May 27, 2024

By Renae Kranz and Andrea Gibbs

Well, we’ve finally arrived.

We’ve taken the first steps into the Set Ablaze pastoral planning process: priests have moved to their new assignments; pastors, parochial vicars and parish staffs are learning how to work together; and we’re anxiously awaiting the opportunity to have our voices heard about the future of our pastorates. But before we worry about making sure we get our say, we should first know what is being asked of us.

We’ve painted the picture of the goals of Set Ablaze over the past year: building Lifelong Catholic Missionary Disciples Through God’s Love, maximizing the complementarity of priestly gifts, engaging the lay faithful in the work of the Church, and scaling resources so each pastorate is appropriately staffed and equipped for the efforts of evangelization (review the story in the October 2022 issue of The Bishop’s Bulletin).

A detail drawn from the four main goals is the building up of thriving parishes, a sure sign that the work we’re doing is bearing fruit. Thriving parishes shine the light of Christ into their communities and become hotbeds of evangelization and conversion. However, at this point in history, we face the obstacle of sustaining our churches and our faith in a secular world as Christendom falls away.

So how can we thrive as parishes and bring others to Christ when the world around us is often either outright hostile or doesn’t know Christ at all? As always, the Church will prevail because Jesus promised it would, “… upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

We have a role to play. As parish, and now pastorate, families, we must find ways to become thriving parishes and thriving Catholic communities. Will it be easy? No. But Christ is with us, so do not be afraid!

As we begin the real work of Set Ablaze, pastorates will focus on aspirational ways to build thriving parishes. So what does a thriving parish look like? 

Thriving worship

A thriving parish is equally ready to both challenge and sustain the faith of those who attend. It helps people encounter Jesus’ presence, love and blessing and draws people into deeper relationship with God. The celebration of the Mass is marked by full pews, beautiful liturgy and earnest participation from the faithful.

Thriving parishes have a good understanding and implementation of the Church’s teaching in the liturgy. They pray the Mass fruitfully, fully and effectively. They also might have regular exposition and adoration of the Holy Eucharist, Vespers or processions. This is what we would call “elevated worship,” of which God is supremely deserving.

When we elevate our worship, we show the goodness and love of Jesus to those around us, especially those who may be joining us for Mass. Can you imagine a guest coming to a Mass like this? Sacred music, intentional and deep prayer, welcoming people.

In addition to Sunday Mass, part of thriving worship includes consistently long Confession lines, becoming more familiar with saint feast days, enhancing the devotional life of families, and welcoming people of other faiths to worship with us, showing them the goodness and love of Jesus.

Thriving missionary disciples

The mission of all members of the Church, including the lay faithful, is evangelization. In the ordinary lives of parishioners, parishes can make the most progress in building missionary discipleship because this work is accomplished through relationships with others. Therefore, parishes must have specific initiatives to help their faithful become the disciples who walk with others to help them encounter Jesus, come to love him, and choose to follow him.

A parish that thrives at discipleship and evangelization knows where the people in the parish are in their faith and, in turn, helps them grow in their relationship with God. They help their people experience his goodness, truth and beauty and empower them through an elevated experience of the Mass, where they are imparted with God’s grace to become disciples and make disciples.

“Faithful Christians can call others to live by Christ’s teachings, and little by little we can evangelize people to live again that Christian life, even amidst the worldly ways,” says Father Terry Anderson, pastor of Pastorate 15.

Dr. Chris Burgwald, director of discipleship formation for the diocese, suggests some questions that can be asked to identify a vibrant parish. Are new people coming into the Church? Are people advancing in their faith to become disciples of Christ?

“In a vibrant parish, there’s an intentionality in helping people grow in concrete ways, deepening their faith but also their ability to share it with others,” Dr. Burgwald says.

A simple way vibrant parishes evangelize others is by reaching out to them at Sunday Mass. Amanda Rohwedder with Amazing Parish, a movement that helps parishes grow and transform parish life, encourages this powerful method of evangelization.

“If you see a new face at Sunday Mass, make an effort to introduce yourself and welcome them to your parish,” Amanda says. “If there is an upcoming event at the parish that you plan on attending, invite them to meet you there. Ask someone how you can pray for them in the coming week and bonus points if you pray with them right there in the moment!”

One more critical action of a thriving parish is that it helps its young people ask God what he has planned for them (their vocation), rather than the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?” This small change orients the youth toward God in all decisions and allows them to actually consider what their true vocation is.

Thriving service

A vibrant and thriving parish meets the needs in the community with Christian service. These experiences of Christian service in turn help the people deepen their relationship with God. Serving the needs of others is seen as another opportunity to be a witness of service in the name of Jesus.

A vibrant parish offers paths to help members of all age groups come to know and treasure more deeply the Church’s call to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Dr. Burgwald says this is not only seen in the ways a parish might serve at places like The Banquet in Sioux Falls, but is also seen in many small ways. Because rural parishes don’t have those same opportunities, he suggests that a vibrant parish will seek out those in its own community who are in need.

“One of the groups I personally have a passion for are the working poor, because they tend to be invisible,” Dr. Burgwald says. “And I think those people are everywhere, across our diocese, our state, our country. They’re not visible because they have a home, they have a job, they’re not homeless, but they’re in real need.”

Another hallmark of service you would see is the parish’s care for the homebound and those in nursing homes. Rather than leaving them alone and isolated, the parishioners of a thriving parish create new ways to care for them. This could be organizing regular visits or rides to Mass for those who are able to come in person but cannot drive themselves. They understand that how they serve the least in their community is an outward sign to others of their love and devotion to God.

Thriving community

A thriving parish and pastorate has specific initiatives to build up authentic Christian community among families, parishes and communities in the pastorate. The pastorate matches needs and resources to individuals and families to help all grow in authentic community. For example, college students need families to support them in their faith as they prepare for their future vocations and careers. Families need college students to do things like babysit young children and act as near-peer mentors for their older children.

Mentors in the parish help others develop habits of service, and they use the treasures of the faith (processions, devotions, etc.) as opportunities to foster greater community. Priests often act as these mentors, because as Father Anderson says, “A thriving parish has an active pastor.” But parishioners play a critical role.

Amanda suggests, “Ask your pastor what his dream is for the parish and in what ways you can help make that dream a reality. Take on the mindset that your parish is a home away from home and volunteer to help build up the community at your home parish.”

Be a thriving parish

As we build our new pastorates, come back to these hallmarks of a thriving parish often to see how yours is doing. And don’t sit back and watch. Get out there and do the work God created you, and only you, to do. Be not afraid!