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.
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!