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Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
February 19th, 2004

19 and Counting…

How far does a girl have to go to find a spiritual home?

 
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“Ok, now make a right at Lenape in .6 miles” I said, squinting at the passing street signs as if by brute concentration I could make the next sign read, “Lenape.” “I don’t know,” my roommate anxiously replied, glancing at the odometer. “I think we’ve gone more than .6 miles, and I don’t see it.” I returned my attention to the Map Quest print out, fumbling through the pages, “Maybe it was that last street that didn’t have a name…” Welcome to another Sunday morning in central New Jersey. 16 months ago, fate (and a job) led me, a 28 year-old Catholic, from the rolling cornfields of northern Indiana to the Garden State. There were parts of Indiana I was more than happy to leave behind: jackets rated to –30 degrees (and the winters that rendered them necessary) being at the top of the list. Yet, the move also launched my parish search—a search that has ended up being a bit more expansive than I had planned. Over the past year, I have visited 18 parishes for Sunday liturgy (most of them more than once). While I have settled into parish #19, it also leaves a bit to be desired. This all leads me to ruminate about the presence of young adults in our parishes. As I visited parish after parish, a certain pattern emerged: people my age were, quite simply, not there. Where are all the young people? You don’t see them? Neither did I, and I can tell you why. Many of our parishes are not places where I would want to spend my Sunday morning. They are simply not places that facilitate an encounter with the living, breathing God.
A Notre Dame graduate twice over, I was privileged to be in an environment where, from 7am to 11pm on any given Sunday, it would be difficult to find an hour in which mass was not being celebrated in some corner of campus—from the dorm chapels (where students sat in pajamas on the floor), to the grotto, to the majestic basilica, frequented by returning alumni decked in their finest. And if I wanted to venture into downtown South Bend, there were at least four good parishes within biking distance, not including the Lady of Loretto across the street, nestled on St. Mary’s picturesque campus. After accepting a job in New Jersey, there were a few things I was concerned about. Affordable housing: yes. Affordable car insurance: another yes. Yet, it simply didn’t occur to me that I would not be able to find a parish where I would feel welcomed. I didn’t really feel I was asking for too much—an active parish, one that had a good sense of liturgy and decent music, thought provoking preaching … a social conscience … a welcoming, hospitable atmosphere. Little did I know…

The first step in my New Jersey parish search was to ask around. I worked in a Catholic non-profit with 40+ people, and it seemed like pretty fertile ground for getting the “lowdown” on life giving parishes. I also frequented masstimes.org, a nifty little site that allows one to find all of the parishes within a given number of miles from a city or zip code. I found that there were 74, count ‘em, 74 parishes within 8 miles of my little town of Westfield. How could I go wrong? So I began to compile a list. Which parishes had I heard good things about? Which parish websites looked like they had an active congregation? Which church was closest to my apartment (read, least amount of time from bed to pew)? And the search began.

What followed gradually became analogous to a bad roadtrip movie. Each Sunday, my roommate and I would climb into one of our cars with our Map Quest directions in hand, to locate yet another parish. We would attend mass, and then “debrief” the experience on the car ride home. Did we feel welcomed? How was the liturgy … the preaching? What about the music? Did the parish seem alive, socially conscious? In all fairness, we tried to give each parish more than one chance, realizing that we probably shouldn’t make a judgment about the parish on just one visit. Here’s what we found:

In not one of the 19 parishes did anyone recognize that we were new, and welcome us (though 3 of parishes had “greeters” at the door, which did aid us in feeling a bit more like we belonged). To be fair, I feel that this is a common experience in Catholic parishes today. Parishes are so large that we have little sense of who is new and who is not. Yet, though this may be commonplace, I’m not sure it excuses us. What does it say if we don’t know each other’s names? At one parish, they attempted to hand out name tags at the door “to promote community.” Yet, what followed was mass as normal, where we were not given the opportunity to introduce ourselves to one another. At the end of that service, as with every service, we left as anonymously as we had entered, nametags still in place. The closest anyone ever came to recognizing my presence was after one mass, at a parish I had been attending for at least 4 weeks. (It is helpful to know that during this period, I was diagnosed with celiac disease, an auto immune deficiency where my body could not tolerate wheat. At communion, I therefore did not receive the host, and only received from the cup.) After liturgy, as my roommate and I were exiting the church, the pastor pointed his finger at me, with an accusing, “Hey… you!” “Wow,” I thought, “maybe he’s noticed that I’m new here, and wants to welcome me.” He did not even ask my name as he demanded, “What’s with you? Why do you only receive from the cup?” “Well, Father,” I responded, “I have celiac disease and therefore my body cannot tolerate wheat.” He looked slightly annoyed. “Oh,” he said, as he turned to talk to another parishoner. My roommate and I stood there in stunned silence for a few seconds, and then departed. Needless to say, we have not been back to that parish.

In terms of liturgy, the story does not get much brighter. Rare have been the masses where the prayers were said with intentionality and in which participation was genuinely invited. And while participation is greatly aided by a presider who is invested in the celebration, the apathy on the part of the assembly was in itself astounding. Quite frequently, my roommate and I found ourselves in the midst of other members of the Church who didn’t even pick up song books; who, if responding at all, muttered responses into the ground; who sat and stood as if being lured into a somewhat painful dance. Frankly, there often was not much to respond to. The preaching was rarely thought provoking. Most of the time it was a string of empty Catholic platitudes that dug a gulf between the presider and the assembly, and ignored the colorful biblical stories which it was supposed to break open. Connections between the scripture and life’s struggles were few and far between. The focus of many homilies was simply, in my opinion, whatever the presider felt like preaching about. Don’t believe it? In one such mass, the gospel recommended not taking the seat of honor at celebrations, for, “the one who humbles herself will be exalted, and the one who exalts himself will be humbled.” The homily? Abortion. Another homily started out by criticizing “whoever put together these flower arrangements up on the altar.” It went on to emphasize “EVERY church doctrine is God’s law. We didn’t just make these things up! You can’t just pick and choose what you like.” Forgive me, I don’t even remember the gospel. But I’m pretty sure it didn’t say anything about that.

The music? Well, let’s start with the positive: Though few parishes had a choir, we did experience 3 good choirs in our pilgrimage. We felt that these choirs did help us to enter into the celebration, to pray with our full selves. In the other 15 parishes, I’d like to applaud the one to three courageous people who attempted to lead the congregation in song. Most times, the lack of congregational participation effectively rendered them soloists. In one sad parish, there was absolutely no music. In terms of accompaniment, I realize that there are a variety of styles in liturgical music. Yet, there are a handful of parishes that have resorted solely to synthesizer music. I’m not sure if this is matter of style or economics, but either way, sometimes if I closed my eyes, I could’ve been in a smoky lounge rather than at a liturgical celebration. On the other hand, we also attended parishes whose sole accompaniment was the organ. Now, it’s not that I think that organ is inappropriate (I believe it became the chosen liturgical instrument because it sounded the most like the human voice). But when an organ is used for every piece of music, regardless of genre, It rarely makes me want to stand up and sing with gusto. And often, the tempo was such that I barely recognized songs that I thought I knew well (“So that’s what it sounds like at half speed!”)

Except for one outstanding parish in New York City that intentionally made the poor and the outcast a priority, none of the other parishes we attended had an explicit commitment to those on the margins of society. This particular parish opened a soup kitchen directly after masses on Sunday and invited all to participate in the call to “become bread for the world.” They were explicit in their inclusion of all social and economic groups, as evidenced by their wide variety of outreach to diverse populations. And their preaching often focused on the call to live a life of service to and with the poor and oppressed. While we flirted with traveling 50 minutes (and paying from $7 – $18 in tolls and train tickets) a weekend to attend this parish, reality got the better of us after a few weekends.

Nineteen parishes later, I wonder, is mass really the celebration we say it is? Any good celebration, in my opinion, is one that is marked by expectation, energy, and engagement … one in which the shrieks of laughter frequently waft over the feasting and conversing. Hopefully, I approach a celebration to give and receive. While I may bring a bottle of wine or a dessert, the most important gift is the gift of presence of those gathered. Dinner is usually a rather lengthy affair, with people lingering to chat long after the last piece of pie has been eaten. In good celebrations, I often find that cannot hear myself—I have to lean into my conversation partner to actually digest what he or she is saying.

We say that we participate in “the celebration of mass.” Yet, where is that energy and enthusiasm? Where is the welcome that facilitates engagement with one another and the Host, our God. Most of the participants in the assembly rarely seemed like they were engaged enough to give of themselves, and (if I had a guess) probably weren’t looking to receive all that much. In terms of savoring our time at the table, it’s hard to savor something when prayers are rushed, participation is neither invited nor offered, and music does not inspire us to raise our voices in praise. I could only wish that the responses and song could have been so robust and heartfelt, that my voice was indistinguishable from those around me.

So why do I go? What continues to draw me back? Nineteen parishes and sixteen months later, I can say one thing, these parishes have drawn me to deeper reflection on the reasons I drag myself out of bed each Sunday morning. The documents of Vatican II, coupled with my experience of masses that have been truly alive, have given me a glimpse of what Catholic liturgy, properly celebrated, can offer. Some of my most powerful experiences of the Spirit have taken place at mass: I think of times when the beautiful music has touched my hurting spirit in ways that mere words could not, when the homily seemed like it was crafted to speak to my life, when the prayers have been so resounding that I can feel the support of the community gathered around me, when the sign of peace has taken upwards of 15 minutes as people greeted and comforted each other. The document on liturgy says that our celebration “should be a foretaste of the heavenly banquet,” and there have been times in my life when I have, for a few seconds, experienced this. I see the ways that good liturgy seeps into my life. It constantly awakens me to the sacramentality of all people and creation, and invites me to notice the cycle of death to new life present all around me. It connects me with the communion of saints across time, reminding me to call on the wisdom of our ancestors in the faith to join with me in prayer and praise of the creator of us all. It offers me the opportunity to constantly offer my gifts, my sorrows, my joys to be transformed into the body of Christ. While many of the parish experiences in the past few months have not been particularly inspiring, I hold on to those experiences that have mediated the presence of God to me.

Yet, in the same way, I am grieved by the lack of preparation, participation, and care that goes into many of our liturgies. I shudder when I hear offensive preaching which demeans, alienates, or simply puts in boxes those with a certain life experience, especially when I consider that so many life experiences will never be given flesh from the pulpit, including the experience of women. I become despondent when I read documents that are more concerned about the minute rules, the “dos and don’ts” of liturgy, rather than looking at the elephant in the room, the fact that our liturgy is being celebrated poorly and without heart. I am saddened that a generation desperately searching for community cannot find a home in the parish communities of our tradition. Finally, I wonder about those young adults who may not have the time, the energy or the impetus to travel to 19 parishes to find a place where they feel welcomed. There’s a part of me that wants to urge them to stick it out, to keep going until they find a parish that they can call home. Yet, the other part of me doesn’t really blame them.

 
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The Author : Leah Thomas
Leah Thomas writes from northern New Jersey.
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