by Fr David Stewart SJ
Pope Francis’s single intention for September has already been announced and he will add further requests for our prayers in the course of the month. Many are the concerns in the Pope’s heart, for the serious challenges that face humanity and for the spread of the Gospel, not least its call for peace and justice. His first request to us for this month will catch the attention of many of us, for it is about parishes: he invites us to pray ‘that our parishes, animated by a missionary spirit, may be places where faith is communicated and charity is seen’.
We all know at least one parish; the parish, at some point, has featured in the life-story of everyone reading this reflection. Some of us live our lives deeply inserted in our local parish; others, less so. One aspect of contemporary life, for some of us, is mobility. This can mean much more frequent changes of location and of job while for others it leads to less engagement with a specific geographical parish, perhaps going to different churches at different times, according to the demands of a 21st century lifestyle.
Yet every Catholic knows at least one parish, if only from childhood memories. The parish where we grew up has meaning for us, and memories. Likely it will be the place and the context of our first hearing of the Word, perhaps in baptism, in catechesis and other key sacramental moments, such as First Reconciliation, First Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, and a place of comfort and security when we’re bereaved and funerals must be held.
But when we reflect on our parishes, we will recall that we’re not talking about a building or even a place that has certain functions, however valuable. The meaning of parish goes much, much deeper than that. This month’s Intention leads us to reflect on this reality.
The parish is, or should be, a sacred place, a sacred space. If it’s not defined just by its function or by the building’s facilities, it’s good to reflect on just what does define it. This month’s Intention could help us to do just that. It highlights the communication of faith and visibility of charity. Those, and everything that happens in a parish, are to be ‘animated by a missionary spirit’. That spirit is nothing less than the compassion, the mercy of the Trinity. It’s got to underpin everything that happens in our parishes: all our plans, all our programmes. And people must be able to notice it.
For some it’s painful that local bishops, in many places, can no longer find priests for the parishes and sometimes parishes have to face merger, even closure. For some, it may feel like a lifetime of belonging and memories are being shut down, not just a church door. But if we remember to let that missionary spirit enliven our hearts, even as we recognise the difficulties of such situations, we will come to see more clearly what we are called towards.
Pope Francis has asked us, several times, if we know the date of our baptism and whether we celebrate it, like we do our birthdays. That makes us think! We could research it and maybe even make a resolution to commemorate it, setting aside some time for a quiet prayer on that date, for example. How about drawing to mind, also, the church where we were baptised and placing it, and the parish community that gathers there, before the Lord in prayer too?
Prayer moment: Ask God’s Spirit to lead you to a place of interior calm and silence within yourself, and of external quiet too, if possible, away from some of the noise of everyday life. Let God’s gaze upon you and on the world become a reality for you, now. Place yourself, in your imagination, among the people of a parish that you’ve known and where you were known, and held. Ponder what feelings arise within you at this moment, because you are now praying about, and for, that parish and all its people. Hold it before the infinite God, asking for life and blessing, faith and charity to suffuse that parish.
Meditation moment: Still conscious of God’s gaze on you now, turn over in your mind Pope Francis’s call to parishes to be an ‘oasis of mercy’ and to be missionary. What would it take for your parish to become so and, if it already is to whatever extent, what more might be possible? As this month’s reflection in our ‘Living Prayer 2017’ booklet points out, ‘we reach out to people with the message of Christ from our conviction that the message is the mercy of God’. Pope Francis has said that mercy is ‘the heartbeat of the Gospel’.
Suggested Daily Offering prayer for this month, drawn from the Pope’s Prayer Network ‘Living Prayer’ booklet:
Father of all goodness, I thank you for the beautiful world you created. Give me the grace to open my eyes to see the beauty where I live, where I am studying or where I work every day. Help me to discover the beauty of the people who cross my path. I offer you my day, in union with Mary, for the Pope’s Intention for this month. Our Father … Hail Mary … Glory be …
Fr David Stewart SJ is National Director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network.