Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Staying Rooted in Parish Life

I suspect that my family was hardly unique among serious Catholics in the 80s in that my parents often found working around our parish to be key to bringing their children up with a strong appreciation of the Catholic faith. When I was in 2nd and 3rd grade my mother helped teach CCD for a while, until the point where a fiat was handed down from the DRE on lent: There will be no discussion of Christ's suffering and death and crucifixes should not be on display in any classrooms for the younger kids -- that would be too scary. (I believe this was the same DRE who gave an inspirational talk about how one of her deepest spiritual experiences was cutting shapes out of construction paper. Nice lady, but not what you'd call a deep thinker in matters of religion.)

From that point on, my parents made a conscious decision to provide complete catechesis at home, and it was a good thing too as the quality of parish CCD classes only got worse as the years went on. There were liturgical issues as well. The 10:30 "rock mass" continued to rock out standard modern hymn as if they were early 80s hard rock well into the late 90s. And there was "Fr. Vaudeville" who was stationed at the parish every summer for several years. One of the high points I recall was his sermon on how the form and substance of sacraments didn't matter. "This stuff?" ask, splashing water from the baptismal font across the sanctuary. "Doesn't matter! Words? Don't matter! What's in your heart, that's all that matters!" Or the well-intentioned young priest who seemed to think that his vocation was similar to that of Mr. Rogers and gave all his sermons through puppets.

One could go on, but I think you get the point. There was much that was worth avoiding, and little that was of any formative value, and so like many families struggling to bring their kids up in a liturgical and educational wasteland, my family pulled back, taught the kids out of the Ignatius Press Faith & Life series of religious education books at home, maintained a strong family prayer life, and did our best to avoid getting too snippy on the drive home about the liturgical and homiletic antics each week.

All of us kids grew up with a strong understanding of and faith in the Church, and I've no one but my parents to thank for that. Countless other families did the same during the same period, and they along with a scattering of converts and reverts are the sort of people who make up much of the active core of parishioners who are involved in all the liturgical and catechetical ministries in the parishes I've seen since we moved out here to Texas.

However, one thing I've noticed in myself and in others is that while this hunkered-down, catacombs approach to surviving the liturgical and catechetical vacuum of the 80s and 90s helped many of us learn more about our faith and stay Catholic, it can make it difficult to build a solid parish life when many of the active people in the parish are used to having to maintain their faith and that of their children in spite of, rather than through, parish life. When some of your most active parishioners see religious education, youth group, and other child and family parish activities as something guilty until proven innocent (and that's a reasonable reaction, given how frequently those programs come up guilty in recent experience), it's hard to get good people involved in running these programs. Even knowing that our parish is pretty solid and run by good people, I constantly find myself having to check an instinct to think in regards to any sort of formation for the kids, "Of course, we'll skip that and do it at home." (I'm considering putting a decisive end to this particular hang-up by signing up to be a religious education teacher next year -- since my overcommitment load is going down with the expiration of my term on parish council. We shall see...)

It's perfectly reasonable and right to want the best for one's family, and yet I think that one of the dangers that those of us among the mainly self-educated post-Vatican II laity is that the vast majority of parishes cannot (by the law of averages) be staffed by brilliant liturgists and theologians. Even with an absence of silliness (and we're by no means past that in this country, though it's got much better in many regions) there will always be mediocrity. And yet, we lose an important element of Catholic life if we allow ourselves to pull back into an essentially individual approach to Catholic life which leaves us isolated from any sort of parish life. While "community" has been used as a buzz-word to justify all sorts of foolishness in the last 30 years, Catholicism is a visible not an invisible Church. We are meant to be part of a parish, a diocese and then the universal Church -- not think of ourselves as direct members of the universal church while attending various parishes as needed to meet our sacramental obligations.

Something was lost in the 70s and 80s when we had that massive breakdown in parish life and culture, and as we strive to build it back, we'll have to re-learn the necessity of dealing with imperfection. I think the right balance probably depends very much on one's parish situation, but virtually no parish will have the purity of finding on ones own the best that 1900 years of theology and liturgy and sacred art and sacred music can provide. Yet it is by forming real, on the ground community through our parishes that we can help bring what we've found back into the experience of others around us.


The Pigeon said...

If I had encountered what you described a few years ago, I would have never joined the Catholic Church

bgeorge77 said...

There's another ten to fifteen years left of shenanigans to endure, a lot of the goodtimes rocknroll DREs are still in their late prime, but there's plenty of hopeful signs.

BTW, I think y'all live in Austin, you should check out the Maronite parish up there, beautiful liturgy.

Unknown said...

Oh it's still happening. I don't know what CCD is like, but let me tell you, if I ever leave the Catholic Church, it will be because of the music. I have been to many Protestant services over the years (I am married to a Lutheran and have gone to Presbyterian, Epis. and Baptist services as well) and have concluded that at the Reformation, the deal was that the Church got the real estate and the Prods got the music.

Honestly. How else do you explain the drivel in "Gather" and the beautiful hymns that the Prods get to sing and we don't?

love2learnmom said...

Great post. Thanks!

Martha said...

This sentence is what really caught me --"We are meant to be part of a parish, a diocese and then the universal Church -- not think of ourselves as direct members of the universal church while attending various parishes as needed to meet our sacramental obligations." I realize I have never thought of myself the first way, only the second. That is just now starting to change, in my mid-30s (and having older kids is really driving that -- when you have only little ones, you can still parish-hop.) Anyway, I think that thinking of ourselves as direct members of the universal church is what makes movements like RC and Opus Dei possible -- and also what leads to the common criticism that they pull people out of the parishes. It's something I'm going to think about.

Anonymous said...

I think you raise some good points--and you are indeed to be commended for your work on the "inside". But this raises a corollary: if all the serious Catholics are homeschooling then they will have no influence in the diocesan schools, influence which you don't need me to tell you is sorely needed.

Anonymous said...

Rich Leonardi's comments on your post at American Catholic are right on the mark. I am amazed at the number of otherwise orthodox Catholics who do not put proximity to a solid parish at the top of the list when picking where to live. Serious Catholics never seem to reach critical Mass in any parish or school here.

mrsdarwin said...


In our case our parish doesn't have a school, and neither do any of the parishes around us. We'd have to drive down to Austin or up to Georgetown to find a Catholic primary school. There's a new co-ed Catholic high school being built in North Austin, but it's still not that close to us. (I guess there's just not enough money out there to construct new single-gender schools -- if the diocese could afford to build two schools, it would probably build two co-ed schools in different areas.)

Anonymous said...

"Were I to do it over again, I’d choose the parish first and then find a house nearby."

Let Rich know you are helping him make his point, though I am not unsympathetic to your situation. And I wished the powers that be shared your recognition of the critical importance of single-gender schools.

Anonymous said...

Rich has it right again at comment linked above. Although you are to be commended for your involvement, and I encourage you and everyone else to continue--we have an obligation to do so. I just have to wonder if some parishes are more receptive than others.

I hope you can get your fellow council members and instructors to consider using the Ignatius series, or to encourage communion on the tongue, or provide an option to kneel for communion, or realize communion under both species would be best by intinction, or all the woman cavorting on the altar does nothing to foster vocations, or that their staff meeting at the office has more seriousness and reverence than most of our liturgies, or if they have an advanced degree in their field of work maybe they might consider pursuing their own faith formation beyond the sixth grade level.

Amber said...

Our parish is in an interesting position right now. We have a very good, solid pastor and a few hold-outs from the bad ol' days. There's a struggle going on behind the scenes and thankfully orthodoxy is winning.

But at the same time, it is hard to get the orthodox people involved in the community again. I've been involved with Faith Formation (I started out because I didn't trust it and wanted to know what they were doing with my daughter!) and many people I've talked to about it automatically assume it is horrid and want to keep as far away from it as they can. It isn't perfect, but it is pretty good. And you don't have to feel like you need to talk do intervention on the way home because of the crazy stuff they said in the class.

The local Catholic school is another matter entirely though. I wouldn't touch that place with a 10 ft. stick. I find it bizarre that only 50% of the students are even Catholic, and many of the teachers aren't either. Sheesh, why bother!

There is a big, multi-generation family I know in the area that would be a good addition to parish life, but they are so hesitant to join in because of how wounded they were by what went on in the 80's in the parish. They go to Mass, but that's it. But they are very devout, and I'd love to know how to help bring them into the parish more. There really are some advantages to being a convert - and a recent convert at that. I'm not sure I would have been able to go through with it 20-30 years ago!

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Many thanks for the post and to those who wrote comments. Sometimes, when things are good, one forgets to thank God for one's blessings. I live in the most marvelous small town (a historic area) where the center of town (and only activity -- no theaters, malls, fast food joints, etc.) is the mission founded by the Franciscan order 200 years ago. This community has never been without a priest and in over 200 years not one daily or weekend mass has ever been missed -- and we have masses in Latin, English, and Spanish. Not bad for a town of 1700 people, probably 2/3 of whom are children. (We have large families.) A Russian visitor once called this town "namolein" (soaked in prayer) -- that is the feeling she got while walking around. Perhaps because there is nothing else to do, our catechism classes are packed. I teach the teens (first-year confirmation) and we rarely have fewer than 20 kids, all of whom are actively involved during the class and in service activities and most of whom are there not because their parents sent them but because they want to be there. I know it is more difficult in cities and suburbs, but I do hope that this kind of experience will become available to teens everywhere -- it gives a wonderful alternative to all the negative attractions one finds at most high schools.