What's wrong with shopping for a parish?

It may be one of the under-studied and under-reported problems plaguing the American Church.

Msgr. Owen Campion takes a closer look at this phenomenon, and its impact, in Our Sunday Visitor:

A serious problem is developing in American Catholicism — namely, the decline in regular weekend attendance at worship services in a church.

With this decline inevitably comes a diminished sense of personal Catholic identity, and then, obviously, a slackened sense of commitment to Catholic beliefs and moral principles.

Contributing to this decline is the “shopping around” for parishes, greatly enabled by the easy mobility in our society, but also by the subjective view of the Mass that many Catholics have assumed. Added to the mix is the effect of fewer parochial schools, anchors that kept families close to their parish.

People choose their parishes no longer according to the neighborhood in which they live, but because they like, or dislike, the pastor, or the music, or the décor of the church, or the friendliness of the people, or the schedule of the liturgy. There may be an argument with the pastor, or the parish secretary, or the religious education director, or whomever.

This “shopping around” often is the first step toward dropping the habit of regular weekend attendance at Mass. Priests are transferred. Music directors come and go. The church may be redecorated.

With no alternative parish that meets all the personal requisites, many people simply stop going or go rarely. Then their ties to the Church weaken.

None of this likely will change for the better any time soon. The Catholic situation increasingly will be affected as churches are closed, and as Masses are celebrated less frequently because of the lack of priests. With fewer options to find preferred homilies or music or décor, Catholics accustomed to picking and choosing their place of worship will have fewer choices. Travelling longer distances to attend Mass will aggravate the problem. Under these conditions, will people be less likely to go far or to make concessions?

Read more to see what he thinks.


  1. It is a situation encountered where we live (suburbs of Baltimore MD). The “geographic” parish is about 15 -30 minutes away, and has a decidedly non-Catholic atmosphere. On the sign for the parish is “in the catholic tradition,” in practice, far from it.

    Because we are a military family, we more often go, “On-post” and that is where we are on the parish register. But the military base is missing an assigned priest right now, (he’s deployed) so we go to a little parish about a 10 minute drive away. (This is the closest catholic church to our residence).

    Several other Catholic families in our neighborhood are registered and attend one of the two nearby (less than 45 minutes driving) parishes that have a school. Being members of that parish, their children’s tuition is slightly lower.

    During a previous military assignment, where there was no priest on-post, we “shopped” for a parish that had both English language religious formation classes and where we could volunteer.

  2. Fiergenholt says:

    I’m not so sure “parish-shopping” is such a bad idea. Each parish — like each human person — is a unique combination of corporate graces and corporate sins. (YES; parishes are communities and communities can sin as well !)

    I have family members who live in a fairly small city of around 18,000 total population. It has THREE Roman Catholic parishes — the smallest of which is still larger than the largest mainline “non-Catholic” church and the largest of which is still larger than the largest non-denominational church.

    These parishes have cultural roots that go back even before Ellis Island. Often the traditional heritage of any given family will determine which parish they are “officially” members but will not determine which church they attend on week-ends. That decision is theirs. Each of the parishes regularly get other church donation envelopes in their collections (which are promptly forwarded). The priests, deacons and religious sisters all collaborate on common ministries.

    In any given neighborhood in that small city, you will find families who are active in any one of the parishes (diocesan borders do exist but they really do really not mean anything). Most of them would never dream of switching parishes officially.

  3. I live in Massachusetts, north of Boston, and there are parishes in every town around me (sometimes more than one). The closest parish is stuffy, unfriendly, and not a place where I felt on bit welcome. Also, I have two small children who we bring to mass; in this particular parish, the “children’s service” is stuck down in a crowded basement.

    Drive down the street ten minutes, and the parish in the next town is vibrant, welcoming, and has a fabulous family mass where kids participate and are an active part of the service.

    You tell me which church I should go to. Which parish will be more likely to be a positive part of my children’s lives?

    God didn’t make me move to the address where I live. I suspect that He has no opinion about which parish I attend.

  4. Linda Diane McMillan says:

    I think the priest shortage is a straw-man argument. There are plenty of nuns who would make fine priests if given half a chance. So I don’t listen to Roman Catholics complain about the so-called “priest shortage.” The answer is staring you in the face.

  5. I really don’t respond well to the term “shopping around” when referring to the process of finding a spiritual community. I respect Michael and anyone else who seeks a faith community “to be a positive part of … children’s lives.”

    Are we who are given the task doing everything we can to make our parishes welcoming to new folks?

    Years ago when I was coming to terms with being in an unfamiliar community (different ethnicity) there was one man who took it upon himself to stand at the front door and shake the hand of everyone who came in. He greeted me by name with a smile every time I arrived; I felt wanted and welcome. In time, my personal ethnic challenge became manageable and then it simply became a non-issue.

    Many people came to that community – and stayed – because of the actions of this one man. How much more welcoming could we make our parishes if we acted likewise.

    Not every priest has a charismatic personality. Not every deacon delivers meaningful and memorable homilies (except Dcn Greg of course) but Jesus Christ is with us at every doorway, and through our smiles He shines on those who He also sends to us.

    May everyone have a blessed and happy Christmas.

  6. I won’t tolerate poor preaching (which is not to say preaching I don’t agree with, but preaching that is obviously unprepared or essentially a collection of bland platitudes). But this raises the question of whether simply walking in that case is the best thing to do, or whether one should try to talk to the pastor? and how is that likely to be received? It would be a tricky conversation to have.

    My geographical parish has good homilists, so it’s a moot point at the moment, but when I was on sabbatical a few years back, I did walk to the next parish over to find someone who seemed to prepare to give his homilies.

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