Fish Fry: Why?

In many parts of the United States, Catholic parishes are widely known (and loved) for hosing various annual festivals, bazaars, fish fries, carnivals, picnics, and more. The question is–why?

Often, the historic reason is to joyously celebrate and mark the parish community’s patronal or titular feast day as a community, especially if there are cultural or ethnic foods, music, and customs involved.

Or because it’s Lent, and lots of people who aren’t disciples of Jesus Christ in the Catholic tradition like to eat fish during Lent (just consider how much product development and marketing dollars fast food outlets spend each year to introduce new items during Lent–it has an appeal beyond practicing Catholics for sure).

Today many parish councils and leaders might mention the critical fundraising value of the event–that it brings in important revenues for the parish or a parish school–or, that it directly supports a local charitable or mission outreach, like a sister parish in an area impacted by natural disaster or a Catholic Charities project.

On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these reasons for hosting some type of parish/community celebration (though the parish fundraising model in and of itself is worth questioning). Conventional wisdom says that anything that brings together a mix of people who are actively engaged with a local parish, those on the margins of parish life, those who feel a tie to cultural Catholicism, and/or interested members of the wider community is probably a good thing.

But, digging deeper into the “why” has the potential to move us towards a broader vision, more possibilities for celebrations, and a more focused commitment as to why we might choose to invest so many resources into these type of events.

Way back in 1953, Pope Pius XII reminded the Church that “The goal of all parish life is that all come to know Christ, to love and to serve Him. Everything else is of value only insofar as it furthers this goal…The center of the parish community is not the sport field, the parish theater, or even the school…all very useful and often necessary institutions, the center is the parish church, and in it, the tabernacle and the confessional.”

In short, it’s all about encounter with Jesus Christ. It’s about the process of evangelization, the true life of the Church.

Festivals, feasts, fish fries, and the like do have a role to play–if we are intentional about it. The challenge is that it doesn’t just happen by accident.

Getting in the habit of repeating events without questioning the deeper meaning or connections between our actions and those deeper intentions is a recipe for straying from evangelization, for losing focus on Jesus Christ.

How to do this? A first step is to consider, who is your audience?

  • Is your primary focus to attract the “unevangelized” (i.e. many self-identified Catholics, family/friends of parishioners, the churchless, etc.) in your community?
  • Is it to attract those who are registered as parishioners but do not regularly attend Sunday worship or other opportunities for spiritual growth?
  • Is it to gather the believing disciples of the parish?

It’s tempting to quickly answer, all of the above! And while it’s likely that there are people from all of those audiences (and more!) in attendance, the question remains–which group is your primary focus?

Without a primary audience, it’s nearly impossible to project–through words and deeds surrounding the event–a coherent, relevant, and appropriate message for that primary audience that helps them come “to know Christ, to love and to serve Him,” to use Pius XII’s language.

The next step is to examine, how are they going to “hear” the message?

The beauty of an event like a festival or celebration of a saint is that the message can be communicated through words, deeds, music, and more. Options abound! But intentionality still matters.

If the plan is that by having great food, a popular band, crowd-favorite games, and huge attendance all under the heading of “St. So-and-So Festival,” somehow the unevangelized will come to appreciate how basic human needs such as security, love, and acceptance include “a desire for God and his word,” then you’ve got some more dots to connect to make your pre-evangelistic message clear (see description of pre-evangelization from USCCB’s Nat’l Directory for Catechesis, p. 49).

Similarly, if the hope is that by dropping in at a fish fry with the family after years of being away from church, a person will see the teamwork and hospitality of members of the parish and implicitly know that Jesus Christ offers him or her a personal, grace-filled relationship of true forgiveness and love, then you’ve got some more work to do.

The message needs to be clear and unmistakeable. Given the significant investment of time and resources in putting on an event like a summer carnival or a winter St. Nicholas Day festival, the message needs to be woven throughout, so that the message doesn’t end with “what a fun culture!” or “love that this raised so much money for the food pantry” (though these are certainly good thoughts).

Once these two fundamental questions are addressed with focus and intentionality, plan away! Enjoy the opportunity for fellowship and getting to know new faces in you parish that these events often offer. Share the joy of continuing a parish tradition or launching something totally new. But, whatever your parish is thinking of for next year’s calendar–remember to first ask why.

This post also appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

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