The future of the parish: pastoral conversion to the Gospel

By Giancarlo Pani SJ, 2 May 2021
Parishioners pose for a photograph with Parish Priest Fr Greg Jacobs SJ following Palm Sunday Mass at Holy Family Parish, Emerton. Image: Diocese of Parramatta


Pope Francis has dwelt at length on the “pastoral conversion” of the parish. In Evangelii Gaudium (EG), quoting Vatican II, he wrote, “‘Every renewal of the Church essentially consists in an increase of fidelity to her own calling […] Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, in so far as she is a human institution here on earth’ (Unitatis Redintegratio, 6). […] I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. […] The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility; it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.”[1]

At the beginning of his pontificate, Francis thus proposed with courage and foresight “a missionary conversion of our parish communities.” At times there is a difficulty in moving forward and facing the evolution of society. In recent years our world has undergone epochal changes, and Christians must confront them. Many of us live a hectic life, constantly on the move even when we stop, an accelerated life, fragmented into multiple activities, affected by various ideas and messages, in what has become a metropolitan fabric that today is no longer only that of cities, but has extended to towns and even small rural centres. “The speed of change, successive cultural models, the ease of movement and the speed of communication are transforming the perception of space and time. […] the Parish finds itself in a context where territorial affiliation is increasingly less evident, where places of association are multiplied and where interpersonal relationships risk being dissolved into a virtual world without any commitment or responsibility toward one’s neighbour.”[2]

We live in a world that is more complicated than in the past and marked by cultural and religious pluralism. What can a parish do in such a transformative situation? Is it capable of dealing with the new way of life that is emerging almost everywhere? Is it capable of proclaiming the freshness and joy of the Gospel in this new situation that is becoming more widespread?

An Instruction from the Congregation for the Clergy

The Instruction of the Congregation for the Clergy is entitled The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community at the Service of the Evangelising Mission of the Church,[3] and is intended to call attention to the evolution that society has undergone in recent decades and the role and form of the parish in this new context. Pope Francis wants the Christian community to have the missionary and evangelising spirit of “the Church that goes forth” and the Instruction brings together his interventions related to the community, the parish, the responsibilities of all the baptised in the service of the Gospel and, in particular, the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, applied to the parish community. The pope has stated: “The mission, the ‘Church on the move,’ is not a programme, an enterprise to be carried out by sheer force of will. It is Christ who makes the Church go out of herself.”[4]

At the same time, the Instruction is intended to be a canonical-pastoral tool to better apply the ecclesiology of Vatican II to the life of the parish. In his first address to the parish priests of Rome, Francis “recalled the importance of ‘creativity,’ meaning thereby ‘seeking new ways,’ that is ‘seeking how best to proclaim the Gospel’”[5] and witness it in the reality of daily life.

The Instruction is composed of two parts: the first (chapters 1-6) offers a reflection on pastoral conversion, the missionary sense and the value of the parish in today’s world; the second (chapters 7-11) dwells on the internal divisions of the parish community, the different roles present in it (pastor, presbyters, deacons, consecrated persons, laity), the bodies of ecclesial co-responsibility in parish care, and presents the context in which change can occur and the canonical instruments to address it. Although it contains no new legislation, the Instruction proposes new ways to better apply current legislation.

Pastoral conversion

The underlying theme of the Instruction is the “pastoral conversion […] whereby Christian communities become ever more centres conducive to an encounter with Christ.”[6] Therefore, Pope Francis suggested: “If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mark 6:37).”[7] This is the true meaning of the Incarnation, of the Word who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The parish has a very ancient history and from the beginning has played a fundamental role in the life of Christians: that of proclaiming the Gospel. The very term “parish,” in its etymology (paroikia), indicates “a house in the midst of houses,”[8] precisely in order to live the logic of incarnation that the Lord has revealed and taught us.

When we speak of “pastoral conversion,” we immediately think of the transformation of structures: changes of territory, unification of parishes, new pastoral units, etc. These define the identity of a community, recall its history, and deeply mark a portion of the People of God.[9] These structures, however, cannot be identified with the reality of the parish, since the parish is made up of persons, “a community of the faithful in which the pastor is the shepherd.”[10] They constitute the people of God gathered around the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the Eucharist, in faith lived in charity, in communion with the bishop, and therefore with the diocese and the universal Church.

In 2006, Benedict XVI recalled that the renewal of the parish must be thought of in the light of the experience of the first Christian communities.[11] It “cannot only result from pastoral initiatives, albeit useful and timely, nor even less from programmes worked out theoretically. Inspired by the apostolic model as shown in the Acts of the Apostles, parishes ‘rediscover’ themselves in the encounter with Christ, especially in the Eucharist.”[12]

Francis, too, in Evangelii Gaudium, specifies: “The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship.”[13]

Structures, then, are instruments at the service of people, and not vice versa; therefore, when we speak of renewal and planning, we must first and foremost focus on the pastoral care of people. Similarly, pastoral projects and restructuring plans should not be entrusted simply to deskbound planning, based on pre-established models, to be implemented at any cost.[14] It is necessary to beware of two equally negative extremes: on the one hand, an obsession with efficiencywhich is based on worldly criteria; on the other hand, thinking in unrealistic, abstract terms or perhaps idealism, which creeps into ecclesial life when people stop listening to the Lord and try – even in good faith – to replace him.

In any case, it is necessary to avoid short term theoretical projects, especially if some parishes are united on the basis of numerical criteria, without taking into account their traditions and history. Such solutions can severely test the faith of the people of God and perhaps even lead to the abandonment of religious practice. Instead, the Instruction recommends that the bishops act gradually, in direct and patient dialogue with the faithful of the parishes, respecting their localities, their signs and their life of faith.

When several parishes are united into one, it is necessary to guard against excessive bureaucratisation, so as not to transform them into “small businesses” that make people “passive users” and distance them from community life and participation in the sacraments.

In addition, two excesses should be avoided: that of a community in which the pastor and presbyters have a monopoly on everything and decide everything on their own, and that of a parish that seems to be without a pastor, where lay parish officials take care of pastoral ministry as their responsibility, not out of a spirit of mission engaged in without worldly recompense.

Perspectives for a reform

Every reform must be preceded by ample consultation with both clergy and laity, as well as with the institutional spheres delegated for this purpose (presbyteral, pastoral and diocesan councils), so as to bring alive the pastor’s concern for all the realities of the diocese. A certain indifferentism must be avoided, either in “secularising” clerics or in “clericalising” the laity.

The most successful experiences have clear signs: communion and good coordination, so that the centre and the periphery of the diocese are in effective communication through zones and pastoral units where everyone can find his or her own place and service. These groupings foster a “culture of encounter”[15] and help to develop the “going forth” dimension of the Church in order to meet the increased mobility of people and give each member of the faithful the possibility of being an active part of the community.

This role can be expressed in participatory bodies (pastoral councils, councils for economic affairs), but also in the individual tasks of catechesis, charitable work, youth ministry, service to the sick, the poor, refugees, and in all the other activities that the life of a parish requires. Here we see the great generosity of lay men and women, consecrated persons and volunteers, who discreetly and silently help the community and reach out to the most fragile and needy people.

At the heart of the community

In any case, whatever solution is adopted, it must be stressed that the beating heart of the entire Christian life and the centre of every community gathered around the altar is the Eucharist. Pope Francis reiterated this, urging us “to give a central place to the Eucharist in our lives. It is the Eucharist that makes us live the life of Christ and makes the Church.”[16] The pope also proposed, as a model towards which parishes should strive, the style of churches, so that they may be places of welcome, prayer, adoration, reconciliation, spiritual rest, of encounter with God, with the brothers and sisters of faith, in the pilgrimage to the house of the Father.[17]

A further consideration of the Instruction, which must be an integral part of any reform, concerns the offering for the celebration of Mass and the other sacraments: it must be “free” and “secret” – according to the Lord’s teaching, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt 10:8) – and not a fee to be paid or a remuneration to be demanded.[18] This is a topic dear to Pope Francis and keenly felt by the faithful.

In this regard, it would seem a priority to motivate the faithful to contribute willingly to the needs of the parish, which is their home and for which they must learn to be responsible. While this is essential everywhere, it is necessary in those contexts where the liberality of the people of God is the only means of helping priests and supporting them in the work of evangelisation. Raising people’s desire will be all the more effective when priests live a sober lifestyle, are discreet in their use of money, not only on a personal level, but also in the transparent management of parish expenses and in helping the poorest and most needy. Several parishes already implement the collection of offerings in an anonymous way, so that everyone feels free in conscience to donate what they can and what they consider right.

‘Community of communities’: history of an image

The image of the “community of communities” is the centre of the Instruction: it can be traced back to the Second Vatican Council, with the idea of a parish as a composite reality, not “monolithic,” but rather a “fusion of diversities” that cooperate in a single mission, each bringing its own contribution. Each member of the parish should recognise himself or herself in an ecclesial commitment that makes him or her a true evangeliser: “In the Church there is room for all and all can find their place, in the one family of God, with the vocation of each one respected.”[19]

A further mention of this vision goes back to 1992, in the final document of the IVth Plenary Assembly of CELAM. It speaks of the parish as a “community of communities and movements,” which welcomes the concerns and hopes of people, and promotes and directs communion, co-responsibility, participation and mission. John Paul II, in his opening address to the Assembly, stressed that the central idea “is about attitude, style, effort and planning, or ardour, methods and expression. A new evangelisation in its ardour presupposes a solid faith, an intense pastoral charity and fidelity, which, under the action of the Spirit, generate a mystique, an irrepressible enthusiasm in the task of proclaiming the Gospel.”[20]

In line with conciliar ecclesiology, the concluding document affirms that the parish is not primarily a structure with a territory, but rather the locus of the family of God, a fraternity animated by the spirit of unity, and yet a “community of communities,” because it is made up of groups, associations and movements in which everyone offers their own contribution so that the kingdom of God may grow and reach all. Thus, in Santo Domingo, a link was made between the demanding and challenging ecclesial mission and the prospect of fulfilling it by initiating a process of making the parish progress more and more in defining itself as a community reality with diversified internal articulations, distinct but not separate, united but not uniform.

The theme returned again in 2007, on the occasion of the Vth Plenary Assembly of CELAM. Starting from Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, the final document of Aparecida reflects on the communion lived by the missionary disciples and highlights that Jesus “made twelve of them, whom he called apostles, to be with him and to send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). In order to foster communion and promote the mission, Jesus leads the disciples into the desert to rest for a while (cf. Mark 6:31-32). They are called to live in communion with the Father and with his Son who died and rose again in the Holy Spirit. For this reason, the communion of the faithful and of the particular Churches within the People of God is nourished in communion with the Trinity.

Aparecida stressed that the vocation to missionary discipleship is a call to communion in the Church, since there is no discipleship without communion.[21] However, there is a reality that cannot be forgotten: the temptation to want to be Christians without the Church, with a search for individualistic spirituality, or in some sense sectarian behaviour, that is, excluding and retreating into a group, a movement or an association. Faith in Christ has come to us through the Church, which has made us members of a family, the universal family of God in the Catholic Church and the more closer-knit family of the diocesan and parish community.

Through the magisterium of Pope Francis, the spirit of Aparecida has flowed into the Instruction of the Congregation for the Clergy, which has found in it a theological-pastoral vision particularly suited to shed new light on the canonical legislation in force with a view to its re-propositioning, as well as seeking to contribute in some way to supporting pastors and communities in the field who are working to proclaim Christ to those who do not know him and to those who have forgotten him, revitalising their missionary and evangelical action.[22]

Perspectives on pastoral conversion

From the perspective of the Instruction, the canonical norms aim to make pastoral conversion feasible in various ways of grouping: federative form, incorporation and fusion.[23] In any case, it should not be forgotten that the parish embodies the family of God, composed of smaller families. It gathers around the Word and the Eucharist, and lives a fraternity animated by the Spirit, not closed in on itself, but incorporated in society and open, in intimate solidarity with its aspirations and difficulties. From here derive some fundamental dimensions.

a) Co-responsibility in evangelisation. In order to be a community, all the members of the parish are responsible for evangelisation in every setting, each according to his or her own charism, vocation and ecclesial commitments. The Holy Spirit, as happened at Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:1-13), is sent to all members of the community so that they may participate in the common mission.

b) Renewal of structures. If the mission of the parish community is evangelisation, it is necessary to rethink its structures, so that a network of communities and groups is created that is capable of articulating itself in such a way that its members feel, and truly are, missionary disciples of Christ in mutual communion. The Word and the Eucharist thus constitute the dynamic source of missionary discipleship.

(c) Missionary Parishes. The end point of the life of the parish community is the proclamation of the Kingdom. Therefore, it is required that every parish have a missionary character. The renewal of parishes in this sense is required both in the evangelisation of large cities and in that of rural areas. This requires imagination and creativity in order to reach the crowds who yearn for the Gospel.

d) Formation of the laity. A parish cannot be missionary without trained lay people, since good will and availability for the proclamation of the Kingdom are not enough. Therefore, they must be guaranteed adequate formation – spiritual, theological, pastoral – for an effective proclamation. Only through the formation of the laity can we respond to the challenge of the present time, which touches the complex world of work, culture, the sciences and the arts, politics, the media and economics, and concerns the family, education and professional life, especially in those contexts where the Church can be present only through the laity.

e) The model of the first Christian communities. The parish must look to the life of the first Christians (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35), the prototype of every community that gathers to share the bread of the Word and celebrate the Eucharist, to persevere in catechesis, sacramental life and fraternal love. The Eucharist, in which the community of disciples is strengthened, is, for the parish, a school of Christian life. In it, together with Eucharistic adoration and the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation, the members of the parish are formed to bear permanent fruits of charity, reconciliation and justice for the life of the world.

* * *

The value of the Instruction can be summarised in the dynamism that the parish must acquire for a pastoral and missionary conversion of all its members, from the pastors to the last of the faithful: it is necessary to get out of the routine and the attitude of “it has always been done so,” to have the courage to confront the epochal changes taking place in society, culture and the lives of people, so as to become a community capable of communicating the strength and joy of the Gospel.[24]

Those who object that the document has a utopian perspective should be reminded of what Pope Francis said, inviting us to cultivate “healthy utopias”: “A utopia grows well if it is accompanied by memory and discernment. Utopia looks to the future, memory looks to the past, and the present discerns.”[25] In short, the Instruction is meant to be an implementation of the pastoral vision of Evangelii Gaudium: “a form that hope takes in a concrete historical situation,” or “something that does not yet exist, something new, but toward which we must move, starting from what is there.”[26]

Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 5 art. 6, 0521: 10.32009/22072446.0521.6

[1].      EG 26-28. This quotation is taken up in Congregation for the Clergy, Instruction The Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community at the Service of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church, June 29, 2020, Nos. 5 and 29, at  The Instruction will be cited as PC.

[2].      PC 8-9.

[3].      See footnote 1.

[4].      Francis, Message for World Mission Day 2020 (May 31, 2020). Cf. Id., Without Jesus We Can Do Nothing. A Conversation with Gianni Valente, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana – San Paolo, 2019.

[5].      PC 1. The address to pastors is from September 16, 2013.

[6].      PC 3.

[7].      Ibid.

[8] .     PC 7.

[9] .     The pope said in an interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro in 2016, “To be part of the people is to be part of a common identity made up of social and cultural ties” (A. Spadaro, “Le orme di un pastore”, in J. M. Bergoglio – Papa Francesco, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola. Omelie e discorsi di Buenos Aires. 1999-2013, Milan, Rizzoli, 2016, XVI).

[10].    PC 27; cf. also 28-33.

[11].    Cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (September 22, 2006).

[12].    Ibid.

[13].    EG 27.

[14].    Cf. Francis, Letter to the People of God on the Way in Germany (June 29, 2019): “I remember that in the meeting I had with your pastors in 2015 I said that one of the first and great temptation at the ecclesial level was to believe that solutions to present and future problems would come only from purely structural, organic and bureaucratic reforms, but that, at the end of the day, they would not touch at all the vital cores that demand attention.”

[15].    PC 25.

[16].    Francis, General Audience, June 19, 2019.

[17].    Cf. PC 30-32.

[18].    Cf. PC 40.

[19].    Thus the communiqué of the Holy See Press Office, July 20, 2020.

[20].    John Paul II, Address at the Opening of the Work of the Fourth General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, October 12, 1992, Nos. 6 and 10.

[21].    Cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the Inaugural Session of the Work of the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate, May 13, 2007.

[22].    Cf. Francis, Address to Members of Parish Cells for Evangelization, November 18, 2019.

[23].    Cf. PC 46-48.

[24].    See PC 122.

[25].    Francis, Discourse to the Members of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, February 28, 2014.

[26].    J. M. Bergoglio – Papa Francesco, Nei tuoi occhi è la mia parola…. op. cit., 193.


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