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The welcoming parish – Donal Harrington

29 November, 2011

What is our parish for? The key issues – vision, leadership structures, getting people involved, planning for the future, adult faith, young people – are all addressed by Donal Harrington in this excellent book.

210 pp, Columba Press, 2005. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie .



  1. Why parish?
  2. The last supper
  3. A ministering community
  4. Welcome
  5. A feeling of home
  6. Deciding together
  7. Planning for the future
  8. Composing a vision statement
  9. Parishes together
  10. Getting people involved
  11. Ministry groups in the parish
  12. The parish pastoral council – Appendix: pastoral council annual review
  13. Setting up a pastoral council – Appendix: a blessing ritual for the pastoral council
  14. Welcome to the meeting
  15. Families
  16. Baptism, communion, confirmation
  17. Adult faith
  18. The ministry of the word – Appendix: a blessing ritual for ministers of the word (in English/as Gaeilge)
  19. Justice ministry in the parish
  20. Communication
  21. The parish and young people
  22. Visiting the parish
  23. Mass ministry
  24. Care




This book presents the best thinking and practice available to parishes today. There is a particular focus on the theology embodied in the practice. The reader is offered ways of thinking about parish and its different activities that can inform planning and sustain local creativity.

The theme of welcome is to the fore throughout. All that is life-giving in parish today can be seen to revolve around welcome. A welcoming parish is a place where people do not just hear but also feel the Good News of the gospel. The book reflects the growing sense that evangelisation is first and foremost about welcome.

Chapter 1 – Why Parish?

Everybody knows what a parish is. Whether everybody knows what it is meant to be is another matter. Everybody would know a parish if you pointed it out to them, but do we know what a parish is in its essential purpose?

Tied up with this is the fact that ‘parish’ means different things to different people. Sometimes in a group, I begin discussion with a brainstorm of the associations the word ‘parish’ has for people. Here is a sample of what comes up:

territory, people, priests, frustration, community, money, hard seats, identity, stations, holy water, footbal team, heritage, confirmation, jealousy, belonging, worship, politics, family, Christmas crib, personalities, insular, Mass cards, funerals, schools.

The list reflects people’s memories, a mix of nostalgia and pride, warmth and disillusion. The list also reflects something of people’s vision and hopes. In this, it offers a glimpse into the essential purpose of the parish.

Over the next few chapters we will be reflecting on that purpose – on the aim and mission of the parish. Back in 1963, Pope Paul VI had this to say: ‘1 believe that this old and respected structure of the parish has an indispensable mission of great contemporary importance.’ It is a great expression of hope in a new and bright future. These chapters seek to unfold something of that hope.

The territorial parish
However, not all would agree with what he says. Some would hold that parish is more a thing of the past than a thing of the future. They would say that tomorrow’s church will take different forms and that parish belongs to a form of church that is becoming obsolete.

There may be different reasons for people holding this view, but a prominent one would be related to the words ‘territory’ and ‘boundaries’ in the brainstorm above. Here ‘parish’ is an organisational word. It refers to an administrative unit, like a branch office of a multinational. (Interestingly, in that comparison, it’s what goes on at the centre that matters; branch offices can be closed down!)

We all see how this form of parish is breaking down today, especially in urban areas. People do not identify with their local church in the way that they used to. People ‘shop around’ and the place where they worship may not be the place where they live. Increasingly we have ‘non-resident parishioners’.

Indeed, where people worship may not be linked to parish at all. It may be more about a group of people, from all kinds of different places, whose’ common denominator’ is not where they live, but some shared interest or experience. Tomorrow’s church, it is argued, will be characterised by people belonging to small groups with a vibrant shared sense of discipleship.

Some advocate that we should move our resources into what is known as ‘sector ministry’. Sector ministry is ministry where people are. For years we have had chaplains (more recently, pastoral teams) in hospitals and schools and prisons. Now we are seeing this kind of practice extend to such places (‘sectors’) as shopping centres, industry and business.

It is worth mentioning here also the phenomenon of what might be called non-geographical parishes. In our now multicultural society there is a growing ministry specifically for ethnic groups that is not tied to a parish territory. Similarly, in the Dublin diocese, there is the Parish of the Travelling People which is diocese-wide and transcends geographical boundaries.

In ways such as these, the grip of the territorial parish is loosening. Faith community and geographical community do not necessarily coincide. Alongside this is another trend: that as more dioceses go down the road of strategic planning, pastoral strategies will be multi-pronged. There will be strategies that do not have the traditional parish as their focal point. There will be a communications focus; there will be an education focus; there will be a social justice focus; there will be a youth focus; and so on. And there will be a parish focus.

In this future, parish will be one focus among many. It will continue to be a focus. But it will not be the only focus of pastoral strategy in a diocese. And yet, I would suggest, it will be the core focus. Even as neighbouring parishes work more and more together as pastoral units, the individual parishes within that larger unit will endure. Let me explain why.

The faith community
Pope John Paul II once said that the parish is ‘not principally a structure, a territory, or a building, but rather the family of God, a fellowship afire with a unifying spirit, a familial and welcoming home’. In the light of the above trends, this stands as a challenging perspective.

It means that the parish is to be seen as people. Of course it is other things as well. It is an administrative unit. It is a provider of services. It is, normally, a geographical area. But this is all the background. In our understanding of parish, the foreground is occupied by people. I recall speaking with a Chinese priest who was saying that, with the widely scattered Christian communities in his country, the parish has no buildings – just people.

As an image for this point, think of watching a dance. We can be captivated by dance – the charm of the movement, the elegance, the rhythm, the vitality, the gracefulness. But if we could see through all that – perhaps with an X-ray camera -we would see, beneath the skin of the dancer, the bones and sinews, skeleton and muscles. It is the fine-tuning of all this structure that makes the dance possible, but the structure itself is invisible.

The quotation above is an invitation to think of parish as the dance – and to think of the structures as in the background. The structures and buildings, the organisation and administration aspects, are not primary. They are at the service of people. They are there to enable the dance. But how many, who look at parish and church, see the dance? How many see only a structure?

Some people today suggest that we adapt our language accordingly. Perhaps ‘parish’ has too many institutional connotations. Perhaps a term like ‘faith community’ would convey more of what we want the word ‘parish’ to say today. Such an alternative would better capture the spirit of the thing. As well, it would allow us think in terms of a number of faith communities within a pastoral area, without being bound by territorial considerations.

A reflection on the word ‘church’ fits in well here. ‘Church’ has even stronger connotations than parish of the structural and institutional. Yet, when it was first used by the earliest Christians, it had no such connotation at all. It meant something like ‘the gathering’. ‘Church’ – ekklesia – meant the followers of Jesus, gathered in a particular place, to break bread together in memory of him.

This may sound simple but it is hugely significant. The basic response to revelation, to what God has done in Christ, is ‘church’. What do you think is the basic response to God’s revelation? You might say; to accept it with joy. Or to be converted and repent. What is missing in such responses is that they are ‘I’, not ‘We’. The basic response to the Christ event is to gather. To gather is to remember; to remember is to break bread together; and out of that we can give ourselves to ‘earthing’ the gospel in the way we live and the place where we live.

This is the heart of what parish is about. Not a branch office, but the mystery of ‘church’ actually happening or being realised in this particular place and time. ‘Parish’ is what ‘church’ is – a faith community, people of faith who gather together – the basic response to God’s communication in Christ. This links in with the reality of parishes which have more than one church. Those parishes might better be described as pastoral units comprising a number of distinct eucharistic communities or gatherings.

In this, the parish stands also as a counter-statement to a trend in contemporary spirituality. People’s deep ‘spirituality’ expresses itself in very varied ways today – many of them a real challenge for the church to learn from. But one of the negative aspects is a privatising tendency, a tendency to see spirituality as a private affair between ‘me and God’, with no reference to or need for community. Perhaps this reflects a more widespread tendency to ‘privatise’ that characterises capitalist culture.

The parish is a statement that Christian spirituality is not a private affair. It is a statement that the basic response to Christ is not to repent or pray, but to gather. The basic response is to be together. Christ is the morning light shining in our world. When we experience ourselves as ‘enlightened’, we also become aware of the others who are sharing the same experience. We do not turn inwards, but we gather. That is where Christ is found.

In this, the parish is responding to the deep human need for community. For all our prizing of freedom and autonomy, we know that human becoming is not possible outside of community. Aristotle offered the comparison of the pieces on a chess board. Each has a meaning, a context. But apart from the chess board and the other pieces, any piece is lost. All too many people are like that, engaged in a very lonely spiritual struggle.

Thrown together
It is, of course, true that the experience of Christian community may be had apart from the parish. This leads us to appreciate a further aspect of what is at the heart of the parish.

Someone once remarked that, in a world that seems to be growing more divided, the parish is ‘one of the few open communities in which rich and poor, educated and uneducated, upwardly mobile and sheer down-and-out can meet and call each other brother and sister’. The remark is somewhat idealistic and is contradicted by the divisions that can exist in parishes. And yet it contains a truth.

The truth is this: because the parish is a geographical unit, it has a ‘thrown together’ quality. Just as you do not choose your family, so you do not choose your fellow parishioners. They are all shapes and sizes, diverse not uniform. And in a sense that is the glory of the parish. It makes very real the words of Paul to the Galatians: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).

This would be lost if Christians gathered only on the basis of shared interests or experiences or age-group – if, in other words, Christian communities were communities of the like-minded. There is something in the thrown-together nature of the parish that testifies to our radical equality and to the breadth of what is embraced and encompassed in the Body of Christ.

Assurance of care
One further aspect of what is at the heart of the parish. While the territorial parish goes back to the early centuries of Christianity, its final developments came with the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation. There, the whole of the church was organised systematically into territorial units, each under the care of a pastor.

This, as I understand it, was not out of any obsession with organisation. It was a reaction to a situation where clergy were often absent from their place of appointment. It was an effort to ensure that every Christian would be able to say, ‘this is where I belong’. From now on, each Christian would be able to point to somebody who was responsible for him or her, a representative of the church whose responsibility it was to be available and at their service.

In this sense, the very existence and structure of the parish is an assurance of care for each individual Christian. Whether you or I actually worship in our local church does not take away from this fact. In the structure of the parish, the church as a whole has committed itself to care for me. The parish as such is a statement to me, ‘we care that you exist.’


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