A little over a week ago, I was able to get a first look at the pilot for a new reality show called God’s Eye that will be part of Fox’s primetime lineup this fall. The program reveals the ups and downs of a typical American faith community by chronicling a year in the lives of the pastor, staff and parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima Church an average Catholic parish in the metropolitan Chicago area.
The pastor, Fr. McMullen, 72, who has been at the parish for 9 years, is a quiet, balding man with a rather ample stomach that hangs over his belt. His wrinkled clerical shirt lies limp on his slumped shoulders. He says he hasn’t had a day off in over 8 months and McMullen’s worn and wearied face is proof enough that he isn’t stretching the truth. In addition to his busy pastoral duties, Fr. McMullen is trying to raise money for a new church roof, which is desperately needed. “I am hoping God will provide,” he says, eyes cast down on the floor.
Joy Gilbert, 48, is the pastoral associate, responsible for the day-to-day administration of the parish. She is a tall, attractive, well-coiffed woman with deep black circles under her eyes. Joy explains that the parish just lost their director of religious education and she laments to the camera that, due to financial constraints, she may have to re-hire a dedicated and well-meaning retiree who has no education in theology and, at best, a limited vision about the future of the Church. “We’ll get by,” Joy says, “We always have.”
During the opening scene a panoramic view from the back of the church fills the television screen as Fr. McMullen delivers his homily at the Sunday 10:00 a.m. mass. The church is about one-third full, and most of the people in the pews are obviously over 60. A lone baby can be heard crying in the background as father reads his scripted commentary on the Gospel. After mass, as the small crowd shuffles out, the camera crew pulls aside an older gentleman and asks him why there weren’t any young adults at mass. “I dunno,” he stammers, “I guess they don’t go to church anymore. We would like to have them here, but none ever seem to show up.” When asked what the parish does to reach out and minister to young adults, he looks confused. “I’m not sure if we do that sort of thing,” he states, and then turns to walk away.
OK, I have a confession to make—the reality show, God’s Eye does not exist. It is, however, an all-too realistic portrayal of a typical parish in many U.S. diocese. While there certainly are some vibrant parishes in the United States, they are more the exception than the rule.
I recently moved back to Detroit, my hometown, and began looking for a good worship community. When I expressed my frustration at not finding one to a friend, in Kennedy-esque fashion he stated that I shouldn’t just ask what a particular parish can do for me, but what I can do for the parish. I would love to saunter into a vibrant faith community with professional musicians in the choir, an organized young adult ministry program, and just the right amount of diversity for my tastes. But such parishes are only possible if hardworking parishioners who can envision a vital worship community set out to create it. It is our responsibility to make it happen.
A few years ago, another friend of mine started a young adult book club at his parish. The group reads a variety of Christian-themed literature and non-fiction and then meets monthly to reflect on questions that month’s designated leader distributes to the group. He told me that the conversations will often develop into faith-sharing—he can literally feel the desire of many in the group to spiritually connect with others.
It is ideas like these that make our parishes vital and life-giving places. Too often, we think that—when we’re ready to explore our faith—our journey will be nurtured by dynamic worship communities and we become discouraged when we recognize that that isn’t necessarily the case. It is up to us, especially young adults, to carry out our baptismal calling to be salt and light in the world—and a good place to start would be in our parishes. This needs to start with small, but significant steps. As a new parishioner, I have been looking for ways to offer my talents, perhaps by helping to revitalize a struggling young adult group. It is time that we envision what our parishes could be and then create our own reality.