In Your Midst

‘An Excellent Catholic Parish’

Spring 2001

In This Issue:
‘A place of refuge and welcome — a spiritual fountain where the thirsty might drink, a replica of the Kingdom of God on earth.’

There is a spirit in the land and St. James has been recognized as one of the places where that spirit dwells.

St. James Cathedral has been named one of America’s “outstanding Catholic parishes” in a nationwide study. A team of researchers from the Excellent Parish Project, based at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, spent two years searching for local church excellence. “St. James Cathedral was clearly the type of parish we were looking for,” says Paul Wilkes, the study’s director.

Wilkes has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and authored numerous books. His research, funded by the Lilly Endowment, has resulted in Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices, soon to be published by Paulist Press.

Excellent Catholic Parishes
St. James Cathedral mentioned in Excellent Catholic Parishes by Paul Wilkes

There are approximately 20,000 Catholic parishes in the United States. Wilkes and his research team found 300 of these worthy of the “excellence” award because of the ways they nurture the spirit, welcome and yet challenge, preach and — more importantly — live the Good News. In addition to St. James Cathedral, two other Northwest parishes were also singled out: St. Francis of Assisi in Portland, Oregon and St. Mark’s in Boise, Idaho. A similar list was developed from research conducted among the nation’s Protestant congregations.

Often at the heart of an excellent parish is an innovative priest, devoted to the possibilities of lay leadership and ministry. “Clergy like these,” Wilkes says, “are priests who see their roles as essentially empowering a community to act. And they are in diminishing supply these days.”

Researchers determined that among the traits of excellent parishes is the ability to maintain an “edge.” These parishes constantly scrutinize themselves with even the most elementary and embarrassing questions. And if something isn’t working, or the forecast is dim, they are willing to change.

Researchers sought out parishes that work with the resources of our rich Catholic tradition, yet are not restricted by them. They focused on those willing to take risks — to step outside their comfort zones — whether they boldly ask members to tithe, or transform their neighborhoods by their presence.

Wilkes emphasizes that excellent parishes haven’t forgotten their reason for being. They are not franchises, nor outposts of an empire. They provide, first and foremost, places where people come to be close to God and to be with others who have values they either share or want to acquire. The parishes chosen stand at the center of the lives of their parishioners and are places where families and individuals lay their base of operations and find strength and encouragement.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was the focus of reform in the Church’s modern era and the parishes chosen by the Excellent Parish Project reveal that renewal at work.

Wilkes says the parishes highlighted by his project work hard to become “a place of refuge and welcome — a spiritual fountain where the thirsty might drink, a replica of the Kingdom of God on earth.”

“While this may seem a highly secularized culture,” says Wilkes, “one may find built-in community, acceptance, safety, growth, and spirituality in the Catholic parish. Here is a path to God, to holiness and happiness, both in tending to one’s own needs and to the needs of others.”

In a telephone interview with Wilkes from his home in North Carolina, he said, “The key to remember is that the good things that happen at St. James are reproducible. We want to show that the things that make this Cathedral great are replicable in other places.”

St. James has been invited to take part in a Pastoral Summit, which grew out of the Excellent Parish Project. The conference, to be held in late May in New Orleans, will bring together pastoral leadership from Catholic and Protestant parishes named for their excellence nationwide. Several members of the St. James pastoral staff have been invited to attend.

The results of this study affirm what many parishioners have felt for some time: that something extraordinary is happening at St. James. The people of this parish are engaged in a renewal while, at the same time, are experiencing a sense of coming “home.” Whatever it is, it’s a force that seems to keep visitors coming and parishioners returning because it is essential to their lives.

Jackie O’Ryan is director of public affairs at Catholic Community Services of Western Washington and a parishioner of St. James Cathedral. She also is the editor and designer of House of God, Gate of Heaven.

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