With the election of Pope Francis, parish priests have noticed an increase in Mass attendance. After decades of waning attendance numbers, this news is heartening, but keeping parishioners returning week after week based on papal enthusiasm could prove to be difficult. So what's a parish to do? Australian Catholics spoke to Trudy Dantis, the project coordinator of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference's ongoing research project 'Building Stronger Parishes', to find out.
Since the study began in 2008, hospitality has always ranked number one in revamping a parish's vitality.
A parish welcome desk, for before and after mass, can make parishioners feel welcome and inform them of ways they can get involved. However, Dantis says, these desks need to be manned.
'It's important to actually have a person you can engage with, if you're new to the parish. They can also encourage new parishioners to share their gifts, skills and talents.'
Small changes, big results
Even just improving the coffee can strengthen parish life.
'We had a parish that found that people wouldn't stay after mass, because the coffee was bad. The new parish priest decided to invest in a good coffee maker and that changed the life of the parish. People would stay after mass and talk to each other and that really helped the community', says Dantis.
Changes in parish demographics
While many parishes are struggling to fill pews on Sunday, some parishes grapple with an influx of migrant and immigrant groups. But once a small group of immigrants is established, some parishes create welcoming groups, such as a parish that organised a Sudanese greeting committee.
'They welcome new Sudanese and help them become a part of the community', explains Dantis.
Another approach is to host a multi-cultural festival including parishioners of all backgrounds and celebrating the parish's many parts.
The youth boost
Whether a parish is dealing with a decline, an increase or a change in parishioners, it's imperative to engage younger members.
'In a lot of our parishes, youth groups are instrumental to organizing activities such as dinner dances, social nights, donation drives or outreach activities that other people in the community can get involved with', says Dantis.
She's also witnessed how sending young people to World Youth Day can enhance an entire parish.
'The parish tries to support them by fundraising and it lifts the profile of the parish. And everybody in the parish gets a lift from hearing about the experience.'
It's your parish
The research also shows that thriving parishes have strong lay leadership, from parishioners participating in liturgies to planning large parish events.
For parishioners that want to get involved in their parish, Dantis suggests to just get to know someone, say 'hello' to the priest(s) and have a cup of coffee after mass.
She noted in all the parishes researched, there was consistently a need for volunteers, so ask a parish leader where they need help.
'No parish is a parish without parishioners, so it depends upon parishioners to make the parish.'
Download your Parish's profile at: http://www.pro.catholic.org.au/socialprofiles/parish
To attend the 'Building Stronger Parishes': Parish Workshop Day on Saturday, 22 February 2014 in Melbourne go to http://www.pro.catholic.org.au/node/52.
4 simple ways to boost your parish
1. Set up an information desk after mass with greeters.
2. Let parishioners have a go! Get parishioners involved in liturgies and parish life.
3. If you have an idea for a youth, mothers, sports or any other group or parish activity 'pitch it' to your parish priest.
4. Download your parish profile to read the changes and needs of your community. Check out the 'Building Stronger Parishes' website to get ideas from other parishes on how you can invigorate your parish. You can even give those parishes a call to see how they did it!