Apparently the Catholic ladies of the blogosphere have been on a roll lately, going back and forth on the issue of community (and, more often than not, the lack thereof) in Catholic parishes. (Update: Hey look, another one! Man, how do I get this stuff going at our parish??) Especially as an extrovert, I always perk up when this topic’s broached; as far back as middle school I remember noticing and complaining to my parents about the lack of social outlets at whatever parish we’d be attending (a mix of military chapels, “civilian” parishes, and one English-speaking church run by Irish Franciscans outside Brussels). I wanted a vibrant youth group akin to what my Evangelical friends would attend at least once a week; what I got was a lackluster Confirmation class full of kids counting down the days until their moms got off their back over going to Sunday Mass. (I remember one girl in particular who just muttered over the teacher — who spent the whole class musing over the admirable qualities of Buddhism — while straightening out the metal wire of her spiralbound notebook, so she could use it to pierce her own earlobe when she got home. So, yeah, I felt slightly starved for spiritual community.) Anyways, whenever I’d complain and resort to the mature act of pulling out the Yellow Pages (pre-Google teen angst) and mournfully scan the inviting ads of Protestant churches that boasted small groups and ministries for every conceivable subgroup of their congregation, my dad would give me the same response: If you want something that badly, start it yourself. And I usually tried, with varying degrees of success — as much as a kid who can’t even drive can pull off, at least.
But I digress.
The conversation over how Catholic parishes can do a better job with outreach to its own parishioners usually comes down to two, not-necessarily-exclusive points:
- When it comes to nurturing actual, flesh-and-blood, pew-sharing, back-slapping (okay, we’ll settle for hand-shaking), smiling-ushers-at-the-door-greeting, church supper-attending community, Protestants have got us beat hands down. Of course, there are many Catholic churches that do have a vibrant parish life, but my hasty survey of the Internet reveals that, overall, most Mass-attending Catholics are missing out on this. As Steven Greydanus pointed out earlier this year, this can even lead to scandal: finding yourself in a cold, non-welcoming parish can be spiritually trying, downright miserable and even a temptation to stop going to Mass, especially for converts used to actually being friends with their neighbors in the pews.
- And then, there’s the broader view: that wait, isn’t Communion just that — the root of any fellowship that takes place within the Body of Christ? (As Amy Welborn ponders, couldn’t you consider daily Mass the original small group?) A desultory coffee and doughnuts hour doesn’t excuse us from taking our very real connection in that Mystical Body for granted. One of my friends, a Catholic youth minister, was once bemoaning how the Protestant megachurches in his region had thriving youth programs because the congregation and pastoral staff gave it such a high priority, while youth ministry in Catholic parishes more often seems an afterthought. I thought he had a point, but … why are we defining our liturgy, the way we “do” church, our very ecclesiology, in Protestant terms? When it comes down to it, what are we going to Mass for? — for “ministries,” or the Sacraments? For friendship, or for grace?
I agree and empathize with Greydanus’s lament — it took three, rather lonely years of going to the same historic parish in New Haven before I felt I’d found community — but I agree with Heather King even more:
… membership in the Mystical Body of Christ does not depend on our feelings; it depends on our orientation of heart; on where we bring and put our bodies. To be a Catholic is to enter into a relationship with Christ that is at once intimate beyond imagining and entirely anonymous, hidden, and private. Flannery O’Connor once observed: “I went to St. Mary’s as it was right around the corner and I could get there practically every morning. I went there three years and never knew a soul in that congregation or any of the priests, but it was not necessary. As soon as I went in the door I was at home.”
“To expect too much,” she wrote elsewhere, “is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” For my own part, if I trudged alone to Confession and a distracted, lackluster priest (not that my priest was) looked up from his smart phone, barely listened, and gave me two Our Fathers every time I went for the rest of my days, that would be fine. That would be brilliant. That would be the gift of my life. Meditating afterwards, in fact, I saw for the first time ever that the phrase “in heaven” occurs twice in the Lord’s Prayer: “On earth”–a tangible place that will someday disappear; “in heaven”–not a place, but a state of being…
We do not come to Mass to have a social, an aesthetic, or even a spiritual experience (though sometimes we do, and that’s beautiful); we come to beg for mercy. We come to stand in back of the church, beat our breasts, and realize it is a complete and utter miracle that we are allowed even to be in the same room with the Alpha and the Omega, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings; the Great Physician, the Great Priest, the Savior of the World, our One, our Only, Friend. That is why it doesn’t matter whether we have any friends at church, whether we know the priest’s name, whether he even speaks our language.
It only matters that we come, in fear, in trembling, in as much purity of heart as we can muster.
It’s hard to hear, especially for us extroverted, gotta-be-involved!and engaged!and DOING SOMETHING! people in the pews, but I think it’s true — the same harsh truth behind Flannery O’Connor’s famous line, “If the Eucharist is just a symbol, then to hell with it.” I’d add only one caveat to Heather King’s post: We’re incarnational beings. We do need friendship. We do need the help that comes in the form of an actual smile, a physical hand. We do crave the conversation and companionship that nurtures the grace we receive through the Sacraments, and helps us kindle faith in our lives. (Though I definitely think its a matter of personal temperament that determines what that type and degree of friendship looks like). And, from the context of her post on the Mass itself, I don’t think she’s saying anything to the contrary.
It’s a fitting topic to think about in Advent — when all is said and done, when the extraneous is stripped away, what remains?* Our aching need. A Savior … a Friend … a Baby … who comes to fill it. “The Church … clasping sinners to her bosom … at once holy and always in need of purification,” is our home, our hospital, our ark of safety in this lifelong drama, even as it drops the ball over and over again on its “way of penance and renewal.” I’ll take my chances here. And maybe bring my own post-Mass doughnuts … enough to share.
*I left this draft open for a couple hours, giving Luke the chance to supply the answer: “Butts, probably.” In case you wanted to elevate the discussion even further.