In the course of discussion about the future of religious formation, parish leaders and members naturally raise concerns about the impact which collaborative ministry has on parish communities and parish identity -- specifically, the impact which consolidating religious formation programs may have on members' identification with, commitment to, participation in and support for, the particular parishes to which they belong.
This is a serious concern, and one which parish leaders and members should examine more fully before endorsing the creation of the Waterloo Catholic Faith Formation Commission.
However, the question parish leaders should ask themselves is this: Will the consolidation of faith formation or other pastoral ministries be a cause of weakening parish identity, or a response to it?
The fact is, parish identity -- and parish community -- is already in a state of transformation, and has been for several decades. Few urban parishes today experience the kind of attachment or commitment from younger parish members that Catholic parishes once took for granted. There are various reasons for this, all of which are bigger and more powerful than the consolidation of religious education programs. These include the following social and ecclesial trends:
• Americans are rugged individualists at heart; younger generations do not exhibit the kind of social solidarity which was a characteristic of the "Greatest Generation" of World War II veterans and they do not tend to form strong bonds of attachment to social or religious groups of any kind.
• Younger generations are much more mobile than the older generation. Driven primarily by the need to obtain and retain meaningful employment, few of them can plan to live in the same house, neighborhood, parish (or, in many cases, the same city) for more than a few years. As a result, commitments of any kind tend to take on a temporary or provisional nature.
• The younger generations in general are more ambivalent about traditional social or religious authority, and so their attachment to authoritative social and religious communities is always tempered by their sense of personal independence and autonomy.
• Unlike previous generations, today's generations are exposed to a wide variety of non-Catholic, non-Christian, even secular religious, ethical and philosophical traditions. Raised as consumers, they tend to pick and choose elements from various traditions which they find interesting or helpful, which means that their attachment to or identification with one particular tradition is less exclusive and more conditional.
• Lastly, developments in communications technology like the world wide web, social networks, and digital communication, add to the sense which younger generations have that they are now members of a virtual "global village." For many younger people, this global network seems more real and advantageous than local communities limited in size, space and vision.
• Within the Catholic Church, we have experienced a growing emphasis on the Church Universal, and the role of the Universal Magisterium in Rome since the mid-nineteenth century. Whether this is a causal factor, or merely a coincidence, many younger Catholics today identify more with the universal Church than with individual parish communities.
• As traditional groups of Catholic immigrants gradually assimulated into the American culture and economy over the past century, the Church has experienced a decline in the presence of, and need for, traditional "ethnic" parishes where parish identity and attachment was very strong.
• There has been a growing appreciation for the role of the Catholic lay person "in the world," a role which began with the concept of Catholic Action in the twentieth century, and was reinforced by the Second Vatican Council's emphasis on the Church's role in the world. This trend has tended to diminish the significance of participation in the local parish as the singular characteristic of the "active Catholic."
• Finally, the decline in the number of priests available to serve as pastors has forced the local Church to rethink what constitutes viable parish communities. As a result, even parishes which were able to maintain a strong sense of parish identity may be asked to sacrifice that sense of community when their parish is closed or clustered with other parishes.
Notwithstanding the principle that the universal always presumes the particular (ie, "all politics is local"), the cumulative effect of these trends means that younger people in our parishes attach to the local church more "loosely," or tentatively, than their parents or grandparents. Whether we like it or not, these trends are redefining what it means to belong to a faith community, and reshaping where and how we will "be church" in the future.
All of these trends are much bigger than any individual parish or the local church, and successful local parishes must find creative ways to take advantage of these trends, or at least to live constructively with them.
Although it is true that "bigger is not always better," it is also true that a community or organization may be too small to meet all of its needs on its own. There are many indications that the traditional urban parish today is too small to meet the growing number and diversity of its members spiritual and formational needs.
While it is also true that faith is best nurtured in small faith communities, it is likely that small faith communities of the future will be organized around mutual interests or circumstances which transcend the common social and geographical boundaries of the traditional parish.
The consolidation of religious education programs in the Waterloo parishes, and the creation of a metro Faith Formation Commission, is one component in a coordinated effort among the parishes to respond creatively to changing times and trends, including the transformation which is occurring in our traditional sense of parish identity or affiliation.
-- Dave Cushing, Director of Adult Faith Formation
The Catholic Parishes in Waterloo