Oddly nestled between neat suburban houses on a city street in Albany, New York, stands a quaint wooden building with a cupola bell tower, more reminiscent of a one room school house from Little House on the Prairie than a contemporary house of worship. What catches the eye is a small hand-painted sign that invites parishioners and passersby - BELOVED OF GOD, WELCOME.
As I drive on to the hospital where my father lays in a coma, I think about how appropriate that sign would be at the gates of heaven. I pray fervently through endless tears that my father will find Heaven to be that exquisite place of welcome for a beloved child of God.
At the same time I become acutely aware of the role that little homespun parish must play in bringing and being God's Kingdom to its parish “family,” and how well they had made their mission known in that simple wooden sign.
In the days following my father's death, when grief threatened to overwhelm my soul, I found myself frequently thinking about the dynamic of church community and the significant impact it has on the lives of its members. What is a parish? What is “church” for the faithful who look for Christ on earth?
Phrases such as “Family of God,” “community of believers” and “Body of Christ” imply an entity comprised of people intimately bound together by a life grounded in the love of Christ. Ideally such a place would offer spiritual nourishment, emotional support and a special kind of love born of the Spirit.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the role of the parish as “the place where all the faithful can be gathered together for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.” To this end there is no greater gift—the promise of eternal life through the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Truly, the Mass and reception of Communion is a unique treasure for Catholics, as are all of the Sacraments. We know the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. Still, there are other treasures to be found within the womb of a parish community.
The Catechism also acknowledges that the parish “teaches Christ's saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love.” It is this aspect that makes the love of Christ visible to the community. St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, reminds the members of the early church, “You form a building which rises on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets with Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
As such it is imperative to consider that while Jesus continually challenged his disciples to follow him without compromising the truth, no matter the cost, he did so with an invitation to love and be loved. He expected obedience, but offered forgiveness. He desired conversion, but offered mercy.
When Jesus washed the feet of his apostles it was not just a symbolic gesture to remind others of their obligations, but the embodiment of a reality he expected of his whole church. Serve others, be present to others, humble yourself and be like Christ.
For me, and for many others, the shepherding parish is an extension of our family. It is a place that invites us in, with all our shortcomings, and loves us—as Jesus, the Shepherd, would love us. Catholics need to experience the love of God in the sacredness of the sacraments and in the ordinary holiness of daily life as well. Parishes that enable their people to make this connection have truly established “the household of God” (1 Tim 3:15). This need to experience the parish as family is all the more vital at a time when families everywhere are fragmented by contemporary pressures.
A parish which extends itself in service to the community, which provides a variety of ministries for its people to undertake, a parish which offers love and compassion and forgiveness, in addition to catechesis and the sacraments, is a parish living out the call of Christ to “feed my flock.” These are shepherding parishes, parishes that have the ability to evangelize the lost in their “family” and the broader community, as well. But first they have to put out the sign:
BELOVED OF GOD, WELCOME!