outnumbered car seats and juice cups, I thought about the parish history I had read. Written in 1957, it spoke of six Masses being celebrated every Sunday, a school that was flourishing, organizations teeming with participants.
I thought about other parishes that have closed or will be closing. Closing wasn't in their thoughts when terms like "packed," "long lines" and "waiting list" often defined the parish. Had someone asked 50 years ago, "Do you think our parish will ever close?" he or she would have been termed "crazy."
We need "crazy" Catholics. We need Catholics who, when the parish is thriving, think about what it would be like if the parish closed. We need them to freeze that image and then work toward never letting it become a reality.
No one wants to think about death at birth, or losing when winning, but crazy Catholics will do that; they'll recognize the goodness of what they have, what makes their parish a source of life, how it has an impact upon the community in which it exists, what ways it can serve its members and welcome new members, and they'll build upon that.
Quantitative factors determine a parish's viability, e.g., sacramental records, financial reports and projections, and demographic data of the area in which it is located. Equally telling is how often and how many of its parishioners speak about what used to be rather than what could be. Too much nostalgia and not enough vision might be the recipe for closure.
During that closing Mass, I reminded myself to reread Pope John Paul II's encyclical "The Mission of Christ the Redeemer," in which he elaborates about the new evangelization. He instructs Catholics regarding their call:
"I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church's energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes (to the nations). No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples."
That's the present and future church - and the parishes in which the church is rooted. Evangelization is Catholic and catholic. It takes effort, time, talent and money. It requires fortitude and courage, too, as evangelists are more likely to be targets than guests. John Paul II alluded to that in the encyclical:
"Today all Christians, the particular churches and the universal Church, are called to have the same courage that inspired the missionaries of the past, and the same readiness to listen to the voice of the Spirit."
That's why we need "crazy" Catholics - the ones who are so wild about their faith that it is contagious, the ones who bring life to their parish, and who make that parish Christ's presence in the community. It's a presence that draws people to it, embraces and warms them. It's the Gospel immersed in the present and reaching for the future; it's vision, not nostalgia.
Olszewski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.