25 October 2013

On what may or may not be possible for a church

I have recommended the video about Restoring the Sacred at St John Cantius in Chicago to several friends, as a way of inspiring them and perhaps getting some practical ideas about rebuilding parish life. They have all had more or less the same reaction: they are deeply impressed, but they think it would be impractical to emulate. They simply do not believe Father Phillips when he says: "This can be done anywhere."

I understand what they mean, for I too have had the same thought. I have turned the question over and over in my mind, and from what I can see, and to the best that I can tell, the answer really depends on how you read Father Phillips' use of the word "this." What is the "this" to which he refers?

There's an awful lot of "this" in that video. It includes the way Mass is said at St John's. That is important and critically so. I suspect that is not the issue for most of the people to whom I have recommended the video. The 'this' that they do not believe possible can be found in things like having orchestras (note the plural) provide music for the Mass. I would say their scepticism on this issue is warranted. It is really only possible in an urban setting where there is a sufficient talent pool of musicians and conductors. It also requires a church of some size with a large choir loft. Most of the lofts I have seen could not handle an orchestra and choir. Furthermore, even if all the churches could hold an orchestra, it is unlikely that even in a city there would be enough musicians and conductors to provide orchestras for all the churches. Strictly speaking, 'this' indeed is something that may be possible in some places, but not just 'anywhere'.

On the other hand, 'this' also includes gathering together a group of volunteers to do work in the parish. At the very beginning of fr. Phillips' time at St Johns', even when the parish had only about two hundred members. This is a very possible thing. It is very likely that even a congregation that small will have a plumber and contractor, plus a couple of handy men will to do some grunt work and perhaps pick up a few new skills. 'This' is indeed something that may be done anywhere.

While one seems possible to accomplish anywhere and the other does not, both actions stem from the same principle: find people who have the talent and skills and get them involved, make an arrangement with them. It is taking advantage of the resources at hand and making the best use of them, whether it be plumbers or singers, a large choir loft or a small one, or even the invaluable resource which is that guy, who knows a guy, who knows some other guy... you know the kind of thing I'm talking about.

When my friends and acquaintances watched the video or perused the website, the this that they saw was the specific 'this'- the orchestras, or raising 1.5 million bucks for an organ, or having a silent movie night with music provided by the theatre organ in the basement, and they looked at their own parish and dismissed it as immediately impossible. When I see the video, I see father referring to the underlying principle, and how, through the use of that principle, patiently overcame every obstacle that was set in his path and achieved what everyone else thought to be impossible.

Are there any other reasons they might see this as impossible? I believe so. First is because they want to see it as such. They are in the grip of what Newton identified as one of the most powerful forces in the universe: inertia. Staying on their current course, even if it is no course at all, is simple, easy, and requires no energy or thought. Changing course and veering off in a new direction requires great effort, and it can even be scary. Better to just declare change to be impossible rather than try and fail.

Another problem comes from leadership. Fr. Phillips is obviously a dynamic and inspiring leader, capable of inspiring people to get up and follow his vision. Not all priests, I am sorry to say, have that ability, even if they do have the vision. And all too often they will face opposition within their parish and even on the very councils they head up. Not everyone can stand firm against all opposition.

There is another issue which exists in my diocese, and that is time limits. Fr. Philips has been at St John Cantius for nigh unto thirty years. What is happening now, the 'this' that my friends find impossible, is the fruit of years of labour. Here, a priest will head a parish for six to ten years, and then he is transferred. I will not argue too strongly against this policy. After all, the previous pastor at St John's watched over thirty years of steady decline and could not stop his parish from declining to the point of collapse. The time limits helps keep mediocre priests from running a parish into the ground, and it should be recognised as such. However, it also prevents someone like Father Phillips from raising their parish up to great heights. Would a priest here even try to undertake all this work, knowing they will not be around to see its fruit? How willing are the laity to work with a priest who is willing to try, when they know in a few years a new priest will be placed over them, who may very well sweep away their hard work at a stroke? I've seen it happen.

What all this still means is that great achievements are unlikely. But, then again, they always are. The odds are always against you. I still recommend watching this video for inspiration and ideas. It is a stunning example of what can be done in the face of all odds and adversity by patience, prayer fortitude, and the ability to harness the energy of enough volunteers. It shows the wonders that can happen if you are willing to try and bring them into being. You may still try and fail. But if you never try, you have always failed already.  Stop making excuses so you can stay on your couch watching Storage Wars, get off your duff, and get to work.

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