Over Memorial Day weekend, I went with a friend of mine to Shenandoah, Virginia, and then to Oak Hill, West Virginia. We went to Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church. It was an enlightening experience for me, and I’m very glad that I went. I’ll get to why in a moment.
I. The Problem
One of the common frustrations that people have with Catholic parishes is that they seem impersonal. Let me give three examples of what I see Protestants doing that I largely haven’t been seeing Catholics do:
- A woman that I know has been church-shopping at various Baptist churches in northern Virginia. At more than one of the churches she went to, the pastor asked if there were any visitors, people went out their way to greet her and introduce her to other people, and they gave away free gifts. In one case, she filled out a visitor card, and by that afternoon, had a package of goodies on her doorstep.
- Another woman I know told me about how the pastor of the church she grew up in will travel up every season to change the flowers by the roadside where her aunt died in a car wreck.
- When I was looking online on Google Maps for Catholic churches in northern Virginia, I came across Christ the King, which has this offer: “For six weeks we will gather with friends and neighbors for an honest and open conversation about life, meaning, and the basic tenants of the Christian faith. We will be at the Royal Restaurant (734 N. St. Asaph St.) on Wednesdays 6:30-8:00 p.m., from May 18th through June 22nd. For our first gathering, we’ll pick up the tab for dinner! For more information, contact Christ the King’s office at 703-535-6815.” I was surprised and pleased to see a Catholic church doing this sort of outreach… at which point I realized that Christ the King is Anglican.
I’m not saying that every Catholic parish has to do any or all of the above. But I am saying that the fact that Protestants tend to do these sort of things more than we do makes the lot of us Catholics seem spiritually lukewarm, and personally cold.
II. The Roots of the Problem
I think that reputation is at least partially unfair. I have a few reasons for thinking this. The first is simply that I’ve gotten to know priests personally. Northern Virginia has some of the finest priests in the country, hands down — the seminary she draws from was recently profiled by an Evangelical as “a visit to Heaven
,” and he was wowed by the sanctity of the young men he found there. These seminarians and priests aren’t uncaring: in fact, many of them push themselves to their breaking point trying to care for their flocks.
Second, there’s the nature of the Mass vis-à-vis Protestant worship services. At Mass, we believe that we experience and encounter Jesus Christ in the Flesh, in a totally unique way in the Eucharist. We don’t just come together to lift our prayers to Heaven (although we do that as well), but we partake of Him here. The worship space of the Church is a sort of hallowed ground. When you’re face-to-face with God Himself, it’s unreasonable to ask that you chit-chat with your neighbor. While small talk on the street is often a very Christian form of outreach, when you’re kneeling before the divine, such small talk seems insulting to God, rather than friendly.
Finally, there’s the cold, hard data, which paints quite a picture. Nearly all my life, I’ve lived in big city parishes. The diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, where I grew up, has 97 parishes and missions serving over 134,000 Catholics
. The diocese of Arlington, where I live now, has 74 parishes and missions
, serving roughly 450,000 Catholics
. The archdiocese of Washington, where I work, has over 140 parishes serving over 580,000 Catholics
, with Mass in twenty different languages. That means that for every church or mission in Arlington, there are roughly six thousand
Catholics. And that’s on average
: inside the city itself, you’ve got the more populous churches, and the churches with a large influx of tourists and visitors. To put those numbers in perspective, the Baptist church in that first example which hand-delivered a goody basket, had roughly 40
Now, granted, all of the numbers above are based upon diocesan self-reporting, and I imagine that the number of Catholics in the pews on any given Sunday is far smaller. But even adjusting for that, the point remains: Catholic priests in bigger cities tend to be swamped with parishioners, to say nothing of the tourists, the Catholics from out of town, and the non-Catholics who may be exploring the Catholic church, or visiting with friends. Speaking personally, I can attest that this creates a very different dynamic. It’s easy to welcome someone new to men’s group, since it’s tiny, and we know who’s new. It’s not easy to do the same at Mass — is this someone who’s new, or who you just don’t recognize? I’m far more hesitant to strike up a conversation with some random pew-sitter than I am with a new guy at men’s group, and I imagine that other Catholics are the same way. To those Christians used to tiny churches, this comes off as cold. (I think something similar may partially account for why people from rural areas often find city dwellers rude, although there’s also a genuine rudeness that goes with the anonymity of a big city).
III. The Catholic Church for “Mountain Folk”
That’s why it was nice to get to Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic church out in Oak Hill, West Virginia. It has a tiny congregation (West Virginia’s not very Catholic), with a fair amount of visitors, since it’s near the New River Gorge
. The priest is one Fr. Paul Yuenger, and he seems to be a perfect fit for the congregation. His weekly column in the bulletin, depicting him in a cowboy hat, answers questions about the Catholic faith ranging from annulments
to apostolic succession
. Every Saturday, they have “Scripture sharing” at the local Bob Evans
, with the instruction to “bring a Bible and a friend
“! And on Sunday mornings before Mass, they have an adult Bible study.
When my friend and I went, the priest made a point at the end of Mass to invite all the visitors to pick up a gift on the way out of Mass. The gift, it turned out, was a small plastic rosary, with a little card with the name of the church, and a message that we were in their prayers. In the back of the church, we were warmly greeted by one of the parishioners, who asked us all about our trip. Since we had a long drive ahead of us, we didn’t stay long, but the sidewalk outside of church was full of parents chatting, and children playing and ringing the church bells.
My point in mentioning all of this is that I suspect that if Catholic parishes were as small as the Protestant churches I described above, they’d seem more outgoing. The fact that small Catholic groups (like prayer groups and mission trips) are outgoing suggests this, as does the presence of small, outgoing Catholic churches like Sts. Peter and Paul. I don’t mean to suggest that we Catholics have nothing to worry about. But I do mean to suggest that much of the solution may be as simple as trying to form smaller Church groups, rather than trying to jettison those Catholic distinctives which often take the blame.
*The “mountain folk” reference comes from this charming statute outside of the church. It’s St. Joseph, and reads: “JOSEPH, PATRON SAINT OF WEST VIRGINIA, SPECIAL CHAMPION OF ALL WORKERS, AND OF US MOUNTAIN FOLK.”