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September 1, 2009

The dynamics of a vibrant parish -
Is prayer during parish meetings a waste of time? -
Defining "collaboration" -
What permanent deacons do -
and much more.

In this edition:

1. How do you define "collaboration"?
2. Vibrant parishes: Knowing the "stories" in people's lives.
3. Vibrant parishes: Where to locate Jesus in today's world.
4. Vibrant parishes: Hospitality.
5. Vibrant parishes: Programs and prayer.
6. Vibrant parishes: Justice.
7. Current quotes to ponder:
. .a) Music hints at creation's potential.
. .b) Is immigration a blessing?
8. Health care, human dignity and respectful dialogue.
9. The permanent deacon: ministries of word and charity.

1. How Do You Define "Collaboration"?

A soon-to-be-published book from the Gallup poll organization investigates the meaning and dynamics of "collaboration" in working partnerships.

This is not a book about partnerships in the church. But since collaboration between people with differing roles and talents so often is considered essential today for accomplishing the church's mission, it may prove worthwhile to take a look at what Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller, the authors of "Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships in Work and in Life," have to say.

The online Gallup Management Journal published an article Aug.13 adapted from the book (http://gmj.gallup.com/home.aspx), which will be published in November by the Gallup Press. Basically, a collaborative partnership is effective when complementary strengths are brought to it by people who in certain ways possess different aptitudes and abilities.

The book's authors caution that working partnerships between people whose strengths are too similar may end up more social than productive.

As the article put it, "The best [partnerships] happen when you and someone who has strengths that complement yours join forces and focus on a single goal. Your strengths cancel out your partner's weaknesses, and vice versa. You accomplish together what could not be done separately."

However, it is important that each partner honestly recognize his or her own strengths and weaknesses. It is important to understand "what you bring to the combination and what you don't," the article explained.

Partners may differ in what they bring to a collaborative effort in the ways they think or act. Perhaps, for example, one readily recognizes the potential in a project, while the other sees the risks, the article explains. Perhaps one partner is an idea person, while the other puts ideas "into production"; perhaps one partner is great with technology, while the other is a people person.

The article makes clear that in a successful collaboration the partners tend to respect each other's strengths and to think not in terms of "me" but in terms of "us." The partners promote each other's strengths and recognize that they need each other in order to accomplish their goals. They are happy about each other's successes.

Fairness and trust are among the factors of a successful partnership, according to the Gallup Management Journal's article. The partners need to be unselfish, to communicate and to be forgiving, recognizing that people make mistakes and that no one is perfect.

The sense of a common mission is among other factors of a successful collaboration, the article explains. It says, "When a partnership fails, the root cause is often that the two people were pursuing separate agendas." But when the partners truly "want the same thing badly enough," they are going to do what is needed to see their project through.

2. The Vibrant Parish: Knowing the Human "Stories" in People's Lives

"They say that belonging is one of the major life issues for an adolescent," Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, N.J., wrote in a May 31 pastoral letter on vibrant parishes. But he said it seems to him "that the desire to belong follows us through adulthood; it just looks different. We want to find a place where our story is heard, valued and appreciated."

Bishop Bootkoski encouraged readers to take time before entering the church on Sunday to notice the people arriving for Mass and to realize that each one has a story. "When you watch these people make their way toward the building, you realize you know some of them. Others you may not know, but their stories are familiar. They are our stories," he wrote.

Among those arriving is the "single mom who is working two jobs" and someone who "just lost his job." The stories of those arriving are "stories of financial and academic success," as well as "stories of the joy of parenting and the struggle of infertility," the bishop said.

The people who assemble for the Sunday Eucharist have stories to tell of addiction and recovery, of illness and care giving, said Bishop Bootkoski. Some of these people are young, some old; they are "of every race and ethnic background," they are recently arrived immigrants and the "grandchildren of immigrants."

All these people "come to let their story be touched by the presence of Jesus and his story," the bishop said.

Of course, he added, "as we watch those human stories making their way toward the doors of the church, we must never forget to ask: Who is not here? Whose story is not listened to? Who does not believe that their story is of value or that the community of believers is incomplete without their presence?"

As he examined the factors of a vibrant parish, Bishop Bootkoski discussed liturgy, education, social justice, hospitality, prayer and spirituality. I cannot take up each of the bishop's points in detail, but I'll attempt to summarize several of them in what follows.

Throughout the pastoral letter, however, the point he seemed to drive home was that vibrant parishes are places where the realities of people's lives are recognized and honored, and where all are made welcome.

"Each parish, in its own way, must be ready to open its doors and say to those who seek faith: You belong to us because you belong to Christ," said Bishop Bootkoski.

The parish, he insisted, "must be the place where Jesus is encountered in the hopes, the dreams, the struggles and the joys - the life - of the parish community. Programs and calendars become meaningless unless a parish sees its mission as providing an encounter that leads others to Jesus."

3. The Vibrant Parish: Where to Find Jesus Today

"If Jesus walked the earth today, in what contemporary setting would we find him?" Bishop Bootkoski posed that question in his pastoral letter on the vibrant parish.

There is a good chance that Jesus today "would be found in a mall - perhaps in the food court talking to people," the bishop wrote. Jesus "would be sitting in an unemployment office and also with workers in a field harvesting vegetables."

Probably, Jesus would be "out on the sidelines of a sports field talking to soccer moms about their children," and he "would be at a soup kitchen, a hospital emergency room and perhaps even on the boardwalk down at the shore," Bishop Bootkoski said. He added:

"Jesus went wherever people lived and laughed. He was where they worked and played. After an encounter with Jesus, people returned to their lives knowing something more about God and about themselves."

4. The Vibrant Parish: Hospitality

To honor the human story of all who enter the church on Sunday, it is essential that they be made welcome, Bishop Bootkoski's pastoral letter on the vibrant parish stated. "A parish may have many programs, but it is only vibrant when its parishioners understand who they are: brother and sister to each other," he said.

Vibrant parishes embrace the opportunity "to help people see the parish as a community that stands with them, plays and prays with them," Bishop Bootkoski wrote. He said that "over time, the parish becomes a more vibrant community when its people are willing to approach others they see each week at Mass and ask their name."

It is vital, the bishop suggested, that people be present to each other at the time of the Sunday liturgy. Otherwise, he cautioned, "we walk by each other and do not notice the hurt in someone's eyes." What can happen is that people are "busy about many things and are distracted from the things that really matter."

The bishop noted that "a vibrant community fosters among its members a sense of presence to each other" since "it is Jesus, truly present, who gathers the community. The community lives the encounter with Jesus by being present to each other."

5. The Vibrant Parish: Programs and Prayer

I want to note what Bishop Bootkoski had to say in his pastoral letter about the time set aside for prayer and spirituality during educational programs and other parish meetings and small-group gatherings. There is a risk in thinking that good programs are all it takes "to help people grow spiritually," he said. He wrote:

"A vibrant parish models ongoing conversion by encouraging groups to spend time in prayer and reflection. How many of us have been at a parish meeting that was opened with a quick prayer and then moved on to the business at hand? Parishes need to model something different."

Bishop Bootkoski believes "that no meeting agenda will be lost or meeting time wasted when it is done in the context of prayer and sharing of faith." For, "spending time in prayer and reflection can help us work through differences, find our way through tough decisions and help us appreciate a point of view different from our own."

A vibrant parish will take a careful look at the meetings it holds for parents at school or in religious formation programs, the bishop said. For, there is today "a new generation of families, raising their children and doing the best that they can each day. Many want to grow in a spiritual way, but have neither the time nor understanding to do so."

If "a guided meditation" or "a time of reflecting on a question in small groups" is offered, those attending a parish meeting might be disarmed, "but more than a few might leave a little more renewed than if they only sat and listened to information they could have read themselves," said Bishop Bootkoski.

Parish staffs, pastoral councils and lay leadership should gather once a year "to reflect on the spiritual health of the parish," the bishop advised. He said they ought to explore creatively "new ways to help parishioners with their spiritual lives."

Vibrant parishes, he added, "are not afraid to ask whether devotions and opportunities for prayer that they offer speak to the current spiritual needs of people. This is the way vibrant parishes call upon the Spirit," asking the Spirit to make them holy.

6. The Vibrant Parish: Justice

"A parish must develop a sense of solidarity with the human family," Bishop Bootkoski's pastoral letter on vibrant parishes said. "Every human suffering is my suffering. Every human hope is my hope. Every human story is my story," he wrote.

Vibrant parishes "are willing to look within the walls of the church and see the challenges lived each day by members of the parish family," said the bishop, who added: "They are willing to look beyond the walls of the church and out into the world. When they look, they do not see strangers or people they do not understand. They see themselves. They see brothers and sisters who share the same human story. They see the face of Jesus."

Commenting that "every human person deserves adequate housing and food, a just wage and the right to life, happiness, peace and justice," the bishop said that a vibrant parish unites "the members of its community to the larger human family through works of charity."

The vibrant parish "is always realistic about what it can do," but "always willing to challenge itself" as well, said Bishop Bootkoski. The vibrant parish asks, "What barriers must we remove in our own lives so that we may be more closely united with all our brothers and sisters?"

7. Current Quotes to Ponder

Music Hints at Creation's Potential: "The great fascination this evening was the sound of the oboe that you, dear Mr. Mayer, masterfully offered to us. It was moving to observe that from a piece of wood, from this instrument, an entire universe of music flows: the unfathomable and the joyful, the serious and the humorous, the grandiose and the humble, an inner dialogue of melodies. I thought how magnificent it is that such promise is hidden in a small creative piece that the conductor can liberate, and this means that the whole creation is full of promises and that the human being receives the gift of leafing through this book of promises, at least for a while. I think that this evening we are not only invited to cherish the natural forces that help us to express our physical energy that is a promise of creation, but also to cherish the deepest, greatest promises that this music has pointed out to us in the vigilance of our hearts, which also enables us to understand this piece of creation." (From remarks Pope Benedict XVI made Aug. 2 after a concert at Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence, by the Bavarian Bad Bruckenau Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Albrecht Mayer, who also performed an oboe solo.)

Immigration Today: "Immigration is one of the pillars on which [the U.S.] is built and presents our church today with the same challenge it did in the days of mainly European immigration: to welcome new communities in our midst. This is a blessing: We continue to be enriched with new members from different places and backgrounds. Hispanics form the largest group of Catholic immigrants, accounting at this moment for one in three U.S. Catholics. About 60 percent of Catholics under 30 years old are Hispanic." (Maryknoll Father Jose Aramburu, writing in the September 2009 edition of Maryknoll magazine)

8. Proclaiming Dignity Through Respectful Dialogue: Health Care Reform

Respect for human dignity is a value that needs to undergird efforts by the church and its people to address complex current issues in areas such as health care reform, immigration or the economy - issues that are ethical in nature, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., said in an Aug. 20 column. He is a former president of the U.S. bishops' conference.

At the same time, "as we address these and other difficult and complex situations, all of us as church must call for respectful discussion and dialogue," he said.

It is vital that efforts to "proclaim the truth to the world" be undertaken "in a context of civil dialogue and discourse," said the bishop. He commented:

"A face yelling from the TV screen, or through the printed word, or in a letter often violates the very principles the writer or speaker is trying to uphold. We must press for accurate information that counteracts those ideologues who would exaggerate or misinform."

What do these remarks imply for the current discussion and debate in the U.S. over health care reform? Bishop Skylstad said health care reform is much needed. "Costs keep rising as the number of uninsured increases -- some 45 million people, left vulnerable."

Nonetheless, he remarked, as can be seen "from the heated congressional debate" over health care reform, "solutions will not be easy," so "we all need to rise to the occasion and help make it happen." The church has a "long, deep history of ministry" in the health care field, Bishop Skylstad noted. "We have always treated health care as a basic human right."

As the debate over health care reform continues, the Catholic Church definitely "will continue to proclaim the right of every unborn person to live," said the bishop. For, society "must stand in solidarity, providing a voice for those who have no voice."

Furthermore, the issue of physician-assisted suicide should not be neglected, Bishop Skylstad told readers. He wrote: "We must strive to address skillfully the underlying causes that may tempt people to terminate their lives. We must help people process their issues regarding the end of life so that no one reaches a point where they think physician-assisted suicide is the only viable solution."

9. What Permanent Deacons Do

A deacon "who did not personally involve himself in charity and solidarity toward the poor" would be hard to understand, Cardinal Claudio Hummes said in an Aug. 10 letter to the world's 36,000 permanent deacons. Cardinal Hummes is prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy.

His letter discussed the deacon as a minister of the word and of charity. Fulfilling the ministry of the word requires genuine effort, the cardinal suggested. This ministry "requires of ordained ministers a constant struggle to study [the word] and carry it out, at the same time as one proclaims it to others."

Both meditation and study have roles to play in the deacon's ongoing formation for the ministry of the word, according to Cardinal Hummes. He said:

-- 1. "Meditation, following the style of 'lectio divina,' that is, prayerful reading, is one well-traveled and much counseled way to understand and live the word of God, and make it one's own."

-- 2. "Intellectual, theological and pastoral formation is a challenge that endures throughout life. A qualified and up-to-date ministry of the word very much depends upon this in-depth formation."

Turning to the deacon's ministry of charity, Cardinal Hummes noted that "the diaconate has its roots in the early church's efforts to organize charitable works." Today, the cardinal said, "we must love the poor in a preferential way, as did Jesus Christ; to be united with them, to work toward constructing a just, fraternal and peaceful society."

Deacons must identify "in a very special way with charity," Cardinal Hummes wrote. He called the poor part of the deacon's "daily ambience" and the object of the deacon's "untiring concern."