What the Marvel Cinematic Universe Can Teach Us About Parish Ministry

Last week on Twitter I had a short conversation with Marc Cardaronella about the new Avenger’s movie. We both agreed that it’s a great flick and continues Marvel’s string of strong superhero outings.

What I’m most impressed by, however, is how well The Avengers brings together the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the non-geeks out there, for several years Marvel has been building a complete universe across multiple movies. These films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man II, Thor, and Captain America) exist in the same continuity — they share characters and settings, and events in one movie affect events in the next movie. The MCU comes to a head in The Avengers, which brings together the main characters from all the movies for one action-packed spectacle.

But that spectacle wouldn’t be as spectacular if the characters and events hadn’t already been set up before in the other movies. By coordinating the movies and taking the time to slowly build up the characters, The Avengers transcends the sum of its parts and becomes something more.

What’s That Got to Do With Parishes?

Parish ministries don’t exist in a vacuum. They share volunteers and participants, use common spaces and are (ideally) centered on the Eucharist. Parish ministries overlap and rub shoulders in a variety of ways. So why do we so often treat them as self-contained entities?

Like the MCU movies we should view parish ministries as part of a continuum — what we do in, say, a Bible study group should inform and be informed by how we train lectors. How we conduct funeral liturgies should jive with what we present in baptismal prep. Parishioners should be able to recognize the strands and threads that run through parish programs, helping them to draw their own connections and insights into their experience of the faith.

This approach recognizes the systematic nature of our faith: all that has been revealed by God has integrity. It does not self-contradict. There are common threads that run through Catholic teaching: the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the centrality of the person of Christ. These threads should be explicit and identifiable in how our parishes are run and in what they teach.

Of course this means that we have to plan our ministries, rather than offering them as one-shot programs, and help people to see the connections between different aspects of the faith. This means more work, but will bear more fruit in the end.

Do your parish ministries exist in a continuity, or are they isolated units? What common vision underlies the work your parish does?

Geek Sidebar: Yes, I know the picture above is inaccurate insofar as Wolverine and Spider-Man aren’t part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the picture was just too great to pass up.

Photo by Dunechaser/flickrCC

“We paid to teach the children in the corner of an open corn crib”

Today, while cleaning out some files, my secretary came across a 1931 report from the National Catholic Welfare Conference (predecessor to the USCCB) on “Programs Conducted in Many Dioceses for the Instruction of Catholic Children Not in Catholic Schools.” It includes short reports from various dioceses.

The report from my diocese was written by one Very Rev. Msgr. Edward J. Cahill, the diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. Some highlights:

  • [On establishing parish catechetical programs] “At first pastors were dubious, many had territory fifteen more and less miles square; sometimes parts of three or four rural school districts were contained in one rural parish. Pastors thought children had to work in vacation, had no means of getting to the church, or would not come in. But many of them tried the plan and were surprised at success; results, more children attending Mass; taught to sing and had High Mass where it was impossible before; attendat Sacraments increased.”
  • “Most pastors prefer Sisters. We pay them $5.00 each week and all expenses. Sisters like it. Many places now have Sisters coming to the parish from a nearby school for Saturday and Sunday. This idea is growing. One pastor hired a Catholic public school teacher, paid her $50.00 a month and had classes all day for July and August. He was lukewarm at first but almost a fanatic for the work after he tried it.”
  • [On utilizing public school facilities] “The K.K.K. came out in autos and tried intimidation after the School Board refused to listen to them. We are not easily intimidated ‘out our way.’ We even got a Catholic woman teaching in this public school. We used public schools in several places; we rented houses, halls, barns, and in one place we paid to teach the children in the corner of an open corn crib.”
  • “Here is another point that may be of interest: In two country districts of this diocese the Lutherans, all farmers, have schools on their church property. When the public schools are closed, they send their children to these church schools for the remainder of the summer. If Lutherans can do that, why can’t Catholics? They will, as we found from experience, if the pastor is an energetic man, with faith in this work, with patience to begin humbly and build up year to year.”
  • “Most priests need to keep themselves better informed. They need more faith in the ability of the mustard seed to grow and become useful. This is practical work; it can be done and is being done successfully… Of course, all this means hard work, optimism, and using one’s head.”

That last part at the end, I submit, is still good advice for all of us involved in the catechetical ministry of the Church.

Upcoming Webinar: Reaching Parishioners with Facebook

image by Br LLew OP/FlcikrCCNext   month I will be offering a free webinar on creating and maintaining a parish Facebook page:

With over 500 million active members, Facebook is the most popular social networking site online. Chances are that many of your parishioners are already there.

Is your parish?

This free webinar will explore why parishes should have a presence on Facebook and how they can connect with their parishioners by setting up a Facebook page.

Participants will watch step-by-step as a Facebook page is set up in real time. Tips will also be shared on how to make the best use of your page once it is set up.

While I’m focusing on parish pages, this webinar would also be ideal for anyone looking to set up a Facebook page for a Catholic school or other ministry.

The webinar will be held on November 17th at 7p (Central Time). To register, go to www2.gotomeeting.com/register/806466658.

This webinar is sponsored by the Office for Catechesis of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. I hope to see you there!