Guest Insights | 50 Years – A Look Back: Parish Social Ministry

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Parish Ministry, like the Catholic Church, is both ancient and new. Charitable works have been a part of parish life – tending to the worldly needs of people was the impetus for the diaconate through the Apostles in Acts 6:1-6. In the early church, each congregation had a list of needy recipients called a matriculum, and comparatively huge amounts of charity were given.  This work was recognized as a sign of the greater promise of God’s love and provision.

Vatican II bolstered the responsibility of lay people to carry out the social mission of the church. For many, this meant not only evangelizing with words but with deeds.  There was a recognition that the work of charity and justice can become disconnected from the Church.  In 1970, Msgr. Don Dunn, who was instrumental in the establishment of Catholic Charities in Colorado Springs, served on a national committee to study the future of Catholic Charities in the United States.  The committee concluded, “Catholic Charities, nationally and locally, had isolated itself from the life of the parish.  In almost all instances, Catholic Charities agencies in dioceses had become professional, social welfare groups, with little or no direct tie to church life.”

To plan for the integration of parish life with a charitable mission, Msgr. Dunn and Sister Mary Alice Murphy, OLVM, established a new model for Catholic Charities in Denver, where churches became members of the organization.  This became the foundation of Parish Social Ministry in the diocese and was strengthened by a letter from the U.S. Bishops issued in 1993 titled: “Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish,” which brought the importance of the work of justice and charity for the life of the parish into focus.  It stated:

“We see the parish dimensions of social ministry not as an added burden but as a part of what keeps a parish alive and makes it truly Catholic.  Effective social ministry helps the parish not only do more but be more — more of a reflection of the Gospel, more of a worshiping and evangelizing people, and more of a faithful community.  It is an essential part of parish life.”

In the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Parish Ministry and Social Concerns further took hold in the late 80s and early 90s under Executive Director Gail Dusing, with Cathy Eck at the helm.  Eck started social ministry luncheons, advocated and assisted in the development of social ministers, and built a Diocesan Legislative Network.

Continuing the work and taking it to new heights was Paula Carole.  Under her leadership, the office gained strength in advocacy and teaching on issues of social concern, changing its name to Social Concerns and Public Policy, though it continued to develop programming in Parish Social Ministry, Family Literacy, Legislative Network, and Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD).  It brought speakers such as Jesuit Father Fred Krammer, the president of Catholic Charities USA at the time, and offered workshops for parish and diocesan leaders, exploring the theological and spiritual foundations of parish social ministry and social concerns advocacy.

One of the many fruits of that work became the English as a Second Language program, which thrives today in six community-based locations, four of their parishes.  Kathy Thayer, who began her career at Catholic Charities in the office of Parish Social Ministry with Paula Carole, expanded the English teaching ministry from an office in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where the program started.

After a period of dormancy, Catholic Charities reshaped the Office of Social Concerns and Public Policy in 2006 and hired a leader for that work — Susan Rezzonico.  Parish Ministry was just one focus of the office, with programs like JustFaith and Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

Rezzonico elevated discussion on public policy, bringing together prominent political figures on issues of special concern to Catholics, such as respect for life, poverty, and immigration.  She arranged for Cardinal Oscar Rodriquez Maradiaga from Honduras — the president of Caritas Internationalis at the time — to come to Colorado Springs to be the keynote speaker at a forum on global solidarity.

“There was so much synergy, and we were nationally recognized for the work we were doing,” said Rezzonico.  “I grew in that position immensely.” Her work laid the foundation for establishing a Catholic Charities office in the northern deanery (Catholic Charities Castle Rock).

Currently, Parish Social Ministry is part of Catholic Charities Community and Parish Engagement, and its work is carried out by Leilani Foronda, Parish Ministry Coordinator, and Corey Almond.  Features of recent Parish Ministry activity include help for the vulnerable in partnership with parishes via the mini-grant program, helping 28 organizations and churches since 2015.  The Parish Ambassador program, which connects parishes with Catholic Charities, has been a meaningful addition, with 15 parishes participating.  Work with the CCHD and Social Ministry Gatherings have taken place in years past and regained strength this year with “A Cup of Water” on Sept. 15 (see page 7 for more information).

It is inspiring to look back and see the incredible work that has been done in Central Colorado. Only a small part of that work can be described here, and certainly, many more people have been a part of Parish Social Ministry in this diocese over the years.

Corey Almond is Vice President of Adult Services for Catholic Charities of Central Colorado.

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