Last Sunday, I was skimming through the bulletin of the local parish that my wife and I regularly attend (not, of course, during the homily). Usually, I find myself being drawn to seeing what sorts of ministries a parish offers, since it provides a unique glimpse into the identity and self-perception of the parish.
My wife called my attention to the front cover of the bulletin, asking me what I thought of the “parish mission statement.” It reads as follows:
We, the people of St. X Parish, are a joyful Roman Catholic Community. We believe Our Lord calls us beyond membership to become His true disciples and live as one body in Christ. Therefore, we choose to use our unique gifts to build a welcoming, interconnected gathering of the faithful that will be a beacon, a light to the world” (I have intentionally left out the actual name of the parish).”
I had not read that small and condensed paragraph before, and so I was curious to find, upon reading it numerous times, that several telling points were hiding in it.
Before mentioning the three particular points worth analyzing, I want to provide an explanation as to why a critical assessment of something like this is necessary, and cannot not simply be viewed as nit-picking. The first point follows from what the above quote actually is—a mission statement, a quasi-normative theological outlook that seeks to publicly profess its identity and the reason for its existence. What underlies the statement is the very nature of the Catholic Church (universally and particularly); consequently, it is essential that we get this correct, for our sanctity and eternal salvation is at stake. Secondly, a view such as the one listed not only undercuts a proper ecclesiology, but also demonstrates a rather ambiguous understanding of the Church’s salvific and missionary character. Ultimately, these two components are the effects of what I consider to be a severe lack in the substance and explanatory power of traditional Catholic theology, and ends up positing words or ideas that lack any deep connection with the Church’s philosophical, theological, and spiritual tradition.
The most simple and effective way of breaking down this paragraph is through a division into three parts. The first division comes from the opening of the paragraph: “We, the people of St. X Parish, are a joyful Roman Catholic Community.” There are two primary contentions with this sentence. The first relates to the nature and purpose of a mission statement itself. As I already mentioned, a mission statement explains, and justifies, the very purpose for which a particular entity exists. What is odd about the phrase, “We, the people of St. X Parish...”, is that it sounds as though the principle cause of what constitutes the church and its mission is the people themselves, thereby confusing the material cause with the formal cause of the Church. Furthermore, by using phrases such as “We, the people,” it gives the impression that Catholic doctrine will be arrived at democratically, rather than being given definitively and authoritatively through the apostles and their legitimate successors. Moreover, in Catholicism, it is understood that the people of God are truly the body of Christ, but this is only because of the fact that Christ Himself is the principle cause of His body, without which no body called “the Church” could ever exist.
This leads to the second point, whereby one may wonder what is misguided about saying that the Church is a “joyful community,” for as Frank Sheed reminds us, there is no greater contradiction in this world than a sad Catholic. We must surely sympathize with the purpose of placing joy at the beginning of the mission statement, since it would seem to provide a certain stimulus that would attract people to consider coming to the parish in the first place. Yet, absent from the sentence, implicitly or explicitly, is any explanation or reference to the cause of that joy. We can better understand this by considering the following example from St. Thomas Aquinas. In his treatise on happiness in the prima secundae of the Summa Theologia, he states that the ultimate joy of the human person follows upon comprehension of the last end, since joy is the consequence of man fully and entirely beholding the Beatific Vision. Analogously, the joy of Catholics is not causally first; rather it follows from the realization that Christ has given humanity the Church for the sake of our salvation, resulting from God’s superabundant charity and will to return His children to Himself. The joy of having an intimate friendship with Christ, which nourishes and deepens our interior life, primarily comes about in and through that institution which is the extension of the Incarnation, i.e., the Church. For, as Lumen Gentium states, the one Church of Christ “fully subsists in the Catholic Church...the pillar and mainstay of the truth” (#8).
The second division of the text reads as follows: “We believe Our Lord calls us beyond membership to become His true disciples and live as one body in Christ.” Here is certainly confusion and ambiguity, for the phrase, “Our Lord calls us beyond membership”, does not clearly present two fundamental components of Catholic ecclesiology. First, in order to become true disciples of Christ and live as one body presupposes actually belonging to His Church, since His body on earth has been expressed in the visible foundation of St. Peter, the apostles, and all their successors in union with him. In the early Church, there were essentially two ways of knowing if you were a disciple of Christ: you followed the “key-holder” as the successor of the New Davidic Kingdom, and occupied yourself “continually with the apostles’ teaching, their fellowship in the breaking of bread, and the fixed times of prayer” (Acts 2:42). The papacy, built upon the rock of St. Peter, is really the formal cause of the Catholic Church, the principle that distinguishes her from any other existing Christian community. It is not to say that the Petrine Office as formal cause must be this way by necessity, but it is a simple acknowledgment of historical fact and the will of Christ, which was given for the sake of our salvation. And this foundation of the papacy also highlights the second fundamental component of Catholic ecclesiology, namely, that this unique institution is the guarantor of Christians living as one body in Christ. The unity of the church’s worship and her doctrine can only be assured, ontologically and historically, by the charism that was given unto Peter alone:
And I tell thee this in my turn, that thou art Peter, and it is upon this rock that I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16: 18-19).
Finally, the last part of the mission statement reads: “Therefore, we choose to use our unique gifts to build a welcoming, interconnected gathering of the faithful that will be a beacon, a light to the world.” Among other things, modern Catholicism has been plagued by the divorce of charity and truth, where we are more often concerned with making people feel welcomed rather than being convicted of the truth and what is believed as true for the purpose of attaining eternal beatitude. Notice that the people build the interconnected gathering of the faithful, and they will do this through the use of their “unique gifts.” So the building up of the Church seems to have a thread that is linked with the character of a mission statement: that it is primarily a human work. When we are convinced that we build up the Church, it logically follows that “our unique gifts” are not the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given through membership in Christ’s body, but more often something that is man-made. The result of such an understanding is that each person has unique gifts that almost become equivocated with the Church’s teachings on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and so we deem that our gifts must be expressed in the practical life of the Church. For example, maybe it is determined that the parish must create some ministry directly related to these gifts, or even decide that the talents must be expressed within the liturgy itself, even at the expense of reducing the liturgy to a stylistic form of cultural and social entertainment. The command to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth gets reduced to a model of apostolic activity that is oriented ad intra.
Instead of seeking to invent parish mission statements that appear welcoming and inviting, why not use something that is more directly integrated with the totality of the sapiential character of the Catholic tradition, such as the following line from the Athanasian Creed: “Whosoever wishes to be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Anyone who fails to preserve this Faith whole and undefiled will without doubt perish everlastingly.” Or maybe we could humbly implore the command of our Savior and Master: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” The Church’s mission statement has already been given; there is no need to add anything else.
About the Author
Brian Jones is currently an MA philosophy student at the University of St. Thomas in Houston; he received an MA in theology from Franciscan University.