By Cardinal Justin Rigali
One of the great joys of my ministry is the visitation of the parishes and being part of their various celebrations. The parish is the subject of our reflection this week.
The way to heaven
During the recently completed Year of the Priest, we frequently heard the name of St. John Vianney, who is the patron saint of parish priests. He is also known as the “Curé of Ars.” “Curé” is the French word for pastor and Ars is the name of the town where St. John Vianney served. It is very beautiful that this great saint is so closely identified with his parish, that it has become part of his very name. The name of this town has become known all over the world because of its pastor’s devotion to its parish and people. It may surprise us to know that Ars was a tiny village, with only about 230 people in the parish.
On the road to Ars, there is a statue that commemorates a famous incident in the life of St. John Vianney. On his way to his new assignment, Father Vianney had difficulty finding Ars. He asked a young man, who told him that he himself was from Ars and would show him the way to the village. Father Vianney responded: “You will show me the way to Ars, and I will show you the way to heaven.” This is a beautiful summary of the purpose of a parish and the goal and labor of its priests and people.
We say that the parish is a “moral person.” In other words, it has an identity of its own, even though it is not a physical person. It is even shown to be a person in that it is given a name. Just as with inspanidual persons, that name comes to be loved by the people who love this “moral person” we call a parish. I am always so edified when I hear of the affection in which the people of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia hold their parishes. So many of the people of the Archdiocese have identified themselves by the parish they belong to, even if changing realities have made that mode of expression not as common as it once was.
One of our priests told me of visiting the parish where he grew up and speaking with the current pastor. In walking around the parish buildings, the pastor pointed out the school building, which is now used for other purposes. He observed that the building didn’t look as if it ever was in such great shape and he marveled how children received an education in it. The priest-son of the parish answered by saying: “For me, that building was a palace and I could not have learned better lessons at Harvard!” This is the love and loyalty so many of our people show to their parishes, even if the more complicated times in which we live have caused some situations to change. The fact remains that the lessons learned through the life of the parish remain with us for a lifetime.
We know that, even more than its buildings, a parish is made up of its people. The Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ on earth, is like a spiritual building having Christ as its cornerstone. We are those “living stones” which St. Peter speaks of in his first Letter: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The closer the union between the baptized Christian and Jesus is, the stronger the Church, and the parish, becomes.
So many of you, in the parishes throughout the Archdiocese, make up these living stones, building up not only the Mystical Body of Christ, which has Jesus as its foundation, but also building up your own parish by your faith, your life of prayer, your zeal and your good works.
In the various parishes I visit, the parish priests often tell me of the goodness of their people and how their faith and hard work build up and maintain the parish. There are always those inspaniduals who give an extraordinary amount of their time and talent to their parish and who seem to be a part of everything that goes on in the life of the parish. However, we must not forget those who, by their prayers and often by their quiet suffering, borne patiently in union with Jesus, also build up and sustain the life of the parish. Often, the parish priest will ask these chosen ones to offer their prayers and sufferings for the sanctification of the parish and the success of its various undertakings.
As I write this, Pope Benedict XVI, celebrating Mass in the Cathedral of Westminster during his pastoral visit to England and Scotland, spoke of this reality in his homily. After speaking about the redemptive Blood of Christ, he said: “This mystery is also present when it is hidden in the suffering of all those inspanidual Christians who daily unite their sacrifices to those of the Lord for the sanctification of the Church and the redemption of the world” (Homily, Westminster Cathedral, 18 September 2010).
The Day of the Lord
We cannot speak about the life of a parish, its people, and its pastors without speaking about the “Day of the Lord,” Sunday, when the Christian community gathers in intimate unity and faith to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries. All the activity of the parish must flow from this central act and all of its activity must return to it. In the early Church, there was such a great awareness of this day, and the necessity of celebrating it and assisting at Mass, that a famous saying has come down to us from these early ages: “We cannot live without Sunday.”
In its original Latin, it is a play on words which allows the statement to mean Sunday as a day, as the day of the Lord and as the Lord Himself, for whom that day is named. It comes to us from the account of a group of martyrs, who had been forbidden, under pain of death, to meet on Sunday to offer Mass or to build churches for its celebration.
Their heroic and faith-filled response to those who threatened them if they did not give up their Sunday worship was: “Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.” It is this source of grace and unity that gives to our faithful people the strength to perform their many Christian acts of charity and self-sacrifice. It is also the truth that unites us in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
From visiting with our faithful people in their parishes and celebrating important events with them, I have come to know their faith and devotion to their parishes, to one another and to those in need. Let us continue to find the grace we need to remain faithful to our calling as Christians and to build up our own local parishes by our fidelity to Sunday, “the day of the Lord.”
23 September 2010