Parishes for MISSION  #6

Witness Dialogue Dimensions

SVD Mission Secretariat - Rome - 18 November 2003

The 15th SVD General Chapter called for specific efforts to clarify and enhance the missionary profile of the parishes where we work. This occasional email bulletin shares ideas, opinions, resources and hopes about SVD ministry in parishes.

In this bulletin: 







Earlier this year, Jorge Fernandes, the European Zonal Coordinator, published some reflections on the missionary profile of parishes in Europe. He reports on surveys of the European Provincial Councils and on the 185 SVD's dedicated to parish ministry in Europe. Jorge's reflections were previously published in the European Zone newsletter, but may also be of interest in other parts of the world.


The Missiological Institute of St. Augustin has for the past number of years organized a study week for both SVD and other missionaries who are home on holidays. From the 23rd to the 28th of June a group of missionaries had the opportunity to reflect on the topic of Missionary-Religious in Parish Ministry. This is a very relevant topic for us at present in Europe. In recent Provincial Chapters, and also following the well-known Roscommon Consensus, this topic was placed on the list of matters to be discussed at Provincial gatherings. In the past our European Provinces were completely orientated outwards towards missionary work in the entire world. "The world is our parish," is a nice saying in our best tradition. Confreres who remained on in Europe did so in order to maintain our structures, or because of ill health, or because they "were not suitable for the missions." However things have changed in recent years. Europe is now a missionary challenge, and we are concerned about the conditions of the Christian communities here in our continent. In Roscommon, the Provincials at that time requested confreres from other continents, to come and help us. First appointments of young confreres to Europe should be seen as part of the normal appointments policy of the Generalate.

Such a development is something completely new. Europe has in the past sent missionaries out to the whole world. Now we already have in our various European countries confreres from all over the globe. The reinforcement by young confreres is not just a way of filling gaps or promoting internationality in our Provinces. The religious and ecclesial situation demands of us new and creative responses. One is left with the impression that the parish could be a very promising field of activity. Naturally there are questions that still need to be clarified. How can religious be integrated, both in theory and in practice into this new and uncharted reality? How should be the profile of a parish directed by a Divine Word missionary team? If religious life is just one of the many gifts of the Holy Spirit for the building up of the Body of Christ, what might the Local Church expect from pastors who are religious? If the religious reality in Europe is undergoing profound changes, how can confreres from other continents integrate and enculturate themselves among us?

These topics are not only theoretical in nature; they are closely linked to the reality that will concern us greatly in the coming years. One thing certainly is clear and that is, for those responsible for leading our Provinces in Europe the integration of confreres into ordinary pastoral ministry is an important missionary task.

[You can contact Jorge at .]

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On the 20th of February I sent out a questionnaire to the Provincial Councils in Europe. I was interested in receiving first hand information on our work in parishes since I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the Missiological week in St. Augustin. I received replies from all the leadership teams, and I wish to express my gratitude to the Provincials for their collaboration. What follows is a summary of the responses received.

2.1 For how long have we had parishes in the Province? How did we begin this ministry?

The replies are very varied. They are closely connected with the history of each Province. In ITA for example the bishop would not allow an SVD foundation at Padova unless we accepted a parish. In SWI and SLO we have some confreres working in parishes, but the Congregation has not accepted the parishes themselves. In NEB we have only 2 confreres in parishes, but in OES there are 29. In some Provinces (ITA, GEN, OES, URL) we have had some parishes from the very beginning. In others this has been a more recent development (ESP and POR). The situation in Hungary is very interesting. After the communist revolution in 1950 our confreres sought work in parishes. The bishops could not legally employ religious, and there were cases when the bishop either did not know – or ignored – the fact that our confreres were religious. After the changes, which took place in the 90´s, some of our confreres remained at the service of the diocese. Different history – different situations.

2.2 How do you evaluate our work in parishes? How did we begin this ministry?

This is what I wanted to find out from the Provincials, and I was indeed greatly surprised by the results. The majority would consider such a development as something very positive for our future presence in Europe. Recent Provincial Assemblies have discussed the topic. This matter has also been discussed in Provinces, which do not have any parishes (SWI and SLO). The Provincials in other Provinces are in complete agreement with this new development (GEN, ITA, URL, GES and OES). In POL the Province is preparing itself for the challenge of starting communities, which are both missionary and open to the worldwide Church. This is the desire of some bishops in Poland. The Province needs to make efforts to respond to this new situation and for this we need to prepare our young confreres in formation.

In ESP and POR the Provincial Councils are in agreement with the work in parishes. However our confreres do not want to lose sight of what they call the profile of a missionary parish. "Dialogue in its four-fold dimensions can be practiced very well in the parish setting," writes the Provincial of ESP.

2.3 How many confreres from your Province are engaged in Parish ministry?

Our Congregation has 185 confreres in Europe engaged in pastoral work in parishes. Out of this number 85 are parish priests with their headquarters in the parish. The others are chaplains or directly working full time in pastoral ministry. Many live in an SVD-community (in Poland almost all the parishes are near to an SVD house) or in the parish itself. Working as a team is more the exception than the rule.

2.4 Globalisation and secularisation have had a great effect on religious life. How are such effects seen in the life of confreres working in parishes? Have they arrived - precisely because they are living in closer contact with the reality of the life of the people – at a clearer identity of what it means to be a religious-missionary?

It seems that this was a question that not everybody understood and answered. I wanted to find out how the confreres – in spite of the negative influences of the new culture – responded to their vocation. In other words, are we a sign of hope for the people with whom we work? Can we take on our identity in Europe and be happy missionaries?

Some Provincials and their Councils think that secularisation is a challenge for each one of us. Perhaps confreres in parish ministry feel much more the impact of secularisation and so have to make efforts to maintain traditional values. GEN is of the opinion that confreres in parishes are much closer to life. They are in a very different position of those living and working in an SVD house.

GES and OES offer a slightly more critical opinion: "Those who are engaged in pastoral ministry see themselves more as missionaries than religious. They appreciate belonging to the SVD… They take part in community gatherings, but one notices immediately that their house is the parish." (GES). "Their identity as religious missionaries has not, in my opinion, increased by being in the parish. The great majority do whatever they want, without taking into account the needs of the Provincial leadership and of the communities" (OES).

2.5 What problems and possibilities do you see for confreres engaged in ordinary pastoral work in the Diocese? Is this a way forward for the future? Or is it rather a danger for religious life?



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Along with the questionnaire sent to the Provincial Councils I sent another one to the 185 confreres involved in parish ministry. Only some 35 (20%) replied. I am not certain if this 20% is representative of the group and so we should exercise caution in evaluating these results. Confreres received a larger questionnaire with 10 questions and I will briefly look at each one of them.

3.1 Description of the parish…

The Congregation has parishes in large cities (Berlin, Seville, Lisbon and Munich), but also has small mountain parishes where there is still a very deep faith, and where the majority of people participate in the liturgical life of the Church. In Terchova, in Slovakia, about 50% of the Catholics attend Sunday Mass. In Sta. Justina in Tyrol it goes up to 70%. In general we work more in catholic environments but where there is a low participation in the life of the Church. In Almodovar (Portugal) they are only 5-7% of the baptized population; in Munich it reaches 7%. In a small town in Austria with 5.200 Catholics out of a population of 6.000 only 4% assist at Sunday worship. In one of our parishes in England there are around 50 participating in the Mass and all are over 50 years of age.

3.2 For how long have you been working in the parish? What made you decide to opt for this work?

Here too one finds a great diversity of answers. Among the confreres there are some who made a clear choice to work in parish ministry. However in general they arrived in the parish because either the Provincial or the bishop had requested them to come there. There were confreres who had given up personal projects in order to take up this task. Others had distanced themselves from the SVD for personal reasons.

3.3 Has your identity as a religious and missionary been strengthened by this work, or on the contrary?

Unfortunately only a few responded to this more personal question. Some could not think of themselves as a religious and priest in any other way, i.e. without a commitment to the parish. In general it can be said that ones identity has been maintained and there are some who have matured and grown in their missionary vocation.

3.4 How does parish work carried out by a missionary differ from that of a diocesan priest?

A few think there is no difference. One confrere wrote: "Like any other people, one can speak of different spiritualities and ways of working." However the great majority had difficulty distinguishing between them. One important aspect in defining our identity would be our working in multicultural parish teams. By our presence the Church understands herself as a Church which is "Communion" and "Universal." Our work is more outgoing and closer to the people.

It is here that our missiologists have great scope for reflection and study in the future. It is easy to use elaborate phrases that are empty of content. What exactly is a missionary parish within the European context? How do we understand ourselves (question of identity) and how do the people with whom we work understand us? How do we prepare our confreres to work in teams, and if possible in multicultural parish teams? Who knows what such an expression means indeed?

3.5 Can we speak of a missionary parish? Or is all pastoral work already missionary?

This question is similar to the preceding one, and the answers reflect the same confusion. The great majority of our confreres think that all pastoral work is missionary. Since we live in Europe, which culture is post-Christian, all pastoral work has a missionary orientation. If the Church is "by its very nature missionary" it makes no sense to speak of these differences and the parish loses its meaning if it is not missionary.

Others think that the difference is very clear: "one can speak of a parish of the missionaries." It is often said that among the missionaries one feels at home and there is a great spirit of sacrifice. One confrere even affirmed that we offer an alternative to the traditional Church.

3.6 There has been a radical paradigm shift in our understanding of Church and mission. There are the new cultural phenomena such as globalisation and secularisation…How would you verify the impact of this "new culture" on the environment of your pastoral work?

Many confreres find the new cultural reality a challenge for missionaries. We are obliged to think once again about our faith and to use new pastoral approaches for evangelisation. Others feel called to respond more radically in their vocation: "In the face of a secularised world a pastor would be irresponsible if he were not to avail of all opportunities for evangelisation."

The primary values for those living in this new society are : well-being, health, beauty and youth. These values are reflected in the communities. We are not cut off from this reality. Those regularly attending Sunday worship have decreased in this parish in the last 20 years from 50% to 20%. The image of the community and of the parish have changed. The priest is no more seen as a "consecrated person," but is judged by his approachability and humanity.

3.7 It is possible that this cultural reality has had an impact on the way religious missionary life is now lived. Some question the meaning of the vows in such a reality. Are the vows a help or a hindrance in your work?

Practically all the confreres value the vows as an important feature of their apostolate in the parish. "The vows bring harmony to my life… and I feel myself to be member of a family." "My style of life (especially my celibacy) awakens the curiosity of people. The vows lived with joy are a call to those who have distanced themselves to reflect on their lives…The vows can be transformed into a source of Good News. "Many exaggerated descriptions of our life could be overcome if we would live seriously our vows" writes another confrere.

3.8 Religious life develops normally in the context of community and working together as a team. Do you keep contact with an SVD community? What do you think about working as a team?

It would seem that the experience of working as a team among our "parish priests" is very poor. They appreciate greatly the SVD community. Some have negative experiences of community life. "I came to discover much selfishness which scandalised me in our communities, along with tendencies towards mediocrity and a style of life which is bourgeois" writes a confrere.

3.9 In Church documents, as well as among the SVD, we continuously speak of working with lay people. From your experience how would you evaluate working with the laity?

The importance of working with the laity is emphasised everywhere, even in Churches that are highly controlled by the clergy. In one of our parishes the work is organised around the laity: if we are not available any day the parish life continues... The future of the Church in Europe is a Church of laity.

3.10 What is the Institution or the work in your parish that you could immediately describe as being of an SVD missionary nature?

I will leave you now with the suggestions made by the confreres working in the parishes.

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Parishes for MISSION is meant primarily for SVD confreres working in parish ministry. It is also sent to SVD provincial and regional superiors and to others interested in the missionary profile of parishes. If you know of others who would like to receive this bulletin, please send a message to the editor, Tom Ascheman, at

If you would like to contribute your ideas for publication you are most welcome to do so. At present the bulletin is produced in English and Spanish. If you would like to see another language version of this bulletin or if you could help with translation please send a message to the editor. 

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Tom Ascheman SVD
Generalate Mission Secretary