One Last Goodbye
The last time I visited my grandparents’ house was right after they passed away. There’s no other place on earth more etched into my memory, since I lived there in my early teens and had visited so often the rest of my life before and after.
Stepping through the front door I was immediately hit with the familiar smell of the house, and a million memories came flooding back. It was a deeply emotional experience to remember the holiday meals, reading in grandma’s lap, and learning how to fix things around the house with grandpa. So much of who I am today was formed there: some of my greatest joys, deepest sadness, and so many hours spent doing nothing “important,” as we simply shared life with people we loved.
The Family of God
That house—that physical space—wasn’t home, but it was where home happened. St. John Paul II uses similar terms to describe what the parish should be: “not principally a structure, a territory, or a building, but rather, the family of God, a … welcoming home.”
“Family of God,” “Home,” It’s sure easy to say those words without letting them touch our heart. But why is that? Perhaps we’ve overused them to the point where much of their meaning is gone? Or is the experience of most parishes so far from being a true “home” that we just don’t find that image applicable? Is it also possible that the image of a home was distorted for too many of us by growing up in one filled with brokenness?
The parish is so important that when a group of bishops got together for a meeting (synod) in 1987 to discuss the life and mission of lay people, they spent a good deal of time talking about the state of the average parish. Seeing that many don’t “do their work effectively,” they boldly called for a renewal of parish life. While acknowledging the challenges, these bishops urged priests AND lay people to make our parishes what they should be.
Before we can come to any practical steps for renewal, it’s important to have a goal in mind—a picture of the parish we want to work towards. How can a parish be a home? What does it mean to be a “home” at all?
Principally, home is where I am loved. It’s mom’s kiss on my elbow after a fall. It’s grandma’s hugs that warm the soul. It’s dad cheering at the big game. I know I am valued, and I feel appreciated unconditionally. My own 2 year old has done nothing to earn my love—not because he can’t, but because he doesn’t have to. At some point we start to think that just because we depend less on others, we somehow must use that independence to be worthy of their love. In the Father’s house, no one can earn the right to be loved. You are worthy of unconditional love and acceptance already.
This love without limits or measure gives a sense of safety and security. Through the suffering and trials of life, there is someone there by my side. And especially as a small child, my parents provide for my needs, “I shall not want.” That security gives me confidence! It doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen, but it does mean that I can make it through the storm and will not be alone in my suffering.
When we are loved totally and all our needs are met, then we begin to grow and flourish. Even with the best schools, home is still the primary place to learn and grow, because there’s so much more to growing up than learning facts. At home we learn who we are, what life is about, how to communicate with others, and especially how to pray.
As we grow, we discover that we are able to contribute. After all, any home needs constant work and even repair. The home is the first place where we are called to serve. We see the joy our self-giving brings to others and realize that growing up means leaving behind the natural selfishness of childhood. To be a part of a home—and not just live in someone’s house—means putting something of yourself into it, to make it better because you are there.
All of these elements together are the circumstances that allow me to form real, meaningful relationships. I share the joys and sorrows of life. I experience conflict and need for compromise when another’s desires or needs interfere with my own. Despite any ups and downs, the home is my primary place of rest, relaxation, and connection. An even deeper bond is formed as we share literally the MOST meaningful events of our lives: the joy of new birth, the accomplishment of coming of age and getting married, and dealing with the sorrow of sickness and death.
Lastly, through all of this I discover who I am and become who I should be. There is never a single moment when I am fully made. It’s an ongoing process, and through the years I may not always give the best of myself. But despite my failures, I know I am with people who love and appreciate me as I am. They patiently bear with me in my weakness, though they always encourage me to be the best I can.
Called to Renewal
Can a parish be this type of place? I believe it can. No, I believe it MUST. If lay people are called to build a home like that for their own family, how much more the Church! After all, it’s not just a human family, but the Father’s House. This is a serious responsibility we all share!
It is the renewal the synod of 1987 called for, and it’s a renewal still desperately needed today. Just like a family, the healing we need as a Church will not come in isolation. We need to support of each person: our priests, our religious, lay individuals, and ou families. This is our honor, our privilege, our dire responsibility! It is up to each of us to make the parish the home it should be.
The words our Lord spoke to St. Francis must echo in our own heart: “Go rebuild my Church, which is crumbling!”
One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.