Before the Cross | Eucharist, sacraments at center of vibrant parish life

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

Too often we think that parish viability is determined by the size of a parish or by its financial resources. Numbers are important, of course, but vibrant parishes are not defined by them. Parishes are spiritual communities. Their health must be measured by spiritual vitality more than by the size of the congregation or its bank account.

Parishes are signs of the presence of God in our world. If a parish has a strong sacramental life, if the holy Eucharist is at the center of the parish's life -- that's a powerful statement about its vitality.

Pope Benedict XVI has written that there are "two fundamental sacraments -- Eucharist and Baptism." Vibrant parishes are centered on these sacraments. A growing faith community receives new members into the Church and young parents bring their children to the parish to be baptized. Youth, young adults and adults are welcomed into the parish community and initiated into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Newly baptized Catholics are received into a eucharistic community that is most visible on the Lord's Day but whose entire life revolves around the sacred liturgy and the fellowship and the outreach that the liturgy makes possible. Catholic parishes are centers for Baptism and the holy Eucharist. Without Baptism, there would be no disciples. Without Eucharist, there would be no Church.

Vibrant parishes that are centered on Eucharist and Baptism naturally promote all the sacraments of the Church -- Confirmation, Marriage, Penance, Anointing of the Sick and Holy Orders. Family life is celebrated and strengthened in a vibrant parish. So are vocations to the consecrated life, priesthood and diaconate. Sins are confessed regularly and the healing power of Jesus is made available to the sick and the dying.

Regardless of the size of the parish or its financial well-being, a parish is "viable" if Christ is present in the sacraments and in the vitality of parish ministry.

Sometimes it is necessary to close a parish or merge it with another nearby parish. All of us have experienced this in recent years, and it is always a source of sadness. Our mandate from Christ is to grow the Church, not to shrink it, but we can't always control economic or demographic circumstances.

I hope we never have to close a parish because of a lack of vibrancy or spiritual vitality. It's hard enough to close a parish because a majority of its people have moved away or because the remaining parishioners cannot afford to maintain the property.

Regardless of their circumstances, our parishes should always be vibrant centers of the Eucharist and the Church's sacramental life.

Here are some questions to help assess your parish's vitality as a center for the Church's sacramental life:

• Are young families bringing their children to be baptized? What is your parish doing to encourage and support families with newly baptized children or children not yet baptized?

• Are Sunday Masses at your parish well attended, or are there empty seats that ought to be filled? What is your parish doing to promote faithful observance of the Lord's Day?

• Do those who attend weekend liturgies participate actively? What is your parish doing to invite and facilitate "full, conscious and active participation" in the Sunday Eucharist?

• How does your parish promote eucharistic adoration, the Sacrament of Penance, vocations, marriage and family life, care for the sick and dying, and ministry to all who have special needs?

Every parish is different in its approach to these important characteristics, but vibrant parishes take them all seriously. They work hard to be vital, growing communities that are Alive in the Body of Christ regardless of their size or economic circumstances.

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