Parochial Loneliness

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Sarah Reinhard wrote about being welcoming over at New Evangelizers the other day. Posts like hers always make me cry.  The reason is because if I who should feel totally at home in a Catholic parish feel so utterly isolated . . . how on earth does everyone else feel?


Yeah.  I just said that.


It’s not about the people.  To a man my fellow parishioners, and everyone I’ve met in my diocese and anywhere I’ve traveled (except that one cranky priest one time, but come on, everybody has bad days) — everyone is really very nice.  Kind, caring people.  No complaints.  None.

Still, it’s lonely.


And it isn’t a strictly Catholic problem.  I’ve had multiple Evangelical friends — and if Catholics are a little shy and reserved, trust me, Evangelicals are not — I’ve had a number of non-Catholic friends wander from congregation to congregation in search of companionship.  Someone to notice them.  To care about them.  To view them as something other than a potential nursery worker, or those people you smile at in the pews but really if they fell into a crevasse tomorrow, no one would much realize.


Part of the problem is geographic.  I see church people on Sunday, but the rest of the week we retreat to our different neighborhoods spread throughout the city.  I can distinctly remember the last time I ran into an acquaintance from church outside of Mass — it was several months ago, at Publix — and interestingly, the time before that was maybe six months prior, same lady, at the library.  But they just moved to Seattle, so that’s over.  Oh wait — and I ran into the dad of one of my students at McDonald’s this winter — I had turned to look because I was struck at how polite he was, the way he spoke to the counter lady.

Part of it is structural.  Our parish has five masses in a weekend — if someone’s missing, for all you know they just slept in an hour, or decided they like the 8:00 AM organist better.  You might see an announcement in the parish bulletin if someone’s dead or nearly dead, if the next of kin notified the parish office. For all I know, I run into fellow parishioners everywhere, and never even know it, because we aren’t at the same Mass.

Part of it is architectural. You want to say to hello someone after Mass, but they slip out the other door.  I used to go down to coffee and donuts, but the room is acoustically alive — too loud and you can’t hear anyone, so conversation is strained.

–> Something my parish does right: We have a fabulous playground right next to the church building.  So the parents of young children do have a natural way to meet up and chat after Mass.  Which I love, and have made many friends that way.

Part of it is economic.  I keep befriending people who move away.  I’m sure it’s not me.  Sometimes I when I introduce myself to someone, I feel like saying, “Are you going to move or drop dead* in the next two years?  Because I’d sure like some friends that stick around.”

Part of it is personality and state of life.  I’m an introvert. I want one-on-one conversations about substantial topics.  Just throwing us all into the gym for a giant spaghetti supper or pancake breakfast, and calling it parish-togetherness because we’re all in the same room?  No thanks.  But I’m not at a stage in my life when it’s easy to get out for a small-group bible study, or meet someone for coffee, or pick up the phone and talk for ten minutes without having to break up three fights and answer seven urgent questions, two of which really were urgent, and one of which involved the dog throwing up.


Loneliness is no reason to leave the Church.  It’s not a social club. It’s a place to worship the one true God, to prepare your soul for Heaven, to gear yourself up for serving others here on earth.  The little Christs come to serve, not to be served.

And this is why I’m such a thorn in everyone’s flesh about solid theology programs.  Because my goodness, I don’t care how wonderful your youth program is, or how great your ladies’ monthly luncheon is at making lonely widows feel at home, sooner or later as a Catholic you’re going to be in the pit.  You’ll be the odd person out, the one nobody remembers to call, the one for whom there is no parish ministry that fits your life and your abilities.

Faith formation can’t be all about relationships and togetherness, or there’s no reason to stick around when the group doesn’t meet spec.  If there’s one question religious ed needs to answer, it is: “Why should I bother coming to Mass when my parish is horrible?”

[My parish is not horrible.  Far from it.  I am usually so happy to be home after having to go visit some other place.  Like the church with the horrid dentist-office decor, or the one with the oppressively low ceilings, or the one with no vacant seats up front . . . but I do kinda like the neon lights in the ceiling that change to match the colors of the liturgical season, out at my Dad’s parish in Las Vegas . . . though their traffic pattern for the communion line is inscrutable.]


Solutions, anyone?

I do feel an amazing kinship with the lady I always see at adoration and who I run into other places around the parish, even though we rarely get to talk to each other, but you can just tell she’s your friend, and she has masses said for everyone including my grandfather when he died, even though she’d never met or even heard of him before it was listed in the parish bulletin.  Most of the time it is enough to just see familiar people, to have that sense of home, even if you don’t really know them.

But sometimes you want more.  Real live friends that you see outside of Mass.

I know the playground-after-Mass method works.  And I’ve made friends teaching religious ed, volunteering is good that way.  Haunting the local Catholic bookstore will make you at least be friends with the owner there (they go to another parish). Slowly, slowly, we build up friendships with other families through trying to set up dinner together this week, a park date that week . . . but it’s long work, and we’re all so busy, and our lives so separate that every get-together has to be planned, and often the effort evaporates when some small thing throws a wrench in the works.


Anyhow, all that to say, that if we aren’t welcoming to our members — really welcoming, not just smile-smile handshake-handshake — how exactly are we perceived by outsiders?  As with catechesis, so with relationships: The new evangelization starts in the pews.

*Pleasantly few people I know actually drop dead after meeting me.  God bless modern medicine.

14 thoughts on “Parochial Loneliness

  1. This is really thought provoking. Before I met my husband, I went to mass alone for YEARS and felt very lonely for almost exactly the reasons you mentioned above. Sometimes it was nice to be by myself, but more often than not, I wanted to feel more of a sense of community, even if it was just waving to familiar faces on the way in or out of mass. Great post.

    1. It’s a funny thing — going to the same parish year after of year, of course I know a lot of people now. And mostly that’s great. I’ll say that I’m no longer the person standing at the parish coffee or picnic all by myself and no one will speak to me* — I can always find someone to sit with, or else I’ll go introduce myself to someone else no one is speaking too. And I have plenty of friends in other parts of life, people I’ve known for years, get together with, etc. But it always strikes a weird note when people put Parish + Friendship in the same sentence . . . because really, what I have at the parish are very good acquaintances and a few respected colleagues.

      It’s a reality you have to address if you’re going to talk about evangelization.

      *I don’t think this happens out of malice. It happens because all the regulars have to catch up with each other, and no one’s assigned to patrol the “Welcome Sunday” coffee and actually converse with the newcomers, beyond the guy who says hello at the door. So yeah, the new people stand by themselves with their coffee and donut holes in a loud room watching other people socialize. It’s a problem.

  2. I feel like we had this very discussion the “other day” but it has been a few months… yikes time flies!

    You know me, even if a little, and my struggle to find my path…

    now Ive wanted to bring my boys to mass but I’ll admit I really don’t look forward to seeing how they behave in church… I have this nightmare that one or both of my boys will use potty words, loud enough for the hearing impaired members of the congregation to *know* exactly what he said, as Im trying to drag them out of mass for misbehaving..but the damage already done I feel so embarrassed that I never come back.

    But that aside, I feel like Im in a holding pattern (doubt, hesitation, resistance? I don’t know), but if there is a particular mass or just a random Sunday you want to have a friend to share it with please let me know and I will be there. Or even if to come over, share a cup of coffee and visit after mass…

    I still need to make that trip to the store to talk to the lady about my icons.. Im thinking August I can have something done to show her.


  3. I’ll totally sit in the pew with your boys! With two littles, a team approach is the way to go. Review expectations in the car beforehand (sit quietly, whisper voice, etc). Come to the 10AM, and if one acts up, take him out to sit on a bench over by the cemetery and practice being quiet, (You can walk the stations of the cross there too — the big thing is, *not the playground side* of the grounds), and the other can stay with us. Anyone who makes it all the way through mass without having to be taken out can get a donut after. (Hence the 10AM — or else have cookies in the car or something.)

    I’m here this week, in Vegas next week (just me — everyone else is here), and back again after that.

    FYI I once went to communion carrying a kicking screaming toddler like a sack of potatoes. Hard to top that . . . oh and the time my two littles played in the holy water through an entire mass. Or the time Josh hid on the floor of the pew covering his ears and thrashing around in misery because the music was too loud. Trust me, no one will bat an eye. Pretty much all people care about is whether you make an effort to get the kid to Mass, and whether you walk him outside for a quiet-time break if there’s true pandemonium. A little wiggling or whispered questions is AOK.

    (BTW mention you’re a friend of mine if you go to the bookstore, she’ll know who I am. She probably would be good with doing consignment sales, because it’s a lean operation and she is going to be tight on cash for inventory, so it would minimize her risk on a new product. Catholic bookstores are notoriously unprofitable. Also, mention you’ve taught how-to classes for beginners, if you’d be interested in leading a little workshop in the back of the store at some point.)

  4. Well, on a personal level this is stuff I do at Mass:

    If I see new people a few times I’ll chase them down and say, hey ya new rite? Where ya from? What brings you to Greenville? How’dja pick this parish? These ya kids? Are y’all in Sunday School? Have y’all been to the KofC breakfast yet, it’s real good, not just pancakes, and a good deal for families. Didja hear about the new Anglican priest? Ya a CradleCat? No? Convert? When’d’ja come in? So lemme hear ya testimony. I want all the details.

    People I see a lot that seem to take Mass seriously, I’ll say hey you know don’t me but you seem to take the Mass seriously, it encourages me to come to Mass when I see you doing that.

    After Mass I like to compliment & chat with the choir, the choirmaster, and the organist, discuss the composers, the music, etc.

    Plus there’s a yakzone outside one of the 3 church exits. We always head for that after Mass, even though we park on the other side.

    Beyond Mass, I catechize and am in Knights of Columbus. I do monthly breakfast while wearing my nametag. I go around & say hello to people, see if they want more coffee, or if the less-mobile want more eggs or whatever. A lot of people will then learn my name, and feel more at ease speaking to me on other occasions.

    When I see parents of kids I catechize, I say nice things to ’em about their kids, and ask them a bunch of questions time permitting. Sometimes it’s just something in the pickup line after class: hey you’re Rosita’s mom? She’s a good student, pays attention, takes God seriously. Right Rosita? Uh huh. Anyway, you’re welcome to visit our class anytime, you might have some fun.

    We attend adult events around the area when there are speakers we’re interested in. We try to meet some new motivated Catholics, say hey to ones we haven’t seen lately.

    I try to speak to any guest homilist or priest after Mass. Sometimes we get priests visiting who aren’t Latin-rite Catholic; or even catholic, period. I like to find out about them after Mass: hey you outfit isn’t the usual; are you from somewhere else?

    Also any visiting speaker. About 10 years ago, Mark Shea came for 2 days. Janet & I had a great extended lunch with him on Saturday, and I and my son took him to the airport on Sunday, had a great time.

    RCIA occurs at the same time time as Catechism. I arrive early enough to schmooze the RCIA crowd each week, say hey to the Cats I know who treat RCIA as permanent Adult Ed. I warn them that they know enough already to be catechists. I say hello to some catechumens, get some testimony.

    Between KofC & catechism, I meet lots of motivated Cats beyond my parish at workshops’n’such. From such contacts I try to have cheap lunch with people when possible. Today f’rinstance, a Knight I know from St. Paul’s in Sp’burg was in town. We’d planned to take Fr L to pizza buffet for his b’day, but he was “bizzy”. So I rounded up a friend from OLR parish, and a new Knight/ recent convert from my parish, and the 4 of us had a great lunch discussing All Things Catholic.

    We do a little bit of pro-life, meet people that way.

    My wife & I attend events at other parishes. We see laypeople or clergy we know, have a good time, reinforce Catholic threads among parishes.

    We (90% Janet) do adoration at another parish. Meet people connected to that.

    At Christmas & T’giving we have parties, invite a wad of serious Catholics from across the Upstate, great conversations, new connections made.

    It’s funny, we think of ourselves as sticks in the mud, but we’re pretty plugged into the world of Upstate Catholicism. That’s where all our friends are.

    Anyway we sure ain’t lonely.

    1. Yeah. You’re pretty much the guy. :-).

      Those are great suggestions. You should write a guest post for New Evangelizers with Ten (twenty, thirty . . .) ways to be welcoming and to build Catholic community. Just sayin’.

      [And interestingly: I’m pretty well connected with the evangelical community and with the broader Catholic community. It’s really just my parish where I’m currently in-between friends again — tons of good acquaintances and colleagues, now that I’ve been involved enough years. New group of come-by-and-have-a-beer friends in formation . . . the perpetual wave of relocations means that’s a never-ending process.]

  5. I struggle with this at work all the time. I work in campus ministry, and as much as I like building real relationships with my students, I always have to remind myself to mingle among the new people. I also do the standard stand-at-the-door greeting, just to make sure no one leaves without being spoken to at all, but I try to reach out more when I can.

    1. Lindsay, yes! I frequently find myself catching up with one friend and seeing someone else I want to say hello to. I think something I’d like to change about our parish welcome process is to have people whose job is to match-make — greet the new person, and then make introductions so the new person actually ends up with someone to talk to for the morning. (And then repeat each week until the person settles in with some regulars.)

  6. This introverted pastor’s wife totally understands.

    One of the good things about my current parish is that the women of the parish (about 10-18 of us) go out to dinner together once a month and it has helped me have the one-on-one conversations with people, especially the woman who has a daughter my age who is a HELLP Syndrome survivor and has an autistic son. (She is a godsend.)

    1. Jen – yes. Our Catholic homeschooling group has held mom’s night out, and having a chance to get together and just talk about whatever is going on is very helpful. (So I have a handful of beloved Catholic friends that way — they just go to all the other parishes in town :-). It is so hard to get that time at this point in life, though. Our group fell apart for the year when the organizer moved to New Jersey — we need a new social coordinator!

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