I am a member of a small parish. In fact, it’s really two parishes combined under one umbrella ministry, with one priest running both parishes and, for now, another priest who helps out with Mass and confession, etc. Let me give you some perspective: Both parishes have dwindling numbers of active parishioners and dwindling giving. Money is tight, budgets are constantly being evaluated for cost cutting opportunities, yard sales and bake sales are held, but to little avail, and generally the feeling is that these are good churches (with good people) but with tenuous futures. Our parish is not alone. In our archdiocese, and across the country, there are attempts to keep churches from closing their doors by combining them under a single priest, sharing staff to reduce costs, and trying to find creative ways to bring in more money.
I wonder what the solution is. This question naturally raises the question of what exactly is wrong? Is a church with dwindling numbers actually a problem? Churches grow and diminish in attendance all the time. There are large trends and small trends that cause this. Also, God is sovereign, thus such situations are under God’s providence. Plus, a growing church does not necessarily mean an increase of truly faithful people. And suffering financially, or in terms of numbers can be something God uses to His purposes – which, of course, He always does. So, is it a problem that the parish I’m in has less people and less income than in the past? I can’t really say. But lets assume it is. What then?
Sometimes I wonder – and I say this from a position of great ignorance – if local parishes generally tend to suffer from not being willing to see what is really going on, saying what really needs to be said, and making choices that ought to be made. Why do I say this? I can’t say much about my own parish, for I am too new, but I have seen elsewhere, in other contexts, the very human tendency to accept a host of silent presuppositions about the situation such that what really needs to be said and done is actively, though subconsciously, avoided. Active because there is resistance to see, say, and choose the things most relevant to produce the right kinds of change. Subconscious because there is a kind of genuine, but surface-level, ignorance of this resistance even happening. In other words, it would not surprise me if most of the time churches do not make the kinds of choices they need to because they don’t want to, while at the same time finding many reasons to complain and plenty of alternative excuses.
The question I have is what will it take to enliven the parish I’m in. You see, I’m not really all that concerned about the money or attendance. Though those things are important. And I do want to keep the church doors open, the priests and staff paid, and plenty of programs for everyone. What I do believe, though, is that all that will follow if the parish is truly captivated by Christ – captivated in such a way that going to church becomes less a habit and more a passion, that the Eucharist is not taken for granted but accepted as a privilege, and that fellowship is authentic and without hypocrisy. I am convinced that churches thrive because they are full of life, which comes only through the parishioners living out their faith in the light of Christ’s death and resurrection.
If I am right, then the first question to ask is not why are the number down and the giving down, but is this church truly alive in Christ, and how do we know that? The second question is what is to be done to encourage a church to be alive in Christ? And that is the perennial question. The only answer I see that transcends all other possible answers, is that it’s the Holy Spirit that creates the life of the church and the passion of the local parish. Still, we must ask what we can do. A parish priest is tasked with leadership. The pastoral and administrative councils are tasked with advising and other tasks. Others, however they are called, are tasked with doing their part. And all must use their knowledge and talents to bring about change, or more appropriately, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
I don’t have any particular answer. But I do think (and here I am guessing from my observations of human nature), if there is any one thing we might generally point to, it is that many parishes suffer (without really realizing it) from a lack of true veneration of the Real Presence of Christ at the Mass. When I say they don’t realize it I mean it is assumed the veneration is present, but I fear it is not – or not to a great level. In fact, I think many parishioners fall into patterns of churchgoing and liturgical habits that make them feel they are doing what is right and that they are being good Catholics. But these patterns may actually discourage authentic passion for Christ. I’m sure I do this. And when I say there is a lack of veneration I mean a combination of things. Though none of us can truly know the heart of another, nor can we truly know what the Holy Spirit is doing (or going to do) in the life of anyone, I think we can point to some basic liturgical actions that might be common in a lot of churches. They include such things as inappropriate music (use music fit for a King’s presence, not a sing-songy tune for the Gloria, e.g.), generally sloppy or too casual dress by the laity and often by the altar servers (I see those tennis shoes under the vestments), lack of incense (I’m not an ardent traditionalist, but there are things that inherently create a more reverential atmosphere than others, incense being just one example), lack of any Latin (a little can go a long way to create a sense of the history of the Church and our connection to that history, plus Latin is beautiful), and many other things.
Don’t misunderstand me, these are only my personal observations coming out of my experience and my own unique personality. And really, these are just surface things that cannot adequately express the nature of anyone’s heart. I am not being prescriptive, every parish is unique, but I do want to point out that we are made for worship and liturgy. God made us to respond, body and soul, to such things. Perhaps if a priest, his altar servers, and his music director decided to create the most holy feeling (for lack of a better word) environment, a more veneration inducing, a more honorific context for the Real Presence of Christ the parish would respond as humans are wont to do, with veneration (perhaps even awe) followed by more joy at being in the presence of Christ, which just may lead to lives more alive in Christ. And maybe parishioners need to just speak up about it, and not give in to excuses or denials or blank stares, and do so with great, laying down our lives for each other, love. Maybe individuals (let’s start with you and me) need to just begin behaving with more reverence – authentic passionate reverence – before the Blessed Sacrament and let that be the message, the witness.
I can almost guarantee the youth will respond in such a manner, for they are the most natural seekers for an an antidote to the emptiness of the world they are just beginning to discover. But many others are seekers too. And some need to become seekers (or re-seekers). We should all be seekers after Christ.
Act as if the King, the most honored guest you will ever meet, is visiting your parish, for He truly is. Perhaps that’s a start, at the very least.