Monday, July 30, 2007

In Search of Catholic Fellowship

Last week, Rod Dreher had a post up asking people why they decided to leave a church, instead of staying and fighting.

Mark Shea, on the other hand, has been pondering issues of friendship, particularly as they pertain to the Church, and has also been pointing to the experiences of some converts who particularly miss the warm social atmosphere of their former churches.

Why do I think these two discussions are connected?

Well, no one on Rod's site left any sort of comment indicating that they left the Catholic Church (or any other church, for that matter) because the people were just too d*** unfriendly. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that about their former church, whether they were converts to Catholicism or former Catholics. It's possible that Protestants who switch denominations may have this sort of criteria in mind, or at least in the back of their minds. For Catholics a truly unfriendly parish might be a reason for parish-hopping, but hardly a reason to sever one's ties with Rome.

That said, though, Mark's larger point about Christian friendship and Christian fellowship are quite relevant to the conversation which took place on the Crunchy Con blog. Perhaps no one leaves the Catholic Church over the parking-lot grand prix which takes place five-tenths of a second before Father's final blessing, but it can't be an encouraging sign to someone who is struggling with his Catholic faith, enduring an inner trial which in the end may be far less about doctrine and far more about emotion. A soul suffering from a darkness in his interior faith life will be particularly sensitive to the lack of ordinary Christian cheerfulness and the absence of a spirit of camaraderie in his own church; indeed, for a Catholic, this heightened sense that the other Catholics at Mass with him don't care about him, his struggles, the issues with which he's dealing, or indeed, any serious considerations regarding the faith at all, may be one of the devil's weapons turned against him to encourage him to fall away.

Unfortunately, there's not an easy solution to the problem of the disconnected Catholic, or the distant-seeming parish. Efforts have been made, many of them in recent times, to force a kind of fellowship on the Catholic parish which is not organic, which is not natural, and which in many circumstances is simply out of place. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not the time or place to have people stand up and introduce themselves, and say where they're from. Nor should the Catholic faithful have to run past a gauntlet of "greeters" on their way into the church for Mass; don't we do enough hand-shaking at the Sign of Peace? Other well-meaning programs have been tried, but aside from the tried-and-true coffee and donut gathering there hasn't been much success with efforts to create Catholic fellowship at the parish level.

Some of those who commented on Mark's post pointed to the notion that Catholics who get involved in things outside of Sunday Mass rarely feel the isolation of those who don't. Something as simple as daily Mass attendance can 'break the ice' and lead to the fostering of friendship among some Catholics. Others join the choir, become lectors, volunteer to help train altar servers or to wash altar linens, sign up for a telephone or e-mail prayer list; some go out under parish auspices into the wider community to help at crisis pregnancy centers, nursing homes, schools, and even prisons. While not everyone can do each of these things, most people can do at least one of them, and doing even one of these things can connect you to your parish in a way that simply wasn't a reality before.

But these ideas, good as they might be, still don't address the question of the disaffected Catholic. Such a person may have reached a point where they really don't want to be--to use a dreadful corporate term--proactive; they may not want to sign up for something which already exists or to meet with the pastor to suggest a new group, perhaps for the elderly or for young singles or for families with very small children, who may not be able to do the sort of volunteering I mentioned above. Moreover, if they are anything at all like some of the ex-Catholics who posted comments on the Crunchy Con blog, they may have reached a point spiritually where doing anything under the auspices of the Catholic Church seems distasteful to them; this may be regrettable, but it is nonetheless true.

This is why Catholic fellowship is as important as it is. The pastor of a large parish may, if he is a good, dedicated, hardworking priest, know the "spiritual pulse" of his parish and take quiet steps to help those struggling in the faith. But even such a pastor will not find it possible to know what each and every one of his parishioners' spiritual battles are, and in many cases those who are in the process of losing their faith don't even approach the pastor, or indeed any priest, with their spiritual darkness until it is already quite advanced, at which point even good, sound advice can seem like meaningless platitudes. For such a person, the benefits of having good Catholic friends who genuinely care about his spiritual well-being can hardly be overstated. At the very least, they will be able to direct him to seek appropriate spiritual guidance while such guidance may still prove helpful; at the most, they may have endured similar trials, and be able to offer insights culled from their own experiences which may be extremely helpful to the person who was beginning to be tempted to believe that no one had ever been asked to endure what he is enduring.

So how do we create, and foster, true Catholic fellowship, at the parish level and beyond?

When I talk to older Catholics, I'm always amazed by the number of Catholic associations of the lay faithful which were part of their lives. Some of these associations, like the Knights of Columbus, are still very visible, but others, like the Sodality of Our Lady, have all but disappeared. Still, the impression I get from many older Catholics is that Catholics in former days had a plethora of opportunities of service which, though operating with parish approval and guidance, extended beyond the parish level; many were members of these lay organizations and cheerfully devoted their time and prayers to the service of others. And by joining and associating with one or more of these organizations, lay Catholics were able to form smaller communities of friendship, fellowship and solidarity, which they then "carried with them," so to speak, when they gathered to worship at Sunday Mass.

It isn't necessary to reinvent the idea of the lay Catholic association. It is only necessary to resurrect it.


4andcounting said...

Great post Red! We are blessed beyond words to be part of a community that is vibrant and welcoming; at least in our experience. Of course, we have taken steps to further connect ourselves to the community through retreats, service, and a Lay Apostolate group. I think we have to choose to be involved in some way, even when the feelings may not be there, if we want to find the fellowship we seek. Like any relationship, we must be willing to invest our time and energy into forming bonds that go beyond saying hello at Mass. Maybe I'll post about our involvement and how it has blessed us so abundantly.

Red Cardigan said...

Please do! I'd love to read it--let me know if you post about it!

Opal said...

We have a very WELCOMING parish!!
They downright would talk to you even if you were kneeling in front of the tabernacle....leave no one unwelcomed no matter what. Which has been a struggle for me b/c the minutes before mass may have been the only time I have had in weeks to sit and be still/focus truely on the Lord with all these WELL MEANING welcome committee members *not taking into consideration that this is the Church of my YOUTH* won't HUSH! To send out PHYSICAL messges I get a stern look and focus straight forward (which can be misunderstood and if done long enough without blinking some could wonder why on earth they put the a strange statue on the 2nd row) ARRGGGGHHHHH!
Would a Ladies Altar Society solve this? K of C? Sodality of Our Lady? I will pass out the pamphlets...AFTER MASS!!!

Red Cardigan said...

Opal, I hear you! :)

We got asked a couple of times before Mass at the Cathedral (not our parish) if we'd like to bring up the gifts at Mass, even though we were kneeling in silent prayer. I'm the sort of person who can smile and say, *most* regretfully, "No, thank you!"

(And then I'd fume quietly wondering which of my three then-tiny girls they expected to carry the huge, heavy cut glass vessel containing the wine, since the adults always ended up carrying the money.)

Opal said...

And are you perceived as uptight/snobbish/antisocial more holier than thou?
You know, I never knew how PEEVED I must look until someone actually talked to me after mass and responded rather surprised that I am rather nice!!!!!

If blame falls anywhere, it will be the priest for not addressing these issues in that parish.

I like your ideas. There is still the division that I see at our parish if you aren't talky before mass then you belong to the holier than tho group which is a great injustice.

To be quite frank, this is why TLM was appealing to me.

4andcounting said...

We do have the problem of too much socialization before Mass. I think that is partly because our church is not a traditional building at all. It was never intended to be a parish and so the tabernacle is not on or near the altar. We also sit in blue plastic chairs, not pews. The whole environment is not one that encourages reverence, yet that should not be an excuse. We get to Mass very early, but I try not to visit with other people before Mass anyway. Still, thanks for a reminder of what our mindset should be when preparing for Mass.

Tony McGurk said...

Being in search of a local church to attend on a regular basis I've visited quite a few local churches. Last Sunday I paid a visit to one of the local Catholic churches. Compared to all the other churches I'd visited no one greeted me on arrival. I sat through the service not really understanding what was going on. Once I wasn't sure of which hymn in the hymn book we were supposed to be singing as the one I was looking at didn't match up with what everyone was singing so I asked the lady next to me. All I got was a glare for disturbing her. After it was over it seemed the parishioners couldn't get out of the place fast enough. I witnessed for myself what you described as the parking-lot grand prix. I tried to make myself known as a first timer to the Priest at the door as I was walking out but he seemed too busy with his almost ritualistic seeming handshaking routine to bother talking to me. Tried to make conversation with a few who were lingering outside the church but they didn't seem to want to talk either. It was almost as though I was bothering them unnecessarily. I got on my motorcycle & left feeling extremely disappointed that I even bothered to make the effort to go there. I can't help wonder how many others have visited a Catholic church for the first time like myself only to encounter the same cold unfriendly attitude & to leave & never return. I was seriously considering the Catholic church after reading a lot about it & watching lots of catholic videos. Now I'm just not so sure. How can a person become part of a Christian community if no one wants to know you?

Suzanne Phillips said...

I'm responding to Tony McGurk. I understand your angst. I actually became a Catholic in spite of this type of treatment. I read the Catechism of Catholic Church a long time ago. I like the devotions and prayers and the historic aspect back to Jesus. And the true presence in the Eucharist. Its about being closer to Jesus for me. I will pray the Lord will lead you to where you need to be to grow in Him.