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Sunday Sharing

From Going My Way to Renew My Church – part I

In 1944, the Academy Award for the Best Picture (as well as the highest-grossing movie) was given to Going My Way, staring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. The movie is about a young priest,Fr. Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) who arrives at a New York City parish where a veteran priest is the pastor, Fr. Fitzgibbons (Barry Fitzgerald). In fact, the Bishop has sent Fr. Chuck to “take over the affairs of the parish”. Meanwhile, Fr. Fitzgibbons remains the pastor, unaware of this arrangement. Apparently,
Fr. Fitzgibbons was not using the latest "best pastoral practices,” and the parish was failing.

The movie was produced shortly before the end of World War II, and many cultural ways of life were changing and would change even further. The first encounters between Fr. Chuck and the old pastor is a symptom of this change, and it does not go well. The more traditional Fr. Fitzgibbons was upset with the informal appearance and attitude of the younger priest. He was particularly upset when Fr. Chuck’s good friend, Fr. Timmy, shows up in lay clothes to take him out to play golf. Further, their pastoral styles clashed. Fr. O’Malley sees an opportunity to attract younger people and reaches out in an interpersonal style. At the end of the movie, Fr. Chuck’s style of ministry is effective, and he involves many young men and women by beginning a youth choir. Now the parish has a more secure future, and, as the movie ends, Fr. Chuck tries to teach his veteran pastor how to play golf!

Of course, this movie was produced before the Second Vatican Council, but it was already a time of change in the American Catholic Church: a change of style and culture. The movie highlights a shift from a formal clerical style to a more casual and interpersonal style of ministry. These were attractive to the young men and women returning from war. They would soon marry, and their children would become the Baby Boomer generation. Fr. O’Malley’s new pastoral style and Church culture would lead to the great numbers of faithful who filled the churches during the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s.

Then in the 1960’s, the structure of parish life would change again. Lay parishioners’ involvement in the life of the parish officially began as lay teachers were called to replace the declining numbers of nuns who taught in the Catholic schools. Also, parishes became such busy places that the pastors’ elderly housekeepers were overly taxed trying to answer the door and phone calls, so many pastors hired parish secretaries. In addition, many pastors hired parish bookkeepers rather than continue keeping the accounts and balancing the books themselves. Further, the part-time janitors soon were replaced by the full-time plant engineers. This was the beginning of what would become parish staffs and the Church’s entrance into the world of just and fair employment practices. But now, notice that the obligations and duties of a parish pastor have shifted. Now, the pastor had to assume the new roles of supervisor and boss!

The Second Vatican Council introduced another element into the ongoing structural transition in American parishes – the recognition of the discipleship role of all the baptized. Lumen Gentium recognized that by their Baptism, every person is commissioned a disciple to Christ and is called to the universal priesthood of the Church’s ministries (Lumen Gentium #10 & #40). In most parishes, the changing role of the laity began in the liturgy with the introduction of lay lectors and leaders of song. But it would soon expand into other areas of parish life.

In Chicago at that time, most parishes had CFM groups (Christian Family Movement). Thus, men and women already religiously formed and aware were available and willing to actively participate in the Church’s ministries. CFM was one of the adult formation programs founded by Msgr. Reinhold Hillenbrand – a Chicago priest and founder of Social Action-Formation programs. Thus, in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, when there was a need for lay parishioners to be involved in liturgical and other parish ministries, these needs in Chicago were easily filled by willing volunteers.

This was the beginning of the expansion of parish ministries. And, although we were not aware of the far-reaching effects of the professional vision of this movement then, this would eventually lead to great numbers of parishioners who would become involved in various parish ministries. Eventually, this involvement would become more structured and professional as the Archdiocese began the Lay Ministry Formation Program. And, further down the road, some Lay Ministry Formation graduates would go on to the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola or Chicago Theological Union to receive professional degrees and training in various parish ministries. Finally, the role of official Lay Ecclesial Minister was established, and Pastoral Associates and Directors of Religious Education became a recognized and essential part of the Archdiocesan structure. 

So, once again, these changes influenced the role of the pastor. Now he was not only the supervisor and boss of the staff, he was also the coordinator of parish ministries. At this point, the growing number of professional lay ministers had made pastors aware of their lack of training, and some sought further supervisory education and skills training. The emphasis of the pastor’s role was now one of vital leadership, coordinating the parish’s ministries and its lay ministers to fulfill the parish mission. In addition, as a priest, he maintained the role of preacher and presider. Thus, he was now expected to enunciate a future vision for the parish as he collaborated with the lay leadership of the Parish Pastoral Council and Finance Council.

As I see it, Renew My Church is not only the next step in the developing roles of pastor and lay ministers in parish, it will also be a completely new way of envisioning parish life. This will place new demands on the shoulders of pastors and lay ecclesial ministers who are still coping to be effective leaders for and with their parishioners. I will address some of these issues in next week’s bulletin.

Fr. Bob

Rev. Robert Heidenreich