It goes without saying that many Catholics, including even Mass attenders, experience the Church as a weight to be carried rather than a life to be lived. There are many reasons for this dim perspective and many of them have to do with the concrete realities of parish life.
When a research project was conducted in Australia in late 2005 to identify why Catholics had stopped going to Mass, many of the reasons offered by respondents related to parish community. These included problems with the parish priest, a lack of intellectual stimulation, people did not feel welcomed or a sense of belonging to the community, others felt that a previously-existing community spirit had eroded, there was the experience of unkind gossip, and the belief that the people at Mass lacked sincerity in their worship. People also dropped out because of ‘structural factors’ in the parish, including changes in Mass times, a negative experience of parish amalgamation and the like.
While it would not be fair to place all responsibility for disengagement at the feet of the Catholic parish (respondents also cited personal reasons for their absence, including family or household-related issues, the experience of a crisis of faith or the plain fact that going to Mass was simply not a priority for them; then there are wider cultural influences to consider), it is necessary to admit that our parishes are in need of reform. This means there is a need to develop those areas of pastoral life that are weakest, consider those structures and small ‘t’ traditions that no longer serve the parish’s mission, and build on those areas of strength that continue to serve well.
When addressing parish renewal it has been my experience that parish councils, parish teams and parishioners can tend to jump, quite quickly, to the issue of buildings and infrastructure. It is true that many parishes need to undertake capital works due to the age of their facilities and changing needs (the demand for more carparking space, for example). However, these kinds of investment rarely build community in themselves or respond to those issues that disengaged Catholics, such as those surveyed above, have cited as motivating their withdrawal from community life.
I suspect that the reason that buildings tend to dominate conversations about parish renewal is that people like to see results and there is nothing more satisfying in this regard than a renovation. What is more, it is much easier to put up a building than grow a community.
In the U.S., when the formerly ‘unchurched’ were asked about their priorities before they became Christians, it is true that they named among the desirable qualities of a parish – adequate parking, clean and modern facilities, a variety of quality programs, relevant and quality music, clean bathrooms, friendly people, outgoing greeters, comfortable pews and chairs, and attention-holding preaching.
As commentators have recognised, however, while many of these expectations are quite reasonable and should be provided by the parish, the underlying mindset driving these desires can be “What can the parish or Church do for me?” rather than “What can I do to serve?” or, even more foundationally, “Whom I called to be here?” A consumerist mindset can dominate people’s approach of the parish with consequences for the prospects of building a communion that is for mission. Even the most pristine, beautiful, well-organised and comfortable parishes can be spiritually dead if they do nothing but cater for our creaturely comforts and convenience.
If we are to refocus our communities on evangelisation, the maturing of disciples and the making of new ones, then the agenda must move from the simplicity of a facility focus to centre on the witness of discipleship itself, through good preaching and pastoral care, a genuine sociality supported by strengthening the bonds of faith, and a shared commitment to, and belief in, Christian mission in the wider community. We do need good spaces where people can gather, and beautiful churches in which to worship, but these are never sufficient. Those who have left the Church or found it wanting have told us so.
The Church and its parishes must seek to move even their present members from ‘consumers of services’ to ‘disciples on mission’. Only then can the new evangelisation be effective, issuing from a spiritual house of ‘living stones’ not communities of cosiness and contentment. It may well be that our parishes as a whole do not demand too much of our people but offer, in fact, too little challenge.