What makes a parish “great”?

My good friend Fr. Gerald Murray (of all the priests who regularly appears on network TV clearly the best prepared), wrote for First Things a review of a recently published book by William E. Simon, Jr., Great Catholic Parishes: How Four Essential Practices Make Them Thrive.

Simon, apparently, identified in order four characteristics of a thriving (successful) parish, namely: Great parishes share leadership; they foster spiritual maturity and plan for discipleship; they excel on Sundays; and they evangelize.

Fr. Murray remarked precisely about the point that occurred to me when I read Simon’s list. None of you regular readers will be surprised at my gentle dissent. Thus, Fr. Murray:

I would have preferred that the third characteristic of thriving parishes (“they excel on Sundays”) be the interpretative key that guides the discussion of the other three. Simon rightly emphasizes the importance of good preaching and sacred music at Mass. People are more motivated to attend Mass regularly at a parish where the homilies and the music are good. This has always been true, but it is perhaps more important today than in the past. Why? Because of the breakdown in our day of the previous discipline of Sunday attendance at one’s geographical parish.

I maintain that everything starts from and flows back to and then flows forth more and flows back again to… sacred liturgical worship of God, which we owe to God’s Divine Majesty by the virtue of religion and common sense. Without solid and vital liturgical worship of God, to initiate, fuel, carry forward and frame all our activities as a Church, we will not achieve our goals except in a superficial way.

Fr. Murray also touches on two other controversial points which can stifle the life of a parish. The changing demographics of parishes, most of which are territorial or at least somewhat territorial and/or ethnic, etc., and the widespread practice in these USA, of moving pastors every six or twelve years. Both of these issues serve to inject a could of unknowing – and not in a good way – into the identity of the parish.

Ease of transportation and the breakdown of doctrine, liturgy and good taste in many parishes, with the resulting vast diversity between parishes, has resulted in large numbers of people who still bother to go to church to hunt down places where they are comfortable rather than go to the local territorial parish.

Constant change of pastors results in the sense that he and his role are not that important.  Stability rests with the volunteers and some staff.  Also, the priest doesn’t have long enough really to get to know families (also a problem from the mobility issue, above).  This will certain have a negative impact on, for example, vocations.

Be sure to read Father’s review.  Just to track back to the book Fr. Murray reviewed, it is only fair to post also his final observation:

In Great Catholic Parishes, Simon has gathered a useful set of facts and analyses. His conclusions should prompt all Mass-goers, including pastors, to ask themselves whether they are doing their share to make their parishes thrive.

Make Parishes GREAT Again!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. greenlight says:

    Whether shuffling priests around on a six-ish year cycle is bad or not may depend on the priest. I’ve had both the experiences of being heartbroken at losing a magnificent priest and feeling hopeful while waiting out a not-so-great one.

  2. Fr. John says:

    Well, and true – yet easier said than done. My parish has been without “good music” for a long time now. The organist quit for a full time job at a larger Parish and I have been unable to find an organist since then. They are FEW and far in between. Plus, the local Universities Music department has NO students even studying Organ and I don’t think its wise to settle for someone who only plays piano.
    We do a decent job in the other areas but good music is simply HIGHLY elusive.

  3. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear Fr. John,

    There is a simple solution to your plight, at least temporarily. One can buy an electric organ for fairly cheap and with good speakers, it can sound similar to a pipe organ and be played by anyone who can play piano. As for the music, itself, that depends on what hymnal you use.

    The Chicken

  4. MrsMacD says:

    I’m not certain where this quote comes from but whenever anyone talks about a ‘great’ parish I am reminded of it;

    If the parish priest is a Saint, his people will be holy;
    If the priest is holy, but not yet a Saint, his people will be good;
    If he is good, his people will be lukewarm,
    and if he is lukewarm, his parishioners will be bad.
    And if the priest himself is bad, his people will go to Hell.

    We need to pray for our priests!!!

  5. The Church is a family and not a business; yet in the last century, we have tried to run the Church along secular business lines. That is part of the problem; another part of the problem is the widespread denigration of fathers. The constant shuffling of pastors makes the Church reflect the broken family that has become ubiquitous in society. Instead of fathers and grandfathers who stay until they die, we have a string of stepfathers, none of whom can be deeply invested in the family’s well-being — and in whose well-being, in turn, the family is not deeply invested.

  6. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    Forgive my cynicism, but are not “sharing leadership” and “fostering spiritual maturity” code for what makes parishes die?

  7. hwriggles4 says:

    Quite a few Catholics go to a Parish not only for worship, but also for fellowship. At some of the larger parishes, one finds they may have to join some kind of a group like ACTS in order to connect. Other parishes fellowship can sometimes be found at a prayer meeting, a coffee and doughnut social after 7:30, 8:00, or 9:00 am Sunday Mass, or even just saying hello outside or in the Narthex after Sunday Mass.

    My points are that we all need community, and a large parish doesn’t mean it’s better than a smaller parish. Also, fellowship should not be the main focus of a Parish. Adult education, Confession (having a pastor who emphasizes this is important), Respect Life, solid homilies, community service, etc. are very important in our faith formation.

  8. hwriggles4 says:

    I once heard a piece of advice given to a recently ordained Parochial Vicar by the pastor. The pastor gave the parochial vicar this short general statement about Catholic congregations:

    “10% of parishioners will love you, 10% will dislike you and complain about you, and 80% of parishioners don’t care.”

    This sounds realistic – and I wouldn’t be surprised if our Protestant brethren can relate.

  9. WYMiriam says:

    In trying to come up with a coherent, intelligible response to this post, I find myself feeling like Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when the slavers are herding him and the children to the slave market: he wanted to say so many things at once that they choked him, and he fell silent.

  10. un-ionized says:

    hwriggles4, my old parish was about 1000 families and there was no community at all unless you were part of a group. i was told that was a holdover from the days of being an ethnic parish. losing what support system i had has been most painful about leaving there but there has to be something better and i believe i may have found it down the street at a smaller, non-ethnic parish. all the wonderful catechesis in the world goes for naught when people are angrily trying to keep strangers out of the building (in the inner city which is full of people who need God) and telling people to get out because they don’t look like they belong. maybe burkhas (sp?) are not so bad, we would not be judged on our clothing anyway.

  11. Henry Edwards says:

    Fr. Z: ”I maintain that everything starts from and flows back to and then flows forth more and flows back again to… sacred liturgical worship of God”

    The liturgy is so central—as “the source and summit of the faith”—and the current problems with the liturgy so conspicuous and widespread, as to suggest that there must be some underlying reason for the virtually universal failure of bishops to identify revitalization of the liturgy as a priority.

    Can you tell us what this underlying reason for this unanimity could be? Are our bishops really as oblivious to liturgical problems as their uniform silence might suggest, or does this apparent conspiracy of silence betray some avoidance issue at play?

  12. Henry Edwards says: underlying reason

    I’ve thought about that and thought about that….

    I think there are a combination of factors at play. First, bishops have been by circumstances driven to become administrators and have perhaps lost their self-perception that they are, first, successors of the Apostles and sacerdotes. I have great pity for them, due to the burden of administrative duties thrust on them. However, once accepted, they turn into something like CEOs or Senators and they are busy busy busy and they are trying to please – or at least avoid conflicts.

    Another point: Their liturgical formation was – how to put this – horrid. Bishops start out as priests who start out as seminarians who start out as parishioners. If they are not trained up well in liturgy – which per force includes training in art and music and LATIN, what are they going to do? Since bishops (well… anyone) tend to avoid looking like they don’t know what to do, they allow people around them to run things and they (remember… busy busy busy) tend to the lowest common denominator. Moreover, once you are at the lowest common denominator, you are less likely to offend someone… except God.

    For a couple decades after the Council, those who hijacked liturgical reform convinced bishops and priests that Mass (=”liturgy”) was a meal, rather than a Sacrifice, all about the community gathered in the here and now (in an enclosed circle), and that things like music and art were mere ornamental add ons of a utilitarian nature. The language was debased. The music was debased. The architecture and art was debased. HECK… the RITE ITSELF was debased. The newer rite does not do nearly enough to remind the priest of who he is and what he is supposed to be doing up there.

    Once priests and bishops are reduced to functionaries and administrators and their identity as intercessor who offers SACRIFICE is eclipsed by pressing worldly matters, what is going to happen to our sacred liturgical worship?

    Once the language and rites change to eliminate all but the vaguest references to the FACT of sin and guilt, of death and judgement, everyone – priests and bishops included – forget that our worship is preparation for DEATH and a therapy for our “daily winter”, timor mortis.

    Once priests and bishops become more or less immanentists, forgetting the transcendent and avoiding contact in worship with the MYSTERY which scares us back into that ancient confrontation with the world, the flesh and the Devil and… timor mortis… worship becomes horizontal, banal, and nonthreatening.

    I’m reminded of Ratzinger’s description of what happens when we lose the transcendent and drift into immanentism: we avoid the tremendum et fascinans in favor of the easy. The Jews after fleeing Egypt knew full well that their golden calf wasn’t God. They just wanted the easy path.

    Those are few thoughts… to be applied not just to bishops, but also to priests and hoards of people in the pews.

  13. WVC says:

    Here’s another vote to end the “rotating pastor” model. How can the parishioners be expected to put down roots if the priests never do. It’s step 1 in stabilizing parish life. I’m confident it would, in the long run, lead to an overall improvement in the liturgy (and increase the number and size of Latin Mass congregations which, in turn, should increase the reverence of the Novus Ordo Masses). It might not be easy, and everyone’s personal preferences might not be perfectly catered to, but who cares about your personal preference? Life is tough, this battle to reclaim and rebuild civilization and the Church is tough, so let’s stop putting it off.

  14. MitisVis says:

    Father I commend you on your reply, as I and many others here know the sometimes unseen difficulties of a less well thought out response. Henry’s question brings up the very heart of most of our concerns and most of our troubles, and your response does well to highlight many of the reasons.
    This is a subject that I (and many, many others) feel should be discussed in as well thought out and productive way as your response. Restoring the liturgy would be a little less uphill if the seminary formation was improved, etc. Many priests are under the threat of public humiliation or death by a thousand cuts if they try to rock the boat, yet the laity are not to the priests extent. We see the problems very clearly and some of the brightest minds of the faith wander the internet and other venues. We have almost arrived at the St. Nicolas moment, maybe a Santa-alinsky counter movement? There are a lot of old (and young) soldiers well educated in their faith and aware of the situation that want to do more.

  15. AnnTherese says:

    I vote for a return to the earliest Church model of parish: Christians gathered in each others’ homes.

  16. Semper Gumby says:

    Fr. Z wrote: “I’m reminded of Ratzinger’s description of what happens when we lose the transcendent and drift into immanentism: we avoid the tremendum et fascinans in favor of the easy. The Jews after fleeing Egypt knew full well that their golden calf wasn’t God. They just wanted the easy path.”

    Indeed. This brings to mind something St. Augustine wrote: “You too left Egypt when, at baptism, you renounced that world which is at enmity with God.” Parish life sometimes can feel like the wilderness of Sinai- all that wandering and occasional smiting. Then again, the Israelites were on the right track as long as they faced East. (ok, eventually they had to turn north.)

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  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear Henry Edwards,

    The situation you describe was analyzed in detail by the Catholic historian, James Hitchcock, in his famous essay, “Conservative Bishops, Liberal Results.”. His analysis is similar to Fr. Z’s.

    Here, is the link:


    The Chicken

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