Then last summer our parish got a new pastor, and it has inspired me recently to think about what a pastor can do to revive a languishing parish.
1. Smile. Be nice. You'd think this point would be obvious, but sometimes we Catholics get a little caught up in the "liberal-conservative" dichotomy, thinking that a pastor's theological viewpoint is what gets people in the pews. Actually, most of all, people want a pastor that is nice and seems happy to see them - not annoyed, disappointed or cynical. Even at times when our pastor could have justly been upset by something, he has remained calm, peaceful, and polite. No one likes to hear a cellphone ringing during Mass. But once I heard someone apologize to our priest for it, and he just smiled and said not to worry - no reprimand whatsoever. That's a good response because people who get chastised by their parish priest for something like that don't really want to see him again anytime soon. Of course, this doesn't mean there's no time or place for a pastor to be critical, but being charitable and reaching out is really the first step.
2. Prioritize Mass, the Sacraments, and other prayer opportunities. The best words of welcome a priest can utter are "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The priest's liturgical function is of the utmost importance, not just out of the necessity for a presider (which it is), but also because the priest models prayer when he leads the congregation in the Mass. A priest who is truly praying the Mass inspires the people in the pews to do the same. Also, the sacraments need to be easily available to people. In my parish in California, I saw the effects of stringent catechetical-educational requirements for parents who wanted their children baptized. Despite that pastor's good intentions, the result was that parents crossed the border and had their kids baptized in Mexico instead. Likewise, parishioners won't come to confession during confession time if the priest is not in the confessional. Add confession times (our pastor added it every day before daily Mass), stay in the confessional, preach on confession, and people will come.This applies to other liturgical services as well - no one will attend stations of the cross if there aren't any.
3. Care about the dead. Everyone in the pews now will some day be dead. And until then, many will lose loved ones and miss them terribly. And of course, the dead are still part of the mystical body. So there are some good reasons for a priest to pray for the dead, mention the dead, ask others to pray for the dead, and go out of his way to help family mourn the passing of a loved one.
4. Make the parish a place of social gatherings. "If you can't bring them in the front door, bring them in the back door," I've heard is one philosophy of our current pastor. Our parish went from having basically no social events to having at least one (sometimes more) each month, whether for kids or adults. Many - like the Mardi Gras baby Jesus hidden in a cupcake gathering, the St. Patrick's Day party, the St. Joseph's table brunch, the Lenten fish fry, the Easter Egg hunt - were liturgical. But others - like the New Year's party - were not. Regardless, they bring people together, sometimes make money, and make the Church a center of the community.
5. Focus on parish organizations. Make the most of the annual parish festival. People like to be a part of things, and a parish organizations are one way of performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in a way that also promotes parish unity. Likewise, the parish festival is not only a fundraising opportunity, but a way to bring people to the Church and help current parishioners to make it their own.
6. Aesthetics matter. Nice liturgical garments, altar cloths, seasonal decorations indicate the importance of the prayer that goes on in the Church. They also, when done well, help facilitate the prayer of the parish. Likewise, attention to the Church grounds is also important to indicate concern for the care and upkeep and future of the parish.
7. One step at a time. Of course, a new pastor can't do everything at once. Our parish definitely shows signs of new life, and more will certainly come, particularly with changes to the religious education program.
8. The money will come. That pastor in California used to preach constantly about tithing; I found it to be annoying and distract from the gospel. Another method is just to make people love and treasure their parish. If they want to belong, if they want to make it their own, if they feel spiritually indebted to it...or even if they are simply visitors impressed with the hospitality (including the aesthetics of the interior and grounds of the church, which really are a part of hospitality), they will give money. Sometimes a few brief promptings are in order, so people understand particular financial situations, but in general the money will come.
9. Rely on the saints - and let people know it. They'll help out the parish and individual parishioners.