What is a Parish?

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By John P. Flaherty Part 9 of a weekly series Parish. It’s a word we use all the time. But what is it really? How would we define it? Is it a place, a church and school building, a rectory and offices? Or is it maybe a geographic region, a subdivision of the diocese? A place to go to Mass, a gathering of like-minded believers? There are many ways to talk about a parish. All of the above are part of a parish, but even taken together they don’t really define what a parish is, what a parish really means. Let’s take a lead from Pope Francis in understanding what a parish is. He has described a parish as first and foremost a “place” of encounter. It is that place where we encounter the risen Christ. The parish is where Jesus is present in his word, in his sacraments, in his people and in his ministers. So when I say that a parish is a “place” I am not talking about a physical location — a building, a rectory, a school. A parish is not a place or a thing in that physical understanding. Instead, a parish is an encounter with the risen Christ marked by a call and a response. That call is the experience of the gracious call from God. That response is our faith-filled answer to that call. Parish is the place where we hear and respond to the Word that is God. As St. John tells us as he begins his Gospel, there is the one Word who is God. God desires deeply to be known by us so that we can enter into a loving relationship with him. The parish is the privileged place where we encounter the words of Scripture as testimony to the Word who is God. Parish is the place where, through sacraments, sacramental signs and symbols, we encounter the call of the risen Christ and respond to that call. Through water, oil, hands, words and, most especially, bread and wine, we encounter in the parish the presence of our God who is at once “over and above,” yet always nearby. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Parish is the place where God’s people gather together. Our encounter with God is always an encounter in and through community. Our individualistic culture dupes us into thinking that encountering God can be a purely private matter. Parish is the place where those who have heard or who long to hear the call of God gather to respond to that call and aid one another in responding. Parish is the place where God’s saving action manifested and realized in Jesus Christ is made real. It is visible in a unique way by the encounter with those who, through ordination, continue the ministry of Christ entrusted to the apostles. In the context of On Mission for The Church Alive! perhaps to ask “What is a parish?” is to ask the wrong question. The better question is “Where and who and how is a parish?” The answer then is clearly that parish is that “place” where we encounter the living God, his call to be his people, and the genuine effort to respond in faith, hope and love. Flaherty is diocesan secretary for parish life.

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