Pope Francis is the first pontiff in recent history not to have participated in the Second Vatican Council. But the imprint of post-conciliar ecclesiology is very apparent in his own thinking and speaking about the Church. He is clearly familiar with the “models of the Church” as articulated by his fellow Jesuit, Avery Dulles (who was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II). Francis has even added his own “model” to those proposed by Dulles: that of the Church as a field hospital. This image chimes with Francis’s preference for a Church of engagement, on the front lines of contemporary society and tending to the wounded in our midst.
This model resonates with my own experience, but it has also got me thinking about an ancillary model of the Church, or at least the parish, which has come into being in this corner of the Lord’s vineyard. It’s what I call “the Church as medical practice”. Allow me to explain what I mean by this.
The parish of St Joseph’s, in which providence and the Bishop of Paisley have placed me as shepherd, is fairly well attended. We have around 800 people through the doors each Sunday. Of course, like most parishes, not all of these are from within the territorial boundaries of St Joseph’s. A significant number of “incomers” are prepared to offset the turgid preaching against the conveniently early-evening Mass times. This leaves a considerable number of local Catholics who do not attend Mass here (or anywhere else, for that matter).
These are the parents of the children in my primary school and the high school of which I’m chaplain. We chat at the school gates or at a variety of social events over the course of the year. These are perfectly decent folk who would not let me pass in the street without a friendly greeting while I’m out walking the parish pooch. Theirs are the households to which I’m summoned to administer the Last Rites to a hitherto unknown parishioner or to arrange a funeral which, almost without exception, absolutely must take place in the church itself.
In fact, it’s usually funerals that bring about the most sustained and, to my mind, rewarding contact. Visiting these bereaved families, you realise that these people on the margins of the parish have absolutely no sense whatsoever of being marginal to anything. As you glance around the room, you might see a picture of the Sacred Heart rubbing shoulders with a Daniel O’Donnell calendar or a grandchild’s school photo. The marks of an inherited Catholicism are plain to see in their homes, even if they themselves are conspicuous by their absence from the pews.
And there’s the rub. Even after a “lovely send-off”, for which profuse and sincere thanks are forthcoming, the chances of seeing these families back at Mass next Sunday are practically nil.
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