Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins? Yet not one of them has escaped the notice of God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12; 6-7)
Recently, my husband and I officially changed parishes. We had been on the books at a very large church, which someone informed me was so large it actually classified as a mega-church. Several years back, we signed our kids up for the school and once we registered as parishioners, I set to the business of trying to make connections and build community.
My faith history as a post-Vatican II baby, growing up in the 70’s and 80’s groomed me to have extremely low expectations from my neighborhood parish. As a kid, it was the place we went to celebrate mass. The word celebrate here is even a stretch as there was never much exuberance at all. But we went to mass. And that was literally it. Not even a donut Sunday in sight. I say this with certainty because I remember there was no actual place to gather- short of a very cold, (this was Cleveland after all) impersonal hallway that led to the sanctuary. There was no narthex. (Even the term narthex is fairly new to me, a cradle catholic of 46 years!) There was a nice school gym on the other side of the parking lot, but it must have been in full bingo swing, and unavailable to parishioners who indulged in fried fats rather than gambling and smoking. I understood that our church was a stop that was necessary. Once the obligation was checked off though, you were expected to bug off, preferably in an orderly, polite fashion, a goal not often achieved. Hello church parking lot road rage!
In retrospect, it was not much different than our understanding of McDonald’s, waiting for our luscious Lenten filet-o-fish. You grudgingly shared the space as you waited to get what you were there for. There was no real need to make eye contact. We all understood why we were there and it certainly wasn’t to make friends. Get in, get out.
At the time family included, mom, dad, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. I never considered others in the congregation as part of my family, nor I in theirs. Fellow parishioners were just people who just happened to hang out in the same waiting room.
I mention all of this because somewhere along the line, by God’s infinite grace, I began to understand there could be more, that Christ himself demands more. Maybe it was crossing state lines, learning more about my own faith, or a trend in the Church to shed that drive-thru culture. Either way, I started to desire more. In fact, I’ve come to understand that I actually craved it all along, but didn’t even realize it. In all major life moments: the sudden death of my middle-aged mother, a cross country move, the births and miscarriages of each of my children, I longed for a huge family, or “a deep bench” as my sports aficionado father would call it. My bench was shallow and I was painfully aware of it.
As a new mom, with a new understanding of my faith, I began to seek out more for the sake of my own kids. I wanted so much more for them and I wanted what Christ himself wants and promises them. So I tried to get involved, to make connections in a parish that felt so awkwardly huge, impersonal and imposing. This resigned introvert stretched herself big time; seeking out friends and ministries in which to build real Christian community and to grow my Christian family. I went from knowing no one to being able to chit chat with multiple folks before and after mass in the… Yep- the narthex. I became a regular in this new mysterious space. I attended ministry fairs and even regular donut Sundays. I can triumphantly report that I did make strides and even sisterly connections, but I still desired more. While I had graduated from the drive-thru, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this parish was a lot like the big media company where I used to work. We were united in a common goal, but none of us did it with much joy or enthusiasm.
The reawakening of my faith, from a check-the-boxes Catholic to someone who came to truly love Christ and his bride the Church, I started to ask myself what I was doing, or more precisely not doing to achieve this elusive goal of being known. I racked my brain for ways to go deeper, to become more involved. My shy husband and I reached way out of our comfort zones and even invited a young priest to our home for dinner. If we were serious about being known, we needed to make the introductions. Unfortunately, it was not a great match. And I’m pretty convinced by the end of it he could not pick any of us out of a parish line-up.
There’s a lot of little reasons we eventually made the move, but ultimately it came down to seeking more- more community, more connection, more something… The new parish is much smaller, but there is an inexplicable vibrancy I can’t articulate. It’s cultural. For instance, the first event my husband and I attended was completely slammed. This small parish was bursting at the seams, like a Christmas party in my Uncle Bobby’s basement where we squeezed in tighter than sardines, but were loving every minute of it. We were inundated with invites, urgings, announcements to join the parish and various upcoming events. Free food would be supplied and free child care! What?! My husband’s and my instinctual suspicion ran so deep, we arranged for a sitter at home because there was no way these people could make good on this cuh-razy promise of free child care. However, to our delight and amazement, the joint was packed with smiling young people and their kids. The pastor repeatedly welcomed everyone, reminding us, “there were plenty of brats and burgers to go around. The bathrooms could be found to the left inside…” We just stared at each other, mouths agape, such hospitality we had never experienced at a church, such enthusiasm and warmth. To be fair, I made no deep connections that night. But I thoroughly enjoyed myself and by the end of the night I was very hopeful. Then a few weeks later, God affirmed our parish switch again. The parish called, a lovely, kind voice on the other end. She welcomed our family and asked if we would like to meet about the parish. Wait… she called me? That has never happened, unless they were collecting money. She wanted to meet to discuss our needs and what the parish offers to hopefully find a match. She was so nice and not the slightest bit officious. I made the appointment, hung up and called my husband at work. “This Christian thing is sheer magic. Sheer magic,” I trumpeted.
It’s admittedly in the very early stages with our new parish and as in any romance, I know the bloom will eventually come off the rose, but hopefully in its place will develop a beautiful, enduring love. I will try to train my expectations to be realistic from this point forward, but I’m beginning to understand that what I’ve experienced at the new parish should actually be the norm. I noticed a few years back, that many Catholic parishes have installed greeters at the door when you enter the church. I never thought Christ’s church would be getting pointers from Walmart. It’s a start folks, but an anemic one at best. When Jesus himself tells us he knows us so well that the hairs on our head are counted, aren’t we called to emulate him with gusto? Shouldn’t we robustly follow his beautiful example to really know our fellow Catholics? We are meant to be one body in Him. Let’s be clear, I don’t expect anyone to be able to count hairs on my head, but it would be nice if they noticed when I got a haircut.
Praise God! I am beginning to be known. And they don’t even have a narthex!