The Problem of the Parish

I recently moved to another county in the state where I live, and left the Catholic Student Center which served as my parish while I was in graduate school.   I have now registered at another parish, but not the with the parish within whose boundaries I now live.  The Catholic Center in which I was involved in my former home was one of the best in the country, both for the formation of its members (it offers theology classes to its students free of charge) and in terms of its liturgy, which adheres far more closely to the liturgical traditions of the Latin rite, as interpreted by the Second Vatican Council, than most suburban parishes do, to put it mildly.  My main reason for choosing the parish over the one I am supposed to be a part of is familiarity; an order of sisters that was active at the center in my former town is based not far from my new parish, and the sisters are active there.  The two parishes are otherwise much alike, from what I can tell.

I suppose this makes me a rank consumerist, going where I will rather than merely adhering to parish boundaries.  But the two places are basically equidistant from each other, so this combined with some familiarity decided my choice.  In any case, it illustrates the problems someone like myself, attracted to the beauty, dignity and solemnity of traditional liturgy, tend to find in most parishes.  This is something I think about a great deal, actually, having been a mostly intellectual convert to the faith:  the disparity between one’s ideal of what the Catholic Church is like, and what it actually is in most Catholic parishes these days.  And this problem is not unique to the Catholic Church.  I have recently discovered a series of articles on a Orthodox parish website by Alexander Schmemann, one of the great Orthodox luminaries of the 20th century.  Back in 1965, as Vatican II was underway, Schmemann wrote a series of articles for the St. Vladimir Seminary Quarterly on the “problems of Orthodoxy” in America, and many of the problems he identified are very familiar to any Catholic who has been concerned about the Church in the last fifty to seventy five years.  He describes, in particular, how Orthodox parishes in America, though they are more well attended, whose members give more (much more in some cases) than do parishoners in the old world, were still somehow spiritually bankrupt at the same time.   He identifies the root cause of this as “secularism,” the idea that one’s life and how it is lived are somehow separated from the Death and Resurrection of Christ, that one feels some part of one’s life is “autonomous” from all that.  Effectively, I think he meant the lack of a “total” Christian world view on the part of the individual (a Christian one) was what was lacking.

I wonder about this though.  The parishoners I see at these masses in suburban places like the one where I live seem integrated enough into their lives.  They appear to have a pretty well articulated, all encompassing world view, just one in which the Christian faith, the celebration of its liturgy, and often as not some of its difficult moral teachings,  are merely the least important parts of that world view.  In other words, they have a “total” view of life, which appears to include only the most superficial aspects of the Christian faith:  “giving” to the Church, charity defined as “being nice,” and a liturgy which is “worshipful” and “spiritual,” that is, comprised primarily of schmaltzy, infantile hymns sung in the manner of some form or another of popular music.  I say this, not to criticize the people at my new parish (I know for a fact that it is much more on board with the Church’s moral teachings than most, which part of the reason that I go there), but only to point out that this life that they lead does have an integrity of its own, it’s just not one in which the great Fr. Schmemann nor myself would recognize the fullness of the Christian faith.   My wonder is how one can convince them there is more to it, that there is a fullness beyond this that is within their gift to participate in.

In any case, I think Schmemann was completely right in identifying the “problem of the parish” as he called it as the greatest challenge to the Church today.  For whether one likes it or not, the old world of the parish–depicted in loving detail for the late medieval, English Catholic world by Eamon Duffy, in his The Voices of Morebath–which was the stable center of an “organic” community, is not coming back.  The mobility that our technology has given us and the transience of our modern economy have, I am afraid, put an end to this permanently.  What the solution could be to this problem, I honestly couldn’t say.   But then, the Christian life is not supposed to be easy, is it?  “We may not look to our pleasure to go heaven in feather beds.  It is not the way,” so said St. Thomas More (or at least on of his biographers).  Well, maybe next time I will remember that when I am enduring the liturgy at my new parish, and perhaps, after having read through Schmemann’s essay, will have a few answers too.

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~ by Alypius on August 27, 2012.

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