By Father Dale Mallory
In the modern Catholic parish, a common concern is “how do we build a sense of community in a divided world?” For many parishes, there are divisions between weekend and daily Mass-goers, volunteer/outreach-focused parishioners vs. liturgy-focused parishioners, English vs. foreign language speakers, and so on.
So when I learned that my first assignment as a newly ordained priest was to help for the summer at St. Anthony Parish in downtown Davenport, I was a little apprehensive. Given its parishioners’ diversity and their respective expectations and interests, I wondered whether St. Anthony would be one of those divided parishes where each little group is a mini-parish onto itself.
As I came to know the parishioners this past summer, I saw a parish that, while diverse in language, culture and personal philosophy, was united in their desire to truly be one St. Anthony community. Where I expected to see conflict between liturgy-focused and volunteer-focused parishioners, I found a community that integrated their volunteering and homeless outreach into the spiritual life of the parish through prayer and personal encounter. Where I expected to see a barrier between Spanish and English-speaking parishioners, I found a desire on both sides to know and collaborate with the other, while also leaving room for each other’s liturgical preference.
As I have reflected on this unity-in-diversity since leaving St. Anthony for my next assignment, I have concluded that it is ultimately rooted in the parish’s understanding of the proper ordering of a parish and its activities. Parishes perform a wide variety of services, but these services must be ordered to the ultimate goal of the Church: to make disciples of all nations.
The parish does not exist merely to be a social service program, to provide a worship space or to preserve culture or language. Rather, it exists to bring people to salvation in Christ through whatever means it can, including through social outreach, liturgy and cultural traditions. So long as each group within a parish is working towards this goal, each group can continue their particular mission while also having a shared culture of evangelization and worship with the wider parish community.
Obviously, this Christ-centered mindset will not instantly remove all parish problems. Language especially can be difficult to work around, as I also experienced at St. Anthony when working with both English and Spanish-speaking parishioners. However, as I learned at St. Anthony, we can be surprised at how much we can accomplish together for the good of Christ’s mission and the Church if are willing to see the other as collaborators rather than obstacles to overcome. This was the greatest lesson I learned in my short time at St. Anthony. It is one that I hope to bring with me in my future ministry.
(Father Dale Mallory is parochial vicar at St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa.)