I think parish life needs to be renewed. As I see it, there are three cultural trajectories that make it difficult for communities to form and support people in a life of Christian discipleship.
Distrust. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School is terrible in itself and also terrifying because it embodies the latent fear many of us have about our communities. From the General Social Survey, people increasingly distrust almost every institution of daily life. Recent Gallup polls point to decreasing trust in government and the media. The only institution that does not seem to be loosing trust is the military, a body intend on thwarting those who threaten us. Instead of an exception, this seems merely an extension of our general distrust.
For parish life, this dynamic is toxic. Not only will people who do not belong to a parish typically distrust it, people who belong to a parish just as readily distrust it. Unless the community is particularly close, people’s disposition is one of caution, both among themselves and between themselves and the clergy.
Add to this wariness, two factors peculiar to parishes. First is the backdrop of the sexual abuse scandal of 2002. While this is over a decade old, its effects are still present in the parish. Just ask anyone who does any ministry in the church about Virtus Training. The second is the growing size of parishes. Between consolidations and the reduction of priests, parish sizes have grown and become communities where fewer people know each other.
This general distrust gives rise to two typical responses, both of which are ways to provide greater safety and security in the midst of this anxious life. The first is to find places where what people know and believe is affirmed.
Confirmation Bias. People tend to gravitate to ideas, stories, and individuals that confirm their beliefs. It is a natural human tendency, but one exacerbated by media, marketing, and politics that has become more effective in targeting specific individuals or groups. If you add the voluntaristic approach to almost all associations that has long been part of US culture, we easily seek out and find communities that reinforce our beliefs.
This might not be bad for parishes if the gospel is their primary framework, but, as I noted in my first post, we are more likely to be formed by our political associations or our consumption patterns. It means we end up seeking parishes that agree with our politics or economic class and parishes attract people by emphasizing one of these kinds of identities. The cultural distrust compounds the problem because an agreement between our preferences and a parish’s ID provides a kind of balm to this anxiety and suspicion.
This kind of focused parish life is one possible response to our insecurities. Often though, we don’t have time for such intentional community association. We are just trying to get by.
Exigencies of Life. Many of us are trying to achieve a level of security through work. We need to work to earn money and need money for the basic necessities. Yet, our work often strains our ability for community involvement. If we want a job, want to keep a job, or want to advance in our careers, we often have to move. In doing so, we not only leave our friends and families behind but also our mechanics, dentists, schools, general contractors, neighborhoods, parishes, and doctors. The list goes on. Our community engagement languishes as we try to pay bills, ensure our kids or parents or friends or ourselves have the basics food, clothing, and companionship.
Of course, not everyone moves. The weaker the economy, the more stationary people become. Being from and living in the Appalachian region, I know this well. Rolling Rock is an all to familiar story. The beer use to be made in Latrobe, PA, where I work. When it closed, workers at the plant lost their jobs. Many lost their loyalty to the beer, as it was assumed that the company cared about them as much as they cared about the company. When it reopened the first time with a different brewer, many got their jobs back but at a much lower salary. The same pattern happened when the plant was sold and bought again. Those that remained struggled not only to get by financially but struggled to care about the work and life of the community that had seemed to betray them.
This hectic languishing does not just affect the laity. My college is right next to a seminary. I watch the faculty work hard to train the seminarians, and the seminarians work hard to become worthy servants of God. Yet, they only have four years of formation, four years to learn theology, pastoral care, sacramental practice, and cannon law, anyone of which could easily consume four years. The need to pack more formation in the seminary years was less urgent when newly ordained priests could expect upwards of ten years of mentoring by experienced priests. Now, these priests are often in charge of parishes within a year or two of ordination, living without a community, and responsible for several hundred families of which they know few or none. The best are frantic. Many are overwhelmed.
Mouse or Patient Parishes. The result of these trends is that parishes are typically pushed into one of two possible outcomes. One is a parish whose centrality is marginalized by the demands of life. People are working frantically to survive or so overwhelmed or wounded that it becomes difficult to engage in and build up a parish. The parish becomes, to borrow a phrase from T. S. Elliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, like a patient.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.
The other trajectory is that the parish adopts some cultural category, one that responds to people’s anxiety to make it alive and active. The parish—securing itself against some fear in society—becomes a combination of the mouse and human in Tryfon Tolides’ poem of the same name.
. . . . Yet we plug up
the cupboards so it can’t eat, and we chase it around
the living room with a broom and remove all the chairs
till it has nowhere to hide; then we club it to death
as it squeals. Or we set up traps with something it likes
to lure it into strangulation and burst its eyes out
of its head. And against what? A few light scratchings
heard in the ceiling once in a while keeping us company
at night? Two or three crumbs of bread taken from
the kitchen floor? And after the mouse, there are the ants
to be poisoned, the bees to be gassed and burned.
Later, the dandelions to be choked by spraying. And after
that, after that, there must be something after that.
How do we avoid being mice or patients? How do we become daughters and sons of the living God? I suggest a few ways in my next post on this topic.