Have you ever read the multi-volume book set by Louis Ginzberg entitled, Legends of the Jews? If not, I dare say you are missing out. For within its pages you will not only encounter numerous familiar themes and stories, but you will hear them from different storytellers. In other words, Mr. Ginzberg’s monumental and important contribution was to capture the various legends as they were passed down from generation to generation, to re-tell old stories—stories we all sort of know—but from the perspective of the people who lived closer to the time when the events of said stories transpired.
In the Legends of the Jews we read numerous versions of the creation story, the death of Adam, the account of Noah’s Ark, and of course, the life and struggle of Abraham. But what’s truly fascinating is that we get to see what parts of these stories the ancients filled in.
Why would they do that? Why would they fill in or embellish the stories passed on to them from their forefathers?
Quite simply it is because it often happens that we are not content with the official record of events, especially when we feel close to those events.
The legends contain the story of the fratricide between Cain and Abel, but they go one step further and try to explain why Cain might have done so. They cover those truly memorable events in the life of Jacob, especially when his son Isaac used subterfuge to rob his own brother of a sacred and powerful blessing, but the text here in the legends really wants to explain why that might be okay.
This kind of honesty and self-reflection is precisely what parishes like yours need right now in order to redirect their course away from an ill-fated end.
It is in this way and for this reason that I believe we Catholics have a lot to learn from Ginzberg and his work, for we are living at a time when the stories of many parishes, possibly even yours, are coming to an end. Part of the reason for that is because those who are living the tale right here and right now have forgotten the drama that they are all caught up in.
Let us say for a moment that your parish community is slowly but surely on the decline. People are leaving or there are just no new young folks sitting in the pews. Perhaps your once-booming parish has now become a mission church, or maybe it is open to serve the diocese and its visitors only a few times a year—as often happens in remote locations that still attract vacationers. What I want to know—and what you should want to know too—is how you, your pastor, and your evangelization team tell your parish story because hidden within the telling are a multitude of helpful insights.
What were the circumstances that brought your parish community into existence in the first place?
What was the need of the Catholic community at that point in history?
Are any of the founding fathers still alive today?
At what point in your community’s narrative did a decline first begin to appear?
What changed at that time? Who arrived or left?
What resources were introduced or removed?
The answers to questions such as these can often help illuminate what went wrong, and what your parish needs today to flourish once again. In this there is also an opportunity to review how challenges were dealt with in the past, and how they can be better addressed now to pave the way towards a concentrated revival effort.
This is important.
There is a power that comes with storytelling, especially at present. When you can say to yourself and to others, We come from here, we used to be this, but then these things happened, and this is how we reacted, which of course has led us all to this present moment, wonderful things can happen. That’s because this kind of honesty and self-reflection is precisely what parishes like yours need right now in order to redirect their course away from an ill-fated end.
Articulating the story of your parish long before it ever becomes legend enables you to appreciate what came before, to awaken to the wounds that need dressing right now, and to take advantage of the opportunities you are given.
A parish and community centred around Jesus Christ in the Eucharist does not need to fizzle out, only to be inserted in a tome many generations later for enthusiasts like me to read about. By telling your story together as a community, as the events are still unfolding, it allows you to alter the ending.
So how does the story of your parish end?
For the sake of the Gospel and the nations that need to hear it, I hope it only ends in glory.