Are you lonely in your parish? A new study offers cautions

Tell me if this matches your experience: On the weekend, you head to one of your parish’s Masses — you might have as many as half a dozen to pick from — and you make your way to your usual pew. You participate in the liturgy, and with the last notes of the recessional hymn still echoing through the church, you step out of your pew, genuflect and turn to go. 

You might nod and smile to a familiar face or two, or briefly clasp hands with better acquaintances you bump into in the parking lot, but otherwise, that’ll be the last communal act of Catholicism you participate in (at least outside your family) for the next six days. 

So here’s the question: Are you as happy as you can be? 

What’s the connection? Well, that’s drawn by a provocative new study of the correlation between religiosity and happiness.  

“In short,” wrote the researchers, “sitting alone in the pew does not enhance one’s life satisfaction. Only when one forms social networks in a congregation does religious service attendance lead to a higher level of life satisfaction.” 

“Church friends are super-charged friends, but we have no idea why,” Harvard public policy professor Robert D. Putnam, a co-author, told a summit on religion, well-being and health at Gallup world headquarters last month in Washington, D.C. 

But on the whole, Catholic Americans don’t seem to do “church friends” very well, at least if a vast mountain of anecdotal evidence is to be believed. 

From what I’ve ascertained and experienced myself, a lot of Catholic parishes find it really difficult to develop any connection with parishioners outside of Sunday Mass. 

Take as an example one local parish I know with about 2,300 registered families. It is known throughout the diocese as having particularly active parishioners in a variety of different apostolates, liturgical service, faith formation, community service and other programs. Yet those who participate count for only about 30 percent — and that’s considered a success! 

Some might not find such numbers all that shocking, pointing out that after all, the primary focus of liturgy (as has been the direction, too, of Pope Benedict XVI’s gentle reforms) is on worship and transcendence — not on socializing. 

That’s true, of course, but I think it is a big mistake to discount the importance of Christian fellowship. Not only does it have unimpeachable roots in Scripture and the early Church, it was also a matter of course for many Catholic parishes until the middle of the last century. In some places, the sense of cohesion might have been driven partly by common ethnic heritage, and in many places, it may have remained at a superficial level. 

When we have “super-charged” church friends, we find it easier to grow in our faith and in our Catholic identity. 

And we’re happier, apparently. 

What’s your experience? Write