According to statistics provided by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), in the United States there were 19,620 Catholic parishes and 52,124 priests (diocesan and religious) in 1990. In 2014 the numbers had dropped to 17,483 parishes and 38,275 priests.
Regardless of where it is celebrated, the Mass is the Mass and the Divine Presence is always and ineffably real. However, anyone who attends liturgical services across the country recognizes the varying degrees of spiritual vibrancy, a discrepancy which prompts the question: why are some parish communities so palpably alive and others not?
To address this question a few years ago William E. Simon, Jr. founded Parish Catalyst (www.parishcatalyst.org). Headquartered in Los Angeles, Parish Catalyst convenes selected Catholic pastors from across the country along with members of their parish leadership teams. A dozen of these parish groups form a Learning Community which meets in four three- day sessions over an eighteen-month period. In addition to exchanging best practice experiences among themselves the members of each Learning Community hear from prominent leaders in various industries and religions about the challenges of leadership, and they have the opportunity to collaborate with other high impact teams on strengthening the life of their respective parishes.
As the Parish Catalyst website explains, these Learning Communities explore a wide array of mutual concerns including: designing more inviting parish websites, attracting millennials, “engaging” parishioners in Eucharistic adoration, funding parish schools, fostering a ‘ministry of greeting’, and promoting more effectively discipleship, stewardship, and evangelization.
Identify. Invite. Ignite. These are the fundamentals of the ‘catalytical’ process. Pastors with demonstrated leadership skills are nominated by anyone caring to do so. The selected ones are then invited along with members of their parish teams to join a Learning Community. At the end of the eighteen-month program their creativity, vision and commitment are ‘ignited’ with a charged enthusiasm that will vitalize and invigorate their home parishes.
Parish Catalyst is successful and is expanding. Clearly it is addressing a critical need in the life of the Church in this country. In addition to the benefits it provides parishes as communities it also instructive for us laity as individuals, reminding us as it does of how important for each of us the leadership of our pastors is, or could be.
Quoting one of the program’s participants, Bill Simon has written, “Parish Catalyst has built its mission around a basic truth: shepherds, even t he most skilled, must also be fed.” May the Holy Spirit increase their nourishment and enlighten their flocks.
Dana Robinson is chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.