An intriguing story from Catholic News Service highlights research that suggests that “the more church friends a person has, the happier he or she is.”

“Church friends are super-charged friends, but we have no idea why,” Harvard public policy professor Robert D. Putnam told a Gallup summit on religion, wellbeing and health last month.

It’s an intriguing finding, and in a way a worrisome one—or rather, it accentuates a worrisome trend in contemporary Catholic parish life: No matter how many banners and signs on Catholic churches proclaim that here is a vibrant “Catholic community,” many Catholic parishes today aren’t communities that foster vital personal relationships among parishioners.

First, the science. The research, conducted by Putnam and Chaeyoon Lim, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was published in the American Sociological Review (available via PDF).

Their findings suggest that the well-supported findings of beneficial effects of religious practice are closely connected with two factors: First, you have to be very committed to your religion; being only moderately religious doesn’t help, and may even make people less happy than being non-religious.

Second, you need close friends in your religious congregation. Attending religious services without forming congregational friends doesn’t make you happier, and may even make you less happy. And those with similar numbers of non-church friends don’t get the same benefit either. Even having friends outside of church with similar worldviews, or of the same religion, doesn’t provide the same benefit; apparently, it’s “regular encounters and shared religious experiences with congregational friends” that does the trick.

We’ve all heard that “the family that prays together stays together.” Apparently something similar applies to groups of religious friends as well: Friends who worship regularly together promote each other’s wellbeing like nothing else.

All of this raises concerns about social patterns in American Catholic churches today.

Here’s one way to put the problem. The CNS news story above is headlined, “Researcher’s advice to pastors: Spend more time on church suppers.” The lede paragraph reads, “Harvard public policy professor Robert D. Putnam has a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for pastors: ‘Spend less time on the sermons, and more time arranging the church suppers.’”

Church suppers? When’s the last time you went to one of those at your parish? 

Many Catholic churches today have several Masses throughout the weekend—half a dozen isn’t uncommon in some areas—to maximize people’s chances of meeting their Mass obligation. A great many Catholics, even those who regularly attend Mass, aren’t loyal to one particular Mass time, but vary their attendance based on which Mass happens to be most convenient for their schedule that weekend.

What’s more, many Catholics have different parishes in the area to pick on any given weekend, the way Suz decides whether to go grocery shopping at Stop & Shop, ShopRite or CostCo depending on what she needs at the moment and how much time she has.

The net effect is that many Catholics attend Sunday Mass with a bunch of strangers, not just occasionally, but on a regular basis. Mass is not an occasion for social connection for many Catholics, any more than going grocery shopping is. People go to Mass to meet their obligation and receive the sacraments, not to connect with friends.

All too often, in too many parishes, half the congregation is out the door as soon as the recessional hymn begins, or as soon as the priest has left the sanctuary. The goal is often to get to one’s car as quickly as possible, before the press to exit the parking lot.

The supersizing of Catholic parish life hasn’t helped. With churches closing and merging, fewer churches are offering more Masses for disparate communities with no historical ties. The old ethnic parishes have either succumbed to demographic shifts or found themselves merged into new parishes without the same ethnic identities. These shifts may come with pluses as well as minuses, but I’m only considering the quality of parish life as a center of community, and we aren’t doing well there.

Protestants, whose churches tend to be a tenth the size of Catholic churches, do community much better. Even Protestant megachurches often manage to do community better than Catholic churches. First, Protestant megachurches typically offer very few services: One major Sunday morning service, or at most two, is common, and if there are two they may cater to very different communities (e.g., a more “traditional” service and a more “contemporary” one). Second, large Protestant churches build smaller subcommunities: Bible studies or small groups, adult Sunday school classes and so on.

Catholic churches, for the most part, don’t do these things.

Here is my experience: The year before we were received into the Catholic Church, Suz and I were married in a large Presbyterian church in Charlotte. We attended worship services on Sunday and went to adult Sunday school classes after that. We had a weekly “small group” that met for Bible study and prayer. In a word, we had church friends.

Our experience in the Catholic Church was much rockier. We had a few Catholic friends, but we were all going to different parishes. None of the parishes were very tolerable liturgically or musically. Later we moved to Philadelphia, where the quality of liturgy was better. We did connect to a vital network of Catholic young people, partly through St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, where I was taking classes, and partly through monthly pro-life Masses and abortion clinic prayer vigils sponsored by the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants. Still, we never had a parish home with any sense of community, and never had friends at church.

Both in Philadelphia and in our home state of New Jersey, when we moved back, I tried hard to start a parish-based Bible study or some other forum for adult community outside Mass. For awhile a few old ladies attended my Bible study in Philadelphia. For the most part, though, it was a bust.

Coming back to New Jersey was particularly hard. For five years we wandered in the wilderness, considering ourselves comparatively lucky to be able to find some ugly church with lame music where the Mass and the preaching were at least endurable. It was a very arid, lonely, miserable time, and it broke my heart, especially as I saw my kids getting older, and I prayed and prayed and prayed for God to deliver us.

And then, about a decade ago, He did.

A new job, a new commute, a new house in a new neighborhood, and we found ourselves in a parish utterly different from anyplace we had ever been. For the first time in our Catholic lives, we have a church home and super-charged church friends.

Most of us regularly attend the same Mass. After Mass, there’s no rush to the parking lot. If the weather permits, there’s always a group of people hanging out in the courtyard talking, and once a month we have coffee and donuts in the parish center. We get together with church friends outside Mass. It’s wonderful.

But it’s also pretty unusual. Unusual enough that many of our church friends drive considerable distances to be at our parish. Our family is lucky to live just a couple of miles from our church, but some of our friends drive a half hour to be here on Sunday mornings. I’m glad that they do, but I’m sorry that there aren’t more churches with communities like ours.

I don’t have any answers here. I’m just describing the problem.

What do you think?

Do you have “super-friends” at your parish? Do other Catholics you know?

What can Catholics do to improve the situation?

(Hat tip: @NewAdvent via Twitter)