January 23, 2018

Simcha Fisher: When is parish shopping fair game?

PHOTO: Milind Kaduskar

All Catholics practice the same faith. You must repeat this to yourself, firmly and often, when you visit more than one Catholic parish, because it’s not always obvious. The variation from parish to parish in how that faith is practiced is intense and startling.

I’m not even talking about different rites. Even if you visit one Roman Catholic parish church one week and another Roman Catholic parish church the next, you may have an almost entirely different experience, because Catholics are like that. The art and architecture will vary as much as it is possible for physical things to vary; the music will range from ancient to brand new, with countless shades in between, from coy to dreadful to raucous to stodgy to sublime; the congregation may be jubilant, sour, effusive, disengaged, pious, irreverent, or anywhere in between.

In the past, I’ve written a lot about how important and valuable true diversity is. If a church is going to be human, it must by definition tolerate immense variety, because humans are immensely varied.

PHOTO: CNS

At the same time, a lot of variety means there will be a lot of mismatch. One unique individual Catholic with valid needs and appropriate desires may find himself in a parish that isn’t bad in itself, but which is exactly wrong for him and his family. If this mismatch hasn’t happened to you, you are either very tolerant or very lucky!

Most Catholics have found themselves in a parish they simply don’t like, and they face a dilemma: Do I stick it out, or do I move along?

Some of my friends are in the “bloom where you’re planted” camp. If they don’t like the way things are going, they do their best to make good changes. They volunteer at the mediocre parochial school, to make at least one classroom less mediocre. They raise money to enrich the building with something beautiful to elevate the heart. They lean hard on the priest until he agrees to let them play the music they want to play or to open an adoration chapel or to start a pro-life group or a soup kitchen or a daily rosary or a robust catechism program. They organize groups and committees to fill in gaps that were keeping the parish from being a true community. They work hard, person by person, to change the culture of a parish, until it looks less like a mess and more like the body of Christ.

PHOTO: Stefan Kunze

Of course, sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes the money just isn’t there. Sometimes the priest is an unreasonable man.Sometimes the will just isn’t there, and the rest of the congregation likes things they way they are, and they’re not interested in changing — or they’re just too busy or overloaded or poor to do the work that’s necessary.

Or sometimes we’d like very much to be able to work for these changes ourselves, but we’re barely treading water with our own faith, our own life, our own family, our own soul. What then?

Some of my other friends look at the parish where they’re planted and the see no hope of blooming. And so they are in the “go where you’re fed” camp.

PHOTO: Josh Applegate

Sometimes the problems at a particular parish are not just a matter of taste. It’s one thing if you haven’t managed to make any friends at your parish — another if, week after week, your fellow Catholics are openly nasty and hostile.

It’s one thing if the sermons aren’t especially invigorating — another if the priest is a casual heretic.

It’s one thing if your church doesn’t offer any programs or groups or activities that meet your needs — another if it offers programs, groups, or activities that no Catholic should touch with a ten foot pole.

It’s one thing if the music is uninspiring — another if you leave every week with a massive headache, both from the noise and from grinding your teeth at the oppressive banality of it.

PHOTO: Karl Fredrickson

And it’s quite another when you look at your kids and realize that this is their experience of the Faith. For many of my friends, this is the last straw. They can put up with a lot personally, because their faith is strong; but they refuse to let their children’s developing faith be shaped by so weak a mold.

We do have some obligation to our own regional parishes. After all, who is the Church on earth besides us, the Catholics? If we’re not going to make things better, then who will? We don’t go to Mass like we’d go to a buffet, loading up our liturgical plates with only the things we like best and then sitting down to gorge on our favorites. Sometimes a parish that doesn’t suit us can challenge us to make changes in our own hearts. I believe in singing along, even when the songs are dreadful. There’s such a thing as deciding to get over yourself, and remembering that the Mass is not about you.

But we can also understand our own limitations, and work with them. You could make the case that it’s all right to leave one parish and find one that suits you better, even if you don’t have impressionable children. If you have a choice between a church where Mass is valid, but also an hour-long mortification, and a church where Mass is valid and you also learn about Christ, meet like-minded people, and come away feeling refreshed, strengthened, and as if you’ve experienced a taste of Heaven . . . I cannot bring myself to say there’s something wrong with choosing the latter, as long as you’re not a jerk about it.

What do you think? What is our obligation? What would it take to make you find another parish, and how far would you go?

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