Us, Them, and the Creation of a Parish Culture

Ten years ago, my diocese created a new parish by merging two parishes that are in the same zip code, but on opposite sides of a state highway.

On the weekend of our no-longer-new parish’s tenth anniversary, which would be commemorated by a parish picnic on Sunday afternoon, the Saturday-evening Mass was celebrated by a beloved former pastor of one of the churches.

He’s retired, and will be helping out occasionally on the weekend (we’re a one-priest parish with two buildings and four Masses each weekend) and holding down the fort in a few weeks when our pastor is scheduled for surgery.

I’m going to say right here and now that this is going to set the creation of our parish culture back, in a big way.

Father F (F stands for Former Pastor) celebrated his first Mass as a weekend assistant at the church he used to lead, decades ago. He was mobbed before and after Mass by people happy to see him again — and that’s fine.

Not so fine, the applause at the beginning AND end of the homily.

Father C (C stands for Current Pastor) has mentioned more than once that there is a definite difference in the cultures at the two churches in our parish. I agree. As a musician, I’m bounced around among Mass times and locations. There’s only one Mass out of four that the folk group doesn’t play, and that’s 8 AM on Sundays.

It feels like we’ve still got competing parish histories, warring allegiances, and there’s still (after ten years) reluctance on the part of many people to cross the highway to attend Mass at the other church.

After ten years, people still identify themselves by the church they used to attend — the one that’s now part of our merged parish, which has a new name. The churches within the parish kept their original names, which makes things complicated but you have to identify places somehow.

After ten years, we have not yet begun to create a new parish culture. We have two separate cultures duking it out in the background of every little thing, from the location of daily Mass to whether parish musicians are volunteers.

Here’s the thing about a merge: you’re going from two lanes to one. You’re not still traveling in separate lanes.

I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the announcement that Father F would be around to help out every now and then until I started hearing people talk about how wonderful it is that he’ll be back.

He’s not here to be in charge; he’ll probably be celebrating one Mass per weekend except when Father C is sick or away. I’m not sure people get that, though. It seemed to me that people were ready to dig his old office chair out of the basement and put his nameplate back on the door.

There was lots of nostalgia, which is nice, but nostalgia is the last thing we need right now.

We’re ten years in. It’s time to invest our hearts in the culture of our new parish. The first ten years have been largely focused on administration — how things would get done, by whom, when, and where. That’s all figured out. And that’s fine for the first year or two — not the first ten (it hasn’t helped that by year 7 we were on our third pastor). I think it’s come at the expense of the spiritual and community life of the parish, which is important too. Without it, there’s going to be nothing to administrate.

It’s nice that we will have a weekend assistant, but I wish the bishop had assigned someone else to the task, someone who doesn’t have a connection to only half the parish. There’s too much emotional baggage involved, and I don’t think this will be a good thing.

We need to find a way to get rid of the idea that we should still be traveling in separate lanes.

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Photo by Jenny Bennett (2008) via Flickr; all rights reserved.

Copyright 2018 Barb Szyszkiewicz

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First Communion: Save It for Sunday

Disclaimer: The following is my own opinion based on my own observations over many years of being a parent, a musician, and a parishioner. I am not a member of the clergy, a catechist, or the holder of a degree in theology.

This past weekend, it was my privilege to be one of the musicians at our parish’s First Holy Communion celebration. This is the first time in several years that First Holy Communion was held on a Saturday.

I’m not a fan.

I can think of only four reasons to schedule First Holy Communion as a separate event for only the children in the Communion class and their families:

  1. Hairdressers are open on Saturdays.
  2. It’s easier to schedule the afterparty.
  3. Sunday Mass won’t take 5 extra minutes because there are a few children receiving First Holy Communion, and it takes a little longer to have them (and their parents) receive before the entire assembly.
  4. There’s a good deal of extra running around involved for the DRE.

None of these are good reasons. All of these (except reason 4) pander to people who are either more concerned about the externals of the celebration than the sacrament itself or likely to complain because Mass is a little longer than usual. We need to challenge the assembly, including the families of children receiving sacraments, to be better than this.

I can think of one compelling reason to (as my parish has done for the past few years) designate a Sunday (or two) as First Communion Sunday and invite families to sign up for the Mass they usually attend and receive First Communion:

Reception of the Eucharist is not a private event.

The celebration of First Holy Communion should not be divorced from the rest of the parish.

I used to love when First Communion Sundays rolled around. There would be several families arriving in the vestibule as I got there. The other musicians and I would make sure to congratulate the children. The First Communicants and their families would sit in the first few rows of pews, and there would be special mention of First Communion during the homily and the Prayer of the Faithful. The rest of the people at Mass were the people who are also usually at that Mass, and seeing children receive First Communion at Sunday Mass strengthens that community bond within the parish.

Three years ago, when my friends’ sons received First Holy Communion, I wrote:

I love that at this parish, First Communion is celebrated during Sunday Masses, so that the whole community gets to be there to celebrate along with the children who have been waiting in the pews for seven or eight years to join the rest of the assembly in the sacrament.

Those boys are altar servers now. There’s a commitment to the Church that is affirmed when a family faithfully attends Mass together.

And then there are the other reasons that Sunday is the proper day for First Communion:

  • The pastor will not be tempted to tell parents of First Communicants, “If you’re not going to bring them on Sunday, don’t bother bringing them on Saturday.” (Yes, this happened when my oldest received his First Communion in 2000.)
  • The pastor and/or deacon will not need to provide verbal directions such as “Please kneel” (after the Holy, Holy, Holy) because even if there are visitors among the families of the First Communicants, the vast majority of the assembly will know what to do and will lead by example.
  • There won’t be a low hum of conversation throughout the entire Mass. (Yes, this happened at the class Mass on Saturday.)
  • Catechists won’t need to scold First Communicants for talking and fidgeting while they wait for the rest of the assembly to receive Communion, because the First Communicants will be sitting with their parents, who should be monitoring and modeling church behavior. (Yes, this happened at the class Mass on Saturday.)
  • Family members and friends of the First Communicants will be less tempted to treat the occasion as a photo opportunity (even after instructions to the contrary are given) and won’t jump out into the aisle to wave at their First Communicant during the entrance procession. (Yes, this happened (several times) at the class Mass on Saturday.)

There should be nothing in the religious education program at a parish that sends the message (intentionally or not) that sacraments of initiation are private events, to be enjoyed only by those receiving those sacraments and their families and friends.

By Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP via Flickr (2009), CC BY-NC 2.0

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

Words Matter

I work with words all day. Whether writing my own or editing someone else’s, I’m aware of the importance of choosing just the right word.

I think my parish may have missed the boat on this one.

The parish was formed in 2007 and formally instituted in 2008, a merger of two churches in the same zip code but on opposite sides of a busy highway.

I don’t know how the nomenclature works in other merged parishes in our diocese and beyond, but in our parish, they’ve been referenced as “the St. Casimir site” and “the Holy Name site.”

Sites.

They’re churches, not archaeological digs.

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Copyright 2007 Temple-Samsung. All rights reserved. Via Flickr.

The term started out when the churches were listed as “worship sites.”

No. Just no.

“Worship” doesn’t even begin to describe what happens at a Catholic Mass.

Lately, I haven’t seen that word pop up in the bulletin or on the parish website, and I’m thankful that the churches are now referred to as churches (or simply as St. Casimir and Holy Name.)

But reference to the two churches as “sites” has become an unfortunate part of the parish lexicon, as evidenced by the early-morning text message I got from a friend today, checking where the vigil Mass for tomorrow’s feast day will be celebrated.

“SC site tonight, right?”

When I mentioned that I knew she didn’t create the term, but saying “site” bugged me, she agreed, and suggested that we use her fourth-grader’s words: “the daytime church” and “the nighttime church” (referring to the Saturday 5 PM Mass.)

I responded, “He says ‘church.’ I like how he thinks.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: First Faith Formation Mass

For the past 7 years, faith formation at my parish was held off-site, at the local Catholic high school situated midway between the two churches that make up the parish. Faith formation took place on Sunday mornings, beginning with Mass in the school auditorium and running for two hours after Mass. There were 14 faith-formation sessions per school year.

Faith formation (or religious education, or CCD, or whatever you call it) has largely been off my radar screen because my children have always attended Catholic schools, where they have daily religion classes. I never paid much attention to how our parish did religious education—until the children disappeared.

For the past 7 years, my children were among the very few children at Mass on faith-formation weekends. All the other kids were in the high-school auditorium. And that’s not a good thing. It means that families were separated out from the rest of the parish. This is not the same as designating a particular Mass as a “family-friendly” Mass, with a homily geared toward children and more upbeat, contemporary music.

The families had left the building—or, more accurately, been removed from it and sent to an auditorium whose primary purpose is school assemblies and performances of the spring musical. Projecting stained-glass windows on the auditorium walls is a poor substitute for the real thing that the children could see, up close and personal, at our two church buildings.

Families missed out. They missed out on the experience of being at Mass among people of all ages. They missed that fellowship and, hopefully, that encouragement at the sign of peace, or after Mass, or when someone in front of them turned around to smile at their babbling babies.

The rest of the parish missed out. They missed out on the witness of families who showed up, despite untied shoes, major bed-head, and arguments about whether Matchbox cars are good church toys. (Trust me, families. The parish needs to see you there. That’s how we know the Church is alive and well and continuing into the future.)

And this morning, at the second of two inaugural Masses for faith formation on our own parish turf, it became evident that the children had missed out as well. Case in point:

  • Lots of people sang the responsorial psalm, an entirely new, but very simple tune. Very few sang the other acclamations until the Lord’s Prayer came along. They sang that (again, not as many as sang the psalm, but they sang it.)
  • I watched one brother-sister pair as they made their way through the Communion line. The brother, age 9 or 10, was demonstrating to his sister how she should receive Communion as they walked toward Father. He had it all down—how to hold up his two hands, how to bless himself afterward. I hoped and prayed that his younger sister was actually old enough to receive, and that if she wasn’t, she hadn’t just made her First Communion today.
  • The kids didn’t seem to know what to do in the pews, which makes sense if their entire Mass experience has taken place in an auditorium with no kneelers.
  • And at the end of Mass, after Father prayed the closing prayer and the deacon said, “Go in peace,” they went. Immediately. Without waiting for Father and the rest of the procession to leave first. The rest of the parish followed their lead, so behind the altar servers we had a senior-citizen couple who crept along at a snail’s pace in the middle of a bunch of families. Father and the deacon couldn’t go anywhere.

I’m really glad that the families are back in church. I hope that as the weeks go on, things get better. It was encouraging that they sang the psalm, so we can expect that participation in music will improve.

It was good to see kids watching the musicians. I never mind if kids turn around and watch us play. That gives me hope that they’ll think, “maybe I can do that someday.” That’s what I did as a kid, and I appreciate the encouragement I received as a beginning musician 35 years ago.

There was a little dancing in the aisle, too, during the closing song, which contributed to the procession’s traffic jam, but to which the parents put a quick end.

We had one mom stop by the musicians’ area and ask us about joining our folk group. That’s terrific! I hope she does, and that she brings a friend or three.

Overall, I think the good of having the families back within the parish church far outweighed the bad and the ugly. This is good for the whole parish, and it’s necessary—and not just because we have only one priest now. It’s necessary for the good of the Church to have the families among us, not in some high-school auditorium.

After 7 years, the families are back in our parish church for faith formation. It’s about time. And now it’s time to welcome them.

#WorthRevisit: Bells Are Ringing

worth revisitI’m linking up at Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Theology is a Verb and Reconciled to You. As the school year draws to a close, I’m revisiting this post from June 2013.

Bells Are Ringing

This morning I went to Mass at the school, because they were honoring the parents who volunteered during the school year. Usually I avoid this event (it’s a social-anxiety thing) but Little Brother was persistent in telling me he really wanted me to be there.

He’s 11. How much longer is he going to be happy to see his mom volunteering at school? I returned the form saying I’d attend the Mass and social afterward.

When I got there, dripping from the rain because TheDad had mistakenly taken both our umbrellas to work with him, a smiling student met me at the church door and told me that all the volunteers were supposed to sit up front. So I did, because Little Brother wanted me to be there.

Fortunately there was no naming of names, just a group “all volunteers please stand up so we can thank you” at the end of Mass. I could deal with that.

Afterwards, we went into the cafegymatorium for a nice little reception. There were two decorated tables with these cute gifts that the first and second grades had put together–with handwritten thank-you notes from the kids. There were smiling seventh-graders pouring our coffee and juice and inviting us to take fruit and pastries.

I sat next to a mom whose oldest son is in Little Brother’s class, and across the table from a mom whom I don’t know, but who had a beautiful one-year-old daughter with her. The little girl had made an impression on me during Mass; she was very quiet most of the time, but when the altar server rang the bell, she exclaimed, “Yay! Bells!” Both times.

That reminded me of Little Brother at the same age. Big Brother was an altar server then, and I was up front with the choir. TheDad would sit in the back with Little Brother, and when the servers rang the bells, Little Brother would yell, “Big Brother’s ringing the bells!” You could hear him throughout the whole church.

I was telling the other moms at my table about this, and the mom with a boy in Little Brother’s class said that her sons used to ask her why the servers rang the bells. Her answer was that they ring the bells to show that this is an important moment. Of course, the next week, when the bells would ring, one of her boys would (loudly) say, “It’s an important moment, right, Mom?”

I was dreading that reception, and even thought about ducking out on it, but I’m glad I went. I’m glad I sat with moms who bring their children to Mass. I’m glad my child attends this school where the kids are taken to church and can learn about Jesus and why it’s an important moment when the bells ring. I’m glad that the parents can share, through funny stories about what their own kids did in church, how we help our children understand those important moments.