Staying Rooted in Parish Life
I suspect that my family was hardly unique among serious Catholics in the 80s in that my parents often found working around our parish to be key to bringing their children up with a strong appreciation of the Catholic faith. When I was in 2nd and 3rd grade my mother helped teach CCD for a while, until the point where a fiat was handed down from the DRE on lent: There will be no discussion of Christ’s suffering and death and crucifixes should not be on display in any classrooms for the younger kids — that would be too scary. (I believe this was the same DRE who gave an inspirational talk about how one of her deepest spiritual experiences was cutting shapes out of construction paper. Nice lady, but not what you’d call a deep thinker in matters of religion.)
From that point on, my parents made a conscious decision to provide complete catechesis at home, and it was a good thing too as the quality of parish CCD classes only got worse as the years went on. There were liturgical issues as well. The 10:30 “rock mass” continued to rock out standard modern hymn as if they were early 80s hard rock well into the late 90s. And there was “Fr. Vaudeville” who was stationed at the parish every summer for several years. One of the high points I recall was his sermon on how the form and substance of sacraments didn’t matter. “This stuff?” ask, splashing water from the baptismal font across the sanctuary. “Doesn’t matter! Words? Don’t matter! What’s in your heart, that’s all that matters!” Or the well-intentioned young priest who seemed to think that his vocation was similar to that of Mr. Rogers and gave all his sermons through puppets.
One could go on, but I think you get the point. There was much that was worth avoiding, and little that was of any formative value, and so like many families struggling to bring their kids up in a liturgical and educational wasteland, my family pulled back, taught the kids out of the Ignatius Press Faith & Life series of religious education books at home, maintained a strong family prayer life, and did our best to avoid getting too snippy on the drive home about the liturgical and homiletic antics each week.
All of us kids grew up with a strong understanding of and faith in the Church, and I’ve no one but my parents to thank for that. Countless other families did the same during the same period, and they along with a scattering of converts and reverts are the sort of people who make up much of the active core of parishioners who are involved in all the liturgical and catechetical ministries in the parishes I’ve seen since we moved out here to Texas.
However, one thing I’ve noticed in myself and in others is that while this hunkered-down, catacombs approach to surviving the liturgical and catechetical vacuum of the 80s and 90s helped many of us learn more about our faith and stay Catholic, it can make it difficult to build a solid parish life when many of the active people in the parish are used to having to maintain their faith and that of their children in spite of, rather than through, parish life. When some of your most active parishioners see religious education, youth group, and other child and family parish activities as something guilty until proven innocent (and that’s a reasonable reaction, given how frequently those programs come up guilty in recent experience), it’s hard to get good people involved in running these programs. Even knowing that our parish is pretty solid and run by good people, I constantly find myself having to check an instinct to think in regards to any sort of formation for the kids, “Of course, we’ll skip that and do it at home.” (I’m considering putting a decisive end to this particular hang-up by signing up to be a religious education teacher next year — since my overcommitment load is going down with the expiration of my term on parish council. We shall see…)
It’s perfectly reasonable and right to want the best for one’s family, and yet I think that one of the dangers that those of us among the mainly self-educated post-Vatican II laity is that the vast majority of parishes cannot (by the law of averages) be staffed by brilliant liturgists and theologians. Even with an absence of silliness (and we’re by no means past that in this country, though it’s got much better in many regions) there will always be mediocrity. And yet, we lose an important element of Catholic life if we allow ourselves to pull back into an essentially individual approach to Catholic life which leaves us isolated from any sort of parish life. While “community” has been used as a buzz-word to justify all sorts of foolishness in the last 30 years, Catholicism is a visible not an invisible Church. We are meant to be part of a parish, a diocese and then the universal Church — not think of ourselves as direct members of the universal church while attending various parishes as needed to meet our sacramental obligations.
Something was lost in the 70s and 80s when we had that massive breakdown in parish life and culture, and as we strive to build it back, we’ll have to re-learn the necessity of dealing with imperfection. I think the right balance probably depends very much on one’s parish situation, but virtually no parish will have the purity of finding on ones own the best that 1900 years of theology and liturgy and sacred art and sacred music can provide. Yet it is by forming real, on the ground community through our parishes that we can help bring what we’ve found back into the experience of others around us.