dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Being comfortable

Over at Our Sunday Visitor, my friend Greg Erlandson has posted a thought-provoking column, entitled Parish the Thought, which raises the question of where one should go to Mass: One’s geographical parish, or a parish where one is “comfortable.”

 

I think the question is an important one, but it occurs to me that I’m fairly uncomfortable most of the time, and particularly uncomfortable at Mass.  I live in an area (within a mile of the campus of the University of Notre Dame) where Mass is celebrated frequently and with widely variegated presiders, all sorts of liturgical quirks and preferences, surrounded by every imaginable kind of congregation.  In my geographical parish, there is a daily “red-eye” Mass at 6:45 a.m. where we all tend to mumble and make minimal eye contact, exchanging the sign of peace sincerely but perfunctorily.  The daily campus Mass is “high church” enough to delight any Anglican, and the cantor always leads us at a pitch which forces churchgoers like me to choose between falsetto and basso profundo.  It’s often difficult to remember the homilies given there.  Most Sundays, my wife and I go to Mass at the chapel of Holy Cross College, where there is usually no music and usually a good and nourishing homily.  Most of our fellow congregants there are active members of other parishes, but refugees from their more elaborate Sunday liturgies.

 

Greg concludes that “a parish isn’t about ‘how good it makes me feel.’ It is about me getting outside of myself and caring about others who are not like me at all, yet are brothers and sisters in Christ. For those defending geography, the pick and choosers risk making the Mass an entertainment that we vote for with our presence, rather than a miracle we are privileged to share.”  I agree, mostly, but it seems to me (and I pick and choose even more widely than most Catholics are able to) that it’s not necessarily “entertainment” value that we nomadic Catholics are pursuing.  The Mass is indeed a miracle we are privileged to share, but if we are to behold and share that miracle, might it not be the case that we know some venues to be less distracting than others?

Topics: 

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

It seems to me that, ideally, a parish is a community of disciples.  I have no problem with the notion of 'parish shopping' when one is new to an area; everyone needs to find a home.  But shopping for a parish shouldn't take too long - maybe a couple of months at the most? - and once the home has been found, it's incumbent on the shopper to become a member of a community.  Not just a regular attendee of sacramental services, but a member.  

The expectation for both parties - the individual and the community - should be that the individual settles into the community, puts down some roots, and stays for a long, long time.  Circumstances may not permit it to play out that way, but it should be expectation.  And that lengthy membership in the community should involve doing the things that a community of disciples does for one another: forming friendships in love (maybe even falling in love), visiting community members who are sick,  comforting community members who are grieving, helping community members who are in need,  sharing faith with one another, strengthening the life of the community in any or several of the many ways that this can be done.

And here's the thing: being in a community, like being in a family or a marriage, means that a modicum of zits and warts comes with the package.  Some parishes may seem to have better preaching or better music or more singles or whatever the criterion is than other places.  Pick the one that seems like it's the closest to a good fit, and understand going in that it will never, ever rise to perfection.

It would be easy to criticize Erlandson's behavior, as quoted in this post, as being consumer-oriented - vacillating between one church and another as if looking for the best deal on jeans or the best cup of coffee.  But it may be that he hasn't lit yet on a place that feels like home to him.  If that is the case, my advice would be, pick a place even if it falls short of perfection, and try to make it your home.  Stop shopping, and go there, week after week after week.  And find other ways of getting involved.  Ask not what your parish can do for you etc.

 

Thanks for raising this issue. I like my friend Jim Pauwel's astringent thoughts on what one owes one's parish. Good food for thought.

 

It's not clear. Sticking to one's geographical parish forces you to mingle with Catholics who have different ideas, and in principle it's good for unity (especially in the US, where Catholics are so polarized!). But what if the Mass is not nourishing? 

These days I spend at least half of my Sundays exploring, going to parishes where I have never been before. I feel like a little bishop, witnessing the incredible diversity of Catholic Mass liturgy, yet learning to recognize what constitutes the common core. They have in common that if I prepare the readings in depth, get there early, watch everything, listen to every word of the liturgy and try to pray them, then at some point during Mass I will be filled by a sense of profound peace, of being refreshed, of having a new start for the week; and that's independent of the specifics of that particular celebration. So my impression is that this peace is the core experience of going to Mass. The other potential perks - uplifting architecture, moving music, arresting homilies, smiling pew neighbors, etc. - are just bonus, occasional unexpected gifts. That, it seems, would argue in favor of sticking to one's geographical parish, wouldn't it?

Yet in my wanderings, about once or twice a year I stumble upon a place that directly feels like home, and it is a completely different, thrilling experience, that pulls me so strongly that I can hardly think about anything else afterwards for several days. (Never so far at a church where I could stay as a regular parishioner, unfortunately).  But that, it seems, would argue in favor of patiently looking for a home, wouldn't it?

Then there are some Sundays when I don't do my homework, and when everything about the Mass is banal, I essentially sleep through it with nothing to wake me from my slumber, and afterwards I find myself exactly as though I had not gone. What's the point? And did anything really happen?  I fear that that's the normal Sunday experience of many, and that is not nourishing. If one needs something special in order to participate, say, a particular style of music for example, then why shouldn't they go where they can find it?

A parish isn’t about “how good it makes me feel.” It is about me getting outside of myself and caring about others who are not like me at all, yet are brothers and sisters in Christ.

But what if the liturgy is the source that causes me to want to do that? Isn't it worth going elsewhere else, precisely in order to attend a Mass that pulls me outside of myself and makes me care about others "who are not like me at all, yet are brothers and sisters in Christ"? Itn't that part of what it means for the liturgy to be nourishing?

My parish is not in my city.  My parish is not in my diocese!  My parish is my community and it happens to be in a place where my community is welcomed, celebrated and fostered.

If it wasn't for this particular parish I wouldn't be going at all.

www.mhr.org

Who are we talking about? One of our deacons was at a conference where the presenter said about 18 percent of the parishioners will be involved, 50 percent apathetic but they will show up on Sunday, and the rest -- 32 percent -- actively hostile. The 18 and 32 both sounded high to me, but some of the others in the discussion pointed out that the 32 can be counted one by one. They are the ones who park off campus and go out of their way to enter by a side door where they won't meet anyone who wants to make eye contact. The idea that that is almost one-third didn't seem too far-fetched to several of the guys in the discussion.

The 18 percent seemed high to me because I had heard of another study that said the number of active Catholics in any parish is 7 percent. As it happens, I can name just about 7 percent of the good  people in our congregation (220 of 3,000) and tell you something about them. So 7 or 8 sounds right to me. In any event, those people are happy where we are. And having lived in 13 other parishes for various periods of time, I am here to tell you they'll have to do a lot of shopping to find a better one than ours. Among those, I, and I am sure many others, did the due diligence Jim Pauwels suggests and ended up here.

BTW, when it comes  to "others who are not like me," we have two Spanish Masses on the weekend, and when we get another pastor, the 6-2 ratio of English to Spanish Masses probably will switch to 5-3. What's preventing that now is the shortage of a bilingual priest, which the next pastor will be. Michael, if you need an expanded demographic where you are, try St Joseph's if it still is in existence; we found it refeshingly different from the campus Masses, but that was 42 years ago.

That leaves the 50 percent (which I think is higher) that comes on Sunday, punches its card, and goes home without signing up either for a bus trip to an Indian casino or a pack-the-county-commission-chambers action or a rosary during the 40 Days for Life, all of which are possible for those using the main door and looking to either the right or the left.

I wonder if any of those people could be happy someplace else -- maybe at a parish which is quieter. (Ours is noisy, even at the 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass which usually has no music, although it occasionally has entrance and closing hymns.) Maybe at a parish where they wouldn't run into people trying to make eye contact and invite them to join the K of C. Maybe at a parish where everything is in Latin, and they can be content that all dialogue is between the priest and God without involving them.

I know I am living in what the seminarians waiting for assignement to a parish for the summer refer to as "The Promised Land," and I am so content it's disgusting. Bugt even in the Promised Land, I am in some kind of minority.

 

I nearly wrote a column on this question myself, or at least I tried to. I didn't come up with anything as thoughtful as what's in Michael Garvey's post and comments here so far, but I find myself coming down in the same "in principle...in practice" place as many of you. In principle I would like to be an active and grateful member of the parish in which I live; in practice, we gave up on that after a year and found another parish, not too far away, where we feel full and active membership is really possible. I keep examining my motives, because I think Erlandson is right that being too comfortable can actually defeat the point of being in a parish in the first place. But the answer hinges on how "comfortable" is defined, doesn't it? I was uncomfortable with the fact that none of the homilists at my old parish ever seemed to spend any time thinking about that day's readings, and in fact one of them actually managed to read the wrong Gospel one Sunday before giving a "homily" on another subject entirely. Escaping that discomfort is not something I feel bad about. Sometimes the challenges a parish presents -- uninspiring liturgy, terrible homilies, lousy music -- aren't the kind that make you grow in faith; they're the kind that make you want to give up on going to Mass at all. And Erlandson's dichotomy (territorial parish or someplace where you're surrounded by like-minded people) overlooks the fact that our society also self-segregates geographically. If I want to be surrounded by people like me, staying in my neighborhood is a great start.

So where I think I come out in the end is: Catholics ought to try belonging to their geographical parish. Give blooming where you're planted a fair shot. But if you're not blooming, for heaven's sake find someplace where you can.

Here's the weird thing, though: I'm not actually certain that the parish we gave up on was our territorial parish. We thought it probably was, and it was the easiest one to get to from our house, but there are a few others nearby. We asked at the rectory when we went there to register, and the person at the front desk waved off the question cheerfully: "Oh, it doesn't matter." And, in my experience, most parishes and dioceses proceed that way. It doesn't seem to matter, at least not enough to make it easy to find out. Why isn't there a page on the archdiocese's website where I can punch in my address and find out what parish I live in? Why doesn't every parish secretary have a map of the parish boundaries handy, to answer that question when people ask? And if it's of no real significance to them, why am I driving myself crazy asking questions like the one Erlandson poses?

I tend to agree with geographic parish connection for all the reaons mentioned above. When we first moved to the community, we went to the local parish and it was a good way to get to know people in the community too, However, my wife is native and so now we attend the native parish in the city. It incorporates some Oji-Cree elements in the liturgy where possible (e.g. traditional drumming, come prayers prayers in Oji-Cree. sweet grass ceremonies before baptisms, etc). Also native art and so on.

The priest has been involved for decades with native ministry in most of the First Nation communities in the area and so knows all of the families and extended families and in-laws and out-laws. The deacons are leaders in both the parish and community and that is always good to see. 

The congregation is mixed with native and non - native. Also some people are charismatic and others are not. So you have some people with arms outstretched, etc. during prayers and others not. I would say that it is fairly diverse.

We know the people and have been part of the community for years. My wife drums at times as well.

Like with everything else, there have been, at times, personality clashes among some of the people in the parish, and differences with the visiting priest.

But like every community it is about persevering and growing together.

I like the idea of territorial parishes for the reasons everyone cited above; I like to be part of a community of people that are different from me.  The only place in my life I meet Republicans face-to-face are at Mass  or when I go home to visit my family.  I do not mean to  be flip about that; we need to be around people who think and act differently than us, it is the only way we can develop mutual respect and understanding and unity despite our differences. 

I think there might be a silver lining- a very thin one- in all of these parish mergers.  The Archdiocese of Philadelphia,in its ongoing dismantling of the diocese, recently closed my parents parish', St Leo the Great in Tacony.  Our own parishes in the Bronx are now going  to begin  parish planning, with some inevitable parish closures at the end..

But so many of our parishes are just struggling to survive, they don't foster that community we all seek:  congregations are shrinking, there are no youth ministries, no social justice ministries, limited worship programs. Theyr'e just a place to go to Mass and be buried out of.

I very much hope after the planning, my own parish is allowed to stay on the island, and that it can grow its congregations and launch new efforts to build community, serve the poor and strengthhen our faith.   But if not,  it will give my family a chance to pick a parish.  Before kids, I had pet dogs; all of my dogs were strays from the street. I adored all of my dogs, but sometimes thought it would be nice to actually go  buy a dog and pick a breed I liked. I feel that way about parishes; my parishes were always the one covering the area where I live; I've always been happy in them, but it  might be  nice to go out, shop around,  and pick a parish.

 

Years ago in Magnificat there was a short bit from the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that talked about this issue. I wish I'd cut it out (but somehow Magnificat doesn't lend itself to being cut up), but the jist was being a Christian is easy in a nice parish where everyone is friendly and the liturgy is personally pleasing. But where you really find your faith is often in a disspirited parish where the turnout is low and the women are wearing trousers (which I suppose would have been a terrible gaffe in the 1940s and '50s). 

I think that's a great observation and certainly a gift of special grace if you can walk joyfully into any parish and know that God wants you to be there. 

Moreover, Catholicism isn't like some forms of Protestantism, where you go to church nourish your relationship with Jesus as your Personal Lord and Savior with other members of the Elect. Catholicism is where you go to work on the salvation of everybody; doesn't matter if you like them; God does and expects your help. At least that's what I tell myself my mind wanders along uncharitable lines at Mass. Sometimes it helps.

 

 

It is important to note here that the boundaries of a parish can be quite arbitrary and in some cases are obsolete. I remember a time when you could not register in a parish that was outside of your boundary - at least it was the case in Philadelphia.

In addition, there are parents who send their children to a nearby parish school  because their own parish has closed its school or never had a school.  In that case, they attend the parish where their children go to school.  (Actually, in Phildelphia where I was brought up the parish school was the community.)

There are people who travel miles away from their designated parish because they want a Latin Mass; I know some people who live in the suburbs, who travel to an inner city parish to support a priest who has stayed there.

Are they not free to worship where they please?

Warning:  I am getting on my high horse.

There is no way that I will attend a parish where the pastor gives off the cuff, rambling, non-scriptural homilies that last for 30 minutes or more. I will not be part of a parish where the priests are so political that they constantly preach using political statements undermining this or any adminstration.

I attend an established parish, not technically my parish but it could be since it is quite close. It has families with young children, teenagers and retired folks. We have Baptisms that are well integrated into the Sunday liturgy.  I love watching these babies each Sunday as they grow by leaps and bounds. At the end of  Mass the pastor will say: "It has been a joy to celebrate this Mass with you." Sometimes we clap.

 

Two cents worth:

1)  Responding to the danger that the new "ecclesial movements" would weaken the sense of the Church as embodied in dioceses and parishes, theologians such as Hervé Legrand, Gilles Routhier, and Severino Dianich have written theological defenses of the territorial principle in delineating dioceses and parishes. Their main point has been that in principle delimited territories ensure that anyone within them has a right to belong and to be welcomed into that local Church.  They fear that making movements (I would add what are called "intentional communities")  the focus runs the danger of elitism and self-selection, both of which run counter to the catholicity of the Church, that is, to the notion and the reality of the Church as redemptive integration of diversity.

2)  "The Mass is the Mass" is the response people used to hear from some priests if they complained about the quality of the liturgy in a particular parish.  My reply to that was, "Yes, the Mass is the Mass," but if you can get a good homily or good music, too, why not go for it wherever you can find it?" I think introducing a bit of competition among parishes might not be a bad thing. (A few decades ago, a priest complained that some of his parishioners were leaving his parish to attend liturgies at the cathedral on account of the better music there. I disappointed him by commenting that if his parish was content with the songs of the St. Louis Jesuits, the Weston friars, and Ray Repp, I would drive them myself to the cathedral. The priest wasn't happy with my response.)

 

 

I wonder if the web will encourage parish shopping.  There are sites that provide reviews of liturgy, sermons, architecture, activities, etc.  There must be a nerd who is devising an algorithm for an optimal parish search strategy.

Here's a site recording visits to 96 parishes in Manhattan:

http://catholicmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/04/welcome-to-catholic-church...

 

http://www.ship-of-fools.com/mystery/index.html

"Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world." 

Mostly protestant but there is the occasional review of a Roman Catholic Mass, e.g. http://www.ship-of-fools.com/mystery/2013/2507.html .

The answer to every question you might have, from "Was your pew comfortable?" to "Which part of the service was like being in heaven?"

 

 

How much of an option is parish shopping in other places around the country? As a city dweller ,I certainly have a lot of choices, 3 Catholic parishes and a Catholic College within walking distance,  but there must be a lot of places with only a single church in the town or county. 

I found Michael Garvey's comment about "less distracting" to be particularly interesting. Amidst all the liturgy wars, I sometimes wonder if what is really going on are debates over what counts as "distracting" and what does not. Everyone does not seem to agree on what counts as distracting.

Lebron James left his parish and won a championship.  He’ll never experience the awe of creating something from nothing, like the 1969 Mets, or the 1973 Broad Street Bullies.

The 73-74 Flyers were the most  exciting sports team ever.  Champions in a city with a tradition of chokes.  My girlfriends would wait in the parkng lot of the Spectrum hoping to see Bernie Parent or Bobby Clarke leaving.

But on the flip side, you have poor Archie Manning who stayed in his parish and,so, was never in a  playoff game...

Patrick Malloy @11:02 AM. Thanks for the link. Looked up my parish; post is accurate--except that the pastor was transferred a year ago. Somebody should post on the travails of new pastors! On the travails of old parishioners! And the juggling to keep things going.

The second most famous player on the Broad Streeet Bullies could barely stand up on ice skates, miuch less move, much less move himself and a puck simultaneously. I just mention that s a prelude to seconding Jean Raber's point on the "good liturgy" thread above about not starting the homily with a sports preview. It's oprobablly also better if the celebrant doesn't wear a stole in the home team's colors.

 

Tom: But he was our enforcer; everyone needs a Cardinal Ratzinger. 

Irene, Blessed arer the peacemakers, for they shall be called Blackhawks.

Irene—But he got to watch his sons win 3 rings, which is even better than winning a ring of one’s own.   God works in mysterious ways.

For the record, in helping his team to their 2nd straight Stanley Cup in 1974, the Hammer scored 20 goals—not bad for a guy who can barely stand up on his skates.

Claire:  thanks for bringing the Ship of Fools' "Mystery Worshipper" to people's attention.  I have been a denizen for years.

Some of the reviews can be painfully frank.  Parishes really need to know how they come across to outsiders when they think that they are doing things right.  In most cases they are not.  It's just that the "locals" are used to the status quo and no longer see things through fresh eyes.

Mystery Worshippers should visit each parish at least once every two years and send a detailed report to the pastor AND parish council.  A little fresh air can go a long, long way.

And, no, the MWs should not be appointed by the diocese!  An independent party could organize the visits and hope for donations to keep their movement alive.  Offical sponsership brings official constraints, censorship and control.

1)  Responding to the danger that the new "ecclesial movements" would weaken the sense of the Church as embodied in dioceses and parishes, theologians such as Hervé Legrand, Gilles Routhier, and Severino Dianich have written theological defenses of the territorial principle in delineating dioceses and parishes. Their main point has been that in principle delimited territories ensure that anyone within them has a right to belong and to be welcomed into that local Church.  They fear that making movements (I would add what are called "intentional communities")  the focus runs the danger of elitism and self-selection, both of which run counter to the catholicity of the Church, that is, to the notion and the reality of the Church as redemptive integration of diversity.

I'm not sure if this is an objection to or an affirmation of the above, but I'd like to say a word in the defense of "intentional communities". I was for several years a member of a parish gathering the castaway Catholics of Rhode Island, gays, divorced and remarried, former religious who had married, etc. (Its motto: "All are welcome".) The few geographical members were delighted that those outside parishioners added enough numbers to prevent the parish from being closed. The castaways had been ignored or worse in their home parish, and were delighted to have a place to worship as Catholics, There were more volunteers, more ministries, and the parish was much more lively than normal. If they ever want to change their motto, my nomination is: "The stone which the builders rejected became the chief corner stone".

As long as some categories of people are unwelcome in many parishes, I think that there is a need for special parishes ("intentional communities") for them. 

 

 

Parishes really need to know how they come across to outsiders when they think that they are doing things right.  In most cases they are not.  It's just that the "locals" are used to the status quo and no longer see things through fresh eyes. 

Although I'm not a reader of Mystery Worshipper, I've seen enough examples to get the general drift.   And while there is a lot of truth to Jim McCrea's observation, it's worth noting that the primary reason for a parish's existence is to serve the "locals", who, as I commented above, really should be thought of as a community of disciples.  To be sure, parishes should also be concerned about their outward face, and how the world, including visitors, perceives them; after all, local parishes also are our primary instruments of evangelization.  But the whole premise of "mystery worshipper" seems to be that a worshipper can just "pop in" to a place he or she has never been before, and judge a parish according to some preconceived criteria.  But I don't know why an outsider's criteria should be thought to be superior to whatever criteria the community of disciples has adopted.  

And the mystery visitor's criteria are necessarily faulty to the extent that he or she is not a member of the worshippnig community.  The visitor can't possibly get a sense of membership in the local community in a single visit.  But I would argue that community membership is critical to worship.   We don't, or shouldn't, worship in isolation; we should worship as members of a local community.  (All of us know that it is possible to be surrounded by people and yet be isolated, and certainly that happens in Catholic churches, too, but it is very far from what we should be striving for).  

To judge a parish worship service while not a member of the community is to miss one of the most important dimensions of the reality.  It would be like watching a film for the first time with the sound turned down and then writing a review of it.

 

 

I would be interested in knowing how large the parishes are of hose who have commented . Is that a factor in choosing a parish? How does it impact being "community"? 

How large is your parish, Jim P? Do you think that your role as a deacon (you are a deacon, right?) influences your perception of how community-like your parish really is?  Would it be less community-like if you were a 42 year old, never married and childless single adult?  Or maybe a 72 year old couple who have joined the parish because they have decided to move to a nearby retirement community?  Does it feel like a community to gay people? How about to divorced people?

What are the factors that create "real" community?

 

 

Hi, Anne, my parish has about 2,800 registered families, and our aggregate attendance at the five weekend masses each week, according to our official count every October, is somewhere in the 2,500-3,000 range.  So based on what you had written previously, you might consider ours to be a large parish (as I think it would be according to national averages), but it's pretty typical for the suburban area where I live.  While I've been a deacon for nine years, I've belonged to this parish for over 20 years, so my perception is based on both the clergy and the lay point of view.  I have always been in an involved/leadership role in one way or another (primarily as a musician before I was ordained), so I believe that does influence my perception.  

The reality is that there are several hundred parishioners who are involved in a ministry or parish organization in some way; the rest are, for whatever reason, not involved in that way.  And when I say "the rest", I'm cognizant that it's a hard group to define, as not everyone who is registered actually shows up, and many who show up never register.  In addition, unlike most parishes in this area, ours doesn't have a school; Andrew Greeley's research has demonstrated what I think most of us know already, which is that when a parish has a school, the school tends to be the "glue" that unites, not only the schoolchildren, but the other generations as well.

Not all of the community ties are formally fostered by the parish leadership.  There is a group that prays that rosary and does other paraliturgical stuff before daily mass every morning; they're a little community unto themselves, as are the daily mass "regulars".  And family ties account for a lot.  One of the things I do is run our baptism ministry.  In my estimation, about half of the young families who bring children to be baptized truly are local residents who live inside or close to tbe parish boundaries.  The other half are sort of 'legacy families':  one of the young parents grew up in the parish as a kid, received all his/her sacraments there, and still has family and/or emotional ties to the parish, even though they now live many miles away (and very likely haven't joined a local parish and quite possibly go to church seldom or never).  I mention this as a testament to the reality of the community ties; as I think you intuit, family-oriented ties are important in this respect.

Your point about unmarried/childless members is well-made.  I've personally been chided (very nicely) for preaching about family matters but neglecting persons who are unmarried / not in a traditional family.  Regarding gay persons, I honestly don't know.  I assume that, by the sheer laws of numbers, there are a certain number of gay persons in our assembly from week to week, but it's never been an area of focus, neither parish-organized nor grassroots.  We certainly wouldn't do or say anything intentionally to make gay persons feel uncomfortable or unwelcome (ours is not a parish that pounds the pulpit about sexual propriety week after week), but no doubt we're not as sensitive as we could be - we're probably about as inclined to be well-meaning but blundering men as any other group of parish clergy.  As for divorced people - there are many in our parish.  On the other hand, there are many other divorced Catholics who have joined the vast array of less strict denominations that are available in our area, including one, Willow Creek, that has a national reputation as an evangelical megachurch.  We try to be sensitive and helpful to people who are divorced.  The jubilee year, in 2000, we offered to pay the annulment fees for anyone who wanted to pursue one.  We had something like a dozen takers.  To my mind, it's such a no-brainer, I don't know why more parishes don't do it every year.  But I don't make policy or set the budget.

 

Thank you, Jim.  Your observation about the school may make some feel part of a community, but I have heard complaints from some about their parish because all the focus is on the school and school families and everyone else feels more or less left out.

But, even in your parish it seems that there is not one overall sense of community - but sub-groups who say the rosary or do whatever together that involve a couple of hundred people. And the rest?  Do they feel on Sunday that they are worshipping with "their community" or simply that they are at mass.

What are the factors that create an overall sense of community - not just for small, separate sub-groups?

Anne - you ask great questions about community, to which I don't know the answers.  I expect that the sense of community belongingness is pretty complex and has a number of factors. But my overall view is pretty straightforward: belonging to a parish is a bit like going to high school.  If all we do is show up for class, and then go home at the end of the school day and flip on the television or the iPad or whatever and don't get involved in the school in any other way, we're missing out on enormous and critical dimensions of the high school experience. Ón the other hand, if we join a club or play a sport or somehow get involved in the school community (as you note, all of these things necessarily are subgroups), then we greatly strengthen our social bonds and create lasting friendships within the larger community.  

And while I'm highlighting here the things we get out of the experience by being involved in the community, it's equally important to the health of the community that we be involved.  It's how social capital gets generated.  I'd even posit that there is an analogous thing, spiritual capital, that happens in a parish when people get involved and make connections with one another.  For example, I'm more like to pray for someone who is ill if I know them and love them.  

 

JIm, I agree with you - and  I was involved in my former Catholic parish for 30 years. But even though I was involved with a couple of ministries, it was a huge parish (3200 families). Sunday mass with 500-700 other people never felt like "community" but more like being in an audience. Very often I never saw a face I knew in the pews.  These questions were  prompted by the other article on liturgy, because so many mentioned there that in a "good" liturgy, the Sunday mass was an experience of community. But, in large parishes, it seems most people just come to mass and leave again, and feel no more part of a "real" community than if they prayed along with a televised mass.

I was once asked by a Jewish friend why a neighbor of hers, going through severe challenges, had not been assisted by the parish. In her religious community, the members always helped one another out. But her synagogue had only a hundred or so families and everyone pretty much knew everyone else and what was going on. She asked me to tell the parish about this family because they were "sinking".  She was doing what she could, but she was surprised that the parish wasn't providing more support - a system to provide regular meals, someone to stay in the house while she ran out, help with getting kids to and from places, etc. She lived only a block away from the church and knew that it has many members - yet her neighbor was left without assistance.   As Catholic parishes in cities and suburbs continue to be merged and get larger and larger, maintaining a sense of community will get harder and harder.

 

Anne - it's an excellent point.  Catholic parishes in the US don't seem to be well-organized for helping their members.  As it happens, I am part of our outreach ministry in our parish, and we do help some parishioners in need, with some things.  But many more of the people we help, for example, with food pantry, are not parishioners.  And there are some parishioners whose needs would bankrupt us - for example, if we needed to pay their mortgage payments every month until they found a job.  And here is something else that probably is symptomatic of the general problem: in some instances, parishioners who need help don't come to us until it is too late for us to intervene effectively.  Why wouldn't they come to us earlier, before they were months and months behind in their payments and in danger of being evicted?  In part because they don't think of themselves as the kind of people who need to go, hat in hand, to a parish for help; and in part because they don't think of the parish as an agency that can help them.  

The kinds of concrete things you mention could be done in parishes, if parish leadership is imaginative and driven enough to put them in place.

 

in part because they don't think of the parish as an agency that can help them. 

That reminds me of my parish priest when I was a teenager. As he liked to say while eating at our house: whenever some stranger rang the rectory bell to ask for help, he wouldn't open the door "because there are all sorts of people on the streets nowadays, you have to be careful" and would instead quickly turn them away, saying: "Go away. I am not a social service agency!" I disliked him with a passion. Now I see that at least he was unusually honest. He died alone in front of his TV.

 

Jim, I was not clear in the situation I described.  The distressed family in the parish did not need money or mortgage help etc. They did not need a social service agency just some thoughtfulness and kindness.

The husband was gravely ill, the wife was caring for him at home and it was so time-consuming as well as emotionally and physically exhausting that she really didn't have time to cook proper meals (a lot of take out and frozen), to have a break from caretaking, or help with her kids, especially trying to keep their lives more "normal" as their dad was dying by getting them to and from their sports and music and other activities.  The Jewish neighbor was surprised that there wasn't a spontaneous action within the parish to help - people to bring nourishing meals, or offer to carpool the kids where they needed to go, or even to stay in the house while the wife took a nap. Because that is what happened in her own congregation, small enough that if a need arose among the members, the congregation knew and could organize support without the person in need having to ask for help.  Her religious community seemed to be a real community, whereas the mega-parishes that are so common in the US these days seem to be too large and too impersonal to be real communities. The "real" communities within them are really a bunch of sub-communities, composed of those with a strong interest in a particular ministry, but as mentioned before, they are less than 10% of the congregation in most cases. Everyone else is anonymous.

I don't know what can be done to make Catholic parishes into real communities instead of just a place for the Catholics in the neighborhood (all 3200 familes) to assemble for mass on Sundays without any other connection.

 

Claire - I instinctively dislike such responses as the one your old pastor gave.  Yet I also have seen that priests are a target for panhandlers, because they are easy to track down and because most priests are less inclined to say "no" than the average person.  Most priests are not rich and may actually need the few dollars in their pocket for living expenses.  Also, once a priest shows himself to be a "soft touch", he will be "touched" over and over again.  

These are all excellent reasons for a parish to have a laity-run and -supported outreach ministry, like a St. Vincent de Paul Society or something similar.  A priest with such a ministry available neither has to turn away those who come to him, nor give away is own living allowance.  He can simply say, "Please come back to the parish office in the morning, and someone from our outreach ministry will speak with you."