Cardinal Arinze Discusses Hallmarks of an Evangelizing Parish

IN PERSON: The former chief of the Vatican’s office of worship provides deep insights into the centrality of the parish to evangelization in his new book, The Evangelizing Parish.

(photo: Ignatius book cover, cropped)

Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments under St. John Paul II, has written a new book calling all Catholics, from pastors to the men and women in the pews, to rediscover the central importance of the parish in the Church’s New Evangelization.

In this interview with the Register, Cardinal Arinze discusses The Evangelizing Parish, why he wrote it, and how the People of God can start to live it today.

Cardinal Arinze, what inspired you to write this book about the role of the parish in the New Evangelization?

Many reasons. No. 1: to enjoin priests to appreciate the importance of their parish as an evangelizing unit in the Church — not that they don’t know it, but to emphasize it in such a way, my hope is, that when the priests have read the book, they will run to their bishop and beg to be sent to a parish immediately.

No. 2: When laypeople think of their parish, they think of what they get from their parish: sacraments — baptism, confession, Holy Eucharist, anointing and so on — and all that is good. But they don’t think of what they can give. They do not think of their own share in the apostolate, in the mission of the Church. They think of themselves as receiving, but not ever as sharing, as giving. So my second aim is that when the laypeople read it, they will be on fire to contribute.


What deeper understanding of a parish’s role do you want readers to come to?

The parish is a very important evangelizing unit of the Church, because in the parish we are baptized; we are confirmed; we receive Holy Communion; we are introduced to the Church community. There we grow; there we contribute; and there we die and are buried. So the parish becomes very important for all of us.


In your book, you mention that priests once lived together with their bishop. At least in the United States, today we see many diocesan priests living alone, or sometimes living like strangers in the same rectory. Do you think priests would be more effective pastors of their parishes if they actually lived together and had a communal life?

Yes, you are right. God created us not as wild animals to be alone in the forest. We have a social nature. All of us grow by our association with fellow human beings. And if it is feasible, the more they associate with their fellow priests, the better. We cannot become all we can become without our colleagues. Therefore, community life is important, not only for religious priests — Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines — but also for diocesan, pastoral, parish priests, because they are living, human beings.

If they sit together, they discuss parish programs together. They discuss! Nobody has all the answers, but when they are discussing, they can learn from one another. They grow in human virtues: in patience, in flexibility. The community life helps them to avoid loneliness, so they don’t have that loneliness. It also helps them avoid [negative] idiosyncrasies. … It is with others we can tell if [this priest] is exceptional, whether he’s punctual, reasonable, or whether this reverend father is not punctual, whether that reverend father is being impossible, or whether another reverend father is an “electric wire.” Community helps us do that. In this, Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.”

This includes between parish priests.


What place does the liturgy — both Holy Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours — have in the parish’s evangelization efforts?

Essential; important; foundational. The Vatican Council, in the document on the liturgy, Paragraph 10, speaks of liturgical celebration, especially the Holy Eucharist, as profound and the apex of the whole Christian life. From the liturgy, we get spiritual energy to do the apostolate. In the liturgy, we give honor to God. In the celebration of Holy Mass, the Church has the highest expression of religion, the highest expression of adoration. What is it that the Church has that is as important as Mass? It is only another Mass. The Church has nothing bigger than the Mass. So the liturgy gives us strength; it gives us Holy Scripture, proclaimed and explained. It gives us the grace of Christ. Christ himself received in Holy Communion is really, truly present — substantially. And it inspires us to go and spread the faith. The liturgical celebration has dynamic energy — not just “go, the Mass is ended; go and rest.” No, go and spread the Gospel! What we have heard, what we have prayed, what we have been singing: Go and live it; go and share it. So the liturgy — we cannot think of the Church without liturgy. The Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church.


Do you think it would be beneficial for parishes to be more intentional about offering Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours?

If the parish can. Indeed, Vatican II in this document on the liturgy, Paragraph 100, exhorted pastors in the parish to associate the people with them in the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, or what the Vatican called the “breviary.” Especially the morning prayers, lauds and, especially, even more, the evening prayers, vespers, especially on Sundays and feast days, if they can pray it together. It is obligatory for priests and religious, but laypeople are not forbidden. Please pray it — with the priests, or even without the priests. Laypeople, it is the prayer of the Church.


Many Catholics today, even if they go to Mass regularly, do not know the people they worship with. How do evangelizing parishes, particularly if they are quite large, develop a common life if regular attendees act like strangers together?

You have touched a very important point. The individual must not be lost in the big community. If the parish is very large, we do not blame the priest; we do not blame the people. Thank God they are coming! Thank God the Church is full! But we must now think of ways to make sure the individual is not forgotten and is not lost.

There are many ways in which parishes can solve this matter. One, what they call small, basic communities. That means there are units within the parish where people meet and read the Bible, they read the Mass text, and they discuss it. Second, there can be many associations within the parish: sodalities, Legion of Mary, apostolates, Society of St. Vincent de Paul. There can be home-visitation units. In particular, in every parish, it is important to have a social-services committee, a small group that can, in the name of the parish, take care of the sick, the aged, the lonely, the forgotten and the handicapped.

If a Catholic does not come to Mass for two Sundays, does the parish notice it? If the church is full, they are rejoicing, but they forget the member who did not come, the member who is sick, or was even angry with the parish priest, or angry with some church members. The parish should send two or three people to visit that person and say, “The parish sent us to you. We haven’t seen you for two weeks. Is there a problem? Can we help you? We are here if you’ve been sick. Does anybody annoy you?” So the individual thinks, “Oh, I am not forgotten. I am appreciated.” That is very important. The parish priest cannot in a big parish know everybody, but if he has this unit, and he tells the people, “If anybody is sick, or forgotten and so on, tell this committee, and they will go immediately in the name of the parish,” that is a very important aspect of parish life.

Also, bring Holy Communion, of course, to the sick or to those at home who are not able to come to church. If the priest cannot do it, then a minister of Holy Communion can do it in the name of the priest. That is very important.


Following up on that, what would you say are the chief hallmarks of an evangelizing parish?

There are three things that a parish does: worship, teaching the faith and service. Worship means Holy Mass, baptism, confession, Rosary and the whole area of prayer. The second area is doctrine, teaching, Catechism, and not only for small groups. All of us should make progress in the knowledge of our faith. And that’s very important. But the third area is often forgotten: service, which is called the oikonomia sometimes. That means a community that cares, that regards others as brothers and sisters: therefore, the sick, the lonely, the handicapped, the forgotten. Some are not poor in terms of money, but they want some human beings to visit them; to do shopping for an old woman or a sick person. That is a very important area of parish life that should not be forgotten.

Also in the organization of the parish, the parish council and the pastor must not forget to encourage individuals to “get going.” Some people may not be members of societies, such as the Society of St. Jude or the Legion of Mary, but as individuals they may be able to do a lot of good. Some people may be intellectuals, professors in the universities, medical doctors, lawyers, or they can even be pilots or hostesses on an airplane. Whatever their daily profession is, these individuals must be also encouraged, because sometimes “individual apostolate” is the only one practical in this situation for this person. So you can see the whole parish should be full of fire to inspire.


For the laypeople in the pew reading your book, what do you want them most of all to know about their role in parish evangelization?

Most important is they become convinced of the fact that baptism sets us all to evangelize. Evangelization does not necessarily mean you pick up a microphone and begin speaking. It can mean you simply share your faith with your colleagues; whether you’re walking, or sitting in an airplane traveling; whether it is with somebody who is just a friend, or whether it is a social party in a restaurant. Do you have the courage to make the Sign of the Cross? Are you afraid to show you’re a Catholic — like it’s a contraband good? So it is simply that individual should be convinced that you can be a witness of Christ anywhere, whether in a group or outside of it.

Some people are afraid of organized groups, but if an individual approaches them as a Catholic individual, they may listen. They may never have a cardinal or a religious sister talk to them, or if they see them, they may guard themselves. But if they see a normal colleague in the rough and tumble of daily life, they may be more open. And when they see this person active in their faith, that faith can get contagious. They will see that this faith is shared by all.


Thank you so much, Cardinal Arinze. Is there a final thought you would like to leave our readers regarding your book The Evangelizing Parish?

Yes. When we speak of the parish, do not think of “them.” Think of “us.” It is “we.” And when we say “the Church,” do not think of just the Pope and bishops. They are the leaders, but the laypeople are 99.9% of the Church. Once you are convinced of that, you see there are no spectators in the Church. Everybody is a player.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Evangelizing Parish is available via