In a recent article in Church Life Journal, Timothy O’Malley provides an insightful take on the declining numbers facing the Church. Rather than focusing on the typical numbers, explanations, and solutions we tend to hear about, O’Malley draws on the work of German sociologist Harmut Rosa to point us to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the sociological context that is feeding this decline.
In the article, O’Malley explains that we as humans have focused so much on seeking to control our world and our lives, we have lost what Rosa terms “resonant relationships.” These relationships are characterized by mutually adaptive transformation, meaning that as we engage with the world and enter into relationships with others around us, we shape the world and others, and in turn they shape us. Such relationships are core to who we are as human beings. However, when through new advances in science and technology we can control (or at least seek to control) almost every aspect of our lives, we alienate from those mutually transformative relationships, and we end up feeling disconnected and alone.
In applying this line of thinking to the Church’s current situation, O’Malley notes there is a understandable tendency in the midst of the seeming chaos (the sex abuse crisis, hypocritical and absent Bishops, a global pandemic, boring homilies, bad music, etc.) and drastically falling numbers, to try to find ways to control that chaos. Ironically, it is the well-intentioned attempt to try and find solutions to those problems that often exacerbates them. In seeking to control the uncontrollable instead of choosing to engage with it and relate to it, we lose a resonant relationship with it, which is to say we lose the possibility of a positive transformative experience. In this case, in which we are dealing with the Church, the loss of that resonant relationship leads people to become disaffiliated and leave. O’Malley sums it up perfectly when he says:
Perhaps, the problem of disaffiliation therefore cannot be solved through a brand-new pastoral plan, hiring consultants, and purchasing a great new book that puts together best practices that will renew your parish. Nor for that matter will a book on apologetics or changing doctrines for the modern mindset lead people to magically “rejoin” the Church. Rather, we must find a way for the Church to resonate with men and women once again as a Eucharistic reality—a communion of love that unites heaven and earth, accompanying us through the uncontrollability of our lives. Here, we are all on pilgrimage together, seeking not control, but instead offering ourselves as a sacrifice of love in the world along with the angels and the saints. Such an approach takes patience, listening, and the stability of belonging to those who mourn and weep in this valley of tears together.
In his call “to resonate with men and women once again as a Eucharistic reality,” O’Malley hits on a core reason Pastoral Parish exists. We are here to help parishes thrive in their Sacramental life so that they do exactly that. In order to do that, we need to address two key things. First, how the sacraments are the primary way the Church is able to resonate with men and women, and second, how to help parishes foster resonant relationships through the Sacraments.
One of the key components of a resonant relationship is engaging with and relating to the uncontrollable instead of trying to control it. The Sacraments were instituted by Christ and gifted to the Church to preserve and administer until the end of time. The Sacraments do not belong to us. They are not ours to play with or change. There may be some superficial differences affected by time and cultural context, but the claim of the Church is that fundamentally the Sacraments are the same as they were when they were celebrated by the Apostles. In short, we have no control over the Sacraments. So long as the correct form is followed as dictated by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, God’s grace will flow and Christ will be present in the Eucharist. It does not matter whether or not the priest is holy, it does not matter if his homilies are boring, it does not matter if he is traditional or progressive. So long as the right words are said by a validly ordained priest, the Sacraments happen.
This is precisely the audacity and the beauty of the Sacraments, because as a gift from God, the Sacraments act as a reminder that we are not the masters of our own fate (and are in need of serious help), and stand as islands of safe refuge where, in the midst of the sea of uncertainty in our lives, we know we will find grace. This reality is the great Catholic proposal to the world, in which we invite every person to the Sacramental reality of grace. In embracing the uncontrollability of the Sacraments, reflecting on the purpose each one serves in our lives, and opening ourselves to receive grace, every person can find refuge, refreshment, and accompaniment “through the uncontrollability of our lives.” O’Malley beautifully writes more in depth in a subsequent article what he envisions as a “Eucharistic Culture of Affinity”, and we firmly believe that if we can recapture this understanding of the Sacramental life, those resonant relationships with the Church will form and the Church will truly find herself in a new springtime of evangelization.
As many of you may be thinking, this is all well and good, but what does this mean for a parish practically speaking? How the heck is a parish supposed to be able to do that when we’re already stretched incredibly thin on time, resources, and brain space? As we alluded to in our last blog post, one of the problems of the last 20 years of the New Evangelization is that we have created countless new programs and initiatives geared towards transforming the Church and increasing our numbers, but few if any of them deal with the core, practical needs of the Parish. No program or consultant can transform a parish unless those core, practical needs of the parish are met. We need priests and parish staff who aren’t overwhelmed, we need priests who have more time, we need parishes with ministry teams who aren’t burned out from trying to keep track of all the Sacramental preparations so that they can be truly present to the people they are forming.
We’ve said it before, and we’re going to keep saying it: this is why Pastoral Parish was created. We are not here to transform your parish (because we can’t), we are not here to make promises about your numbers. We are simply here to provide a tool that helps your priests and parish team be more efficient in Sacramental Preparation, because we know that what they need the most is more time and less stress. When priests and parish staff have more time and less stress, then suddenly they can begin focusing on what programs might be the most effective in their particular parish, they can be more present to the parishioners they are ministering to, they can spend more time in private prayer or retreat, they can focus on forming their parishioners to have a deeper understanding of what it means to live a Sacramental life, they can walk together with their parishioners in that Sacramental life. The audacity and the beauty of the Sacraments should shake us out of our desire for control, and be our source of strength and comfort through the chaos of life. We can’t make that happen for you, but we can provide the tool that helps you have the time and energy to determine the best path to that understanding for your team and your parish.