LITURGY MATTERS: Parishes becoming centres of prayer

Our church buildings are open again for worship and prayer, and everyone is welcome. Rather than making a U turn and heading back to pre-COVID ‘normal’, let’s listen to what the Spirit is saying and seize the moment to act boldly and be open to renewing our communal worship and prayer.

I like the word ‘becoming’. It acknowledges that as individual disciples and communities, Christ is always inviting us to conversion and renewal. 

In the Synod, we heard the voice of the people longing for parishes to become centres of prayer. That’s not to say parishes are not centres of prayer. Rather it acknowledges that we are always on a journey between the already and the not yet. So, while some of the one hundred percent of Catholics experience parishes as centres of prayer, large numbers of Catholics don’t. And of those who do, some are asking for more.

As we continue to reflect on this longing, we are becoming more aware of some of the opportunities and stumbling blocks that invite us to attentive listening and boldness.

Enriched by diversity

To state the obvious, the prayer of the parish is not limited to what happens in the church building. It includes what happens in homes and other buildings where there is space to meet, and primarily in the hearts of the one hundred percent of the faithful. At the same time, the church building is an important focus. To a significant degree what happens in the building sends a message about who is welcome and who belongs. The building can be an easily identifiable focus for those who are not connected with the parish community or its worship. The church building is a public place where people can gather for all variety of prayer and worship. The possibilities for hosting more varied forms of prayer and worship increase exponentially for parishes with multiple church buildings.

The parish is enriched by the diversity of the community. For parishes with multiple church buildings, this diversity takes the form of what we could call ‘small church communities’ whose ‘home’ is a stational Church within the parish. How might we imagine this diversity as an opportunity to help shape the parish as a centre of prayer?

Sunday Mass

As a first step we would need to reflect on our understanding of what we are doing when we gather to celebrate Sunday Eucharist. On Sunday the domestic church and small communities gather together as the parish community, ideally in the parish church. We bring all our diversity of mission and prayer to our celebration of Sunday Eucharist, open to being formed into the one body of Christ. We are sent from Sunday Eucharist, back to our homes and small communities to be the face of Christ for each other, to continue the mission of Jesus in our neighbourhoods and to support each other in a variety of prayer and faith sharing both in and beyond our church buildings.

The pattern of joining with a larger community on Sunday reminds us that we are part of something bigger. We are stretched and enriched by the experience of this greater diversity. Too often we place all our prayer, worship and community expectations on Sunday Mass. The voice of the people longing for parishes to become centres of prayer is an opportunity for us to free Sunday Mass from unrealistic expectations as we begin to reimagine the worship and prayer life of the whole parish community.      

Reimagining the parish liturgy schedule

A second step would be to reimagine the parish liturgy schedule. In the living tradition of the Church, Mass is integrally connected to Sunday. Mass is not integral to the celebration of weekdays. More properly the Prayer of the Church – Morning and Evening Prayer – belongs to weekdays.

For years, the Diocesan Liturgy Council has invited parish communities to consider this and to vary the weekday liturgy schedule in the hope of accommodating and growing the prayer life of more people. Perhaps Mass could be celebrated on one or two days, Morning Prayer one day, Evening Prayer another day, a Liturgy of the Word another day. Such a change might invite us to reflect more deeply on the celebration of weekday Mass, which can become more an exercise in personal devotion focused on reception of communion, than a celebration of Eucharist in keeping with the Church’s rich understanding. Neither the Prayer of the Church, nor a Liturgy of the Word require an ordained minister to preside.

The options noted above are part of the official rites of the Church. Other options could be considered including, for example, silent mediation. A hundred years ago when I was a novice, the community would gather in the chapel early in the morning and pray in silence before Morning Prayer. The experience of sitting together in silent prayer – meditation, contemplation, whatever name we give it – has a formative and unifying power that is beyond words.

Parishes with stational churches, often of different designs, are particularly well placed for the small church communities who gather around them to provide a home for a rich and diverse array of prayer and worship opportunities that meet the longings of the broad Catholic community. Without the focus on Sunday, perhaps there could be an easy shifting of some furniture to better accommodate other forms of prayer. Perhaps there is an opportunity to invite Religious Sisters or Brothers in the community to help introduce the Prayer of the Church. Such communities would become integral to the parish becoming a truly catholic centre of prayer.          

Expanding existing prayer opportunities

Thirdly, many parishes already have a variety of groups that gather weekly for prayer such as Lectio Divina or the rosary. Existing groups provide a wonderful opportunity to extend the invitation to those who are not in ‘the loop.’ Could such prayer opportunities appear on the parish prayer and liturgy schedule? Would existing groups be willing to split to form additional groups allowing new people to join? How can we spread the good news of these opportunities in ways that invite the participation of ever widening circles of people?

Both our Diocesan Synod and the Plenary Council emphasise the need for the parish to renew its missionary nature. Expanding prayer and worship opportunities to meet the longings of those looking for different ways of praying, particularly those that include faith sharing, could be part of this expanded missionary outreach.

No U turn – discovering the new normal

As a society we are told that emerging from lockdown is not about going back to what we knew to be ‘normal’ in 2019. Rather it is about taking the pathway forward to discover what will emerge as our new normal. The same wisdom applies to the church and our worship and prayer. The pandemic provides us with an opportunity to reassess and be renewed. The Holy Spirit always calls us forward. There are no U turns in the Christian life. Let’s seize the moment to let some things die and to nurture the new life echoing in the longings of those searching for other meaningful experiences of prayer, worship and faith sharing.

What are you hearing the Spirit inviting us to in this space? How might you extend the conversation in your community? Let’s be bold!

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Louise Gannon rsj Image
Louise Gannon rsj

Louise Gannon rsj is the Diocesan Manager of Worship and Prayer.