A Few More Thoughts on the Problem of Catholic Community
by Melanie Bettinelli on December 10, 2012
Since I wrote my piece, Motherhood, Isolation, and the Meaning of Christian Brotherhood several of my favorite bloggers have chimed in with their own perspectives on the topic of helping young struggling mothers by building community within the parish.
Simcha Fisher does a nice roundup of the conversation so far and adds a few of her own thoughts about community: Catholic Community: What, Why, and How? She starts with a question by a Catholic convert from Orthodox Judaism who misses the tight-knit community she has left behind and she ends with some great questions for her readers, asking how community can be formed. Be sure to check out the equally good discussion that follows in the comments.
Dorian Speed jumps in with a positive note: What My Parish Does Well. The Catholic Date night she describes sounds like a very well coordinated event. I think our parish has a sort of movie night for married couples but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have free babysitting and a nice dinner with wine. In the comments Elizabeth Duffy chimes in with a description of what her parish does well, an idea which is almost exactly like one my sister and I brainstormed about a year ago:
every Wednesday night, we have Religious Ed for the whole family. It begins with dinner in the Parish hall. Free dinner. Sometimes it’s really good. Sometimes it’s anemic hotdogs, but it’s dinner, and the kids eat it, and the adults get to visit with one another. Then everyone goes to class. I teach the adult ed. There’s a nursery for babes up to age 3, which my youngest wouldn’t go to for a long time, because it was manned by the DRE’s elderly father, and another old man (but it’s FREE!). So for awhile I taught the class with a baby intermittently on my hip and crawling around on the floor. But pretty soon, he started going to the childcare and really warmed up to the old dudes, and now he loves them. After class, there’s prayer, which is sometimes Adoration, sometimes Rosary, sometimes Mass, sometimes Benediction. Then we all go home around 8 or 8:30. It’s late for a school night, but oh well.
Food, faith formation, prayer: those three elements were what we thought would together make a good program. Having dinner there means you don’t have to scramble to feed the kids and nothing creates community better than a shared meal. The quote from Ratzinger I used emphasized that the original Christians came together in a meal (not the Eucharist but a second non-liturgical communal meal) and I’m convinced that it’s hard to beat. I’m definitely in favor or whole family catechesis, just teaching the kids without catching the parents seems to me a losing proposition. If the parents aren’t passing on the faith there is little chance an hour a week with a catechist will stop the gap. And prayer should definitely be a component of any Catholic communal event. I like the idea of switching up the kinds of prayer to give everyone some experiences of the wide variety of prayer within the Church. To the list Elizabeth gives, I would add Liturgy of the Hours, either Evening Prayer (Vespers) or perhaps Night Prayer (Compline).
Finally, Jennifer Fulwiler has some wonderful stories to share in her piece The Problem with Help from Strangers:
The only thing I would add, that is an extension of what others have already said well, is that I believe that the core issue here comes down to one simple thing:
Nobody wants to accept help from strangers. And the sad truth is that, in many cases, our fellow parishioners are strangers.
Asking for help from someone you don’t know well is always a last resort, which is why so many parish ministries reach out to those in dire situations, such as folks who are hospitalized, in prison, or in severe poverty. It’s hard enough to expose the reality of your life to friends and family when you’re struggling; to have someone you barely know come into your home and see your mess is extremely psychologically painful. It’s one thing to be the beneficiary of charity from loved ones, since at least there there’s a sense that you’re giving something back in the overall context of the relationship. It’s uncomfortable to receive charity when you don’t have an immediate way to offer something in return—so much so that many women would rather tough it out alone.
The other problem I see with thinking of the solution as lying in formally organized parish ministries (within the context of a parish where people don’t know one another well) is that the help isn’t customized to the need of the individual. As Elizabeth Duffy says in her post, there’s no one-size-fits-all kind of support that would help every mom.
[. . .]
Therefore, the problem as I see it is: How can we create parish environments that foster meaningful relationships among parishioners?
There are no easy answers. On the macro level, I’d love to see a push for geographically-based Catholic communities where folks live within walking distance of one another and of the parish church. On the micro level, I think families in their childbearing years would benefit tremendously from choosing one location and putting down roots, not even changing neighborhoods if at all possible. Real communities require years of the same people being in the same place in order to gel. Our family has been at the same parish since 2005 and in the same house since 2007, and it’s only been within the past year or two that we’ve finally begun to feel closely connected to our neighbors and fellow parishioners.
Admittedly, those are pie-in-the-sky ideas, and they don’t offer short-term fixes. But I believe that there are a lot of solutions out there, and that it’s possible to see the Church have a great rekindling of that “true Christian brotherhood” that Melanie Bettinelli describes so well. And I think that finding the right answers for how to help struggling moms—or single people, or infertile couples, or anyone else who could use some support—begins with asking the question, “How can we make our parishes feel less like a gathering of strangers, and more like a family?”
Jen’s piece echoes so much what I’ve been thinking in the last week. I’ve been realizing more and more that if we hadn’t had to move from our old parish four years ago, if we were still a part if that community where Dom and I met, where we were married, where our first two children were baptized, then I wouldn’t feel so isolated and like such a stranger. I’d be getting more support and I’d know who to ask if I needed help.
Thinking back on our brief visit to our former pastor’s 75th birthday party this year, I realize that there, in a parish we hadn’t attended in almost four years, I did have the kind of community I craved. When we walked in the door I was surrounded by people wanting to give me a hug, to gush over how the girls have grown, to meet the boys, to catch up on lost time. One woman I haven’t seen in several years too sleeping Anthony and held him in her lap so I could get myself a plate of food. Several people brought food and drinks over for the kids. It felt like going home.
I had been attending Mass at that parish for nine years by the time we moved away. For the first several years I knew almost no one. Then I joined the young adult Bible Study and found a community—I eventually married the guy who led it. After I was finished with grad school, I began attending daily Mass and met many of the regulars there. Even if they didn’t know my name and I didn’t know theirs, we knew we were community. When Dom and I were married, they all congratulated us. Some of them even gave us wedding presents. They later greeted me when I took my girls to daily Mass by myself. They prayed for me when I had my cancer scare. I taught CCD classes at that parish for a couple of years, Dom had helped with the youth group, later was DRE and had sat on the parish council for several terms. Dom used to go hang out with our pastor, smoking cigars and sipping whiskey. After Bella and Sophie came I was less active in doing things, but I still knew most of the faces every Sunday and most of the names to go with those faces too.
So yes, a great part of my current feelings of isolation are due to having to start over. When we moved to our current location I had a two year-old and an infant who couldn’t even sit up. Within weeks of moving in I was pregnant again and the boxes not even unpacked. My sister moved up from Texas to live with us and because she was here to help with the kids, to help with errands and food preparation and all those other needs, I wasn’t driven to seek help from strangers in our new parish. Because she was my best friend, I didn’t feel a gaping need to seek out new friendships in our new community. Perhaps it was shortsighted to fail to pursue those connections, but in my defense even with my sister’s help I often felt overwhelmed. I did try to join a Bible study, I did try to chat with people after Mass. I did bring home the bulletin and scour it for ways we could connect, things I could join. But very, very few fit into my schedule with small children. Almost everything seemed to be scheduled at 7:30 in the evening, right in the middle of dinner and bedtimes. So I coasted, relying too much on my sister, who with her frail health could hardly bear the weight of my needs. But until she moved back to Texas I wasn’t really aware of the depth of the problem. With her here, I’d been keeping my head above water—just barely. Without her I was sinking fast and too sick and overwhelmed to seek help. And so now I was left with a few handfuls of people who always smiled at us after Mass and told us how beautiful our growing family was; but none of whom I knew well enough to ask for help. They were kind and friendly; but they were essentially still strangers.
And now begins my campaign to try to integrate myself and my family more fully into our parish, to try to plant the seeds of friendship. But I know that with a new baby coming any efforts will be very, very slow in bearing fruit. Still, I see that God’s grace has been preparing the way for answering my prayers for quite some time now.
Yesterday afternoon some of the women organized a cookie swap. It was so low key and such a wonderful community building experience. We sat around and nibbled on food and at the end we each had a box of treats to take home to our families. Many women I’d never met made a point if seeking me out, introducing themselves, telling me about the history of their group. When I got home I felt refreshed and hopeful. Even though I probably won’t be able to make many if their meetings—7:30pm is our family time—I still feel like I’m now a part if the community. And now my name and number are on someone’s list.
The part that I found really amazing was with two different women, both of whom have older children won each came and sat with me for a long time to chat. Each of them felt like a very specific answer to one of my prayers. The first was the woman who had organized the group. She made a point of seeking me out to tell me about how the group had come about. This story was… well, almost dumbfounding. It all began with her spending large parts of her work day driving in her car listening to Catholic radio. One program she frequently caught was Johnette Benkovic’s Women of Grace. Eventually she felt called to order the materials for the study program. After much prayer and careful consideration she approached our pastor to ask if the parish could host the program. He agreed. She waited and then asked again. And then again. Eventually she realized that if it was going to happen she was going to have to organize it. And so with much trepidation she put a notice in the bulletin and reserved the parish hall for an evening and prepared for no one to actually show. She thought at best six women might show up. And yet when she went to the store to purchase what she needed she found herself buying an armload of flowers—twenty bouquets to be exact. It seemed like far too many but she rationalized that she could put them in the church or take them home. When the evening came she arrived at the hall to find our pastor putting out chairs—twenty to be exact. She thought it seemed like too many; but didn’t protest. Exactly twenty women showed up that first night. After that program was over they didn’t want to stop meeting, they wanted the community to continue. And so they’ve been trying to find ways to keep it going and to reach out further to support all the women of the parish. Thus the cookie swap. I don’t think I’ll be able to make many (if any of their Tuesday night meetings. 7:30 still falls right in the middle of dinner and bedtimes. But the once a month thing on Sunday afternoons… that I’ll probably be able to do occasionally. And maybe once I’m recovered from Lucy’s birth I will think about seeing if there are any other young stay-at-home mothers in our parish who might like to come over occasionally for a rosary group or book group or something. Perhaps I’m not really the only one hoping something like that will come up.
But I also wanted to address Jen’s point about the need for stability, the need for young families to consider putting down roots. I love the idea; but am skeptical about how realistic it is in today’s society. Yes, many people are mobile because they like to be so. But many more find themselves moving because they have to.
And that leads me to wonder: will we be able to stay long enough for these seeds to take root and these friendships to bloom? I’ve never seen this house, this neighborhood, thus town as where I want to raise my family long term. And given the nature of the world we live in I wonder how realistic the goal of staying in one location even is. Were not even sure my husband will have a job six months from now or what we’ll do if that changes For us no matter where we settle we’ll be far away from at least half of our extended family since I’m a Texas and my husband is a New Englander.
I think part of the solution is that parishes do have to learn to adapt to a changing culture. The fact is people don’t live within walking distance of their parish any longer. People don’t live near their families. People don’t stay in one place. We should also be asking what parish communities can do to help expedite the process of integration for newcomers. I know in many places parishes have a specific newcomers ministry though it doesn’t seem to have caught on around here. The Church does have to find ways of bringing people into a community and making them feel at home even if they will only be there for a year or two. We need to find ways of helping young families who don’t have extended family to lean on. We need to find ways to jump start that slow process of integration of newcomers into parish life and we need to find ways to make singles and divorced people and all the isolated and lonely and abandoned to find a place in our communal life. We can’t rely on the old forms and the old methods. Neither is it right to just shrug and give up when the old ways don’t work anymore. No, if times are changing then the Church needs to change to—as it always has—to reach people where they are, to become all things to all people.
Perhaps better use of social media in the part of parishes will help younger people who are most comfortable with those form of connections to get a jump on the process of making connections. Many parishes have no websites or websites that are practically useless. Few parishes use social media well. I’m not even sure what it would look like for a parish to use social media to create communities. I do know a few things I have looked for in vain. I would love for there to be some kind of electronic bulletin board for our parish. Where someone could ask if anyone knows of a good plumber or a mother’s helper. Where someone could ask for or offer children’s clothes and toys. Sure, there are secular venues like Freecycle which do some of that. Much of it I suspect is still done by word of mouth. But if you are new to a parish, you know that there must be someone in the community who could fill your need if only you could find them. The younger generation is used to finding those kinds of connections online. Why shouldn’t parishes be at the cutting edge, ready to connect to people and to help people to connect to each other?
In our parish groups and organizations are terrible about letting people know about meetings and opportunities for service. Half the time they don’t seem to list stuff that is going on in the bulletin. I wonder if there is some kind of bottle neck or reason that communication breaks down. I wonder if parishes had someone who was a communications coordinator who could help groups to connect with people via new media, who could help them to create a Facebook page or to post events on the parish website. I know this is going to sound like stereotyping but in my experience too often the parish secretary is an older retired woman who doesn’t get email much less Facebook and Twitter and Google Plus. The pastor is overworked and there just isn’t anyone whose job it is to oversee communication.
This is a piece of the puzzle that Dom and I have been talking about for a while now as he’s helping design parish websites and to get people in the diocese more involved in new media. Dom tells me about all kinds of great resources out there to help parishes do these things. As usual, though, it’s really a question of how to get parishes to implement them. I look forward to seeing the Church as a whole learning how to be on the forefront in using new technology to accomplish the old fashioned goal of getting people together for a community meal.