A Challenge to the Church on Her Birthday

This morning, I went to Mass at the church across town, one I rarely go to.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever met the pastor, although many of my friends are parishioners.  After I received communion, Father asked me if I was an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion (a lay person commissioned to distribute the Eucharist).  I was fairly taken aback, as I don’t usually make conversation with Jesus in my mouth.  “Not here,” I said.

“The ciborium’s on the altar,” Father continued.  “Take communion up to the choir.”  Now I’m a good Catholic, so when a priest tells me to do something at Mass, I do it.  I went back, got the ciborium (bowl of consecrated hosts), and went back to the choir loft.

Now, I’m so much not a member of this church that I had to stop at one of the pews and ask for directions to the choir loft.  I was very confused that Father had asked me, of all people.  I don’t even know him.

But this is a small town.  And he knows me.  He knows that I’m a religion teacher.  He probably knows that I’m discerning consecrated life.  I would imagine that he knows I used to live in Georgia and I recently bought a car and I wear size 10 shoes and I hate bananas.  Because that is how small towns work.

People complain about small town life but, after two years, I’m sorry to go.  There’s something about being known by the people around you.  Sure, you can’t go to Walmart in your pajamas without being judged by your kindergarten teacher and your mechanic, but you also can’t fly under the radar.  Wherever you go, people are interested in you.  They ask what’s wrong when you look a mess.  They hear about your big news through the grapevine and are excited for you, even if they barely know you.  Strangers walk up to me and tell me they’ve seen my study guides.  How do you know me and why do you care?  Because it’s a small town and that’s what we do—we know and we care.

I’m a social person.  I’m such an extravert that I have to take breaks from work to talk to people or I’ll never accomplish anything.  So it stands to reason that I would enjoy always having someone to chat with.  I wasn’t surprised when, after years of suburban sprawl, I loved small town life.

I think, though, that small towns fill a need we all have: the need for community.  We need the accountability of being missed when we skip Mass.  We need the accountability of being noticed when we’re out two-timing our spouses.  We need to know that what we do and say does not go unnoticed, that our sins hurt not only us but the body of Christ.  Small towns sure as heck provide that.

We also need to know that we are needed, that we are known and loved, that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.  We need to know that people care about us.  Sure, it’s hard when people get gossipy or judgmental, but that’s the fault of fallen people, not of community.

I love living in a small town because it does for me what my parish rarely has: it provides community.  I’ve found few Catholic churches that really feel like family; not the way Atchison does, anyway.

There are a lot of reasons that Catholics leave the Church for various Protestant denominations: difficult Church teachings, bad Church music, and blah preaching are high on the list.  But I think a huge player in this game is the fact that Protestant churches are real communities.  They’re not just buildings where people happen to show up once a week.  In the best cases, they’re the social center of the parishioners’ lives.  This is where you see your friends, where you met your wife, where you go for love and support.

He was generally less enthused than I about the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

For Catholics, not so much.  Take this example: when I was 25, I spent half a year in a parish where I went to Mass every day.  In a crowd of about 40, I was the only person between the ages of 7 and 45.  I took my baby nephew with me every day.  At the end of my time there, Father still didn’t know my name.

I spoke with a Protestant friend about this.  She mentioned that she had started seeing someone but she didn’t want to take him to church with her.  “You know how gossipy church ladies get,” she said.

“No, actually, I don’t,” I replied.  “People at my church don’t care who I’m dating.  They don’t even know my name.”

This isn’t God’s plan for church communities.  Protestants have “church homes.”  Catholics go to a dozen different parishes depending on convenience.  In most cases, we don’t know each other.  We duck in right before Mass and hurry out after communion, eager to beat the traffic.  Churches try to combat this with soup suppers and doughnuts after Mass, but it rarely works.

It comes down to this: Catholics are really good at having the Church.  We’re not so good at having churches.  These aren’t communities.  We’re not walking together, supporting one another.  The Mass is all about community as we speak together in the plural voice, and yet we don’t know each other.  It’s ironic, the faceless anonymity we cling to as we celebrate the redemptive death of a God who commanded that we love each other as he loved us.  He loved us enough to die for us.  We don’t love each other enough to learn each other’s names.  Seems sketchy to me.

So I guess I’m really asking a question here.  What are we doing wrong?  Why are Catholic churches so rarely home to people?  Have you seen a church home done well–Catholic or Protestant?  What can parishes do differently to bring people in, to build relationships and genuine community?  Can this happen at the parish level or does it have to be part of some lay movement of like-minded people?  On this feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the Holy Church, can we figure out a way that our churches become our families?

I guess I just feel as though my church ought to be more a place of fellowship than the clearance aisle at Walmart.  Call me crazy.


Give me your thoughts in the comments!

About Meg

I'm a Catholic, madly in love with the Lord, His Word, His Bride the Church, and especially His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. I'm committed to the Church not because I was raised this way but because the Lord has drawn my heart and convicted my reason. After 2 degrees in theology and 5 years in the classroom, I quit my 9-5 to follow Christ more literally. Since May of 2012, I've been a hobo for Christ; I live out of my car and travel the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, blogging, and trying to rock the world for Jesus.
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10 Responses to A Challenge to the Church on Her Birthday

  1. Fr. J. says:

    Hey Meg. Looong time no chat. Hope you are well and happy, and that this article doesn’t represent some significant dissatisfaction.

    There are of course two sides to this coin. There are plenty of people who crave anonymity and bristle at gimmicky attempts to force a sense of community. I used to sub for a 7am Sunday mass without music. People, usually men, flocked there at that hour like it was a refuge from togetherness. I think it also allows some to just deal with whatever they are dealing with without a lot of well-meaning interference. One thing I see at mass is that people sometimes cry. And, mass is a safe place to cry without having hoverers, probers, etc.

    As a priest I find that I often feel compelled somehow to do some of the very things that as a younger man I found annoying. Then, I remember and try to stifle the impulse. It is certainly NOT that I want to inhibit fellowship. I want to promote it vigorously, but I also know that it has to be voluntary. Mass is not the place to “create community.” But, a strong parish ought to have many ways for people to join into the life of the parish community. One pastor I have lived and worked with recently is rather formal in his approach to liturgy, but he has created many opportunities for his people to bond with one another, and they really have.

    A Baptist friend of mine cant stand the gossipy aspect of his church and complains about it a lot. The dynamics of his home church are ones I have never seen in a Catholic setting. Having a mystical focus to our common life I think helps us to respect one anothers dignity in a way that many Protestant churches many times do not. Having grown up with an Evangelical father and a Catholic mother, I would chose the Catholic way of community every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Wait…that IS what I’ve chosen! Make that thrice on Sunday!

    • Meg says:

      Well put, Father. No serious dissatisfaction, don’t worry–I love my Church! Just wondering about what keeps us autonomous when we can’t be, really.

      I think the “mystical focus” you mention is exactly why the natural community I’m thinking of tends to spring less from our worship than it does from Protestant worship. The Mass tends to be more communal than Protestant services and yet it’s about us as a body more than us as individuals. Maybe that’s why sitting next to each other at Mass doesn’t prompt us to introduce ourselves–it’s not about us at all, it’s about Him. A praise service next to a stranger, on the other hand, is awkward.

      I have a Baptist friend who goes to Mass every day simply because she doesn’t have to perform at Mass. She doesn’t have to clap and sing and shout amen, she just has to pray. She’s not ready to swim the Tiber yet but she says she’s drawn to “the mystical prayer of the Mass” (her words).

  2. Rissler says:

    Based on my experience as a half-Cath Mennonite, I think the major point is that Catholics are poorly going through the transition that Protestants did a couple of generations ago, that being that the extended family is no longer the primary support structure of the individual. Catholics tended to view doing church through the lens of the family. They went to mass and then went over to grandma’s or an aunt’s house for lunch. That isn’t happening as much today. While you may not have experience with gossipy church ladies, you probably have experience with gossipy/meddling aunts. Catholics don’t have the accountability of your family members looking for you at mass, but no other structure exists to provide it because the mass is self-contained and very vertical in orientation (you to God through the priest and Christ). Protestant worship tends to be a little more horizontal.

    I’m not sure if it’s foresight or luck, but the structures of Sunday School and church potlucks have helped aid Protestant’s community, who in some ways view church inherently as something more than a place to worship. Catholics tend to abandon the church building as fast as possible. Some before the mass has even ended.

    The easiest method for building community that I have seen is by eating together. Your meals at ND are a perfect example. All parishes should implement a monthly potluck. Maybe every week, but after each Mass. The Lenten soup suppers are nice, but not the same as eating after church. Implement Sunday School. You have to do hokey community first to build real community. Think of the stupid ice-breaker games at parties.

  3. Fr. J. says:

    Meg, I hope I didn’t come across too harshly in the negative. I should avoid writing too late at night!

    You and Rissler make important points. I am presently working in rural Indiana parishes where this all comes together in its own way. I hadn’t thought of it til now, but we have basically adopted the Protestant mode of worship and religious ed on Sundays. This keeps families in the classrooms/social hall for at least an hour before or after Mass. Being small town folks, their lives are woven together by common schools, sports, church events. St. Marks, Vienna, VA, where I grew up covered at least three huge public high schools and two Catholic. I couldn’t imagine our pastor attending hs basketball games, but here it is really expected! And I will go and represent!

    Growing up in Oakton, Va, have always felt the suburbs and exurbs were deadly to the spirit. I still do. I now love shopping at the Amish butcher who knows my tastes and habits, getting my car serviced by someone I see a few times a week, and so on. Though I am just new here, a lot of folks in town knows who I am. And I make a point to introduce myself and get their names. I plan to be here for a long time, and couldnt be anonymous if I tried!

  4. Melissa says:

    You’re right. I was hoping things would be different at my church here, but they aren’t, not quite. That could be because just about everybody at my church is from somewhere else and is mostly an urbanite. Anyway, one reason I joined the choir here is that I really wanted a community. I love the people in my choir! I actually prefer the music at a different Mass (same church), but I couldn’t leave my 10 o’clock choir!

    Cursillo is another way that builds a community, too. When I went, I was disappointed that the priests and participants had absolutely no theological insights for me, so much so that I got fidgety during the hours of lectures and started to draw pictures and write notes. The best thing about Cursillo for me is that it has built an automatic community for me. Every woman who was on staff or was a Cursillista at the Cursillo I attended is automatically my dear friend. Seriously. We may not know each other well, but we have a special smile and hug and deep affection for each other. I’ve gotten to know a couple of women especially well through Cursillo and the resulting prayer group, and it’s terrific.

    Even the men who have been through Cursillo are special. Once we know that we are both Cursillistas, we are friends and we know that we are on the same page theologically—maybe not in everything but on the main things. I love receiving Communion from Cursillistas, because I know that they really get it, and it’s like a feedback loop for me!

  5. Rachel says:

    When I first moved to New York City, I felt that the city was huge and on a certain level reveled in the anonymity it provided. Then I made a friend. Just one. That’s all it took for my entire relationship to the city to change.

    Granted he invited me out to lots of different events, parties, etc, where I met tons of nice people. But, the point is: It just took one person acting out of love and friendship for me to feel connected to the whole place. Similarly, if the “regulars” at a church reached out to just one person in an authentic way imagine what that would do for community.

  6. Meg says:

    For those who missed the facebook portion of this conversation:

    Lyndsey Maniccia great article! I’ve thought this for years and wish it wasn’t true but I do think this lack of community, in many catholic churches, is answered by the new movements in the church. One of those being covenant communities – the Alleluia Community being my favorite examples as I’m proud to call it my own 🙂
    May 27 at 11:49pm · Like.

    Meg Hunter-Kilmer Thanks, Lyndsey! Do you think movements are able to reach out to people the way good parishes could? Without seeming creepy, that is?
    May 28 at 1:02am · Like.

    Dorothy Sorensen I wish I had an answer for you, but I don’t. I miss the community I had in my college years, but I also am at a loss as to how to create it. I think part of the problem is that we’re just so darn big – a good problem to have, on one hand, and a giant headache on the other. :-/
    May 28 at 2:05am · Like · 1.

    David Jaggie Forget big, start with a person.
    May 28 at 9:22am · Like.

    Fr. J. Steele I wonder if we aren’t asking the Church to fulfill something we should be experiencing in our own neighborhoods. I think Meg is onto something when she opens with comments on small town living. Not long ago we all lived in neighborhoods with corner grocers, butchers, bakers, tailors and barkeepers. Every purchase was a social interaction with someone you knew personally, and your entire familly knew their entire family…perhaps for generations. Clergy remained in their assignments for 15 or 20 years or more. People spent their leisure hours on their front porches and a walk down the block might take an hour. If someone who lived alone didn’t raise their window shade at the usual time or pick up their morning paper, neighbors would notice and check if everything is alright. Neighborhood was extended family, less by choice than by proximity. Between the car, the air conditioner, WalMart, and TV we have alienated ourselves from one another. Catholic liturgy, which ought to be an experience of divine mystery cant be expected to make up for what has been lost. Folks interested in this topic might like a fascinating blog called frontporchrepublic.com.
    May 28 at 9:42am · Like · 1.

    Miriam A. Kilmer This is very well said, Meg. ST Marks in Vienna did a lot of good things to encourage community, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Those of us who were very active in parish life knew each other well, even though the parish was large. To encourage that kind of community among all parishioners, neighborhood groups were formed; local meetings were held at people’s homes, where they discussed a variety of issues. We were encouraged to join rotating committees that studied upcoming lectionary readings and helped choose the music and the variable texts. Also, interest groups were formed around video/discussion programs like Genesis II, a powerful experience that still inspires me today.
    When I committed myself to a new faith community, the small size of the (Protestant) church and the friendliness of the people there were among the greatest attractions. I’m really bad at names, but I do make an effort to learn them all. Our pastor *does* know everyone’s names. We usually socialize for about an hour after each service (including a pot-luck lunch, not just dough-nuts), during which the toddlers run around shrieking with laughter. There are many other social events to choose from, as well as educational and service opportunities. If I miss even one service, people ask me, with loving concern, what happened to keep me away, and tell me they missed me. It seems that almost every member of the Church who attends regularly has at least one significant job in the life of the community; most have several. We may have more family squabbles than some churches, but they are *family squabbles*. The love is amazing.
    First Christian Church of Alexandria
    May 28 at 9:50am · Like · .

    Fr. J. Steele Miriam!! Speaking of community, I know you! I never made the connection with Meg, but you know my mom from those old St. Mark’s days in the 70’s and 80’s–Jeanie Steele.
    May 28 at 9:55am · Like.

    Deacon Tom Yehl You know Meg, in some ways I’m reminded of our experiences at St. Mark 12 years ago. It’s a big Church, and yet I suspect you felt very at home there. Those people that were there at the 6:15am Mass with us on fridays didn’t know our names, yet I can’t tell you how proud they were of your and your peers that you would be there with them. I think there was community there. Also, at the parish I’m at right now, we make a big effort to be outside after Mass greeting people. I only know a few names, and it’s not possible in the rush after Mass to get them, but over time we do get to know everyone. All that being said, you have a very valid point, and I think most people our age would say that they don’t feel at home and don’t know anyone at Church.
    May 28 at 10:12am · Like.

    Miriam A. Kilmer Oh yes, Fr. J. Steele, I remember Jeanie Steele well! She was among the most active of the active parishioners, and a strong advocate of women’s ordination. I learned a lot from her, and remember her with great admiration and fondness.
    May 28 at 10:13am · Like.

    Deacon Tom Yehl Smaller Churches like Dorothy mentioned could help. However, like our youth group experience, I think we need to create opportunities within the parish for people to meet and friendships to form centered on living out our faith
    May 28 at 10:14am · Like.

    Lyndsey Maniccia There are lots of diff movements our there and they continue to grow with church hierarchy support. I think it really comes down to an attitude of the heart. Many people just don’t care b/c they don’t know what they’re lacking and until they somehow get hooked on (for lack of a better word) the Eucharist, the Holy spirit, Mary, Jesus or another element of our faith they won’t want to create community.

    May 28 at 11:51am · Unlike · 1 · .

    Chris Christensen I enjoyed your post Meg! I have wondered about this topic off and on at various times, and I tend to think that because the parish itself is not the center of community life (simply because there are so many large aspects of our daily lives that are not physically centered at the parish), it may be a little much to make the parish itself a home for many parishioners. Instead we get people from all different backgrounds and interests who come to the parish to worship God together. Our unity in the midst of great diversity I think needs to be a common agenda – that of Jesus, to save souls! What is lacking, then, in parish life is the fire that drives us to be a part of that agenda. The other thing that I think a parish needs is some kind of program (continuing catechesis, men’s group, women’s group, Bible study, youth group, etc) that addresses for interested people the things that are holding them back from holiness. Each of those groups should have as one of their goals true and deep relationship with God for the members, followed by “spreading the love” – evangelization of others.
    May 28 at 2:07pm · Like.

    Nicole DeMiglio Thank you for posting this Meg! I struggle with this a lot. I love being Catholic and believe it has the full truth of Christ, but Protestants do community so much better! I agree that Mass needs to be about Christ and we can’t expect others to fill us in the places we need to allow Christ to. That said, God created us for community. Gossip, accountability, concern… all of that is inherent in families, community, etc. There is a balance between having some private anonymous time with our Lord and being in community. I don’t know the answer… I am always striving towards it though bc I feel that besides teaching my children to love Jesus, the most important way to keep them in the church is through community. It is why I drive 25 minutes most Sundays to St. Mark, where I feel community and want my girls to feel it too. I can see your argument for smaller churches, but there are HUGE protestant churches that still have great community- ex- McLean Bible. I do think we have a lot to learn from Protestants… I know I have:)
    May 28 at 2:45pm · Like · 1.

    Michael Roesch I’ve discussed this at length in my own current diocese. It seems that intelligent young people in particular are moved to find community in “movements” (i.e., “lay associations of the faithful” when they are actually recognized by canon law). The issue is that VERY often, the movements become isolated from regular parish life. Many of those who find their Christian community within these movements only interact with other Catholics in order to try to draw them into the movement. That’s why they get pegged as cults or, as you put it, creepy.

    To truly revitalize the Church, we need to get into regular parish life and introduce the radical nature of Christ’s call. The Catholic Church differs from many Protestant communities in that we have a very radical message that does get out there, more or less, while at the same time we’re perfectly content with “Mrs. Murphy in the pew” just coming to Mass on Sunday and putting her $10 in the collection basket. In other words, the Catholic Church probably moreso than any Protestant community, has both “mainline” and “evangelical” members.

    While, obviously, we will always be united, I do think there is something unfortunate about the mentality of, “If you want to really get serious about living the Christian Faith, why don’t you come with me and join CL, or Opus Dei, or come to a charismatic prayer service, etc.” I’m not meaning to diss lay associations, but we do need to realize that they aren’t special clubs for people who are “more” Catholic than others, but rather something akin to the different spiritualities expressed by religious orders. They are not a replacement for parish life, and that people (myself included) are drawn to them or forms similar to them to find a community of like-minded believers shows how seriously we need to reform parish life.
    May 28 at 5:56pm · Like.

    Meg Hunter-Kilmer Thanks for all the thoughts, friends. I think the undercurrents I saw were that Catholic worship is primarily about God (vertical), not community (horizontal), so the liturgy is not the place where we find fellowship. It does, however, prompt us to seek community. This has to be done organically, initiated by individuals who desire to build the parish up as a family. Lay movements are a wonderful source of fellowship and prayer but they can’t substitute for the bizarre mix of people God has given us to love in our parishes. Lay movements ought to build up parishes as well by encouraging people to be involved there (Lyndsey, I know Alleluia does this). And Deacon Tom, you’re right that there was community at Friday Morning Mass. I have a beautiful memory of stopping for breakfast one morning after Mass and seeing two of the older gentlemen whose names I didn’t know. They recognized me and invited me to sit with them because while we didn’t know each other, we were family. Something about praying together does develop those bonds even if the relationships don’t mature.
    Tuesday at 10:32am · Like · 1

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  9. Fr. Brench says:

    Pardon me for commenting on something nearly two years old. It’s interesting seeing your experience with poor community relations in your local church – in my case it was in a Roman Catholic church that I actually learned about the community of the Church on the global (catholic!) scale, even though I was raised in a healthily communal Protestant church. There’s a profound difference between being part of the small-town community church (which I also really love and miss from my childhood) and being part of the immense community of the Church across all time and space. The local church ought to be a microcosm of the whole Church, and the Catholic tradition taught me that the apostolic ministry, the liturgy, and the Sacraments are all effective instruments in making that happen.

    As a relatively new follower of your blog, I look forward to reading about the various experiences you’re having as you explore the various nooks and crannies of the Church. God bless!

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