Reconfiguring Parish: Some Impacts of Catholic Sacramental Imagination

October 29, 2009


Church of the AscensionAmerican Catholics are attached to their churches. One of the most troubling issues emerging from the attempts to restructure parishes in different dioceses of the United States is the intense conflict that arises among people with the reconfiguring of local church. Parish closures sometime bring out the worst in people. As a pastor in the midst of one in the mid-1990s, I struggled to understand and bring resources to bear on it. What does an often contentious, sometimes stubborn resistance and explosive reactions of parishioners reveal about the character of American Catholicism? Protests, appeals to the media, extended ecclesial and civil litigation and even civil disobedience emerge from a complex web of Catholic identity and autonomy. It likewise reveals a unique American meaning of sacred space at the affective level of the heart. This article will reflect briefly about this phenomenon and propose some general issues of pastoral care for those ministering to parishes in this intense era of parochial transition.

What has been called Catholic sacramental imagination plays the “rules of church” in some unique ways. Imagination is the way humans negotiate the terrain of their lives.  Dictionary definitions nuance this faculty as a mental creative ability for forming images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses or of what has not been experienced. This capacity enables people to face and resolve even unexpected or unusual problems with resourcefulness. It is further delineated as a “power” for recombining former experiences in the creation of new images directed at a specific goal or aiding in the resolution of problematic circumstances.

Catholics have a distinct way of imagining, anchored in a “firm conviction that the Christian God never ceases to be incarnate in symbolic form.” (Stephen Happel, New Dictionary of Spirituality and Worship, p. 1245) Sacramental imagination sees reality through the lenses and consequences of the tradition of seven ritual sacraments.

» Enchanted: Open to a world filled with angels, saints and mystery.
» Sacramental: A more general attitude that that all created reality is open to the presence of a God who “lurks” there.
» Analogical: It tends to emphasize the metaphorical nature of persons, places and things.
» Exists in a dense forest of imagery and story.
» Imminent rather than transcendent.
» Recognition that “all space is sacred and some space is more sacred.” (Andrew Greeley, Catholic Imagination, (2000), 1-21.)

Imagination is ultimately also connected to “vision.” Cardinal Newman is often quoted as having said, “The real battles of life take place within the human imagination.” It is there that our most foundational images of church dwell, the place of our most vital memories of religious epiphany, of comfort, healing or grappling with the realities of sin and death. Philadelphia psychologist Patricia Kelly notes that the most successful parish restructurings require a change of image of church from static to dynamic and lavish forgiveness. When this change of our internal shape of church cannot change from thing or architecture to…a gather of people on mission, there is little hope for participation in the reshaping of local parish. Many of these drop away before the processes of discernment are complete. Interpersonal forgiveness requires reframing the stories of one’s life with the details of another’s, often the perpetrator of one’s harming. This mysterious reframing of story is at the heart of shaping new local community with more extensive borders.

A first consequence of sacramental imagination is that Catholics tend to see their churches as sacred places, echoing with distinctly enchanted and enchanting voices. A child once socialized with the rites of Christmas is fundamentally changed. This insight gives a completely new context to the old maxim, "Once Catholic, always Catholic.” The line between the church as “architecture” and as “assembly” is very thin. Adjust the assembly and the architecture is effected and visa versa.

Another key to almost any form of effective parish restructuring is an image of not just viable a local Catholic community but vital Church. Someone in leadership must have an idea and convince the folks in the pews that this vision will allow local church to do its work better than the original configuration. Sometimes it feels like the decision to close or merge parishes is made before the vision is articulated by leadership of better functioning parish. “Where there is no vision," says the Book of Proverbs, "the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) Or as Fr. Anthony Gittins noted from The Jerusalem Bible translation, where there is no vision, the people “get out of hand.” (Anthony Gittins, Presence that Disturbs (2002) 59-64.) Perhaps some of the turmoil that emerges after bishops announce parish closures from their processes of diocesan wide pastoral planning, is a failure of inspired leadership.

To dedicate space for worship, one of the most ritually dense of Catholic rites after the great Easter Vigil, is prescribed, “The Dedication of a Church and an Altar.” The altar and walls of are “chrismed,” the space is solemnly illuminated, incensed, and dressed as one would a baptized child. The experience of the closure of parishes over the past few decades has sometimes revealed an uneven ritual mathematics. There are no rites required to “un-dedicate” sacred space. It requires only a letter from an Ordinary. Many dioceses in recent times have provided remarkable ritual resources for accompanying closures of parish and the leave- taking of their worship space that borrowed from the dedication rites. Ritual stinginess affects something in the Catholic imagination; perhaps the long developed sensibilities about the integrity of sacred space, rite and people when it is done too quickly. Hence, The Order of Christian Funerals is the second most popular resource for parish communities saying good-bye to venerable places of worship. The recalling of baptismal washing and clothing, final commendation to the mercy of God and burial/memorial parallel the death and the surrender to God of a community’s life and history.

It is dangerous to use rites crafted for one purpose to accompany another moment in the life cycle of a parish community. But it is also natural for Catholics to turn to their most familiar ritual repertoire when looking for the proper rites to accompany the disillusion of a parish. Perhaps the most important criteria for effectiveness of these rites was the bringing to bear of the Paschal Mystery on the reality of a parish’s life. Lutheran liturgical theologian Elaine Ramshaw says a rite at variance with real life situations lacks an integrity, imputing feelings to a congregation’s state of mind, forcing people to ritual statements they are not inclined or yet ready to make.  This she calls "dishonest ritual." (E. Ramshaw, Ritual and Pastoral Care, (1987), 26-27.) Rites used for the reconfiguration of parish must not attempt to manipulate to some desired outcome. Rather, they should simple accompany significant moments in the journey to reframed local community.

Intense conflict does not always result from the decisions by planners and diocesan leadership to close or restructure parishes. But when it does, some consequences emerge the heat of conflict in the reconfiguration of local church a diminishment of trust in sacramental authority and the efficacy of sacramental ritual. It’s not that Catholics no longer believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, for example, but after the struggles to decide with pastors and bishops over which churches to close and which to maintain open, they just sometimes no longer trust the minister. Pastoral care in the context of these processes require outside facilitation and trusted agents to accompany the faithful of a parish as well as their pastors and ministers. Time lines to implement these changes are often set from financial and liturgical calendars, rather than the "kairos" of grieving and the completion of the proper rites. The lavish ritual and the extended time given to a family waking the death of loved one is also required for communities in transition.

Worship space bears the history of a community of people with their culture and story written on the stone and glass. Dedications for special events in family and local community are often enshrined in the local religious architecture. Memories of sacramental celebrations are evoked by the space and iconography. Reconfigured parishes require thoroughly renovated worship space or completely new architecture. Most of the time, one cannot build a new history of a local parish community in the space built and designed for another.

“It ain’t your fault,” is one of my favorite announcements to communities and leadership looking at closure or consolidation of parish. It is the work of the Spirit in each generation shaping the “communio” of the church to the reality of the times. Changes to the configuration of local Catholic community first requires time. Conversations with people across the country taught me that that it takes an average of ten years to plan and ten years to implement changes to boundaries of a local parish community and its worship space. Do planners and diocesan leaders have time to accompany a journey of this magnitude? If not, prepare for powerful resistance and discharge of strong corporate emotions. Furthermore, reconfigured parishes require thoroughly renovated worship space or completely new architecture. Most of the time, one cannot build a new history of a local parish community in the space built and designed for another culture of church.

In short, the process of moving from one configuration of local church requires the following:

» Time
» Vision
» Renovated or newly designed worship architecture
» Pastoral care and after care
» Honest and lavish rite
» Forgiveness
» A change of image of church from static to dynamic

Based on Michael Weldon, “Folding Up the Tents: Catholic Imagination and the Rites of Parish Closure,” New Theology Review, Vol. 19, no 2 (May 2006), 23-32.

Michael Weldon, OFM, a Franciscan friar from Santa Barbara, CA. Province, is the author of A Struggle For Holy Ground: Reconciliation and the Rites of Parish Closure (Liturgical Press, 2004). He is currently the Director of Spiritual Formation and Assistant Professor of Pastoral Studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology, Hales Corners, Wisconsin.

Photo by Michael Jensen of the Church of the Ascension, Minneapolis, MN


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