Several years ago, I wrote a series of pastor columns on aspects of what it means to belong to a parish. If you would like to read the whole series, it can be found here: friarmusings.com/belonging
Where to begin? At the beginning is always a good place – and for Catholics the beginning is Baptism. Each time we enter church it is our tradition to mark ourselves with the Sign of the Cross using water from the holy water fonts. It is a moment to recall the words the priest proclaimed at your Baptism: “I claim you for Christ.” From that moment you belong to Christ and are a member of His people. You belong, not in some abstract way, but in a time and place and with a community of people.
By our baptism, we are indeed “members” of the universal church, the Body of Christ – and hence we can go to any Catholic Church in the world. But you are here at Sacred Heart. What does it mean in terms of our local presence and participation that we belong? Does it mean we are members of Sacred Heart because we “signed up” and registered? Is “signing up” the only characteristic of belonging? It is a start, but there is more to it.
Maybe it is those who “sign up” and “show up.” The data tells me there are almost 5,000 members (and 2,700 households) in the parish. Maybe about 40% of the members, on average, show up each weekend. But then again, there are folks in attendance who are faithfully here but never “signed up.” There are folks signed up who do not or are not able to “show up” on a regular basis. And there are people in between.
And then there is another characteristic of belonging: those who “chip in.” In a perfect world people sign up, show up, and chip-in – not with financial contributions alone, but with their gifts, talents, and time with which they help build the kingdom of God. There are about 400 people who participate in ministries and volunteer for events. There are about 600 families/households that regularly give in an identifiable way. And there are families that give anonymously and volunteer out in the community.
There are more characteristics. But you get the point. The meaning of “belonging” is not one definition fits all, but it is something beyond simply registering in the parish and anonymously attending Mass. And it is a question we face on a very practical level every week when people call up and want us to sign letters for them to be godparents, to receive discounted tuition at area Catholic schools, to get married here, and a whole list of requests that ask that the friars or the staff to expend a not-inconsiderable amount of time and energy on their behalf. The dilemma we face is that we want to be responsive, be of help, not be a burden – but so often we are faced with the moment in which we realize we have no idea who this person is – even if they are registered. There is no footprint they are here. It makes for an awkward conversation. Occasionally there is a moment of humor like the time when a person, unhappy with my “no,” informed me that they would take it up with the pastor as Fr. Andrew was a close personal friend of theirs – and yes, I had been pastor about 5 years – and Fr. Andrew had no idea who they were.
There is no litmus test that gives one simple answer, but sometimes we have to say “no.” Underlying all our responses is the idea of belonging. Recently a person called asking for a godparent letter. In chatting with them they said they love Sacred Heart, but most weekends they were at another parish for Mass (for good reasons). There was a pause and the person concluded, “You know, I should really register there and get involved… it’s a really good parish, too.” And there it is. We want people to attend a parish where they will belong, be known, get involved and vibrantly live out the faith in that community. If it is Sacred Heart – then great. If it is a young family moving over to Christ the King – great! This diocese is filled with great parishes – belong to one of them!
I am aware I am largely “preaching to the choir” as you are reading this in the Sunday bulletin. The mere fact you read the bulletin is one sign of your sense of belonging. I wish I knew how to reach everyone who is registered but without a “footprint,” or those not registered at all, and tell them belonging has responsibilities and more, belonging has its benefits! Simply put, belonging will lead you to greater holiness. How? That is addressed in the larger of articles. Did I mention the link? Just in case — friarmusings.com/belonging.
Why did I choose this topic? I want a parish filled with folks possessing a deep, abiding sense of belonging, people who want to live out their baptismal vows, and whose life is centered on Christ, who know the people around them, and find their life is spiritually growing. When the parish is filled with people who belong, we will discover a fuller satisfaction in life outside. We will invite others to join us in worship, give generously of our time serving inside and outside the parish, and will make giving to this community of faith a priority. This is what it means to be “good soil,” a place where roots can sink in and blossoms spring forth, yielding 30, 60 or 100-fold.
Belonging is the key to a dynamic parish alive in Christ.