A parish that is full of life needs music that appeals to the many different cultures and age groups in it, says a Jesuit who evaluates the life of parishes.


A parish that is full of life needs music that appeals to the many different cultures and age groups in it, says a Jesuit who evaluates the life of parishes.

September 8, 2014

The secret to a flourishing parish? "The people take ownership of it," says Oblate Father Andrzej Stendzina with directness.

Stendzina talks enthusiastically about St. Albert Parish where he served for 14 years until recently.

Smiles fill his voice as he says, "The theme for our pastoral council was to become an inclusive and welcoming community, that we were a team."

They achieve this by having a healthy balance between the spiritual and social and also working for social justice. They are also welcoming.

"Those on the outside, when they come here, they feel they are at home," says the pastor. "This begins with the greeters, ushers, even the parishioners themselves."

Jesuit Father Thomas Sweester of Milwaukee has been examining and advising parishes for 40 years through the Parish Evaluation Project. And Sweester agrees with Stendzina that welcoming is crucial.

"You need to do a really good job at welcoming. It's a culture," he says.

"Every Mass. Every door. Three or four people even out on the street, opening up the door, welcoming people, helping people who can't get there, helping them to find places to park. There's a whole ministry of dynamic welcoming."

Sweester adds three other factors to his list – prayer, music and the homily.

Once people are in the door, and they need the sanctity of communal prayers, he says. "Create an environment that helps people pray."

Part of that environment is, of course, music. Here, Sweester gives guidance. "Each Mass has its own clientele. You have to have diversity."

If someone walks by and hears the music, would it invite them in, entice them? Would they be interested?

"Most of the time it is the old standby hymns, and people keep on walking," says Sweester. "They won't take a peek in the door."

He suggests the music ministry look at the age, clientele and culture of each parish Mass and discern what type of music is attractive to each grouping.


Then there is the homily.

Fr. Thomas Sweester

"We often suggest a homily reflection group," the Jesuit says. "The deacon, priest, presider has a few people that meet with him maybe once a month. They reflect on the reading together and suggest what would appeal to people and relate to their everyday lives."

For that to work, the pastor has to be open to the process, and he needs people with whom he is comfortable, he says.

That input can give "a little bit of a start to the preachers." It can lead them to be more attentive to not talking too long or saying something that relates to the experiences of both parishioners and strangers, Sweester says.


Back at St. Albert Parish, Stendzina gives credit to his staff for giving him the space to minister. "My part is to journey with people," he says. "I'm not like a boss."

Stendzina says the parish is full of "people who are really involved and they take pride."

The parish's 150th anniversary celebrations brought the parish closer together spiritually, he says. "We took a whole year to celebrate it and that was a good thing."

At Wetaskiwin's Sacred Heart Parish, Father Nilo Macapinlac attributes the healthy parish life there to "always being open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

"We have retreats in the parish like Life in the Spirit. People are thirsting for the living waters."

They are also open to collaboration. Sacred Heart Parish is not standing still and is realigning itself around three pastoral priorities.

Says Macapinlac, "We have new evangelization, a faith formation course and we foster the culture of vocations. The very catalyst of that is how we celebrate the Mass."

Nor is music forgotten, Macapinlac says they choose "liturgical music that stirs the heart of the people. They become very joyful, fulfilled, grateful to God, thanking him for all the blessings in our parish."

With a priest, deacon, pastoral assistant and two secretaries already on the parish team, the hunt is now on for a youth co-ordinator.


Parishioner Maria Chrunik says Sacred Heart Parish has been transformed over the last few years.

A mother of five who homeschooled her children, Chrunik says although community is important, it must be founded on a strong life of prayer. "I think that is the reason why communities will be successful or struggle."

Fr. Andrzej Stendzina, long-time pastor of St. Albert Parish, said the parish's 150th anniversary celebration in 2011 brought people together.


Fr. Andrzej Stendzina, long-time pastor of St. Albert Parish, said the parish's 150th anniversary celebration in 2011 brought people together.

In 2010, the parish decided it needed to be a Spirit-filled community, she recalls. "We needed to pray, ask the Lord what he wants. We have to be quiet, still and listen to where he is leading us."

It began with an hour a month of prayer on Fridays. Before long, they went to an hour before every Mass including weekends and weekdays. Then, the parish began holding 24-hour Eucharistic adoration every first Friday, Reconciliation before every Mass and the rosary before every Mass, Chrunik says.

In September, it will begin holding first Saturday Masses devoted to Our Lady to help in spiritual warfare and in bringing more souls to Christ, she says. The 24-hour adoration will now be held every Friday.

"There is so much going on," says Chrunik. "Our demographics have changed. We have grown in service and compassion and that will lead more people to join."

Macapinlac says the parish cannot stay closed up in its building and must take the faith into the community.

"We are reaching out to our Catholic schools, and I celebrate Mass in the chapel," he says. "There is a great collaboration between the parish and the Catholic school."

Pastoral care is being strengthened with visits to hospitals and nursing homes that include Communion and Anointing of the Sick.

"It is important that we care for our elderly," says Macapinlac. "They are part of the heart of the parish."

Sweester, the Milwaukee Jesuit, says parishioners need to be involved in some kind of ministry. It can start with "entry ministries" – ushers, welcoming ministers, readers.


"The problem is a lot of times, the people who have been there awhile have kind of sewn up these ministries," he acknowledges.

"Some of them have been at it 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years. The other people who come in say 'Oh they do such a good job I could never do that.' So you've got to create some vacuum. If not, these other people will never get involved."

His solution is to suggest that those involved in entry ministries be encouraged to look at Christian service, formation, community-building events and stewardship.

Says Sweester: "Pope Francis keeps saying, 'We can't have just consumers coming in. We have to turn them out to be evangelizers, ministers and disciples.' The whole effort is to say the people that are here have to spread the word outside."

Find the people who don't attend Sunday Mass regularly and give them a phone call, he suggests. "You get them involved in some kind of service experience. Work in a soup kitchen. Take Communion to the sick.

"This is especially true for young adults. You have to have something that peaks their interest. You get them involved in some kind of service and the talking about it afterwards – community building kind of stuff. Eventually they start coming to church.

"The young adults are a group that you need to pay attention to."


In Camrose's St. Francis Xavier Parish, Father Larry Pederson has been busy developing lay ministries throughout his four years there.

Maria Chrunik

Maria Chrunik

The parish is actively planning to build a new church, and that is getting some people involved, Pederson says.

The health of a parish, he says, "is having the lay people actively involved in the programs. That certainly makes a parish alive in several important dimensions of the parish, vital in terms of ministries and in terms of support."

St. Frances Xavier counts 1,150 families and 1,800 individuals on its parish roster. More than 600 are involved in parish ministries.

"We have a very active pastoral care team," says Pederson. They serve six different homes and Extendicare, and in the past have sponsored two refugee families.

"We are co-operating with other Camrose churches to sponsor another family or two," he continues.

"Our people reach out not only to our own faith community but do a lot of work with the poor, the youth community at large."


Sweester doesn't pull any punches. It all boils down to the pastor. "It's obvious. What makes a good parish is a pastor."

Parishioners can be set in the way they have done things for decades. So too can the pastor, he says.

Sweester and his group have encountered such priests. "It's not always possible to get a pastor who turns things around, be open to new things and creating new possibilities."

His Parish Evaluation Project can help. It comes to a parish and collects information from everyone involved. The PEP advisors examine the groups in the worship area, community building, formation, outreach, administration.

"The priests are sometimes surprised at what we find out," says Sweester with a chuckle. "Then we make goals. Take up the first goal and start working on it. Set up action plans."

Six months later, PEP comes back and examines how the parish is doing.

Sometimes, he notes, even recalcitrant pastors can change.

Sweester tells of "one priest all caught up in himself. His main thing was going to the gym. In the information gathered, the staff and parishioners said 'We never see him. He is an absentee pastor.'"

Naturally, the miffed priest disputed it.

"But we got someone to work with him," says Sweester. "Get him to the Masses. Establish his office hours. Sounds obvious. But it wasn't to him.

"Now it is going well. He has kind of had a real conversion."