What is a Parish if not a Christ inspired social and spiritual association of people?
What is Social Action if not an effort by people to improve conditions of life for everybody? Both Parish Life and Social Action are two sides of the same coin. The Catholic Parish will have articulations of its inspiration through liturgy, bible studies, pious associations, prayer groups, etc. All these activities of the Parish are organized towards improving the quality of life of its members with reference to the Christ experience. But this improvement always takes into account the social good, the wider need, especially the cry of the poor and suffering. So it is with Social Action. It does not restrict itself to the idiom of a specific faith tradition but works with an integrated vision of human betterment inspired by values from diverse human experiences. Parish Life and Social Action are complementary and mutually enriching.
Parish Life and Social Action have as much variety as there are human beings participating in such collective activities. Neither expressions of Parish Life nor Social Action can be uniform. So individuals will take part in both according to temperament, intellect or skill.
Let us explore the range of social involvement that Parishioners can take up. For instance, there are works of charity that need to be carried out in society. Social Action does not exclude these. The hungry, the deprived, the sick and others who suffer immediate want have to be helped. Those so inclined can and do express their faith in Social Action for direct relief of human suffering. In this they imitate none other but Jesus who would not dodge human need when offered an opportunity to heal, feed, console, etc. His universal compassion must govern the exercise of charity to make it more authentic in the Christian sense and in fulfilling the requirements of genuine Social Action.
Social Action has other avenues of Parish expression. These are wider needs of communities. We can take a cue from Jesus who responded to mass needs of hunger! In our context such needs are: the provision of water supply or medical facilities or sanitation; the functioning of public services like transport, environment conservation, the efficiency and transparency of public officials. The list is endless. In this area of Social Action, Parishioners who have a better sense of public order can individually or collectively monitor public services and work for improvements needed in general functioning. Parishioners would be more effective if they joined hands with peoples of other faiths (or no particular faith!) in order to secure the better operation of public services.
There is a dimension of Social Action which has to do with still wider issues. This includes public representation through the media, campaigns with other Parishes, people’s action groups – nationally and internationally; so that the good of human society is attended to by governments, by various fora that take up social issues affecting human wellbeing (e.g. the UN!). This level of Parish involvement in Social Action no doubt demands a high level of public awareness, a study of issues in depth and the leadership required to work at complex, even controversial, matters. The symbolism of Jesus at his trial facing up to oppressive systems of religion and politics can inspire Parishioners to face the challenges while working for wider socio-political issues.
For this movement from Parish faith-centred activity to Social Action it is essential to identify laypersons whose lives show potential to take forward Parish life into greater social involvement. It is important to have a forum (even if it goes by the traditional nomenclature of Sodality or St. Vincent de Paul’s, etc.) in the Parish that takes its inspiration into areas of social concern and action not restricted to the confines of the Church but wherever it can engage with people of every type to work together for the general uplift of society. Non-Catholics, peoples of other faiths and no faith can be identified, with whom Parish groups can work in solidarity for common goals.
Indeed, Parish life flowing into Social Action enlarges the scope for Pastoral care. The Parish is the face of Christ’s care for all human beings in the here and now, in the specific context. It is important that ordained ministers of the Church understand the universal and catholic mission of the Parish, not restricted to increasing liturgical rituals and devotional practices or even Parish social life. Their job description must include enabling the Parish to reach out to God’s love in Jesus Christ expressed through answering human need wherever and however it is present, with greater care for the poor. The ministry of Social Action is intrinsic to the faith fostering ministry.