I recently had the opportunity to revisit one of my favorite former parishes, Our Lady of Peace in Santa Clara, Calif.
During that visit, I had to ask myself: What is it that makes this parish work?
Any answer to that question has to begin with the very special person of its pastor, Msgr. John Sweeney. But there are lots of holy and learned priests whose parishes don't work nearly so well. What in particular makes Father Sweeney's parish so dynamic? (Forgive me, Monsignor, but you'll always be “Father” to me — even when you're St. John Sweeney.)
The answer, I think, boils down to one thing. Everything at the parish is directed toward devotion to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Even Father Sweeney's legendary devotion to Our Lady leads people to the Blessed Sacrament. I believe this works for two reasons — one natural, the other supernatural.
The natural reason is that when everything and everyone is directed toward the same end, there is much less competition of the destructive sort. Let me illustrate by way of contrast.
I'll bet you have seen parishes like this: The parish has a beautiful choir, lovely art and architecture, and a charming pastor. But if they are all calling attention to themselves, they are competing with each other for the congregation's attention. The choir director thinks the church is a concert hall, while the pastor uses the homily for public-policy analysis. The liturgy committee treats the church like a theater, and views its role as providing entertainment. Meanwhile, the congregation thinks the sanctuary is a social meeting place.
These may all be gifted and competent people, but they are not really working together. In fact, the more clever and gifted are particularly prone to this confusion. We can't help but know when we are good at what we do. But then we forget that Jesus is the star of the show. We get focused on ourselves and forget to look toward Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The choir and the liturgy committee surely know that their parish church is not the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. But an impure intention has a way of seeping through the facade of piety. The worst case is the priest who gives a 20-minute homily, and does a hurried consecration. The whole of the parish becomes far less than the sum of its parts.
By contrast, when every detail of the liturgy and the church building is focused on devotion to Our Lord, people are building each other up, and working together for a common goal. At Our Lady of Peace, this devotion shows up in everything from the appearance of the church, to the choice of music, to the way the priests handle the hosts in the ciborium.
No one, as far as I can tell, is trying to call attention to himself; no one is looking for recognition of her contributions. And, as far as I can tell, people are satisfied when the congregation is prayerful and recollected. I cannot recall a single instance in which the congregation applauded the choir. But I can recall many occasions on which everyone, including the priest, were practically in rapture from the beauty of the music. The music is there to lead us toward a greater union with God. That is quite a different definition of success than the kind that is measured with applause.
So, the natural reason this method works is a kind of “economies of scale.” Everything, and everyone, is going in the same direction. Folks are not competing with one another, and thereby inadvertently tearing each other down. There is far less scope for “turf” battles, because everyone is “on the same page.”
The supernatural reason this “system” works is that we are focused on something far bigger than ourselves — namely, Our Lord. Our heightened awareness of his presence magnifies even our small contributions and makes them more valuable than they would be standing alone.
For instance, at Our Lady of Peace, there is a little old gentleman who leads the singing of “O Lord I am not Worthy” at one of the Masses every week. I don't know this gentleman's name; he appears to be either Filipino or Vietnamese. It doesn't matter. His singing is one of the most touching, tender moments of that very special place. It is not because of his great talent. Let us just say he would not be mistaken for a trained singer. But because of his obvious devotion, his contribution is very powerful. His devotion to Our Lord spills over onto his singing and magnifies its value far beyond any natural value it could have.
In this way, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. When everything is directed to the greater glory of God, some of his glory inevitably floods over onto us. This happens precisely because people are not looking for their own aggrandizement. The lady who takes care of the flowers isn't really expecting people to come up and pat her on the back. But she knows that the beauty of the sanctuary contributes to the atmosphere of holiness that everyone enjoys.
And so it goes at Our Lady of Peace. From the choir to the altar servers, to the old gentleman singing, to every person who comes in and genuflects devoutly, to the lady who vacuums the church, to Father Sweeney himself, everyone works toward the same end: God. I've come to see that the secret of this parish's success is that simple — and that profound.
Jennifer Roback Morse, A research fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote Love & Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work.