Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Building Family at Church

An interesting discussion came up today on Google+, spurred by an article discussing the problem with parish life. I got engaged in the convo, just sharing my own challenges as you can see.

After noting my lack of connection at Catholic parishes (and we've moved a fair amount since becoming Catholic in 2001), Jeff Stevens suggested that my problem is that I don't give enough of my time to my parish, that I'm not "involved" enough, suggesting his own activities like Knights of Columbus, sending your kids to school, and being a lector.

Jeff is not, to his credit, the first to make this suggestion to me. But the thing is, this wasn't true at the Protestant churches I attended, both as a kid and young adult. They managed to foster a sense of close friendship, even family, without asking to be paid for it.  I just don't buy the "you get what you put into it" thing. That's not how families work. Families are families whether or not everybody does the same amount of work for the family.  Friends are friends because they meet, get along, share common interests, and spend time enjoying those interests together.

Do friends do things for each other? Yes! Do families? Most assuredly. But they do those things because they are friends and family, not in order to become friends and family. The friendship and familial bonds come first. Telling people that they need to essentially pay (with their time and energy) in order to somehow earn this sense of friendship--even of family--is just backwards.

I'm not saying I know what the problems are, but I suspect it does have something to do with the difference in the way church is seen between Protestants and Catholics. It may just hinge on the *obligation* factor and, secondarily, the sacramental factor--going to mass is seen as dispensing an obligation (to varying degrees) and to get the graces of the Sacrament.  Both of these are good in themselves, of course, but for Protestants, the main purpose of coming together is exactly that--coming together, being in community, building fellowship, learning from each other.

Some Protestants are very "involved" and do a lot; others just "attend," but there is a real relationship that is built between church members regardless of their relative levels of contribution.

Then you have a lot of Catholics who mainly are showing up at all because of the school--this seems to be the majority in my experience. I've gone to different mass times at my churches, and I tell you, I don't recognize most of the adults showing up at religious ed while we're waiting outside.  But they recognize each other--not because they're giving a ton to the church but because they see each other at school activities.

We homeschool, so this isn't an option for us, but beyond that, the parish life should not be centered around the school--it should be centered around the community coming to worship God together through the Eucharist. In doing this, we participate in the very communal, familial love of the Trinity.

I am a reader (lector) and have been at basically every parish for most of my time as a Catholic. (I was one at my Episcopal church as well.) I have been an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at several. This, too, has not resulted in a great sense of family/community for me. Yes, I have gotten to know the priests, deacons, and servers a little. But it's a ministry, not a social.

Then Catholics have all these special interest groups: Knights of Columbus (KofC), Legion of Mary, etc. In themselves, they're fine and good, but what if those special interests don't appeal to you? Let's take KofC. First off, it's men only, so right there, the biggest part of my life is cut out--my family.  When I went (to two different parishes, trying to plug in with them), they seemed more concerned with fundraising than building any kind of community. In fact, one parish's council was so full of internecine conflict (arguing about who was contributing/involved sufficiently, ironically enough) that I was disgusted and gave up on that group. (I realize plenty of men find KofC fulfilling, and they do a lot of good fundraising--it just didn't connect for me.)

So where have I found something like the faith community I was used to as a Protestant? In the Lay Dominicans.  We pray before mass together, we go to mass together, we meet afterward, have cake and coffee, and study together. It's great; it's definitely the closest thing I've found to the Protestant families I had.  I really think of them as family, and we tend to act that way, not because we perform services to each other but because we prioritize community--it is a pillar of the Order.

The Solution?
What is the solution for Catholic parishes then? The author mentions meals. I think that could help, but honestly, I don't know. We do have social activities at parishes. I think it is the "stranger" syndrome--there are lots of contributing factors. Catholicism's view of "church" is different from many Protestants'. We're global by nature and structure. Many Protestants are much more local/congregational.

The author also mentions the numerous mass times, which are helpful to fulfill the obligation but contribute to not being with the same folks as regularly. The "megachurch" factor is also an issue--you can only really feel/be close to so many people (this is also true of Protestant megachurches, which I attended for some time). We are the ultimate megachurch, but even at the parochial level, there are often a ton of parishioners, but we don't need to know everybody at the parish. Maybe just everybody at our mass time?

I have actually had one parish family experience as a Catholic. When I was attending a parish administered by the FSSP. Most of us went to the same mass time. It was a smallish group--that probably helped. We were also all unusually interested in the faith (to attend a TLM parish, we had to be :) ). We saw basically the same people every week. The pastor knew us and seemed to take a personal interest. And we weren't even that "involved." I'm not sure if it can be replicated under "normal" parish circumstances.

One of the commenters on the G+ thread said the pastor sets the tone. I tend to agree with that. Maybe it's as simple as our pastors prioritizing Community as a pillar of parish life. Start with the weekly mass goers. Teach about community. Teach about how gathering at mass is more than an obligation. Suggest coming to a regular mass time (for those who don't already).

Have simple coffee/sweet social time after each mass. Encourage people to share that time. Give it a theme--maybe time to discuss the readings/homily with each other, organize icebreaker activities (people just pick a table and do them). I'm just tossing out some ideas off the top of my head. Keep it simple. Brainstorm. Have fun together. The point is, if it is a heartfelt pastoral priority, that enthusiasm will likely spread.

If nothing else, for me, it's nice to know I'm not the only one who has felt this way. :)