Staying Rooted in Parish Life

I suspect that my family was hardly unique among serious Catholics in the 80s in that my parents often found working around our parish to be key to bringing their children up with a strong appreciation of the Catholic faith. When I was in 2nd and 3rd grade my mother helped teach CCD for a while, until the point where a fiat was handed down from the DRE on lent: There will be no discussion of Christ’s suffering and death and crucifixes should not be on display in any classrooms for the younger kids — that would be too scary. (I believe this was the same DRE who gave an inspirational talk about how one of her deepest spiritual experiences was cutting shapes out of construction paper. Nice lady, but not what you’d call a deep thinker in matters of religion.)

From that point on, my parents made a conscious decision to provide complete catechesis at home, and it was a good thing too as the quality of parish CCD classes only got worse as the years went on. There were liturgical issues as well. The 10:30 “rock mass” continued to rock out standard modern hymn as if they were early 80s hard rock well into the late 90s. And there was “Fr. Vaudeville” who was stationed at the parish every summer for several years. One of the high points I recall was his sermon on how the form and substance of sacraments didn’t matter. “This stuff?” ask, splashing water from the baptismal font across the sanctuary. “Doesn’t matter! Words? Don’t matter! What’s in your heart, that’s all that matters!” Or the well-intentioned young priest who seemed to think that his vocation was similar to that of Mr. Rogers and gave all his sermons through puppets.

One could go on, but I think you get the point. There was much that was worth avoiding, and little that was of any formative value, and so like many families struggling to bring their kids up in a liturgical and educational wasteland, my family pulled back, taught the kids out of the Ignatius Press Faith & Life series of religious education books at home, maintained a strong family prayer life, and did our best to avoid getting too snippy on the drive home about the liturgical and homiletic antics each week.

All of us kids grew up with a strong understanding of and faith in the Church, and I’ve no one but my parents to thank for that. Countless other families did the same during the same period, and they along with a scattering of converts and reverts are the sort of people who make up much of the active core of parishioners who are involved in all the liturgical and catechetical ministries in the parishes I’ve seen since we moved out here to Texas.

However, one thing I’ve noticed in myself and in others is that while this hunkered-down, catacombs approach to surviving the liturgical and catechetical vacuum of the 80s and 90s helped many of us learn more about our faith and stay Catholic, it can make it difficult to build a solid parish life when many of the active people in the parish are used to having to maintain their faith and that of their children in spite of, rather than through, parish life. When some of your most active parishioners see religious education, youth group, and other child and family parish activities as something guilty until proven innocent (and that’s a reasonable reaction, given how frequently those programs come up guilty in recent experience), it’s hard to get good people involved in running these programs. Even knowing that our parish is pretty solid and run by good people, I constantly find myself having to check an instinct to think in regards to any sort of formation for the kids, “Of course, we’ll skip that and do it at home.” (I’m considering putting a decisive end to this particular hang-up by signing up to be a religious education teacher next year — since my overcommitment load is going down with the expiration of my term on parish council. We shall see…)

It’s perfectly reasonable and right to want the best for one’s family, and yet I think that one of the dangers that those of us among the mainly self-educated post-Vatican II laity is that the vast majority of parishes cannot (by the law of averages) be staffed by brilliant liturgists and theologians. Even with an absence of silliness (and we’re by no means past that in this country, though it’s got much better in many regions) there will always be mediocrity. And yet, we lose an important element of Catholic life if we allow ourselves to pull back into an essentially individual approach to Catholic life which leaves us isolated from any sort of parish life. While “community” has been used as a buzz-word to justify all sorts of foolishness in the last 30 years, Catholicism is a visible not an invisible Church. We are meant to be part of a parish, a diocese and then the universal Church — not think of ourselves as direct members of the universal church while attending various parishes as needed to meet our sacramental obligations.

Something was lost in the 70s and 80s when we had that massive breakdown in parish life and culture, and as we strive to build it back, we’ll have to re-learn the necessity of dealing with imperfection. I think the right balance probably depends very much on one’s parish situation, but virtually no parish will have the purity of finding on ones own the best that 1900 years of theology and liturgy and sacred art and sacred music can provide. Yet it is by forming real, on the ground community through our parishes that we can help bring what we’ve found back into the experience of others around us.

5 Responses to Staying Rooted in Parish Life

  1. Dale Price says:

    Good post. One of the things I’ve done in the past few years is to reset my filters, so to speak, so I do not end up finding the heretical where it just might not be. Our parish is solid but not ideal. However, the liturgy is not jimmied with and religious education is unmistakably Catholic. I agree that getting involved can make a big difference–more than I think a lot of the “burnt” realize.

  2. Yes, very good post. This is something we struggle with constantly. When we moved nine years ago, we chose a house first, and a parish second, i.e., we did what most people do and joined the parish near our new home. I didn’t think enough about the importance of a healthy parish for the ongoing formation of my family. The “problem” now is that we have so many connections with the parish — friends, school, etc. — that it would be disruptive to uproot my family for a faithful place. (There is no reasonable prospect that things will improve for the foreseeable future.) So we stay connected with friends at the parish, send our kids to the parish school, and catechize them at home, but almost always worship elsewhere. Were I to do it over again, I’d choose the parish first and then find a house nearby.

  3. One more thing. Getting involved with official functions of the parish will not help. There is a deeply entrenched culture of dissent at work there (as there is throughout the Archdiocese of Cincinnati), and the powers-that-be have spent several decades honing skills to marginalize committed Catholics.

  4. Patrick Duffy says:

    One thing that I remember a Jesuit (not my parish priest) saying was “We all believe in slightly different ways.” I have no problem “parish shopping” rather than taking a strictly geographic approach. I have found that a number of the leading lay people at my parish don’t live anywhere close to the church property. They’ve tried other parishes and ended up with us. On the other hand, a friend who is very conservative goes to a very traditional parish across town.
    I went to a different parish for 25 years, until a new pastor made some changes in mass times that messed up my schedule. I went looking elsewhere and found a parish that had a better physical layout (basic fact: if you are short, don’t sit in the back) and, I found, had warm, friendly people, at least in my opinion.
    Coming from the other direction, as someone who does something at Mass most Sundays, I have recently been reminded that we need to include everyone, not just the familiar faces. A friend and his wife started coming to our parish recently, dissatisfied with the pastor at their former church. He and his wife were astonished when I asked them to bring up the gifts one Sunday. “That never would have happened at [his previous parish.] They only asked the inner circle.”

  5. I certainly have no objection to choosing a parish which one is not geographically in. In fact, I’m not 100% sure if we’re geographically in our parish or not — we’re on the border. It just strikes me that if at all possible, one must after choose a parish “live in it” in the sense of participating in it as a Catholic community to the greatest extent reasonable. (Obviously, if the RE program or some such in your parish really is likely to damage your kids, then not, but one needs to think seriously whether you’re looking at “damage” or “be less than perfect”.

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