Half a century of sitting in Catholic parishes and getting assaulted by painful attempts at relevance qualifies me to reflect on what a thriving parish should actually be. Models and theories abound, but I believe there are two, and only two, essential signs of a thriving Catholic parish: namely, that its members “repent and believe” in the Gospel.

“Repent and believe” sounds a bit vague and glib for an action plan, doesn’t it? If you are an American, you’re probably looking for some concrete strategy or bullet points to put into a listicle.  The “Five Essential Signs of a Thriving Parish” or “11 Things You Can Do to Make Your Parish a Happening Place – This Week!” etc., make for good listicles.

But what I’m proposing is a simple biblical standard to show what actually makes a parish thrive. I’ll get to the specifics, but first I’d like to dispense with certain popular misconceptions.  Some things are not signs of a thriving parish.


It’s been fashionable for a couple decades to say that a parish must be “inclusive” and “welcoming” to be authentically Catholic. I’d like to know what religious community organizer came up with these terms.  They are not from our rich religious tradition. In fact, they’re redundant (and annoying).

Inclusivity and welcoming are not goals for parish life. They are fruits of a parish’s life, more specifically, fruits of virtue rather than programs.

The word “catholic” means universal.  This, of course, means that every gathering of the Catholic Church is – by definition – inclusive. The truer we live according to the spirit of our Tradition and universal faith, the more our parishes exude these virtues.

Nor do we need to seek them out. They are inherent in our communities. My father joined the Army and was sent to Japan just after the end of the Second World War. He often recalls a parish scenario in the Far East that was uniquely and perfectly Catholic. He and other American servicemen attended Mass at a local parish where they prayed with the Japanese faithful in the universal language, Latin.  And a priest from France conducted the mass.

To call that situation “inclusive” would be artificial labeling.  This is Catholicism at its finest.

Welcoming Sinners

“Aha!” you say, “But welcoming is essential to who we are. Jesus welcomed sinners, didn’t He?” Excuse me for disagreeing with yet another cultural/religious dogma, but no, He didn’t; at least not in the sense that the parish organizers mean it.

Jesus had no home into which He could actually receive sinners.  So He didn’t welcome people in the way the gesture is normally understood. The Pharisees tied the Lord’s “welcoming” (Luke 15:2) of sinners with His dining with them, which means that the dynamic was the other way around: sinners welcomed Him into their homes (Matthew 8:5Mark 2:13Luke 19:5; among others).

Nor were His apostles a sort of welcoming committee for sinners. Those guys, more often than not, played a harsh defensive game protecting Jesus from the crazies. (The relentless Syro-Phoenician woman with the demon-possessed daughter comes to mind.)


And if by welcoming if you simply mean Jesus was just nice and non-judgmental toward sinners, you’ll have to re-read a number of Gospel passages. Just to cite a few:

  • The woman at the well in John 4:4 (“You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” sounds a little harsh to me. Try saying something like that to a divorcee today.)
  • He cured a helpless paralytic by gratuitously volunteering the information that the man was a sinner (“Your sins are forgiven,” Luke 5:20.)
  • The famous passage of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 is remarkable in that He tells her to “go and sin no more” (a little victim-shaming there?) while at the same time He bends down and writes the sins of the elders in the sand (traditional interpretation).
  • Is it even necessary to comment on how fiercely Jesus treated the Pharisees, the worst sinners of His day? “Welcoming” doesn’t quite get to the core of His two-by-four approach to the sins of the Pharisees.

Jesus’ attitude toward sinners was, of course, gentle in most cases.  But it was not welcoming in the same way a church lady greets you at the door and thanks you for showing up.

Jesus’ practice of welcoming sounds more like remonstrating, cajoling, reproaching, or just clarifying, rather than welcoming.  It is that of a Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep without waiting for them to come to Him. He calls sinners to account, yet without condemnation.

Access to Sacraments

It has also become fashionable to propose “access” to sacraments as the sine qua non of parish thriving. But again, I dissent, and for the same reason. Access is an ideological term superimposed on a religious reality.

Spend any time close to government contractors and you will hear the term “access” bandied about constantly. And it is not always in a good way. It usually means creating opportunities to siphon money from the public till.

Access is not an absolute value when it comes to the sacraments. I dare say that our parishes have made the sacraments overly accessible to people.  One predictable result of this is a familiarity that breeds contempt.  Another is the lowering of sacramental standards – the loss of the sense of the sacred. Has anyone noticed these trends in Catholicism lately?

When the US bishops themselves decide to write a(nother) pastoral letter on the Eucharist because 69% of Catholics don’t actually believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, you don’t have an access problem. You have a “repent and believe” problem.

When Catholic marriages and baptisms have diminished by astonishing percentages it is not an access problem.  And when the practice of confession is almost non-existent (especially among Catholic youth), you don’t have an access problem. These are indicators of a “repent and believe” problem.

I could go on, but my point is fairly basic and hopefully clear. Full churches of people who lack faith and ignore the real demands of the Gospel are not by any stretch of the imagination thriving parishes.

Deeper Unity

Deep conversion of heart and adhesion to Christ the King is a lost opportunity when parishes spend vital energies on pseudo-religious programs that come out of community organizing concepts.

At the inauguration of His public ministry, Jesus set “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15) as the two doorposts which frame the doorway of the Kingdom of God. Entering through them is the way to the deeper unity we should strive for more assiduously than any program or activity a parish has to offer.

I make it a habit of reading parish bulletins every time I go into a Catholic church, and I would say that every single parish, without exception, could reduce their “ministries” and activities calendars by 90% today and be a more thriving parish tomorrow.

But this would happen only if parishes replaced all the obsessive religious activity with a heartfelt return to the sources of the Catholic faith: repentance and belief.

The First Sign

Now to the two infallible indicators of Catholic thriving. First: repentance. Communion lines are not signs of Catholic thriving, confession lines are.

In concrete terms, repentance manifests itself in the life of a parish by the practice of sacramental confession.  In this, priests would do well to remember their patron saint, John Vianney, who spent 14-15 hours a day in the confessional.

Unfortunately, you and I are rarely reminded by any priest these days that we are sinners. Most modern priests are too soft. They’ve imbibed the “culture of nice,” and their flaccid sermons reflect it.

When preaching in the ancient cathedral of Hagia Sophia where the Empress Eudoxia was present, St. John Chrysostom compared her royal highness to the biblical Jezebel to provoke repentance for her sins against the church. Chrysostom had obviously failed the sovereign’s sensitivity training.  Eudoxia rewarded his spunk by banishing him to Armenia.

Apostolic preaching sometimes has that effect, which is probably why we don’t get more sermons on sin. Banishment is a professional liability for priests in any age. They have a tough job, but those are the terms of the contract.

Setting up weekly half-hour increments for “access” to the Sacrament of Penance, however, doesn’t cut it.  This doesn’t come close to bringing people to the experience of inner conversion required by the Gospel. Sin must be preached, and until priests are willing to do that, we’ll all be whistling by the confessionals in our churches.  They may as well be just a bit of extra storage space echoing the platitudes of the weekly sermons.

The Second Sign

As to the second sign – belief – the concrete expression of true Catholic belief is the integral teaching of the faith. People need catechesis at every stage of their lives, of course, but priority of place in a parish goes to teaching the ancient faith to its children.

Catechesis is never an easy task, I know, but the sloppiness with which parishes conduct their religious education programs is sometimes breathtaking. Yet pastors seem to have money for everything else that needs to be done in a parish.

Even more to the point, parents seem to have energy for every other children’s activity.  However, the most important task of handing on the faith to their children in an integral way is often neglected. (By integral I mean parish communities and families working hand in hand to accomplish this critical task.)

Leadership in this area cannot be delegated to anyone else, as priests often do. With respect for the honest efforts of lay educators, lay Directors of Religious Education are an anomaly.  Such positions should be done away with tomorrow.  Priests need to resume their basic, and I’m sure thankless, priestly duty of handing on the Catholic faith in its fullness to the next generation.

The children in a parish should be the most deliberate object of a parish’s saving mission.  If their precious souls don’t merit all of our greatest efforts and creativity, then we have lost the mission of Christ.  The parish will end up being just another “welcoming” parish with great programs but without true faith.

Is it me, or do we have too many of those types of parishes already?

[Originally published at Catholic Stand.]