Sadly, a Quaint Parish Community Leaves a Visitor Cold

The Catholic Mass, representing a single faith culture, is celebrated with great diversity in the parishes—sometimes with negative effect. Attending Mass at a church other than your own offers an experience of the varieties of Catholic liturgical culture.

While on a recent vacation in Vermont I attended Mass at a small parish church in a quaint town near Lake Champlain. Located on “Church Street,” the edifice's wooden interior and simple stained glass windows seemed to fit with the picture-postcard quality of the Vermont landscape. Relaxed and rested I was ready to worship with this new community of faith.

Before Mass a woman rose in the pulpit to announce a special collection for a building campaign. For some reason that act seemed to be a throwback to the ‘50s when announcing collections was a regular, if not weekly, event. The congregation of about 150 souls seemed subdued, almost sullen. They filled up the pews from the back of the church forward, a well-known ancient Catholic tradition. As Mass began a choir consisting of three singers and two lanky guitarists sang, slightly off key, a hymn from the early ‘70s. The congregation did not respond. No one joined in—nor did they for most of the liturgical responses.

The priest gave a homily on the epistle of St. James, showing that the section we were reading was a synthesis of Catholic teaching. Twice he mentioned that he had “problems with the Church” but was upbeat about the Gospel message. The liturgy proceeded and after the consecration the congregation stood instead of kneeling until Communion time.

When time for Communion came I sensed a lot of movement in the church. People started to funnel into the main aisle and side aisles from the back of the church. With this arrangement people had to walk all around the church to get back to their seat. To me it seemed like a distraction but the people did not seem to mind.

At the end of Mass, it must have been obvious that I was not a “regular,” but no one greeted me or even acknowledged my presence. Perhaps they just wanted to leave me alone.

A week later I came back convinced that I must have missed something positive in the life of this parish, as expressed in the liturgy. The congregation, quiet and sullen, again, did not sing. The priest spoke of the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa saying they both loved the poor. He made no further distinction between the two women. To a Catholic congregation it would seem he could have said a little more about Mother Teresa, at least to comment on the highlights of her life and accomplishments.

At this Mass during the sign of peace I saw a couple of smiles and felt a sense of relief that there was some life in the community after all. Maybe things were better than they seemed.

Coming back to my own parish I saw it with new eyes. The church is in a large urban community, and is fortunate to have a trained choir, several priests, a pastor who teaches, and a more outgoing spirit than the rural church. Whether large or small, country or urban, parish life as expressed in the community gathering to worship God should have some basic qualities that mark a liturgical experience as Catholic. Active participation should be, as they say, of the essence. Liturgy is not a private function but is offered by the whole community in union with Christ.

The way we celebrate Mass manifests who we are as the Body of Christ, according to the Catechism. Many Catholics think singing is an insignificant part of worship. But singing helps us to lift up our minds and hearts to God. We praise him through our bodies, with the gestures of standing, kneeling, sitting, and speaking in prayer. Singing is the lyrical expression of the faith in our hearts. The indifferent do not sing.

Since we express our communion with one another in Christ at Mass, greeting one another either at the beginning or the end of Mass would seem to be an appropriate, simple expression of fellowship. Usually after Mass people start talking with one another in the aisles and that is the extent of their experience of “Catholic community” until the next Sunday. Occasional coffees and hospitality hours after Mass help to promote and extend in a casual way a sense of community.

We can manifest our faith in Christ by more active participation in two areas, singing with intent and making an effort to greet the clergy and those with whom we have just worshipped. Both actions take us out of ourselves and express the gift of ourselves that we want to offer to God. The lack of these signs of faith impressed this vacationer; their presence will provide a welcome that could draw people back to the Church.