It’s called “Scenes From a Parish,” but the documentary could just as easily be called “Scenes From Every Parish.” All the familiar characters are there: The religious sister with cropped hair and sensible shoes; the grandmothers in polyester pants; and the grandfathers in short-sleeved shirts and ties.

It’s not, however, just the people of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church — the parish in Lawrence, Mass., where the documentary was filmed — that are familiar. Their struggles are familiar as well.

Built in the 19th century as an ethnic Irish parish, St. Patrick’s older population remains primarily white and middle class. But thanks to demographic and economic changes, that population is quickly dwindling and being replaced by Latino immigrants. Not surprisingly, relations between the two groups are rife with tension.

“Scenes From a Parish,” produced and directed by James Rutenbeck, attempts to capture those struggles and paint a picture of a Catholic community grappling with change in the 21st century. For the most part, the film succeeds, and, in the balance, there is much to like about the 90-minute documentary, which received funding from the Our Sunday Visitor Institute. The film airs nationwide at 10 p.m. Dec. 29 on PBS.

Strengths and weaknesses

Filmed over the course of four years, the documentary’s primary focus is on Father Paul O’Brien, St. Patrick’s dynamic and engaging young pastor, who is working to bridge the gap between his parishioners and reach out to the unchurched and underserved living within parish boundaries.

The parish’s greatest strength, at least as depicted in the documentary, is a deep understanding of the Church’s preferential option for the poor. Despite the grumblings of one parishioner that the poor of the parish should just get food stamps, that opinion does not hold sway. Neither Father O’Brien nor his small army of volunteers spends their time lobbying the government to do something about the needs in their community. Rather, they spend time finding creative ways to meet those needs themselves. They find homes for the homeless. They distribute groceries to the poor. And by designing and marketing a line of T-shirts, they raise more than a million dollars to build Cor Unum, a meal center for the hungry of Lawrence.

In its service to the materially poor, St. Patrick’s follows in the footsteps of centuries of Catholics who believed it was their responsibility, not the government’s, to care for their brothers and sisters in need. And in that sense, St. Patrick’s is a model parish. In other ways, however, it falls short of the mark.

By the end of the film, the Cor Unum center is complete, but most of the parish’s other problems remain unresolved. Even after years of Father O’Brien’s efforts to promote unity, St. Patrick’s still seems to be not one but rather two parishes: one Anglo, the other Latino. Like other parishes across the country challenged by an influx of immigrants or, just as often, by the merging of two or more parishes into one, newcomers are resented and old ways of doing things — from liturgies to printing the parish bulletin — are clung to bitterly.

Culture vs. faith

What becomes clear as the film progresses is that the persistent divide is the natural consequence of a religion that, to many, has become more about culture than Christ.

In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Father O’Brien said: “Fundamentally, the film is about the question of faith and culture. It’s about the perennial question, ‘To what extent is my Catholicism about faith — a true relationship with God — and to what extent is it about culture?’”

In the film, however, that question is raised not so much by what is said as by what is not said. Notably missing from most people’s conversations with one another and with the camera is one word: Christ. With the exception of Elvys Guzman — a tattoo-sporting former tough guy whose genuine devotion and passion for serving Christ bears witness to Father O’Brien’s life-changing work with the city’s youth — none of the other featured parishioners seem all that concerned with the God-man who died on the cross. They talk about unity and community, about feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, about parish politics and singing in the choir, but the “why” behind all those ideas and activities is strangely absent.

Encountering Christ

The idea that they are pursuing holiness, not just social justice, seems not to have occurred to some of St. Patrick’s parishioners, at least as evidenced by the film. Those parishioners appear to be, by all accounts, good people. They want to do the right thing. But one gets the distinct impression that their understanding of just what exactly the right thing is has been formed more by the evening news than by the Catechism. Accordingly, when one former parishioner confesses to the music director that she has “married a girl,” the response she gets is merely a commendation for her bravery and a reassurance that “there are certainly some people within the Church who do sympathize.”

That exchange, perhaps unwittingly, hints at the underlying problems of St. Patrick’s. And those are problems of evangelization and formation. Too many of the people sitting in the pews have seemingly not had an authentic encounter with Christ, nor do they seem to understand what the implications of such an encounter means for their everyday life. Those problems, of course, are the same problems plaguing countless parishes across the country and preventing them from coping with the changes that time inevitably brings — changes like parish closings, demographic shifts and economic hardship.

Ultimately, the problems at St. Patrick’s remain unresolved because, despite what may be Father O’Brien’s best efforts, the parish doesn’t yet have enough aspiring saints in its pews. The problems remain unresolved because talking about unity and the beauty of community can’t erase prejudice and fear from the human heart. Only Christ can do that — Christ and a recognition that true unity is only possible in him.

The problems in the Church in America likewise remain unresolved because many other parishes are no different from St. Patrick’s. And until, like Elvys Guzman, more Catholics see their faith as a relationship, not a cultural inheritance, the divisions that plague St. Patrick’s will plague other parishes, too.

Father O’Brien told Our Sunday Visitor that he hopes the film “will encourage people to pursue Christ.” The need for that pursuit is the clearest, if unspoken lesson, “Scenes From a Parish” has to teach. And it’s a lesson that makes the documentary well worth watching.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Tuning in (sidebar)

What: “Scenes From a Parish,” a documentary by independent filmmaker James Rutenbeck

Where: Your local PBS affiliate

When: 10 p.m., Dec. 29 (check local listings as times may vary)

Why: Award-winning documentary filmmaker Rutenbeck spends four years filming the successes and struggles of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, a diverse parish in Lawrence, Mass. One of the poorest cities in America (and the poorest in Massachusetts), Lawrence is plagued by hunger, homelessness and violence. Despite that, its problems are not all that different from those of other parishes in American’s small towns and suburbs. By closely following the lives of St. Patrick’s pastor and parishioners, Rutenbeck offers up a picture of the challenges nearly every American parish faces in the early 21st century.