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Faithful readers can answer this: "It's mine." Before the automobile took over our lives, we would have walked or taken the trolley to church. We would have stayed close to home. At one time our whole lives would have revolved around the parish. Today, that has changed. Like it or not, Catholics are "parish shoppers." But what makes a good parish? What should shoppers look for?
No double about it, it takes the energy and devotion of many people to make a good parish. Today we have many other commitments. Yet worshippers want their place where they see familiar faces and feel connected to all the lives of the parish. Here is a rough list of our thinking about good parishes.
Fellowship. New religious groups form often simply because of loneliness. With Facebook, or perhaps despite it, many people feel less connected than ever. Being welcoming is the banner sign of a good parish. This is not simply having greeters at the entrance, but parishioners extending their hands to a newcomer. The appropriate time might be a brief word at the kiss of peace, then taking them aside after Mass and inviting them to a parish event or activity.
Good homilies. A message that lingers and that one can think over during the week is crucial. Naturally, though, our hunger for the Word differs. Children lack the same understanding that their educated parents have accumulated. Some homilies are tapestries rich with references to literature and Church history. Some reflections are more closely related to the biblical texts. Some preachers can skillfully weave modern threads with ancient wisdom. Our pastor, Father Brian, is an expert on movies and their meaning. Some pastors are interactive, pacing the aisles and asking questions. It is useful to leave church with something parents can ask their children about.
[Note to homilists. It wouldn't hurt to have an occasional homily about the Mass describing each part, explaining what each item on the altar is used for and the significance of vestments. Some instruction on when and why we stand, sit and kneel would help make the congregation look less like a jittery kindergarten class. Also, never hesitate to be pro-life from the pulpit. Welcome words: "Our Church teaches...." Sprinkling in the lives of saints is good, too.]
Music. We older types love the music of the great swelling organs of our past. Those Wesley brothers could stir the blood. At the time of publication of hymns by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) someone said: "If there be such a thing as heavenly music upon earth, I heard it here." You know many of them: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing." Pity the folks whose choir director ignores these great Church hits. Recently, we were in the Pacific Northwest where beside us a frustrated parishioner with an excellent singing voice grumbled: "Hootenanny Mass." Strings twanged, voices made an effort, but it was a hootenanny liturgy.
Service. The parish is not a filling station to receive the weekly intake of grace, but a place where we have our role to play. In many churches the activities are dizzying. There are Transitions teams (that is for jobs, not life change events), book and prayer groups, exercise activities ("Holy Strollers"), religious education, sandwiches for shelters, clothing drives, Christmas gift collections, Thanksgiving dinner donations and quilting. Linked In, a program for working people, serves as social networking link. Those re-entering the labor market, recent graduates and the unemployed list their availability and update the lists as they find a position. In some areas day care is offered.
Some have unique mission, such as a parish we occasion in Texas when visiting our children that has a quilting group. Their intention is for post surgical patients to be given a quilt, presumably for members of their own parish. However, when one of us had surgery, a package arrived from St Louis Church, a stunning quilt sewn of colorful fabric carefully stitched together. It is a gift that continues to give comfort to souls and body. Some parishes give to more deserving folks, such as those who sew quilts for our soldiers serving overseas. Other activities, such as an event staged during the seasons of fast bring parishioners together. A clam chowder dinner during Lent gives a break during the time of meager meals.
Our favorite outreach is the coffee hour. After Mass each week our parish has a regular coffee hour, sometimes more of a brunch. Around the coffee pot and donuts we can keep up with latest news among us. We share the local news, who is ill and who is mending, as well as the ups-and-downs of our off-spring.
Children. In the best of worlds, a parish school comes with the parish. In any case, intense adult involvement with children is an essential and, of course, is the insurance for a growing parish. Those who teach in religious education classes contribute immensely to this effort. Research by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith established that there is a direct relationship between teenagers' acceptance of our faith and a parish community's efforts to reach out to them. The more teen ministry, youth-targeted outreach and activities, the stronger their commitment to the Church.
Prayer and Adoration. Of course, a good parish has to be more than donuts and circuses. Parishes where there is adoration have devoted followers. Maybe people come back when the light is on and they can lay down their burdens. One senses a relief once the vigil light is seen. But still the parish must meet our human needs as captured by the story about one priest who asked another if he thought it was all right to smoke while praying. "No," the other reflected, "but I'm sure God is pleased if I pray while smoking."
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.