Since fully joining the Church in 2006, I’ve been a member at only one parish, so I don’t have anything to which I can compare my experience.
But I assume our mid-size church is like most parishes. We have four Masses on the weekend, three of which I can speak intelligently about — sorry, we haven’t gotten better acquainted, 7:30 a.m. Mass. But at 5 p.m. on Saturdays and 9:30 and 11:30 on Sunday mornings, the church is packed.
As soon as our priest processes out at the end of Mass, though, the faithful stampede the doors like a fire alarm went off, and the church is empty again. And who knows, if my beautiful, devout wife and I wouldn’t chat with the other parents who let our sons run around the church grounds like animals that have been caged for an hour, maybe we wouldn’t hang around, either.
Several weeks ago, our priest announced that our church would be holding a parish mission during the first full week of Lent. He needed volunteers, he said, to help organize the event. Motivated more by a sense of duty than enthusiasm, I signed up to help. I walked into our first meeting and saw familiar faces. For the most part, they were the same people who help out with the Holy Name fish fry, who volunteer to clean the church, who are members of the Rosary Sodality and the Knights of Columbus, who set up and take down tables before and after parish events.
Coincidentally, the day of that first meeting to discuss the parish mission, a new book published by Our Sunday Visitor crossed my desk. “Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples” was edited by Sherry Weddell and is a follow-up to her 2012 book, “Forming Intentional Disciples.”
As I read through the second chapter, written by Keith Strohm, the director of evangelization and faith formation at Queen of the Rosary near Chicago, I realized the challenges found in our church are common in parishes across the country. He wrote of his own parish: “Like many parishes in the United States, a small group of parishioners were doing most of the work (financially and physically) to keep the ministries, apostolates and life of the parish going. The physical side of our campus, which had been largely left alone over the years, needed some serious attention. To top it off, we had a strong Catholic school but little participation by school parents in the life of the parish. This was a parish firmly rooted in maintenance mode.”
In my own modest experience, the root of the problem is twofold. First, everybody is ridiculously busy, especially parents of school-aged children who have an incredible amount of their self-worth tied into the accomplishments of their children. We are as guilty of this as anybody. Olivia, our 12-year-old, takes piano lessons, is in show choir, plays softball and volleyball, runs track, sings in the children’s choir at church and has a role in the school musical. There are only so many hours in the day, and pitching in with parish activities get pushed aside.
The second problem, it seems, is a lack of connectivity between the parish and the people. If you don’t have kids at the school or aren’t involved in activities or ministries, the parish simply becomes the place you attend Mass, and there is no reason to become invested in anything that happens outside of that weekly hour of worship.
So what is a parish to do? How can we get others to set up tables and chairs, to help at fish fries and volunteer to organize events and maintain the parish grounds? First, read Sherry Weddell’s book. And second, personally invite people to participate and let them know that their help is needed. And when they do help, make sure they know it’s appreciated. We should all find pride in taking ownership of our parishes.
As Weddell asks in her book, “Are we willing to answer the call and pay the price necessary to become a new generation of saints?”
All of us are challenged to ask ourselves how we can use our time and talent to help our own parishes flourish. In the words of St. Paul, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1 Cor 12:27).
How blessed we are to have the opportunity to live that out in our parishes and in the world.
Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV.
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.