We’ve had a hard time attending our parish over the past couple of months. It has noting to do with our pastor or what has been going on in our parish, but rather something that has been necessitated by our son’s minor hockey schedule, as well as visiting family during different holidays. Then, on the weekends when we can actually get to Mass at our own parish, it is often at a different Mass than the one we regularly attend. It’s actually gotten to the point where some people think we have left the parish and they looked surprised when we return to our regular pew at the regular time.
Parish-hopping has allowed us to gain a fresh perspective on both the universality of our Catholic faith, as well as the idiosyncrasies endemic to local parishes. Celebrating the Eucharist at different times and in different communities has opened our eyes to the wealth and beauty of out Catholic faith. Even though the faces around us may not be familiar, and the music styles may vary, or the pastors focus on different ideas in his homily; the core of the Mass is always the same, the prayers and responses never changing.
No where was this universality of the Catholic faith more evident than during our summer vacation a couple of years ago when we visited my in-law’s childhood homes in the Azores Islands. There we were on Sao Jorge Island (a 50km by 8km volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic, with a population generously estimated at 7,000 souls), attending Mass in a language of which I have a minimal grasp, and yet I recognized the prayers, readings, and eventually, the responses.
Yet, despite this universal beauty, despite the deep rooted sameness at the core of the Mass, despite the source and summit of our faith being the Eucharist; recently I have come across more and more Catholics who are parish-hopping, because they are unhappy with the local accessories that adorn each Mass.
It should come as no surprise that in a culture based on consumerism, where the mentality of if you won’t meet my demands, I’ll take my business elsewhere reigns, Catholics (faithful people for the most part) bring this same consumeristic outlook when it comes to their parish. Sadly, it has happened on more than one occasion that when I welcomed a new family to our parish they’ve responded with: “We just moved to the area and we’re shopping for a parish.” To which I will blithely reply, “If you live in town, no need to shop around, this is your parish.” Hopefully the playful chuckle is enough to convince them of a warm welcome than a perceived chastisement.
What are people looking for when they parish-hop, shopping around for a parish like it were a new car? Whenever I ask this question the answer is usually either music or homily (and, unfortunately, usually in that order). Little is often said of a sense of sacredness, right-worship, or love of the Eucharist. Many will say that they were not being ‘fed’ at their previous parish because something was lacking. Jeff Cavins sums this up beautifully when he states: “It’s not that they are not being fed, the Eucharist does this universally. What they are really saying is that they are not being entertained.” (please note that I have paraphrased Jeff Cavins’ statement)
Recently, I have noticed a growing number of Catholics who are parish-hopping due to a pastoral cult of personality.
We all have people whom we get along with better than others; they’re called friends. We have all had colleagues we worked with better than others, bosses we preferred over other bosses, a favourite cousin or aunt. It’s normal that over the course of our lifetimes we will come into contact with priests and pastors with whom we develop a stronger relationship than with others. Although we may grow more spiritually under the guidance of one priest over another, this is no reason to affect our relationship with Christ and His Church.
Unfortunately, what happens is that over the years of a pastor’s tenure in a particular parish, the parish’s identity becomes closely linked with the pastor’s personality. It becomes his parish instead of His parish. This cult of personality within an individual parish can become very dangerous.
Invariably, priests are moved, and the ensuing shake-up within the parish, from musical styles to liturgical norms, will rankle with the faithful in the pew. Many have become used to things happening in a particular way, and when things change (sometimes overnight) they don’t like it. Most will grit their teeth, bear-up and slowly come around to their new pastor’s vision. A few will muster up the courage to talk to their new pastor, seeking for a way to grow from this new direction. A number will just leave, hopefully to a near-by parish, and in some heartbreaking cases, completely from the Church.
It must be a heart-rending process to come to the decision to leave a parish that has been home for years, if not decades. In many cases, it would be like leaving behind family who you have loved and who have loved you. But we must remember that we can never leave the faith, and that God has a plan for us, even when it hurts.
I’ve heard faithful and faith-filled Catholics state: “I can’t go to Mass there, the priest just makes me so mad!” My heart truly breaks to hear this. We should never feel pushed away from the Church because of the sinners that make up her earthly body (St. Augustine took this on when he took on the Donatists). If this is the case, I would strongly urge you to talk to the pastor that makes you so angry so that you can both grow closer to Christ.
I strongly believe that God brings people into our lives for a reason, whether they be friends, co-workers, bosses or priests. Some will carry us on our spiritual journey, while others will seem to challenge us at every turn. It doesn’t matter if we see them as friend or foe, what matters is that we take the opportunity of meeting them as a chance to grow in our love and service of Christ.
No matter where we live, God has created a parish to meet our spiritual needs. There will be times when our parish buoys us on the tides of spiritual joy, and there will also be times when our parish challenges us in our faith. God knows what we need at every moment of our spiritual journey. God knows when we need the comforts of our home parish, and He also knows when we need to be challenged in our spiritual complacency.
Forced parish-hopping may be the spark we need to get out of our faith slump, but it should never be the answer to the challenges we encounter in God’s plan for His parish in our neighbourhood.