What’s wrong with the American Church?

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany has been writing on the topic, and gotten some feedback from readers, which he shares in his monthly column .  It’s unusual for a bishop to turn his attention to this topic — and more unusual, I think, for him to let the people in the pews sound off:

Parishes are meant to be places where people feel a sense of belonging and spiritual kinship; where theology comes alive; where the mysteries of birth, death and resurrection are regularly celebrated; where sacramental moments multiply as mysteriously as the bread and the fishes; where people are being nourished into an earthly image of the Body of Christ.

Yet many find parishes to be clique-ish. An insider crowd can develop, and some may feel that parish ministries are not open to them — especially newcomers, youth and young adults.

Some Catholics relocating from one area to another find it hard to connect and be accepted. Even long-time, active parishioners frequently find themselves being taken for granted, frozen out or ignored.

One woman wrote that she attended Mass regularly and was active in several parish ministries, including the parish’s faith formation program. How-ever, she became disillusioned with the Church’s lack of strong opposition to the war in Iraq and, as a consequence, stopped attending Mass.

What stunned her was that, despite all of her active parish involvement, not one member of the parish staff or any parishioner ever reached out to acknowledge her absence, to ask if anything was wrong or to discuss the reasons for her non-attendance.

Another new parishioner had been attending weekly Mass for some time, yet no one ever welcomed or even spoke to him. One Sunday, he wore a hat and deliberately kept it on throughout the Mass. At one point, the celebrant sent the altar server to ask the usher to instruct the gentleman to remove his hat.

“Thank God,” the man replied to the usher. “I’ve been coming to this parish every week for the past six months, and it’s taken this ploy with the hat to get someone to acknowledge my presence.”

Many long-term parishioners understandably and appropriately treasure their parish roots, even using the term “family.” But surely inclusiveness and hospitality should be high priorities in a parish without an erosion of this cherished identity and connectedness.

A number of readers mentioned that they or family members have left the Church because of the manner in which they were treated by a priest, deacon or lay representative of the parish.

Frequently, this rejection or perception thereof centers around the reception of the sacraments: parents whose child is refused baptism because they are not regular church attendees; couples who are denied marriage because they are not registered parishioners; long-time parishioners in hospitals or nursing homes who become upset when the parish priest does not visit or celebrate with them the sacrament of the anointing of the sick; family members who are angered by the failure of the celebrant at the funeral liturgy to speak personally about the deceased, or by being prohibited from offering a eulogy at the end of the liturgy of Christian burial.

Many times, there are legitimate pastoral or canonical explanations for these sacramental decisions; but, unfortunately, too frequently there is the failure to accept people where they are in their faith understanding and practice, and too little listening, explaining or effort made to find mutually acceptable solutions.

Some priests and deacons rely too heavily on “canned homilies” or preach on topics unrelated to the Scriptures of the day or to the daily realities of their hearers. Frequently, the music selected does not reinforce the liturgical theme of the Sunday or elicit congregational participation.

Effective antidotes to these failings can be homiletic reflection groups conducted earlier in the week where a priest or deacon receives insights from the laity, or a functioning parish liturgy committee which seeks creative ways to enhance the liturgy through art, music and community follow-up — especially by offering opportunities to respond to the needs of the poor and vulnerable.

Unless there is such diligent attention given to preaching and liturgical practice, then — as Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., notes in his pastoral letter, “Disciples of the Lord: Sharing the Vision” — “the message becomes stale; the vision falters and loses its appeal. The promises seem empty and unconnected to peoples’ lives.”

There’s much more.  Check it out.

UPDATE: Link to the full story has now been fixed.

"I think I would have been happier had the CDF handled the nuns the way ..."

Vatican challenges “interpretation” of cardinal’s remarks ..."
"Blaming "Islamics" for this is like blaming the Pope for the Holocaust Denial of Hutton ..."

One killed, 44 injured in Catholic ..."
"It smacks to me of hyper-sensitivity, a veiled spiritual and intellectual pride, with regards to ..."

Pope Francis: “A Christian who complains, ..."
"Oh, no, we never change our mind, and we always agree, even on points of ..."

Vatican challenges “interpretation” of cardinal’s remarks ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

50 responses to “What’s wrong with the American Church?”

  1. While I see a slightly liberal bent in this analysis, e.g., the Iraq issue, I do think there is some truth to it. There does seem to be a shortage of friendliness in some parishes. I don’t know if it ‘s because Mass doesn’t lend itself to socializing but I attend one parish where the young pastor seems to go out of his way to ignore newcomers and any single people in attendance. He always and only refers to the “families” of the parish (never “members” never “parishioners”), as if everyone there were out of some Norman Rockwell painting with perfect family situations. I look around and see people, old and young, sitting alone every time he does this and wonder how his comments hit them. I assume they make them feel isolated, not welcome, and on their own. That is indeed a lack of pastoral sensitivity.

  2. Bishop Hubbard gives me great hope. A Servant Leader who is listening to the people. After the recent (and very disheartening) discussions about the big issues that the Bishops in Phoenix and Madison felt it was necessary to address (girl altar servers, receiving the Eucharist in both species, etc.) it is so refreshing and motivating to hear of someone in authority who is trying to connect to the Body of Christ in a real and relevant way.

  3. There are a lot of really good issues raised here but let me target three:

    –Historically, a LOT of our Catholic parishes were founded by “nationalities” that were representative of the huge Ellis Island immigration wave just prior to World War I. If you find a small city where there are two separate parishes in existence and both date back to before World War I, expect that one was founded by Irish and the other by German folks. OR, perhaps, one by Italian and another by Lebanese. As a rule, folks from one parish often thought the other was every bit as much a foreign territory as the country those folks came from. “Transferring from St. XXX”s ? Be glad that you are now members of “the true church!” That statement — repeated a number of times across small-town America — was not meant as a joke, either.

    –Along the way — and certainly by World War II — those “nationality” parishes took on territorial boundaries and thus had to include a lot of other folk from outside any identity or cultural connection to “The Old Country.” World War II was also a major sources of the breakdown of that cultural identity mindset. During the war, my dad (Kentucky “Hillbilly” Catholic) married my mom (second generation Polish immigrant Catholic) in a Roman Catholic Hungarian “nationality” parish where a traditional German order of religious sisters ministered in the schools. Now, sixty-plus years later, that Hungarian nationality parish has been closed for many years. Mom and dad are both buried in the local National Cemetery (in fact, I presided at Mom’s internment — dad died before I became a deacon) where there are no distinctions between cultural roots. Post War parishes — in my experience — do not have those same “nationality” biases.

    –Older parishes often have a multi-generational situation where there are often cliques that are family-name based. One of our local deacons insists that there are twenty-five “Sacred Families” in the parish that he is assigned to and that any new family in town has to either wait a full generation or have one of their their children marry-into one of the “Sacred Families” in order to be genuinely accepted.

    In summary, I’m glad Bishop Hubbard is getting down in the trenches to try and observe and understand the issues that genuinely concern the folks in the pews. Those issues are really not dogmatic nor theological but historical and social.

  4. Sacred families? That is certainly interesting. It’s like there’s an unspoken royalty or monarchism in some of these parishes. The plebes must wait outside.

  5. Well, as a very shy person, I like to be left alone. I’ve been to Masses at parishes of the “let’s turn and greet our neighbors” type and those are painful for me.

  6. I’m also shy and prefer to be left alone. The overly friendly types give me the creeps. However, suburban churches are terrible. It took a year before anyone other than the priests acknowleged my family’s existence. But I don’t go to church for political or social reasons. I go for God. I don’t get warm cuddlies at my parish and I accept that.

  7. Ironic that he speaks of websites that need to look like they are designed in this decade, and his diocesan website looks like it is from 2002.

  8. There is a LOT of truth in the bishop’s statement. If you don’t recognize that, you are part of the in-crowd clique that ignored those who have not felt welcome, whether new parishioners, visitors, or fellow parishioners that are in need of being approached because they are not comfortable initiating conversations.

    For most people there is more joy in worship as a community. When they don’t feel that sense of community they move on — almost always no regrets.

  9. Although I’m single, I love it when I hear our priests referring to “families.” We need more Christian families and I feel the priest is doing his duty when he shows encouragement to and applauds families that are following the faith. It gladdens my heart when I see whole families in church. I don’t feel left out at all. Rather, it makes me more hopeful about the future.

  10. It is a shame when people are ignored or don’t feel welcomed at thier parish. One thing I have found that can break down barriers to getting new people into parish ministries is a personal invitation. Someone in the ministry should ask people in person to join their ministry. As a deacon I find the new members asking how to get involved so I will put them in contact with the group, but I have also gone to the ministry head and asked them to call someone who was interested in joining. My parish has intermittently had ministry fairs on a weekend after all the masses to allow people to come up and see what the various ministries are about and how to get involved.
    I had been meeting with a group on Wed mornings to discuss the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel reading. I found that the discussion is very helpful in preparing my homilies. I also used to meet with a group of teens to prepare the homilies for the Life Teen mass. It was a great tool to help me prepare my homilies so that they addressed what the community was experiencing.

  11. The bishop left himself off the list of things wrong with the American church. Perhaps he just needs to be a bit more reflective, because the good people of Albany are probably unhappy with him.

  12. Hear, hear! I realize I’m in the minority, but I’m glad I’m not the only one! It’s hard enough being an introvert in a world full of extraverts without having it foisted upon me at church, too.

  13. Regarding the good bishop’s analysis on preaching . . .

    Awhile back, a lady came up to me after Sunday Mass, complimenting my homily. I responded that the praise is due to the Holy Spirit—and not to me.
    She then said, “The priests always preach at us, but you deacons talk with us in your homilies.” Do (or should) the real world experiences of deacons—-especially family and job—help better connect the preaching of the Word to the parish community?

  14. “Frequently, this rejection or perception thereof centers around the reception of the sacraments: parents whose child is refused baptism because they are not regular church attendees…”
    Bingo. This is a biggie, has happened in my extended family. Young people are less likely to sign up as members of a parish; they may actually be attending Mass there or they may parish hop a lot. They contact the church office to get their baby baptized, and run up against what they see as a bureaucratic insistance on crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. They get mad and either grudgingly fulfill the requirements, or just go away. Either way the chances of the family being regular Mass attenders there are poor. It could be an evangelization moment but most of the time it goes the other way.

  15. I recently talked to a couple who attend a Catholic church with their 6yr.old daughter and 4 yr. old son. The 6 yr.old attended a VBS program at a Baptist church over the summer and they were amazed at how much Bible instruction she received and how she was able to memorize some scriptures with JOHN 3 : 16
    being one of her favorites. The couple are seriously contemplating a change because they want the whole family to attend a church where annointed Biblical instruction is a priority and not watered down / mushy messages / homilies.

  16. Marv:

    This year I am on the Homiletics Practicum Evaluation Team for our diocesan second year diaconal candidates. The point that the lady made to you is a primary topic in my orientation to them. They need to understand that from “day-one.”

  17. Was the article that Deacon Greg linked to taken down? I’ve clicked on both links, but the bishop’s monthly message posted yesterday is about the new missal translation.

    The bits that the deacon posted were spot-on from what I’ve witnessed at different parishes, and I’d love to read the rest.

  18. Selah

    What you may not know is that — unlike your congregation with its “anointed Biblical instruction,” — priests and deacons in Roman Catholic parishes have to preach on the readings that are assigned for that Sunday. John 3:16 cannot be an every-week-end occurrence. In fact, it comes up one Sunday a year every three years. I have preached on John 3:16 many times but never away from its assigned week-end.

    Someone once said that IF you attend a Roman Catholic Sunday Mass every week-end for three years, you will hear some 90% of the New Testament and maybe 50% of the Old Testament included in the readings. Talk about preaching the “Whole Bible” ! Better yet; when was the last time your “anointed Biblical instruction” minister preached about Paul’s Letter to Philemon? I’ll just bet NEVER! It also comes up once every three years in our Church — and yes, I have preached on it as well !

  19. It’s a tough balance to achieve. Of course not everyone is the same; how do we make the introverts know they are wanted without making them feel pressured, and how do we engage those who want more interaction? To some extent people are responsible for deciding for themselves what they want. An introvert could participate in Adoration or choir (that would be me), or just go to Mass. A more outgoing person could volunteer to be an usher or a catechist.

  20. Many years ago, I also let some of my children attend VBS at a local Methodist church and they also regularly attended a day-care center managed by a local “Community Church” of an evangelical persuasion.

    Interestingly enough, all of them stayed Roman Catholic as adults, are very active in their local congregations and their own children attend the local Catholic schools.

    Bible-believing Christians never intimidated me — although I have found out that many of my Bible-believing friends WERE intimidated BY me. You see, I did not fit their stereotype and they simply did not know what to say or do when that bias was shattered.

  21. So why don’t young people register in a parish? It is to their advantage to do so and the parish’s as well. It helps the parish to know who is “out there”. It also is important if they come in later on to get a sponsor certificate or a letter acknowledging that they are parishioners. One would be better off in creating a realtionship with a parish and its priests than the parish hopping that goes on today.

  22. Sicilian Woman is right. The “check it out” link now links to a new article. Perhaps there is an archive with the previous one. I sent a link to the page to a friend who emailed back that she liked it so much she had printed it out. Now I need to ask which article she liked. The most recent one is great too!

  23. Elaine, Sicilian Woman et al…

    I’ve searched high and low and can’t find the bishop’s original message that I quoted online anymore. I don’t know what happened to it.

    Dcn. G.

  24. In response to Ken – yes, there have been some people who have been unhappy with Bishop Hubbard. But overwhelmingly he is loved by the people in the Albany Diocese. We have been truly blessed with his pastoral leadership.

  25. Again a Deacon mentioning a parishoner who comments leads him to think it is because the deacons live in the real world as opposed to the priest. Not sure why, but this really bugs me a lot. I would hope that the comment back to this parishoner would have supported the priest and his preaching rather than letting it go. Or maybe the Deacon is simply more prone to say what some want to hear in a sermon rather than what the faithful need to hear. I always found it much easier to give a talk about the pleasant things than those that have something that the folks do not want to hear. They may well need to hear preaching that makes them uncomfortable. I would suggest Deacon that you examine your sermons to see if you are preaching the hard truths as Jesus did when some walked away complaining about the teaching being too hard.

  26. Well, I think the deacon is, in many ways, correct; it is not that one has to be in the real world, but it does help. This is one of the many reasons why the Orthodox tradition is to have married priests for the secular priests!

  27. I agree it is better to register at a parish and stay there. But some people don’t do that, for a variety of reasons. One of them is a misunderstanding of what it means. A lot of people think it means making a financial pledge. While that is a praiseworthy thing to do, it isn’t required for parish membership (at least in the parishes we’ve been a part of). Others think you have to be in a sacramental marriage; that isn’t required to be a member; in fact the pastor may be able to help get the ball rolling to get the marriage convalidated.

  28. Join the parish and help support its daily life. Simple to do. I find so many of the young folks want to get the benefits of things, but do not want to take on the responsibility and sacrifice required to have those insitutions continue to provide them be it the responsibility of citizenship or of being part of a parish.

    We have a group at each mass that looks out for new people and invites them to join the parish if they are not only members. When they join, they get a packet of information listing the many things within the parish they can become involved in to feel more at home and also to begin to give of themselves.

    On this topic in general, mass is not really the place to come to be part of the group except in a communical focus on worship of God. In fact, the mass is not really set up to create this protestant style welcoming. However, before or after church outside the main body of the Church, there should be something in place that is welcoming. It also should not be pushy because as some have stated, they are not looking for what they may see as forced relationships.

  29. Greta…

    Since you have no idea what Deacon Marv was preaching about, or the content of his homily, or what the parishioner’s comment was in reference to, your comment was not only rash, but irresponsible. You’re better than that.

    Do that again, and you’ll be deleted.

    Dcn. G.

  30. It’s distressing to me to hear that any Catholic would ever leave the Church for “any” reason. I know it’s painful to hear bad music or weak sermons or experiencing liturgy without reverence. I could never leave the Eucharist for “Anything” or “Anybody”!!!! Is not the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist the “source and summitt” of our faith? What am I missing in understanding this phenomena? It sounds rhetorical but I ask this with all sincerity and charity.

  31. As a person who just reverted to the RCC after spending over 30 years in Pentecostal/non denominational churches, I would offer that what I experience at one Mass is more ‘anointed’ than any of the other services I ever attended. Why? Because Catholics believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist (communion). You can have all of that ‘anointing’. I’ll never leave the Eucharist ever again. No occasional grape juice and bread cubes will ever make up one Mass.

    And that’s not even to get into Sola Sciptura, Sola Fide, and how proof texting is the standard of those ‘anointed’ services. I’ll take the linear reading, every day, of the word of God and ancient tradition.

  32. Yeah but as an introvert who’s been stuck at those “everyone greet your neighbor” Masses, it’s really awful. Like I’ve left when it happens. There’s no way to do it without pressuring those who’re there to pray and need a more contemplative style.

  33. Yeah, I don’t prefer the “greet your neighbor” thing before the entrance hymn, either. It’s kind of redundant because you do the sign of peace later.

  34. I like a little chutzpah in a bishop, especially a bishop who provides Holy Communion to Governor Cuomo and his live-in girl friend at the governor’s inauguration Mass.

    It takes more than a little chutzpah for a bishop with that credential to even begin commenting on what’s wrong with the American Church.

    For openers, he need only look in the mirror every morning.

  35. I just don’t like how our pastor makes single people feel invisible, like they are second class citizens. I think a pastor should be pastorally sensitive to all and meet people where they are, as bishop sheen once said.

  36. Good point. Actually, I would be willing to accept the “Greet your neighbor” thing at the beginning of Mass if it meant we could jettison the “Sign of Peace” later. I think it completely ruins what should be an appropriately contemplative mood for preparing to receive Communion.

    Honestly, though, the joy of just being left alone at Mass is one of the reasons I prefer the Traditional Latin Mass.

  37. Selah do these people actually pay attention at mass? The mass has so much scripture through out it, I can’t understand how someone could claim they are looking for biblical instruction and not finding it in the mass. Most people that I have talked to that left the Church were looking for places to validate their beliefs that were in opposition to what the Church teaches. They go to places that preach on the things that they are doing and validate them rather than call people to conversion and changing their lives. It is why the false “prosperity” gospel is doing so well in the mainstream evangelical megachurches. They are being taught that if you are wealthy and having earthly success it is because God is happy with them. And keeping God happy will give you financial success. I don’t see that in the gospel anywhere, but it is what people want, and so it is what these “annointed biblical” churches are feeding them. Unfortunately it is a false message that is leading them astray.

  38. What struck me from reading the article and the comments here is that no one style or approach works for everyone — i.e., there is no one “thing” that every parish can do that will magically solve these problems for everyone. Some people find a more restrained, stand-offish parish off-putting; some people, like me, find an aggressively welcoming parish off-putting. Perhaps the thing to do is to let each parish find its own level, its own style, its own “charism”, if you will; a single solution mandated from the top isn’t necessarily going to work. Perhaps parishes should be encouraged to be innovative in looking for what works for them, as long as they aren’t doing or preaching anything heterodox. And since ethnic and territorial parishes aren’t what they once were, perhaps parish-shopping to find the one that suits you isn’t such a bad thing after all.

  39. The priests that I hear give homilies in the Fall River and Providence dioceses do not talk down to the people. Most (not all) of the homilies are quite good and some are outstanding. The deacons that I have heard do not “connect better” with the parish community than the priests do. Priests have real world experiences and in my estimation they have pretty tough jobs.

  40. And since you know the state of Mr. Cuomo’s soul and the inside story of his “live-in” girlfriend you can make that comment. Unless you really have inside information then please stop with the attacks on a bishop.
    I would ask you to remember judge not lest ye be judged.

  41. The matter of Gov. Cuomo’s reception of Communion, referred to above, is governed not so much by the actual state of his soul but by the Code of Canon Law. See the excellent canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters’ canonlawblog.blogspot.com archives for details.

    One need say nothing about the state of Gov. Cuomo’s soul to argue that he should not be receiving Communion at this time.

  42. If you want to get and keep a bunch of young adults in one place long enough to have us register at your parish, offer us really good catechesis in the faith of our fathers (start with your homilies but do not end there) and plenty of opportunities to go to Confession, with the encouragement to do so frequently. And then tell us that we can register and why we should.

    While you’re at it, make sure that your Sunday liturgies look to us like the worship of God, not of us human folk. We have plenty of opportunities to worship ourselves elsewhere. Besides that particular issue, I’d like to observe that the Mass is supremely beautiful, but so often that is hidden from us young people, particularly with youth Masses (designed for idiots?). Give us the faith, whole and entire, that is our birthright – or, for some of us (like me) the reason why we converted.

  43. Overall, Bishop Hubbard had some very fine ideas about what is wrong with the American Church and how to fix it.
    If I may quibble with one however, that I found quite strange…
    In referring to responses to “exit interviews” one of the complaints were about
    “• forthcoming liturgical translations which seem too esoteric, non-inclusive, and do not sing”
    Since the overwhelming majority of Catholics have yet to SEE these new changes (or apparently even KNOW about them) I find it hard to believe that people have left the Church because of them.
    Aside from a few other polemical statements which I find questionable, the bishop has does have some great correctives as to how to help the Church bring people to Christ. It is worth reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.