Social ministry programs offer parishes a way to live out the concluding words of Mass: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord." This is a call rooted in Scripture that goes beyond the charity works that many parishes offer, to realize that the charity and justice must be integrated into parish life. Depending on the size and demographics of a parish, the social ministry can reflect issues of concern in the local community or the parish’s resolve to stand in solidarity on more complex issues of moral and human dimensions.
Communities of Salt and Light is a statement issued by the United States Bishops in the early 1990's. Highlighting our baptismal call to serve, the Bishops provide examples of how to organize and structure social ministry. They identified seven necessary elements to integrate social justice ministry throughout parish life:
- Prayer and worship need to anchor social ministry. This can include integrating Catholic Social teaching into Sunday liturgies when appropriate themes are present in the readings; offering petitions during the prayers of the faithful; or incorporating a symbolic item in the entry procession. Care for creation, for instance, might be a theme for a prayer service on Earth Day or the Feast of St Francis.
- Education and formation help share the message of justice with adults and children in religious education classes or the parish school. Adults might be offered a Scripture study class to learn the prophetic voices of justice from the Old Testament or the Gospel’s baptismal call to service. Social ministry themes could be incorporated into sacramental preparation programs. The bulletin and parish’s web page might offer resources and links for learning about Catholic Social Teaching.
- Family, work and citizenship support the "salt" of the earth. The network of support activities can include discussion groups for people in challenging careers, like law enforcement and education, to talk about faith’s help in coping with workplace challenges. Workshops might be offered on communication in marriage, job search skills or the plight of juveniles in local detention facilities.
- Outreach and charity serve the poor and vulnerable by direct service. Potential activities might include holiday food baskets, volunteering at a soup kitchen or collecting clothes and backpacks for students starting a new school year.
- Legislative advocacy is needed to address systemic injustice by working to redirect public policy. This would encourage parishioners to participate in the Catholic Legislative Network or connecting them with local advocacy groups that promote the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.
- Community organizing promotes justice and empowers people in marginalized neighborhoods to improve their communities. A parish can learn about and support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) through the annual collection. Parishioners can work with CCHD-supported organizations in their community to become advocates for affordable housing, to support workers facing exploitation or to address neighborhood environmental concerns.
- Global solidarity with issues beyond parish boundaries means a parish sees the interconnectedness of humanity. A parish can raise awareness of the importance of fair trade in purchasing decisions to support the dignity and rights of workers. Serving fair trade coffee and having information available at parish events is way to introduce a sense of global solidarity into a parish. Catholic Relief Service’s Operation Rice Bowl, during Lent, is a daily reminder of challenges faced by the human family and the opportunity to stand in solidarity with them.
The seven elements represent idealized ways to integrate social ministry through the breadth of parish life. For a parish starting social ministry, it will take time to develop each component.
Many parishes see social ministry with a focus of charity alone. However, this can narrow a ministry to only a specific issue, like hunger. That may be all a parish can do, but it is worth evaluating the practice to see if the parish might be called to more.
The more in depth question, such as why hunger exists, calls parishioners to look at the heart of faith, words of the prophets, the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching. To implement parish social ministry with a balance of charity and justice, the pastor, staff, pastoral council, liturgy committee and religious education team need to acknowledge and support its relevance in all phases of parish life. To facilitate this cohesive focus, an evening of reflection or retreat setting could provide a venue for dialogue. Catholic Charities USA, also offers weekend Communities of Salt and Light workshops to highlight the relevance of Catholic Social Teaching on parishioners' journey of faith.
Once a parish establishes a welcoming environment for parish social ministry, a coordinating team can identify existing parish activities that address social concerns, select ministries to fill voids in the seven principles for effective parish social ministry and recruit parishioners to provide them the opportunity to serve.
Once a parish social ministry is established, there needs to be ongoing communication to identify changing parish and community needs, plan for events and maintain parishioner involvement. Parishes can devise a model to implement and maintain parish social ministry. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops website presents two here.
Communities of Salt and Light presents six lessons for parish social ministry:
- Social ministry must be rooted in faith, not social, economic or political concerns, to address moral tragedies and religious tests. This process, leads to conversion of parishioners’ hearts and must be visible in the parish on an ongoing basis for people to regularly hear the call.
- Diversity in the parish must be respected, but parishioners must unite with common values as a sign of unity across racial, ethnic and geographical boundaries. Unity is a witness of faith.
- Leadership by the pastor, pastoral council and educators must be visible to support parish wide social ministry.
- Links to diocesan wide programs, such as Catholic Campaign for Human Development or rural outreach, provides further outread for parish programs.
- A parish needs to practice what it preaches. If it supports care for creation with a prayer service, it might consider using eco-friendly paper goods at parish events or arrange for an energy audit to decrease electricity use.
- Difficulties in sustaining a parish social ministry can include trying to address too many issues too quickly or minimizing social ministry to the margins of parish life.
Parishes also need to remember to share and apply Catholic teaching and values to legislative and public issues in regard to the sanctity of human life, human rights, justice and peace. This identifies the moral and human dimensions of public issues, instead of a political focus that would support or oppose a particular candidate or political party.
Establishing a parish social ministry committee helps parishioners connect the ritual of liturgy to the reality of promoting the total spectrum of life and dignity of the human person. It is parishioners answering the baptismal call to participate in the faith community and the community where they live and work.