Is your parish a private club or a place of welcome for all?
We all have seen it in the world at large and close to home in our parish ministry: the tendency — no, the proclivity — for groups to fight to maintain the status quo. We become so comfortable with the way things are, with the people we know, that we build our fences and close our doors to those who were not part of our original group.
Country Parish Experience
I once had the good fortune to serve in a parish that was in transition from its many years as a quaint little country parish into a suburban one. The parish staff was growing to meet the needs, and a retired priest was assigned to assist me with the demands. In our little church and one mission, we were celebrating nine Masses on a weekend — and even this number of Masses soon would not be enough. People often were left to stand outside the doors. That little 1950s-era building that seated about 300 people (if the choir loft was full) needed to be replaced.
I went to the people with this urgent need, which, from my point of view, was self-evident, but the response I received surprised me. Some were supportive, but many said: “We love this church the way it is. We don’t want a new one!” I explained about the growth and asked, “What if you come to Mass one day and there is no room?” Their response was, “We’ll just come earlier.” After years of effort we built a hall instead where Sunday Mass had to be celebrated for many years.
Suburban Parish Experience
I remember another parish at which I noted a number of parish organizations were dying. The parish had been founded about 30 years earlier. The founding community had great energy and had engendered an effective evangelical outreach when the parish was founded, canvassing the surrounding neighborhoods to invite their neighbors to take part in the life of the new parish community. The neighborhood was made up of people from all over the United States who had been transferred to that area and who were hungry to find a place where they could belong.
This took shape as a full-service parish in which organizations were created to serve children, young adults, married couples and seniors. Besides the many spiritual and educational offerings, there were dinner clubs and bowling teams and bridge clubs, and the list could go on.
By the time I served as pastor, much of the original evangelical outreach had been lost in some measure. We organized ministry fairs as a way to introduce new parishioners to the various organizations. But to our surprise, some organizations chose not to take part. I was shocked! “Clearly,” I thought, “they can see that most of their members are in their 70s and 80s. If they don’t do something to rejuvenate their organization, it will die out.” When I asked them about this, their response was clear. They were comfortable with their group and didn’t want to invite any strangers in to break those familiar bonds.
An -Ism of Parish Life
This is a common experience in parish life, unfolding in both conscious and unconscious ways. It is little wonder that when people in the world want to speak of a situation that is closed in upon itself, walled off from any intruding people or ideas, it is called “parochial.” Our temptation is to model a parish community on our image of a club. Membership is seen as exclusive. It brings together people who fulfill certain requirements to belong to the parish family.
In this context, perhaps it should not surprise us when we see among parish members a strong resistance to opening their doors and welcoming people of other cultures, who speak other languages, and particularly recent immigrants. These newcomers threaten the loss of the familiar homogeneity. They bring with them different ways of thinking and acting, different styles of practicing their faith. They are difficult to understand. They break that comfortable sameness that we have come to expect when we go to church.
This parochialism is one of the greatest challenges we face in the life of the Church in our country and throughout the world. Jesus himself had to fight this tendency in his first disciples. Remember how Jesus himself resisted the temptation to stay in one place, but said he must move on to the other towns and villages to bring the Good News? Remember how Jesus sent out his own disciples two by two? And recall how before he returned to his Father’s side he gave them his last will and testament saying, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19)?
In recent times, especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has tried to recover the awareness that this missionary thrust of the Church is not just the work of a few chosen, but the work of all the baptized. In fact, as Pope Francis has reminded us untiringly, the Church does not have a mission; the Church is mission. Mission is the reason for the Church’s being. If it were to cease reaching out and inviting others to communion in the family of God, it would cease to be.
I served for more than 30 years in priestly ministry for the Diocese of Dallas, one of the early destinations for immigrants from Latin America arriving in our country. In every parish I served, to one degree or another, I witnessed a disconnect between the established community and the more recent immigrants. Those who were established felt threatened, and those who more recently arrived felt alienated.
This divide was illustrated for me with striking clarity when, one day, I was called by a funeral director from across town. He asked if I could assist with the burial of a baby, the first child of immigrants from Mexico, who had died shortly after birth. I readily agreed to assist, but at one point I wondered aloud why he called me instead of the parish nearby?
He said that he had noticed the parents’ home address was only blocks from my church. After the funeral I invited the couple to come to our recently established Spanish Mass at the parish. They asked where the church was. When I told them, they responded, “Oh, we thought that was a private church.” “Private,” I thought, “That must be how we appear!”
A Challenge from God
Given these ways of thinking that create such separation and alienation in our parishes, it is not hard for me to understand why Catholics in the pews are not always on board with what the pope, bishops and other leaders of the Church are saying when it comes to attitudes toward national borders and those who cross them without documents. Clearly, in the minds of many, recent immigrants have not completed the necessary requirements for membership.
Could it be that in these days God is challenging the deadly comfortability of our parish life? Today we do not necessarily have to go out to all the world; in a certain manner the world is coming to us, filled with many gifts and talents and abundant faith. Recent immigrants are ready to enrich us and to assist us on our journey. If we welcome them now, I trust they will be the ones who welcome us one day into the kingdom of God.
BISHOP MARK J. SEITZ is bishop of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas.
Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz