How Can a Parish Respond to Pope Francis’ Vision of the Church?

I heard a Franciscan speak about his experience with social ministries and social justice and he ‘spoke my language’ so I asked if he could find time to chat with me… so I could pick his brain a bit because he clearly has a history of organizing within the Church.  When he heard about my experience in social work, social justice, community organizing, and advocacy on homelessness, he said he wanted to pick my brain about a program for his parish.

This is what I wrote him after our afternoon together… somewhat of a stream of consciousness and piecing together a puzzle.  I was reflecting back what I was hearing from him and things that came up in our discussion.  I was presenting questions and ideas for him to consider, but it’s relevant to any parish community.

Be Bold and Creative!

Be Bold and Creative!

How Can a Parish Respond to Pope Francis’ Vision of the Church?

Greetings Father!

Here are my thoughts from our discussion…

St. Francis- You were telling me how St. Francis kept the poor close to him because he needed them.  He saw and encountered Christ in the poor.  Well, we all do… in different ways, but we all do.  Jesus wasn’t subtle about this.  As Catholics we are all called to see the humanity in each other.  The social stigma of poverty in our culture is crippling us.  It takes a different form here in the US than it does in many other countries.  It’s the cultural norm to ostracize the poor and marginalized… as seen by the massive amount of gentrification impacting cities and communities across our nation and our massive incarceration numbers.  St. Francis is so relevant in our times!  Part of the reason Pope has caught the attention of the world has to do with him taking the name of St. Francis.  It’s tapping into the need for hope.  Have you read Evangelii Gaudium?  Have you read the section “The inclusion of the poor in society”?  It’s brilliant!!!  I have read it over and over again and I ask myself… is this what we, as a Church, are doing?  It’s a HUGE challenge!  I love a good challenge!

Catholic Charities-  I’ve been talking to people to better understand the current ‘Catholic bubble’.  You mentioned that Catholic Charities was established to create a system to more efficiently meet the needs the parishes were dealing with.  This was/is a much needed resource!  Great idea!  What caught my attention was when you said that this “allowed the focus for parishes to be for worship.”  Can you see how an unintended consequence is that it removed an important aspect of worship… an encounter with the poor.  By outsourcing charity it encourages an “us” and “them” system of thought and disconnects people from the suffering of others.  I feel like this is part of the reason I find so many (even religious) that are extremely unaware of social issues impacting our culture… impacting the poor and marginalized people in our own community.

I often hear about how we all make up the body of Christ in different ways…. the hand, the foot, etc.  We are a working organism.  I picture the poor and marginalized as being the liver.  I know, doesn’t sound very glamorous, but hear me out.  Have you ever seen someone who has cirrhosis of the liver?  The symptoms include jaundice, fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, itching, and easy bruising.  That’s how I see the health of the Church here in the US.  The liver isn’t romanticized like the heart… it’s thought of as gritty and off putting by many.  But without it, as a whole, we aren’t healthy and can’t function properly.

Pope Francis-  I can’t tell you how much I love this guy!  He speaks my language!  I mentioned his speech to you about ‘theological narcissism’ before he was elected pope.  Brilliant!  Here is a good summary of it:

“When the Church does not come out of itself to evangelize,” he said, “it becomes self-referential and then gets sick.”

That inward looking Church, which doesn’t look sufficiently to Christ and doesn’t reflect him, his light and his love for those walking in darkness, quickly succumbs to what he called the worst evil of all, a “spiritual worldliness … living in itself, of itself, for itself.”

That, for him, is the fundamental corruption of the Church that needs to be reformed.

The future pope then gave what would become his own job description at the end of his five-minute intervention: “The next pope,” he declared, must be a man who “from the contemplation of Jesus Christ and from worshiping Jesus Christ will help the Church get out of herself and go to those on the outskirts of existence.”

That spiritual exodus, he believes, is the fundamental conversion that the Church needs — and it’s one on which he wants to lead not only priests and curial officials, but laypeople.

“It’s key that we Catholics, both clergy and laity, go out to meet the people,” he stressed in the 2010 book-length interview, El Jesuita.

This is “not only because her mission is to announce the Gospel, but because failing to do so harms us. … A Church that limits herself to administering parish work, that lives enclosed within a community, experiences what someone in prison does: physical and mental atrophy.”

A Church that merely protects its small flock, that gives all or most of its attention to its faithful clientele, he believes, “is a Church that is sick.”

The Gubbio Project–  I hear the same response from everyone about the Gubbio Project.  They LOVE the concept and think it’s great St. Boniface is doing it, but the thought of it at their parish freaks them out!  Everyone thinks it will “attract the homeless”.  I understand that reaction… I really do (although at the same time I’m thinking… “But this is a church!”).  There is a ton of fear around this.  The reality is that every parish in our City already has poor people at their doorstep… although the poor are required to hide as part of their survival.  The social stigma of poverty is crippling and the criminalization of poverty has people living in a very real fear of being incarcerated.  We can conveniently clear our conscience by suggesting ‘they’ go to Catholic Charities.  I don’t think people want to know that often this isn’t a real option.  They are so strapped when it comes to their resources and ability to help.  They do amazing work, but they are like every other social service agency… maxed out. So what is the role of parishes around this in our current times?

Thinking outside of the box- Our current social service system is broken… so we need to get creative.  St. Boniface was thinking outside of the box when they created the Gubbio Project.  I would love if every parish did something like this, but I understand the reality and so I’m not suggesting it’s the right fit for every parish.  It sure would be nice if at least ONE other parish would be open to it though… or some form of the concept.

So what is the right fit for your parish?  We need to assess the situation.  The parish community… the social issues within the parish limits… the resources of the parish… the space you have to work with.  Those are just the basic things to assess.

Something Fr. Xavier used to always say is that at Protestant churches when there is a leak in the roof the congregation says, “We need to fix this.”  In Catholic churches the congregation says, “The priest needs to fix this.”  It’s true… it’s obvious to me, especially with my history in the Protestant community.  It seems that it’s somewhat of a symptom of clericalism.  It also seems to be a symptom of the disconnect that happened with the outsourcing of charity to Catholic Charities.  If the parish is the place of worship and disconnected from other aspects, it makes sense that people would put the responsibility on the religious.  Sure makes your job harder!  It’s a distraction too.

So the changes can’t be limited to just implementing a new program because that will fall only on you and the parish staff… rather it needs to connect with the culture of the parish as a whole.  Sure, it requires core people to organize and facilitate it, but it needs to somehow engage others to impact the overall culture of the parish community.

The thing is… that connection is something people desire.  The ones carrying out acts of charity are, in reality, the recipients of charity.  People want the opportunity to be of service and feel connected, but often don’t know how.  You have the regulars who always pitch in, but with a creative strategy it will attract others who would not normally engage… even non-Catholics.  At this point the Gubbio Project has to regularly turn away folks wanting to volunteer.  It’s a need people have for their own spiritual health, but often they don’t know how or where to meet this spiritual need they have.  (On that note, this is a great opportunity for parishes in the diocese to collaborate… the rich and poor parishes.  They both have something the other needs.)

Some things that caught my attention at your parish.  First… the church isn’t open during the day.  I could see how that doesn’t sit well with you.  So, what would it take to allow the doors to remain open?  This is something I see as being very important… especially from my experience of making my way into a church and finding the ‘red candle’ (red candle next to the tabernacle).  Something that is essential for me is having the opportunity to spend time at the ‘red candle’… in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  It’s what draws many to the Church.  Powerful!


When I see closed doors on a church I wonder why they wouldn’t be open to something like the Gubbio Project when the alternative is having the doors closed.  That model doesn’t require the parish to finance or staff the facilitation of it… it only requires opening the doors and allowing people an opportunity for ‘holy rest’.  It also provides the opportunity for anyone to spend time before the tabernacle.  I’m not pushing for you to do this… it’s just something I wonder with any parish where the doors are closed.

I was capturing somewhat of your vision of a program for your parish.  I think there is a lot of potential and you already have a facility you can use to do it… which is often the most difficult part.  I would like to challenge you to think outside of the box programmatically.  Be open to taking risks.  The reason I suggest this is because you are Franciscan and that allows you some flexibility when it comes to shaking things up and trying new things.  Sure, you need to consider the neighbors and other things like that, but at the same time Franciscans have a reputation for pushing the limits and being a little ‘out there’.  That’s such an endearing quality of Franciscans!  Think about it… your founder stripped naked in public!  Ha!  And if you are doing what Jesus has called us all to do, others don’t have much of an argument.  But it needs to be done strategically.  No matter if one is in a poor or wealthy neighborhood, there will always be pushback to serving the poor and marginalized.  But we are Catholic, so we are called to be counter-cultural in this way… that’s just what we do.

Some things to think about.  There are a number of things I don’t have the knowledge about your parish to assess, but should be explored.  What are the demographics and needs in your parish?  Not what the popular and most palatable needs are, but the actual needs.  Is your parish willing to step up to the challenge from Pope Francis of getting out of itself and going out to the margins?  Can you see how exciting this can be?!

A vibe I got at your parish was connected to families.  This isn’t an element the Gubbio Project model is tapping into because of their demographics.  But what aspects of that model can you learn from?  The reason I would suggest exploring this is because there is something about it that has captured the attention of so many.  Even the public, who so often hates the Church, is captivated by it!  It’s not a typical model found in our current system.  It’s rather simple…. it’s real.  It’s the new evangelization!

So back to the family thing… like I mentioned when we met, in San Francisco we currently have about 217 families on the waiting list for the shelter which takes 7+ months to get into.  Now I’m not suggesting you use the model Catholic Charities is using… they are a social service provider and that’s not fitting for a parish.  But how can the parish tap into the needs of families in a real way?  I don’t have the answer for you, but it’s a great topic to explore.  I would even suggest posing it to some in your parish community to get their input and ideas.  It’s great to get different perspectives.  Since it’s families, people are more likely to relate and have empathy…. and be open to exploring it.  I realize that since this population involves underage kids there are some legal technicalities that need to be considered, but at the moment these 217 families are left to fend for themselves because they have fallen through the holes of our ‘safety net’.  Such a great opportunity to explore an untapped need with a creative approach.

Basically what this comes down to is… do we see the poor and marginalized as a gift?  They are.  A beautiful, yet often difficult and messy gift, but a gift.  This gift saves us!  And there is the added bonus of this being really exciting!  People often perceive the Catholic Church as being stale and boring, but this is the kind of thing that really excites people!

Ugh… I’m so long winded!  It’s just that your parish has been on my mind a lot this past week.  Don’t look at this as being an overwhelming task, rather as an exciting opportunity!

Pace e bene,



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