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.]
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.