Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
There is an interesting mini-movement going on within our parish: Families are trying to live within walking distance of our church.
When I say "mini-movement," I should emphasize mini: So far we only know two families who have actually picked up and moved for the sole purpose of being closer to the church. However, both of those moves have taken place only within the past few months, and I know quite a few other families who are making plans to follow suit at a later date.
I am a huge fan of this idea. We've talked before about the tremendous benefits of "walkable" communities, and never is this principle more true than with a parish. I recently had a discussion with Allen Hébert, whose family is one of the two I mentioned above, and we chatted about life when the church is your neighbor. Based on his experience, conversations I've had with other folks in similar circumstances, and the thought and research my own family has put into this issue, I'm more convinced than ever that geographic proximity to the parish church should be a bumped up on the priority list of American Catholics.
Obviously, this won't be a possibility for many -- perhaps most -- people. I also don't think that it's any kind of moral imperative or a cure-all solution for all the ills of the Church. But I would like to see this issue at least get on the radar screen of more Catholic families; something they keep in mind as a good idea, even if they can't or don't want to implement it right now. Here are a few ways in which it can change both your family's life and, if enough people get involved, the life of the entire parish:
→ You receive the sacraments more frequently (and so do your kids). Needless to say, getting to Mass or Confession is a whole lot easier when your transit time is nothing more than a five-minute walk. Especially for those of us who have youngsters who need to be buckled into car seats, the convenience of not having to pack everyone into a vehicle can hardly be overstated. Also, Allen Hébert pointed out that it's now possible for his older kids who don't yet drive to receive the sacraments, even when mom and dad aren't able to provide transportation.
→ More of your socializing happens at church. Similar to the above, families who live within a short walk of their parish church naturally tend to be more involved. It's so easy to hop over there when you don't have to herd everyone into the car -- and, like with the sacraments, older kids who don't yet drive can attend activities even when their parents aren't able to give them a ride.
→ It strengthens the bonds with your friends from church. The Hébert family reports an explosion of activity in their home since they moved near the church. They always used to invite folks to visit after Mass, but when people were faced with a 15-minute drive, sometimes in the opposite direction of their own homes, they would often politely decline. Now that a visit to the Hébert house involves only a short walk outside the narthex doors, many more friends take them up on their offers for after-Mass socializing, and they've strengthened their existing ties to other parish families.
→ It strengthens the bonds of the parish community. I've recently spoken with a few folks who grew up near their churches, and they all say that they ended up getting to know other parishioners on their walks to and from Mass. Not only did they chat and get to know one another during these strolls, but, per the above, these folks often ran into each other at parish activities as well. Thanks to their proximity as neighbors, they got to know fellow parishioners whom they might not have otherwise met.
→ It sends a message. I hear that our priests were quite excited when they learned that the Hébert family was moving nearby. Not only do they now have a bunch of good backups to call if the Perpetual Adoration chapel is ever short on adorers, but it was inspiring to them to see a family make such a big sacrifice simply to be closer to the church. This kind of move is a great witness to those outside the Faith as well: In this day and age of secularism and lukewarm belief, people going out of their way to be closer to Jesus (literally) is a visible reminder that there are plenty of people out there who love the Church.
→ You can hear the church bells. When I spent a week at Mt. Angel Abbey a couple of years ago, one of the main things I noticed was the power of the church bells. Even when I couldn't make it to prayer time, simply hearing the bells made me pause and turn my thoughts to God, even if it was only for a moment. Also, there was no need to check my watch constantly or set a timer if I wanted to make it to Mass, since the bells would let me know when it was time. Of all the reasons to live near church, I think this is the one that most inspires me to make this a long-term goal for our own family. I can only imagine how much it would help a house have the feeling of a "domestic monastery" than to have it filled with the sounds of the church bells.
Again, this isn't an urgent issue; for most people it's probably not even an option, either because of personal circumstances or because there are no good housing options near their church. My purpose in bringing it up is simply to raise awareness about the concept, and to plant the seed for folks for whom it might be possible one day. I'd like to see it be somewhere on our priority lists, even if it's not at the top, because I believe that we are currently drastically underestimating the benefits that can come when even a small percentage of a parish community is also a neighborhood community.