Communication: building a relationship with the Church

After the conversation last week on how the Church might be able to help mothers of many young children, it became clear to me that Parish life really is a two way street. Just as there are many variations in mothers and their particular needs, there are also enormous variations in Parish life and its offerings.

In all the posts and comboxes that followed the discussion, one thing seemed clear: If I want to have more of the Church in my life, I have to get involved in the life of the Church.

The Church is a family, and even if we’re able to switch parishes in order to find one that better fits our spiritual needs, at some point we have to be satisfied with less than perfection, with a Parish’s particular personality, its limitations and strengths, and accept it the way we accept our own mothers, beloved and flawed as they are.

Part of establishing a relationship with our Parish, then, is opening lines of communication, fostering and maintaining them, the way we would with our family–so that when we get into binds in our personal life, we have more than “help-me!” radar to send out to our community.

With that thought in mind I was recalling past experiences in my own Parish life to figure out what worked, what didn’t, what are reasonable expectations, and where really good connections were made.

Here are a few very simple things parishioners can do to to communicate our needs to the Parish:


1. Register in the Parish office. 

This is a no-brainer, right? Except that for the first few years of our marriage, my husband and I hopped around between three or four Parishes to whatever Mass we felt like attending. We were free, but freedom came with a price–no community.

When I get Parish mailings, I at least know what’s going on, and whether or not I want to participate. The Parish also then knows who’s in my family, and their birth dates (which tells them “I have kids, and they’re young!”).


2. Pick a Parish and stay there.

This shouldn’t be complicated, and yet, sometimes it is. Even after my husband and I settled into a particular Parish and registered, our kids went to school at a different Parish.

I tried straddling two parishes for awhile, but when it came time for one of my kids to receive his First Communion we had to make a choice. Even though it was difficult for my son to make his First Communion on a different day than his classmates, school would be school, and Parish life would be at our own Parish.

I’d thought about haggling with the DRE at our own Parish to see if he could receive the Sacraments at the school, but not arguing sent a message to her, that we were committed to our Parish, and that all of our kids would follow suit. We could count on our Parish for Sacramental prep, and the church could count on our numbers to fill their classes each year.

Jen Fulwiler, at The Register, also touched on the importance of putting down roots in one Parish so that real relationships form within it–relationships that can nurture individuals and their individual needs.


3. Make an appointment with the DRE, Priest, or Parish administrator to find out what classes and ministries the Parish offers. This would also be the time to communicate particular ministries you’re looking for.

At this meeting, I asked if there were any other stay-at-home moms in the Parish. When we first moved to our new Parish, there was only one other stay-at-home mother, and our DRE put us in contact with each other. I don’t know how I would have found her otherwise. When another family with a stay-at-home mom moved in, our DRE let us know. The three of us and our kids now share babysitting and social times, outside of church.


4. If you’re able, volunteer, or volunteer your family members. 

Around this time of year, our Archdiocese sends out the Annual Catholic Appeal. In this letter, families are asked to make a financial pledge to the Parish and to the Archdiocese, and there is also a list of ministries on which parishioners can mark an interest. This is where I check off if my kids want to be altar servers, if we’d like to be catechists, or participate in music ministry, whatever.

The DRE gets an idea from these lists of what kinds of programs parishioners need, and who she has to man them.


5. Let the Parish know what it would take for you to be able to volunteer your time.

The religious ed program at our church has undergone dramatic change in the past few years. When we arrived, religious ed was on Sunday mornings between the two Masses. It was stressful to be a Catechist, because it meant that while I was teaching a class to a couple of my kids at Church, my husband was at home with a couple more kids, getting them ready for Mass. Religious ed conflicted with our desire to attend Mass together as a family.

Most of the other Catechists were also mothers, and expressed similar challenges with the Sunday morning routine, so that our DRE saw significant need for a change.

She moved religious ed to Wednesday nights, arranged for dinner to be served beforehand, set up childcare, and offered catechesis for the whole family–ages 0-adult. Afterwards there’s prayer in the Sanctuary which varies between Mass, Rosary, Adoration, Benediction, and other liturgical prayers.

The program takes more volunteers to put on, but more volunteers are available, since childcare is offered, and it doesn’t conflict with family time on Sunday. The program has done wonders for Parish community life, and has attracted participants from other parishes.

One other important factor in the success of our Wednesday night catechesis was an ecumenical effort on the part of our Parish and Protestant Churches in our town to set aside Wednesday nights for Church activities.

Representatives from each church drafted letters to the school board, the local paper, etc. asking for a reprieve from sporting events and planned activities in the community on Wednesdays, so that families could attend church activities on that night. It’s a small town, so the community was fairly responsive to our efforts–though by no means, across the board.


Here are some things I’ve done that DID NOT improve communication between me and my Parish:


1.  Presuming to know exactly what my Parish needed.

Upon moving to a new Parish, I approached the DRE with a program that I thought the Parish could use. Even though I thought it was a great program, she told me no, because A.) she’d been a member of our Parish for many years, and knew what it would and would not support, and B.) She didn’t know me from Adam.

After several years working with her, and with the programs she already had in place, she feels comfortable asking me for input on new ministries. Humility would have been a good virtue for me to bring on my first meeting with her.


2. Trash talking the Parish’s apathy, its employees, and its offerings.

Even done in private, it sets up a “me against them” mentality that is both self-aggrandizing, and degrading to the people who have kept my Parish running for hundreds of years before my arrival.

Dorian Speed at Scrutinies has a very good post up asking what your Parish does well.


3. Trash talking other moms/ families in the Parish.

Everyone’s working hard. Everyone has challenges. Some moms work outside the home, some don’t–but at some point, I had to put aside the idea that everyone else has life so much easier than I do.



Relationships are complicated on a personal level, but even more so when you add to that the many nuances of building a relationship with a Parish consisting of hundreds, or sometimes thousands of members. It takes delicacy, compromise, patience, and time to get to know each other. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen at all if we don’t show up.


For reference:

Calah’s post on the difficulties of mothering a large brood.

The Anchoress responds with ideas for mothers’ ministry.

My post on What Does Help for Moms Look Like?

Simcha Fisher: On Catholic Community

Melanie Bettinelli on Motherhood and Isolation and the Meaning of Christian Brotherhood

also, More thoughts on the Problem of Catholic Community

Dorian Speed on What my Parish does Well

Jen Fulwiler on The Problem with Help from Strangers



More links on this subject? Please share in the comments.

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About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Nancy

    I love your emphasis on committing to a parish, and on having an attitude of humility and love. I’ve heard more than one person say that “Christians eat their own,” which happens when we are motivated by a consumer mentality: what’s in it for me, serve me, create the program I want, etc. Good stuff here!

  • Martha Tonn

    This is a good post an a much needed exhortation to fickle post-moderns. It needs to go one step further, however, and encourage us to invest in the parish to which we belong. This is determined, not on the basis of which one best “fits our spiritual needs”, but generally by where we live. The Code of Canon Law defines a parish as “a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop.” (Can. 515.1) Canon 518 states: “As a general rule a parish is to be territorial, that is, one which includes all the Christian faithful of a certain territory. When it is expedient, however, personal parishes are to be established determined by reason of the rite, language, or nationality of the Christian faithful of some territory, or even for some other reason.”
    By canon law, you are a member of the parish in which you live (or if it’s a personal parish, if you belong to the group for which it was established), whether you register with the parish office or not. Registration is important, as Elizabeth points out, to facilitate communication and relationship. It’s a way to say, “Here we are!”, but it doesn’t establish parish membership.
    Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Catholics who go to Mass and participate in a parish other than the one in which they live are unfaithful or that the geographical organization of local churches is an immutable point of doctrine on par with the consubstantiality of the Blessed Trinity, but I do think these canons reflect the Church’s wisdom.
    By organizing her children geographically, Mother Church is saying, “A community is a group of people who live together, not merely a voluntary association based on shared interests or needs.” My hope is that we will continue to listen to that wisdom, even though cultural changes have shifted the way we think about parish life.
    The bottom line of this post is right on target: your relationship with your parish takes the same kind of effort as any other relationship worth having. Thank you, Elizabeth!

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      I agree with you Martha, and with canon law on the locality of Parish membership. I didn’t make that point in this post mainly because in my locality, and many localities around me, much remains to be seen concerning which Parishes will be left standing in the next ten years. Many Parishes in smaller towns are going through the process of joining “cohorts” with other small Parishes, and sharing priests as well as mass times while (I think) keeping finances separate.

      For instance, in my town, two Parishes are slated to share a priest and Masses starting sometime next year. The Mass of anticipation will be in Spanish at the other Church. The early Sunday Mass will be at my Parish, and the 10 am Mass will be at the other Parish. Church leaders are still deciding whether or not to share other personnel, ministries and religious ed.

      As communities change, Churches change, which can cause confusion about the issue you raised. In our community, it’s looking like, by necessity, community will be based on the language you speak, and whether or not you’re an early riser. I’m not sure how to square that with canon law. Ideas?

      • Elizabeth Duffy

        Actually, on second glance, it looks like it squares right here:

        “When it is expedient, however, personal parishes are to be established determined by reason of the rite, language, or nationality of the Christian faithful of some territory, or even for some other reason.”

  • Lizzie

    Good points Betty. When I went through a phase in my teens of ‘shopping around’ parishes for good music, good sermons etc. etc. my mum was very firm with me about how important it is to commit to your local, geographical parish (as mentioned above). I’ve adhered to this throughout adult life – sometimes with great frustration – but it really has borne great fruit and I truly feel part of my local community as a result. This was greatly helped by teaching in the parish school for 10 years which was a huge help and privilege. The thought of moving now fills me with great trepidation and if I do ever move to a different area, it won’t be a decision I take lightly.

  • Anonymous

    I have a mixed response to the geographical idea . . . for example, the priest my parents have had for the past three years is just plain awful in a variety of ways (including some ethical issues). Many people have left the parish because of different things he’s done, and it’s pretty easy to see why they felt it was their best option. My mom won’t leave, because as she says, “I’ve been a member there for 40 years and I’m not about to leave. I can outlast him.” But she has been reduced to tears (I’ve seen her cry maybe 10 times in my life) because of the damage he’s done to a once thriving parish. In this case, I think people leaving has actually been helpful — just this month, she told me something that he did well that previously he had not made a priority/really stunk at — and I think that he is growing as a leader because he has been able to see the effects of his actions. I hope that the honesty and forgiveness of the people who are staying will influence him further to become a better shepherd — I just wish that growth wouldn’t come at such a high cost for the entire parish.

    • Nancy

      Rats — trying to be Anon to protect the identity of the parish, but my gravitar gave me away.