“Catholic Leadership Institute is really assisting us with thriving. We could do it ourselves, but with your support and expertise and faithfulness, this is a no brainer!”

- Fr. Ed Bell, Archdiocese of Philadelphia

Dear Friends, 

Wellness is something that many people work and pray for on a daily basis, dedicating time and energy to setting oneself on a path to live daily life from a place of good health. Others in a state of wellness continue this work in order to thrive and be the very best version of wellness they can be.

The same could be said for parishes. Fr. Ed Bell, Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is a pastor who is living out of his identity as a beloved son and priest by calling his parish to do the same through CLI’s Next Generation Parish offering. He is taking them from surviving to thriving.

With over 45 years of priesthood behind him, Fr. Bell is not afraid to learn new things and dedicate his time and energy to bringing about a deeper faith life in the heart of his parish. There is no such thing as “auto-pilot” for Fr. Bell in his role as pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish. Even after 19 years at the parish, he is looking for new and effective ways to see his parish thrive.

Read below to learn how Fr. Bell’s strong sense of identity is reflected in his parish community.    

Fr. Bell Guides His Flock from Surviving to Thriving

“What are you, crazy?”

This question was posed to Fr. Edward Bell a few months ago on his 71st birthday by his brother priests. He was attending a Catholic Leadership Institute workshop with fellow pastors, preparing to commence Next Generation Parish in his parish in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The group sang “Happy Birthday” to Fr. Bell during the workshop and, without hesitation, asked his age. When they heard he was 71 years old and realized that he was starting a Next Generation Parish initiative with his own retirement on the approaching horizon, they asked, “You’re here - with only a few years left of parish ministry? What are you, crazy?”

Fr. Bell’s response was short but said everything about the way he lives out his priesthood, “I have to do this because I love my parish.”

The parish family at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one that has a strong sense of generosity and community life. Their identity was founded on the image of being the “Hands of Christ” to a broken world. This was a call to action that Fr. Bell gave when the parish volunteered their time to assist relief efforts in Biloxi, MS, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During their visit to a church that suffered devastation, Fr. Bell’s parish group came across a statue of Christ in a church with his arms extended. The hands were missing. Fr. Bell noted his parish’s generous hearts and call to be those hands of Christ in a broken world. The image touched hearts and stuck for years to come.

Since then, the parish has adopted the identity of being the “Hands of Christ” in their own community, serving in the homeless shelter, assisting on mission trips, and finding ways to share Christ’s love with those around them.

At a glance, Fr. Bell’s parish is surviving. His flock is grounded in their identity with Jesus Christ and the life of the Church. It is no surprise then, that his brother priests would ask Fr. Bell why - with only a few years left of parish ministry – why would he dedicate his time and energy to doing more, learning new things, and making changes to an already surviving system?

Fr. Bell’s reaction to this question was emphatic: “Why? Why not? You think I’m crazy for doing this. But this is who I am - who I am called to be as a priest. It’s about the parish and who this parish is called to be. We don’t want to just survive; we want to thrive.”

When Dan Cellucci spoke at a convocation for the priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last year and invited pilot parishes to participate, Fr. Bell’s immediate response was, “Sign me up!” He saw the opportunity to invest in the tools he needed to understand the needs of his parish. After administering the Disciple Maker Index survey (DMI), Fr. Bell learned that, overall, parishioners think the parish is welcoming and would recommend their parish to others. The people are faithful, attend Mass, and pray often. Many are actively seeking to deepen their faith.

While the DMI revealed an openness of minds and hearts, it also showed opportunities to best deepen that faith within the parish community. Over 70% DMI respondents said they had never been on a retreat. The majority of parishioners saw “spiritual direction” as the primary priority of their pastor – and yet so many did not know what spiritual direction looked like.

Fr. Bell assembled an Envisioning Team across parish age groups, from seniors to young adults. “It’s a really good mix. It’s also an opportunity for us as a parish to get to know each other better. I see a bond forming amongst this team.” Together, the team has identified key priorities for their parish – including creating opportunities for parishioners to connect, improving parish communications, and providing ways for the people to learn more about their faith though catechesis, spiritual direction, and retreats.

Every day, Fr. Bell begins his day with the prayer, “I trust you, Lord Jesus.” In this trust, Fr. Bell knows that he will likely only see a glimpse of what is on the “other” side of the doors he and his parishioners are opening in this new season of parish life. “I see us as planting seeds. Maybe I’ll only see a portion of those fruits, but the seeds have to be planted. We’re called to be more than we are, both individually and collectively as a parish.”

In addition to trust, Fr. Bell has great hope for the future of his flock. “I am inspired. I find the people to be very self-aware of who they are and who they’re called to be - as a dad, mom, husband, wife, friend, religious sister, etc. That’s where I get my hope! And it sustains me.”

It is not surprising that he should find such an assurance of identity within Fr. Bell’s parish. Perhaps his flock is simply following in their spiritual father’s footsteps. The strong sense of identity that Fr. Bell has cultivated in himself is reflected in the parish around him. With God’s grace, they will continue to be His Hands to each other and the world around them.

by Mike School

March 06, 2023

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