18 August 2007

Choosing Parishes

Gerald over at Cafeteria is Closed has a poll up: Are You a Parish (S)hopper? he is inviting people to both take the poll and leave comments. I have decided to put some of my thoughts here instead.

I suspect I am something of an oddity. I grew up in a house that was three doors down from a new Catholic church, which my family never attended. We instead went to an older parish to which the family had ties- My grandfather had been the groundskeeper and undertaker, all my mother's family had been baptised there, confessed and taken communion there, so it wasn't, I think, that much of a case of church hopping that we went to the older parish. It was our parish to begin with.

When I was married and moved away, I still tried to maintain my contacts with the old parish. I still had strong ties to it- I was an usher there, among other reasons- but it was no longer practical. So we attend my wife's old parish, where she has ties, and not the closest geographical churches. These reasons are simple and neat. We are not parsh shopping, because we never left the old parish.

But there are other reasons for choosing our parishes. The closest parish is a modern art masterpiece, with a ton of liturgically wrong stuff. It has an octagonal layout, and if you sit in the wrong pew you are facing, not the priest, but the parishioner sitting across from you and wondering why doesn't she control her kids better and what was she thinking when she styled her hair like that? etc.

I don't like, however, what I am doing so much. It is as if I was placing my hope in architecture to save my soul. In reality, how a church looks should not be the most important point. Does God care, really, if I worshipped in a cruciform church, or an octagonal one? Is there a special place in the afterlife for people who did one or the other?

But again, it is not so simple. There are also problems with the priests. Going back to the new church just down the road from my old house, there seemed to something odd about the place. Six straight priests who served there left the priesthood- one of whom found his true calling to be a lounge singer. Another time I was at some school function in the basement, and I went up into the church proper briefly, and found a pair of my fellow students fornicating in the pews. I should have broken it up myself, but instead I ran to the priest and told him. "Ah," he smiled as he sighed. "What better place to do it than in the presence of God?" My shock was such I could not answer- and I hasten to add I was not a very good Catholic back then. A dozen responses raged in my head- I don't know- anywhere else, perhaps? Or better yet, nowhere?

Since that time I have heard priests preach questionable doctrine and sometimes downright heresy. Perhaps I should confront the priest. Perhaps. But on the other hand, I now have children. What good would it do for their spiritual formation for me to point to a priest every Sunday and say to them: "You see that man, up there, standing before God? That man is a liar. Pay no attention to a single word he said."

I now go to two churches because I sing in two choirs. But the question of church hopping is a difficult one for me. I am not helping the other people at the nearby parishes by abandoning them to the errors of the priest. I don't feel I am doing good by teaching my children that churches are a kind of spiritual shopping mall- pick the one that suits your taste. But again, taste is not the only question here.

Gerald quotes two men, fr. Philip and Canonist Tim Ferguson, who give opposing perspectives. First fr. Philip:

I understand the temptation to run when Fr. Hippie comes swinging out of the sacristy wearing the latest tie-dye stole from Woodstock. But if all of the faithful who hate this sort of thing leave the parish, then he's left with the false notion that what he is doing is OK "with the people." The other thing is, quite frankly, threats to leave a parish or withhold donations are rarely successful in getting a pastor or bishop to change his mind.

Now the opposite point:

As a canonist, reading the canons on parishes (c. 515-552 in the Latin Code), it's clear that the territoriality of a parish is not intended as a means to keep the lay faithful "stuck," but rather a way to ensure that all the faithful have appropriate pastoral care.In short, the obligation is more directed towards pastors than towards the faithful. The faithful have every right to seek pastoral care where they can get it, even if it's not in their territorial parish and they have to "church shop."

This issue won't go away, and I can't see any simple, clear solutions. St. John of the Cross wrote: "We must do not what is easy, but that which is difficult, and in all things strive to be effortless." But what to do when all paths are difficult, and unclear?

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