March 6, 2024 at 9:15 a.m.

An old/new model for parish life: Mission from the margins

Encountering the presence of Jesus, through the eyes of the poor and marginalized is where the living Gospel can be found.
During a recent trip to Rome, which culminated in an audience with Cardinal Michael Czerny, Prefect, and other members of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger is seen with members of his group at Mass in Santa Maria in Trastevere. Those joining the Bishop (c.) include (from l.): Dan Kemmet, Jeff Runyan, Danny Leger, Dan Jasón, Dr. Joseph Dutkowsky, Rick Guidotti and Craig Johring. The only two from the group that are missing are Father Anthony Ligato and Seminarian Alex Turpin. (Photo courtesy Bishop Scharfenberger)
During a recent trip to Rome, which culminated in an audience with Cardinal Michael Czerny, Prefect, and other members of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger is seen with members of his group at Mass in Santa Maria in Trastevere. Those joining the Bishop (c.) include (from l.): Dan Kemmet, Jeff Runyan, Danny Leger, Dan Jasón, Dr. Joseph Dutkowsky, Rick Guidotti and Craig Johring. The only two from the group that are missing are Father Anthony Ligato and Seminarian Alex Turpin. (Photo courtesy Bishop Scharfenberger)

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

We shall not cease from ­exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we ­started

And know the place for the first time.

— T.S. Eliot, from “Little

Gidding,” Four Quartets

In a recent conversation with one of our active pastors about the future of our parishes, he cited a book that I had gifted him and all our priests with one Christmas. The title is “Made for Mission: Renewing Your Parish Culture” by Tim Glemkowski. “It hit the nail right on the head,” he said. And he is right. 

If you seek a synopsis of the author’s “four keys” to radically change parish culture, just search Amazon.com. Or better, treat yourself to a copy. He starts by reviewing some alarming statistics on parish decline which should hit us in the face, if we are awake —and, if not, ought to wake us up. The old “maintenance” models that see the prime task of parish leadership as to get fannies into the pews, are extinct. Instead, he offers, the true mission of disciples of Jesus Christ is to get off the dime and into the trenches, the margins of society, wherever the Holy Spirit may lead us. 

At the start of his public ministry, Jesus is led into the desert. The Gospel of Mark is perhaps the most graphic, as it describes the Holy Spirit, literally, “pushing” Jesus into the wilderness (Mk 1:12) where he spent forty days and forty nights, fasting and praying, finally tempted by Satan himself — as we sure will be if we move out of our comfort zones and into where so many of our sisters and brothers are starving for the word and presence of God. 

Not surprisingly, the Gospel ends where it began, with Jesus propelling his disciples into the world to make disciples. The so-called “Great Commission” (Mt 28:19-20) is to go out into the world and to spread the good news, the risen presence of Christ among us where so many are longing to hear a message that brings them hope and the joyful promise of a better life. How many young folks wander in loneliness, seeking a direction that cannot be found in the endless self-help promos and video games online, going to bed hungry for something more vital to their spiritual and emotional well-being.

Jesus is here among us, of course, but not primarily to entertain us. How many times do we hear that “the Church” should be more welcoming and less boring, providing more vibrant music and liturgical celebrations to attract people. All desirable things, yes, but do we really think we can compete with a rock concert every weekend? Will another performance, band or superstar change a single life? 

My recent sojourn in Rome (Feb. 20-28) was an experience that brought home powerfully  the Gospel message when witnessed through the eyes and life stories of people not always “in” church but who live the joy of its saving message of hope. I was part of a group of lay missionaries who, in different ways, share a common vision: the joy of the message of God’s presence among us as found in the humblest and most remote reaches of our world. Much closer to us than we may think.

Craig Johring, a former evangelical pastor turned Catholic, has for decades headed a mission called Hope of the Poor (hopeofthepoor.org). I have introduced him before in my columns, having myself shared three remarkable, life-changing encounters with the poor in Mexico City, as Craig and his co-founder, Danny Leger, from Omaha, have led us to. The heart of their ministry is the encounter of Jesus in the poor, which includes not only those who work and live on the dump of that city, but the homeless and handicapped they reach out to. It was Dan Jasón, a parishioner at St. Pius, a former FOCUS missionary (peer-to-peer evangelization on college campuses), who led me to Craig and Danny’s mission. He also joined us in Rome.

Dr. Joseph Dutkowsky, M.D., who has worked a lifetime with the handicapped, especially children, best describes the joy of his encounters in his book “Perfectly Human.” It was Dr. Joe who introduced me to Rick Guidotti (positiveexposure.org), who at the height of his career as a world-class fashion photographer, was moved by the discovery of the beauty in the faces of the handicapped who are now the sole focus of his art, which is changing even the way medical professionals view whom they serve. 

Our Roman trip culminated in an audience Tuesday, Feb. 27, with Cardinal Michael Czerny, Prefect, and other members of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, where we were joined by Jeff Runyan, a 16-year veteran of FOCUS and now senior Director of International Relations. I can barely describe the synergy that has emerged through our common mission of developing a vision of evangelization from the margins. It should be a model for parish mission, for us to promote throughout our Diocese, along with our pastoral leadership teams. Since an important part of my Roman visit was to spend some time with Father Anthony Ligato, our former Vicar for Vocations, now Assistant Vice-Rector of the Pontifical North American College, and Alexander Turpin, our seminarian there in his second year of theology, who recently received the order of Acolyte, I invited them to join us at the audience. 

What we learned from our time together, sharing of our dreams and experiences, was that encountering the presence of Jesus, the longing from his heart thirsting for our love, through the eyes of the poor and marginalized is where the living Gospel can be found. It is not so much that we go out to the poor with our richness to bestow on them what they lack. We are also enriched and evangelized by their presence and the stories of their lives, through their hopes and desires. It is the love of Christ reaching out to us through them. Yes, the poor evangelize us!

Mother Teresa certainly knew and lived this reality well, as she often spoke of quenching the “thirst” in the heart of Christ through the poorest of the poor to whom she dedicated her life. So did Térèse de Lisieux, however, who spent much of her short life in a convent, seeking to do little things well. She did not travel the world and, in fact, barely left the confines of her village. Yet she is a Doctor of the Church whose lessons on what love truly are continuing to inspire all who listen to her voice. 

In practical, everyday terms, which is what this all must come down to, taking a page from both Saint Teresas, we can all find within the territorial parameters of our parishes, the poor and marginalized, who may be the “saint next door,” which happens to be the title of a book written by our own Dan Jasón. As Tim Glem­kowski writes, the “people” of our parish networks include not only registered parishioners, or those who we see in church on Sundays, but everyone within our communities, including whom sometimes termed “fallen away” Catholics, non-Catholics, the so-called “nones” who profess no particular religious affiliation and even self-announced agnostics and atheists. 

In our mission outward, we can seek to marshal the talents and resources of people of all stripes, those in medicine, business, finances, education, the arts and management, blue and white collar, as well as those who live with physical and mental health challenges, survivors of abuse and trauma. These may form not only our leadership teams but can be exemplars in our outreach to all in our community who, commissioned to make disciples, will form that band of disciples whom Jesus sent into the world before he ascended to the Father. Is it a “new” model of parish life or very much the “old” one from the very start of the Christian era to which we return, one the world needs now more than ever. How blessed and privileged are we to bear the torch!

 @AlbanyDiocese


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