Quebec parishes struggle to enter a new missionary era

Fr. Marc Pelchat

Fr. Marc Pelchat

June 13, 2016
PHILIPPE VAILLANCOURT
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Catholic parishes in Quebec have undergone a transformation in recent years as most were merged into new entities.

But perhaps the biggest challenge lies ahead as the Church promotes what it calls a "missionary turning point."

The so-called turning point is detailed in a 30-page document published by the Assembly of Quebec Bishops in January in which it is presented as the final step in the ongoing parish reorganizations.

For the assembly, the challenge far exceeds the closure and merging of parishes and selling of churches that have been occurring for many years. It is seen as a spiritual challenge that demands Church structures themselves be converted.

"It's not about creating, next to our ongoing programs and activities, a missionary component aimed at those who don't know Christ. It's about converting all of our pastoral activities to make them missionary," says the document.

It also asks Catholics to ponder if the parish reorganizations really are missionary in nature or if they are just meant to preserve the status quo and save money.

Father Marc Pelchat, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Quebec, explained that the turnaround rests on two main ideas: elaborating within each local community a pastoral evangelization project and making sure the project is managed by the baptized themselves.

Parish reorganizations should not be done simply to compensate for the declining number of priests, Pelchat said.

"Parish reorganization should rekindle an evangelization project, to go toward groups and people with whom we have no contact," he explained.

"We need a conversion of our organization, but also of our pastoral vision, our mentality and our means of action."

INVOLVED IN MISSION

In upcoming years, Church leaders will not only ask parishioners to accept major structural changes in their parishes, but also to become more involved in the Church's evangelizing mission.

The process already is underway in some Quebec dioceses, such as the Diocese of Trois-Rivières, halfway between Montreal and Quebec City.

"So far, the local reaction is great. We're, of course, well aware that this process leaves some people wary and worried," said Jasmine Johnson, diocesan director of communications.

"But we're all in this together. We're implementing this project in close partnership with the grassroots communities."

The diocese is completing the early stages of implementing the missionary turnaround. Diocesan leaders have met the members of the base communities, discussing the mission of the Church and the responsibilities of the baptized members themselves.

Diocesan officers and local leaders, called "peers," regularly meet to discuss Church leadership, faith education and the quest for meaning. About 130 peers have met so far and they take back what they have learned in those discussions to their local communities.

Trois-Rivières has only a dozen active priests, Johnson said, adding there's no indication that figure will change anytime soon. Yet, she says, parishioners must avoid thinking that adopting a missionary attitude is a strategy to respond to the lack of priests.

The next step of the missionary turnaround will address human and financial resources, as well as the future of Church properties. That may involve closing more churches.

"We're, of course, well aware that some people won't be happy by some of the decisions that will be taken," Johnson said.

"Some parishes will quickly take the missionary turnaround; others will have to be accompanied all the way through.

"Yet, it must not be a top-down process. The decisions must come from the grassroots communities themselves."

Further east along the St. Lawrence River, the Diocese of St. Anne de la

Pocatiere is also headed for a missionary turnaround.

The diocese had 200 priests in 1976; however, it has ordained just eight in the last 40 years. Father Simon-Pierre Pelletier, the vicar general, said it would be irresponsible to let the 26 remaining priests maintain the status quo.

OLD MODEL DYING

"What's at stake right now is the inevitable death of an age-old model of the Church. Nobody loves to see something agonize and die," Pelletier said.

He expressed confidence the diocese will succeed in parish reorganization. In a few years he expects a diocesan missionary team will go to local parish communities supported by lay people.

Contemplating the ongoing process in the dioceses, Pelchat is confident yet cautious; some communities may not be able to go through the entire process.

"The missionary turnaround will most likely be a partial success," he said. "Some local faith communities will probably vanish. The remaining Christians will gather together differently.

"The idea of the parish isn't called into question, but its structure has already changed. It must change. And it will change again."