How a parish of 30,000 people can become a vibrant community if lay volunteers are trained and used well – former leader of the Columbans in England, Ed O’Connell, now back in Peru, explains.
How do you start a parish from scratch? In Puente Camote (translated in English as Sweet Potato Bridge) in Peru it was carried out by using trained lay volunteers. Since the place was first settled in 1989, by around 30,000 people, the Church has become a vibrant part of the community, thanks to the work of volunteers who created the 12 Christian communities that in turn enabled a parish to be formed.
The people who formed the new community of Puente Camote realised early on that they needed help to start a church, and after organising themselves into housing associations, they turned to the Catholic Church for help. They got it from John Hegerty, the then regional director of the Columban missionaries in Peru, who in 1995 was asked for experienced lay volunteers from local parishes to work this new mission territory for three years. Fr Hegerty and John Boles – another Columban – were assigned to accompany 46 volunteers whose selection and theological training took six months. It was hard work as the area covered 10 square kilometres and the volunteers, now divided into teams, had long distances to walk, often up to their ankles in dust, as they endeavoured to meet people and bring them together.
First, they would invite neighbours to gather in homes and pray together, often using the Rosary. As local people became more trusting, a common cause of setting up a Christian community in their neighbourhood developed. That needed the commitment of the neighbours to meet weekly to study the following Sunday’s readings. As many as 18 different groups met each week to study the liturgy, with the gospel always read twice, and people were then asked if they understood the text and what insights they had gained for themselves and their community.
After three years, as planned, the volunteers returned to their own parishes, leaving the local people and the two priests to assume the responsibility of developing the newly founded communities. Most of the volunteers who left became founding members of the Columban lay missionary programme in Peru; others found it difficult to let go of their leadership roles and had to be encouraged to do so; sometimes this took as long as two years.
The mission territory of Pablo Cuente formally became Our Lady of the Missions parish in 1995, and to this day, although proud of becoming a parish, the people still see themselves as a community of 12 communities.
The laity has shown perseverance in the difficult task of obtaining land, be it donated, bought, borrowed or even “invaded”, on which to build their small halls and eventually their chapels. There were even times when the bishop had to hand back land we had taken after complaints from irate neighbours. Sometimes members of the communities became just as upset when unscrupulous housing association leaders sold off land earmarked for community use.
As well as the weekly liturgy group, the communities have choirs, prayer groups and locally based teams for sacramental, youth and social welfare programmes. The presence of so many halls and chapels near to them has meant fewer people drift away to other denominations and sects. Another bonus is that with 12 communities there are plenty of jobs to be shared around, allowing for many ministries to flourish. With an average of 175 people regularly participating in each community, the overall church attendance for the parish is over 2,000 and shows every sign of increasing.
Each of the 12 Christian communities has the same structure with the members electing their coordinator, vice-coordinator, secretary and treasurer; the veto available to the parish priest is rarely used. Sometimes personality clashes make life difficult and resolving disputes takes time and energy.
On occasion tensions develop when a coordinator has a style of leadership the people would associate more with the cut-and-thrust of a political party, or the not necessarily squeaky clean ways of a township management team. Forgiveness and reconciliation can take a long time when people belong to a small community where everybody sees each other each day, and where if one or two are not getting on the rest of the family and friends can take sides: then you feel closer to hell than heaven. Eventually, after much soul searching and a few people brave enough to bring matters to a head in a community meeting, reconciliation can be achieved and the community can grow stronger and become more mature.
The parish council – which consists of the 12 coordinators of the Christian communities, the coordinators of each of the parish programmes and the two priests – meets monthly, on the third Saturday afternoon. As many as 70 people attend and these meetings rotate around each of the communities to reinforce the idea of the parish as a “community of communities”. It provides the members with the opportunity to express concerns and come up with alternative ideas of how best to run the communities and the pastoral programmes. The mood of the meeting is usually a good indicator of how well things are going.
As well as summer catechetical schools for our people, in which they study everything from theology to psychology, there are also nearly 100 eucharistic ministers, each serving for three years. As well as attending the summer course they also have their own obligatory formation programme during the year and they take this commitment very seriously – their ministry is essential to the very existence of the communities and hence of the parish itself. Sometimes they take their office so much to heart that at the end of their three years they find it difficult to let go and can get upset when new people are named, purely to rotate ministries among all the members of the community.
Much can be learnt from being part of a lay-led and de-centralised parish like Pablo Cuente. It means the parish priest has to give priority to the formation of the laity by providing the necessary courses and also give his time to accompanying the people in the exercise of their ministries, encouraging them and explaining to the faithful why the laity are taking such a prominent role in the life of their local church. I have found the extra effort very much worthwhile. There is the possibility that occasionally zeal takes over and people exceed their role or authority but, as this tends to be more the exception than the rule, it is a risk worth taking.
Given the shortage of priests in Peru and in many parts of the world, there is a growing need for the laity to lead Sunday services of the liturgy of the Word and Holy Communion. Surely it is better for a vibrant parish, even a small one, to function with lay-led liturgies on Sundays than allow it to be closed or reduced in status simply because of the shortage of priests? ‘Parishes also have an opportunity to become schools of formation, not only for individuals and their personal growth in the Christian life, but also to enable lay people to develop their talents, and hence ministries, in an effort to reach out and serve the needs of civil society in the name of the Risen Lord.
This article first appeared in The Tablet (26-3-05) and in the June 2005 edition of PRE (Pastoral Research Exchange).