Daily Archives: November 23, 2009

A dull moment? Or is it just lonely here?

Well, there seems to be a bit of a lull in ecclesiastical controversy for the moment, so I thought I would hijack a topic Pastor Mark raised over at his old manse to get your opinion (since I have more Catholic readers than he does).

Mark muses:

Now, I tread tentatively here, because lack of a sense of community can be a feature of congregational life in any denomination, but it does make me wonder if this [he lack of community life in Catholic parishes in the UK] is a feature of Roman Catholic culture, at least in Anglophone countries. The reason I say this is that when I began regular worship about 18 years ago it was largely in order to accompany my wife, who was then RC, to Mass. This I did for a couple of years in several parishes and experienced the same lack of community in each one that is highlighted in the story. I don’t mean to be unkind here, but I did get the impression that the goal of worshippers was to tick the “Mass attendance” box, thus avoiding the mortal sin of not attending Sunday worship, in the way which demanded the least effort whatsoever; so it was off to the typically half-hour Mass with the 4minute homily and out the door as quickly as possible.

Compared to this, the Anglican and Lutheran congregational life which we experienced after I started seeking a more permanent spiritual home seemed a veritable feast of worship and community experiences. I’m afraid the only thing I learned from this exposure to Catholic congregational life was how not to do church!

For what it is worth, here is my comment:

What you are possibly observing is the fact that after mass, just about everyone disappears, whereas in Protestant circles, people tend to hang around for the “third sacrament”, ie. coffee.

There might in fact be some cultural miscommunication here, since for the protestant this after service “fellowship” communicates “community”.

Catholic (and Orthodox) parishes do not (generally) have this after service time – although, it is slowly catching on here and there (in my own parish for example). And yet, for those who know what they are looking for and are sensitive to the different cultures, both Catholic and Orthodox have very strong communal networks.

Some history might help. Many of the Anglophone Catholics are Irish by origin. They come from a persecuted tradition where mass was something you said quickly and went home; showy processions and songs were not on, nor was lingering. Also, later, with the large numbers, many parishes had three or four masses every Sunday morning – so it was a matter of getting them in and out as quickly as possible.

So Catholic communal life tended to be through other channels than on Sunday morning over coffee after mass. There were all kinds of sodalities and societies to which members of the parish would belong, and through which they would form their social life. These still exist, although not in the same number or strength. St Vincent de Paul Society and Young Vinnies are an examples, as are the Knights of the Southern Cross, and the Australian Catholic Women’s League.

And of course, you can’t overlook the fact that most parishes are attached to schools, which are contexts of intense intra-parish fellowship during the week.

So don’t judge a book by its cover. Recognise that you are dealing with a culturally different fish when you come to a Catholic parish, with a different history and experience that has led them to where they are.

Sure, we can learn a bit from the Protestant “after service coffee”. It can be helpful.

But you know there is also a glorious liberty in being able to just go home after Mass, not having to spend an additional hour at church in chit chat, knowing that you will be making the use of many opportunities during the week for more vital engagement with the parish and the community it serves.

Mark reckons in return that he wasn’t just talking about the “third sacrament”. I will admit too that the general community life at my wife’s Lutheran parish (St Paul’s Box Hill) is way above anything I have experienced in the Catholic Church – but I admit also that it is way above anything I have experienced in any other Protestant Church either (all my previous Lutheran parishes included). And I do find a very rich community life in the Archdiocese in general, beyond the merely parochial. Anyway, I’m interested in your comments.

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