Let me suggest a church reform that is easy to implement, costs nothing, builds parish community and brings joy. Sound too good to be true?
At my suburban Philadelphia parish, I am a member of the “Parking Authority.” That means each Sunday I arrive 35 minutes before Mass, don an orange vest and stand in the parking lot, smiling, waving and wishing everyone “Good morning!”
I help older people from their cars, lend parishioners a reassuring arm across icy walks and sometimes lift heavy bags of newspapers from back seats and tote them to the nearby recycling bin. I’ve stood soaking wet in downpours, freezing in snowstorms, baking in heat and — occasionally — had to dodge inattentive drivers.
I like it. It’s a humble ministry, lacking the height of office of, say, deacon, extraordinary minister of holy Communion or lector. But our pastor assures us that the Macadam Ministry is crucial to the vibrancy of the parish. He provided a startling statistic: 96 percent of Catholics decide to return to a parish for Sunday Mass based on ease of parking. Yikes! Well, the Catholic Church did not create demanding consumerism, it just has to deal with it, and so we at Queen of the Universe parish have the parking ministry.
We are the first people you see when you arrive. Our goal is to get you in and out without a hassle and, as important, make you feel welcome on your way into Mass. This is why the parish also has greeters at the doors who hug and handshake and know people by name. Building warm parish life is critical, especially in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is going through tough times.
In late June, the archdiocese closed 16 parishes. Another round of closings will come next year. There are many reasons for this: contraception, the secularization of baptized Catholics and a prevailing belief among many that religion has no relevance solving the problems of our time.
Why has this happened? When I asked a pastor of a big, affluent parish in a neighboring town, the monsignor said without hesitating: “Arrogance. We got big and comfortable.”
The Faith became a chilly, rote practice, until a lot of Catholics stopped practicing. Not even the advent of the sign of peace could get people to stick around. In 1960, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had 80 percent attendance at Sunday Mass. Today, attendance is just below 20 percent.
We can argue about what caused the collapse — the culture, the scandals, the changing tastes of demanding consumers — but it’s an energy-sapping blame game. Pope Francis said in May that every Catholic should stop complaining and ask: What have I done to make the Church more holy and welcoming?
That welcome begins in parish parking lots with a smile and friendly wave. But it must continue into the pews with each of us greeting each other. How many of us sit in church every Sunday, seeing the same people around us, but don’t even know their names? Is that arrogant and comfortable?
My wife and I have been members of six parishes. In no parish at Mass did anyone in the pews ever say “hi” or introduce themselves to us. Except for one. As youngsters we joined St. Vincent de Paul Church in Philadelphia, a parish in a poor, crime-ridden section of the city called Germantown. Before Mass, a parishioner would stand in the sanctuary and say, “Please get up, get out of your pews, go to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself.” It was joyful.
At Mass this week, look around. Who is a stranger? Introduce yourself. We are brothers and sister in Christ, not strangers on a morning commuter train.
J.D. Mullane writes from Pennsylvania.