A reader ponders whether to parish shop

Love your blog and the good sense that you bring to National Catholic Register. It’s sorely needed it seems!

I have a question for you related to church attendance. Two years ago my family and I moved from PA to a small-ish town in TX. There are a few (I think 5?) Catholic churches in my town, and my “home parish” is considered the university parish for the major university here in town.

However, (I really hate to say this) it’s awful. I can’t believe that I am now the person bemoaning the “modern church” thing. Visually, if you didn’t know that you were in a Catholic church, the only thing that would give it away are the statues of Mary and Joseph on the sides of the altar. The music is so bad that it’s distracting. No kidding, the recessional hymn in mass recently was just a guy playing the guitar repeating, “Jesus come to us” over and over. The music is very evangelical-feeling. The entire congregation HOLDS HANDS during the Our Father. I do have to say though, that I have never heard any iffy theology from the priests.

I suppose that this is such a shock to me because in PA the church that I grew up in and the later parish when I got married were hugely traditional in comparison. You can’t get more traditional than parishes from old ethnic Polish/Irish/Italian places.

Am I being a 29 year old fuddy duddy? Is this something that I just have to deal with because I am supposed to go to this parish? The problem is that these things (and others) are so distracting to me that I hardly feel like I am at mass. I don’t want to be a church shopper, and I understand that what happens at mass isn’t really about ME, but I can barely sit through another rock band communal hymn. Just tell me, am I being a snob?

I hope that you are having a wonderful advent in preparation for Christmas!

I’m not paid by Patheos or mandated by God to tell you what you should and should not put up with as far as aesthetics goes, so I’m not going to tell you you’re a fuddy duddy.

Instead, I’ll just tell you what we did in similar circumstances.

1. When it was merely aesthetic differences, I tried to bear in mind Tolkien’s advice to his son, which was to go to low Masses, with ordinary people. I think there’s an awful lot in that because the Church is emphatically designed and built for average folks and the delusion that it is always supposed to be aesthetically awesome is, I think, a pipe dream. For me, I decided to take it in the spirit of the Little Drummer Boy when local folk of modest talent did the best they could with the gifts they had. And when it went beyond that to actual cringeworthy abuses (as, for instance, when the pianist simply had to assert her ego by adding a riff from Brubeck’s “Take Five” to the already egregious “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness” I decided that, on the whole, if that is the most martyrdom I have to endure, it’s still way better than being one of the Hiroshima Martyrs.

2. A priest I knew (who I am pretty certain will be canonized one day) used to remark that when he could not find a way to like somebody, he always pretended they were a character from Dickens, and that made it alright. Seems to work.

3. Because I think the church is *supposed* to be a sanctuary for slobs, failures, oddballs, factory rejects and, yes, incredibly tasteless people (of whom I am emphatically one), I think it far more important that they are in the sanctuary than that their tacky banners and irritating tambourines and cringeworthy renditions of “Anthem” are in the sanctuary. If I were a musician, I would do my bit to join them and suggest something other than the same 12 songs from the OCP hymnal. Since I’m not, I thought it best to make use of what parts of the Mass I could to meet God and to offer my trivial sufferings with bad aesthetics as penance.

4. Where I drew the line is when the parish started to actually harm my family. So when we got the same crappy Sunday school, and the edited scripture readings, and the homily in which the priest called the reading a “crock”, and the blessings in the name of God our Father and Mother, we said, “Screw the whole ‘go to your local parish’ thing and moved to Blessed Sacrament, where the Dominicans have their heads screwed on straight, all the women are strong, and all the children are above average. It was a very smart move and we have been very happy for 20 years.

All of which is to say, it’s up to you to decide what you want to do. If your parish is truly unbearable and toxic, then try another one. On the other hand, do bear in mind that part of the reason the Church throws us together in a parish instead of a congregational model of like-minded people is that the Church is a big fat messy family and the whole point is to force us to learn to love each other. So it’s worth asking whether or not your sufferings at this parish are, so to speak, penance in learning to love or sin and temptation that you should escape for the sake of your soul. I can’t answer that. You will have to.

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  • Scott

    Our family drew the line at Eucharistic abuses on a weekly basis: i.e. leaving the left over Precious Blood in the chalices until oh say Monday, Tuesday whenever Father could get around to cleaning them out.

    • Dan C

      This is an abuse. This counts. This should be purified at the end of the Eucharist, prior to the closing prayers.

  • ivan_the_mad

    Heh, I can truly sympathize with your inquirer. Good advice, especially #3 – if something really bothers you, then present the concern with cheer to the responsible parties, i.e. the ministry and the pastor. I’d also urge the inquirer to get involved in other aspects of the parish life and ministries. Think of the parish like a home, especially since it is. You might have a brother who irks you when practicing his trumpet, or a father who irks you when listening to talk radio in the evening, etc. While these are bothersome, they are little things compared to all of the reasons that home is a good place, and the people there are your family. The relationships with your brother and father outweigh these annoyances, because they are but one small facet of a much larger relationship and shared life. The more of a relationship and shared experience you have with the parish, the smaller such things will seem in comparison.

    I would also add that I had a similar experience at a university parish, until looking around one day I realized that every Mass I’d ever heard there was filled to standing room only with college students. If I couldn’t be thankful for the music, I could at least be very thankful for that. Even (what I judge to be) bad music seems all the more beautiful when sung in a Mass crowded with young people.

    • Ryan Ellis

      liturgical abuse (or even very bad liturgical praxis) is not merely an annoyance, and it’s not cancelled out by having a decent K of C chapter. it’s the most important thing the parish does, and it’s the primary way that the faith is handed down from the parish to the faithful (most especially the younglings).

      i really don’t understand why someone would stay in a parish where the Catholic faith is actually being negatively transmitted, especially if they have children. there are good parishes with good pastors out there who have to pay water bills and fill the pews, too. they deserve your money and loyalty far more than the servant who is burying his bag of gold in the field waiting for the master’s return.

    • $2346491

      You don’t get to choose your family, but you get more of a choice in the parish that you attend. I don’t think that anyone should go to a church where they feel uncomfortable. Unlike the Mormons, Catholics aren’t assigned a parish and the priest doesn’t take attendance and throw people out onto the street if they attend Mass at a parish that isn’t their geographic parish. I’m a more liberal Catholic and have had really bad experiences at the more conservative parishes I’ve gone to growing up. My parents have also gotten involved in different petty political fights. I found a more liberal parish that I liked near my former apartment and I continue going there despite having a new condo across town. I didn’t feel comfortable with the parish closest to me because it was very vanilla upper middle class suburban American vs. the parish that I attend which has a huge Latino population. I enjoy learning about Latino Catholic traditions; for instance, I attended a vigil for Our Lady of Guadelupe. The parish also heavily advertised the Synod questionaire on its website and during announcements and encouraged us to fill it out. My parents’ parish didn’t; I’m sure that the priests know that people would be critical of them.

      • BillyT92679

        What American parishes are conservative? Seriously. You must be in the only diocese that’s chockablock with FSSP parishes and maybe EWTN

        I lived in Rochester, and that was admittedly on the extreme liberal side, but even in the less leftist dioceses of Syracuse, Buffalo, and San Bernardino, none would anyone say have even a slight plurality of orthodox parishes and conservative political beliefs.

        All of them has plenty of no nukes stuff when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s.

        • In my experience there are unreflective, knee-jerk, political types of all kinds, enough to make life miserable in almost any parish, if you let them. And if there weren’t, I’d start worrying about the church.

        • $2346491

          I grew up in suburban Chicago. I attended three parishes in the northern suburbs growing up. The one that my parents attend is run by the Carmelites, so a more conservative order. I went to Catholic schools growing up and they weren’t run by the Jesuits. The nuns still wore habits at the first school I attended. Priests were treated like demi-gods. Boy did I hate them. Perhaps my idea of a conservative parish (an EWTN type of parish) is different from your idea.
          I live in a more liberal town now so there are more Vatican II type parishes there. And I hate to tell you this, but no nukes is part of Catholic social teaching.

        • Dan C

          USCCB had a pastoral letter called The Challenge of Peace, which I think came out in 1983. It was anti-nuke. You must be thinking about the nation’s bishops.

        • IRVCath

          I used to live in the Diocese of San Bernardino. All I can say is I’ve never heard heresy preached from the pulpit in any of them, or any contrary to the Catechism, really. Now I’ve heard some really vapid homilies that had little to do with the readings of that Sunday, but nowhere near heterodox.

          We have to keep in mind that orthodox =! conservative political beliefs necessarily. Sometimes, the supposed “leftist position” is taken right out of the Catechism! Not does it even mean they offer the Latin Mass (I’m speaking as someone who likes the EF).

    • Than you, ivan. Very true.

  • Ryan Ellis

    There’s also an available teachable moment here. If a pastor is providing a substandard version of worship, he should have to pay the price for that. If you find a better parish nearby, don’t simply move there. Also send a respectful note to the territorial pastor telling him why you’ve chosen to take your “business” across the street. In fact, I think you owe that to the man so that he doesn’t abide in ignorance that’s he’s doing it right.

    As laity, where we choose to allocate our financial resources, parish membership, and school attendance are some of the only levers we have to compel priests and bishops to do their jobs properly. For many, a type of “beige clericalism” can creep into their ministries, especially if they are Baby Boomer types.

    The old economics axiom is, “if you want more of something, subsidize it.” So if you want more bad liturgy, by all means stay at your territorial parish, give it money, etc. If you want the opposite, leave.

  • OldWorldSwine

    A few years ago I would have agreed with everything you stated above, Mark, but I have seen the cumulative effect of years of weak, tepid liturgy on my family – and on me – and I think it is certainly reasonable, for the sake of your own spiritual health, to seek out a better circumstance well before you begin to see the borderline heretical stuff. Liturgy makes a difference.

    We are now blessed to assist at a very reverent and beautiful Novus Ordo Mass where Latin is given preference. The church building looks like a church and could never be anything else, though it is not especially ornate. After the first Mass we attended at this parish, my daughter (raised on relentlessly bland and slovenly suburban Masses) said, “I feel like I’ve been to Mass for the first time”.

    I pointed out that this was not so, but the difference was this Mass actually helped one to worship, aided and uplifted the imagination. It seemed what one would more expect from people who believed that God was present among them, body, blood, soul and divinity. Not saying the suburban Masses are not valid and licit, and they’ll do in a pinch, but we need to do better.

  • Stu

    You have to make an attempt to change it from within. Respectfully and with much prayer of course but it can be done with hard work. But at some point, you may have an obligation for you and your family to leave where the liturgy and worship on God is the foundational focus.

    • Ryan Ellis

      there’s no real point to that. a pastor didn’t get that way by accident, and he’s not going to change his ways overnight. the years of letter writing, praying, and cajoling involved in “changing from within” means that your kids grow up in a Catho-lite parish with bad prospects for being good Catholic adults themselves.

      meanwhile, you’re validating that pastor’s activities by your attendance and financial contributions. this, in turn, validates the bishop’s decision to put a pastor like that in there in the first place. the chancery will not want to rock the boat, and will perpetuate the badness with yet more bad pastors.

      no. the only way to do this properly is to vote with your feet and let the responsible parties know about it. you owe that not only to your kids, but to the bad pastor, the new good pastor who needs your money and membership, and the bishop.

      • Stu


        I managed to change things at my local parish after moving into the neighborhood.

        It’s not always about money. Prayer and a willingness to help can go a long way. And for me, it did.

        • Ryan Ellis

          i’m glad you did, but i wouldn’t take your experience as typical. the most authoritarian and stuck-in-the-mud pastors tend to be the Baby Boomer liberal types. i’m not going to bet a quick turnaround on someone like that and risk having my kids told that Hell isn’t real or that the Eucharist is merely a symbol.

          if you’re single or your kids are grown, or if it’s your family’s parish for generations and you want to fight for it, i can see it. but in general, you have to exercise your rights as a layman to have the Catholic faith transmitted accurately by your parish, or find one that can. this is heightened if impressionable children are involved.

          • Stu

            The responsibility to transmit the Faith to my children rests solely upon me. Further, seeing their Dad make the good fight and pitch in is perhaps the best example they could get of standing up for the Faith. An armed with the Truth and faith in God, who can lose?

            It’s not always about money.

            • Ryan Ellis

              You’re the one who says it’s “only about money,” not me. I’m simply saying money gets noticed by pastors if it migrates, that’s all. I sit on my parish’s finance committee, and I can tell you it’s noticed.

              You are correct, of course, that the parents are the primary catechists for children. But we’re not colonial puritans, sitting around our kitchen tables with the Good Book in one hand and a primer in the other. As Catholics, one of the choices we make as parents is what community of faith we’re raising our children in. The parish my kids go to had better amplify and complement the formation they are getting at home from my wife and me. If the parish is not doing that, if it’s actually working at cross-purposes to the home formation, I owe it to my kids to take them out of that situation and put them in one that helps them.

              Failure to do that will most often lead to their becoming a member of America’s second-largest religious denomination: ex-Catholics.

              Bad parishes lead to ex-Catholics. Good parishes lead to big, strong, healthy Catholic families.

              • Stu

                I agree. What do you personally do to make your parish a “good parish” other than quit?

                • Ryan Ellis

                  My parish is not my territorial one. I moved there because my territorial parish was known as the “social justice” parish, and is a de facto personal parish for the Catholic Left. The former pastor was Ted Kennedy’s spiritual director. There’s a heretical banner with a “coexist” logo in the narthex. Enough said.

                  We moved to my parish back when my wife and I were seriously dating. We got married there, and have baptized three children there. All three kids will go from the pre-school all the way up through the eighth grade.

                  I’m on the parish’s finance committee to advise the pastor. I also try to help publicize our parish’s use of the Ex Form, especially on major feast days. Financially, I’d venture an informed guess that I’m one of my parish’s most generous donors.

                  Meanwhile, my old parish is the same as it ever was, and probably the same as it always will be.

                  • Stu

                    Well, if people always quit and leave. You are probably correct.

                    • Ryan Ellis

                      Wait a minute. Are you seriously arguing that if I attended that liberal parish as literally the only orthodox Catholic in a crowd of thousands of cafeteria Cath-o-lites, I would have done some good?

                      Maybe. And maybe I would have won the lottery. The odds are about as good.

                      What about the virtue of prudence? What you’re counseling is madness. You would have wanted me to raise children–children–in a heretical parish merely so I could indulge myself in a quixotic attempt at being the lever that moves the world?

                      Why, exactly, would I do that when I could easily move to a parish that authentically transmits the Catholic faith?

                      I have three jobs, a wife, three kids, and a lot going on. I don’t also need to be fighting my parish all the time, cajoling them to do what they should be doing anyway. My parish should support what I’m doing, not tack against it.

                    • Stu

                      I’m saying how do you know because you never tried. Christianity spread from twelve men armed with the Truth. I don’t see why one determined man with a prayerful outlook can’t change one parish. Or at least try before shaking the dust from his sandals.

                      And BTW, I worked to change my parish while still on Active Duty and regularly deploying. We all are working hard.

                    • Dan C

                      I am orthodox and a liberal. Choose your categories more wisely. You are a conservative Catholic. Perhaps orthodox on sexual matters. We have discussed where you vary from the past 50 years of popes on economic matters before.
                      We will not return to the St. Blog’s error of 2004 in which orthodoxy= anti-abortion, pro-Bush, pro-war, anti-welfarism.
                      Choose your language better. You are a powerful lobbying activist. I am paying attention to your language.

              • jaybird1951

                In my small parish in southern Oregon, a change in pastors a yera or so ago resulted in a migration of some parishoners and their wallets because they liked the previous pastor more. Both priests are solid and the new one is an excellent and superior homelist but different in personality and his talents. After a previous change in pastors, one family actually quit the Church and became Mormons. Go figure!

                • Weird. Talk about calling an earthly man “Father”….

  • Anna

    We try not to be parish shoppers, though we do look at how accommodating a parish is to homeschooling families since we have no intention of signing up for the parish religious ed. But if the closest “parish” is pretty much the university’s Newman Center, then it’s there to serve college students, not the wide range of a normal parish. So since you’re not in the demographic and not comfortable there, then switch to a regular parish that assuredly won’t be perfect, but might be more geared toward being a parish than a campus ministry.

    • jaybird1951

      I assume the person doesn’t live near Texas A&M, because that Newman center is world class, including liturgically and evangelically.

    • $2346491

      The Newman Center, when I went to UIUC, was hardcore conservative and the priest in charge of it wasn’t a very nice guy. He liked yelling in the confessional and giving overtly political homilies. However, if you wanted ultra-conservative, then it was ultra-conservative.

      • Dan

        That’s strange. I’d think priests chosen for Newman Centers would be more in the pastoral and intellectual vein.

        • $2346491

          I’m not sure why the priest in question was chosen; he was there before I enrolled. That was the only time I ever walked out of a sermon. I did like the FOCUS groups on campus.

    • CC

      I second this. University parishes have a very particular purpose. To be honest, the problem itself confused me a little. I’m not in favour of parish-hopping, but in every case I’ve seen thus far, university parish boundaries encompass only the university campus itself (exactly because their role is so geared towards serving the university community). Thus, unless the letter-writers live on campus, they’re probably officially within the boundaries of another parish anyhow.

  • rich

    the liturgical music in all my local parishes includes hymns by Lutherans, Shakers,
    a Freemason and an admitted agnostic (Ralph Vaughn Williams). Why be concerned about doctrine.

    • jaybird1951

      But that agnostic wrote beautiful music for the church or music that was adapted for church use.

      • rich

        His music might be beautiful but if I follow his lifestyle (presumably by not practicing the Catholic doctrine) I will spend eternity in hell.

        • bill

          Ah well…. there goes Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
          However Bruckner gets a pass though 🙂

          • Bach???

            • Hugo


              • Ah, I was thinking about lifestyle rather than doctrine.

          • rich

            Bruckner was a devotee of Wagner so he goes to hell with the other three

        • sbark

          You could make the same argument about several popes. Their teaching might have been beautiful and orthodox. However, if you followed their lifestyle, they didn’t practice the Catholic doctrine. If music is appropriate for Mass, I don’t think it matters who composed that music.

          • Rosemarie


            We don’t have to follow an artist’s lifestyle in order to
            appreciate his work. The Church has never said that Catholics must
            shun the work of artists or musicians unless they are practicing,
            orthodox Catholics.

            • rich

              We don’t have to follow the lifestyle of an artist whose work we enjoy but it seems to me that if we are attending mass we should have music that is composed by people who believe in the substance of that event and not disbelievers.

  • Dbom

    This post is why I love reading Mark’s thoughts.

    Nice work!

  • jaybird1951

    It sounds, Mark, as if you might have belonged to the Jesuit parish St. Joseph from the sound of it.

    • chezami


  • Dan

    Another issue about parish shopping is that priests, musicians, and religious ed directors change over time. So if you choose a parish based on these reasons, you might be changing parishes again in a few years.

    As for music, in my experience musicians (except for paid organists) only volunteer for one mass. So if you don’t like a particular musician or cantor, why not try another mass on Sunday or the Saturday vigil?

    • $2346491

      Perhaps the reader in question doesn’t like the worship style in general… it seems like it is a more contemporary worship style geared toward young adults and he/ she wants a more old school worship style.

      • Dan

        Not that it matters too much, but what is an “old school worship style” now? Gregorian chants? Are St. Louis Jesuit hymns now considered “old school.”?

        For the record, I don’t like “contemporary” if you mean the pseudo-rock songs that evangelicals often play. They just seem–to me, anyway–like tacky ripoffs of popular music. I like the St. Louis Jesuit stuff because (1) It is easy for musicians (2) It is easy for the congregation and (3) The lyrics are scripture-based.

        • Seriously. What happened scripture-based lyrics? Growing up in a charismatic evangelical community in the 80s, we sang a lot of the folk-y rock-y praise music, but the lyrics were almost all Biblical passages. Nowadays it’s just drippy piety.

          • IRVCath

            Don’t know about you, but even at the few charismatic Masses I’ve been to, they’ve all been scriptural or referencing Church teaching. Maybe they do things right in Southern California?

            • I was actually thinking of Protestant praise choruses. The specifically Catholic ones I run into are, indeed, more scripture-based.

  • Mindy Goorchenko

    Give us back Fr. Lukasz, Mark Shea!!!
    That is all. (Sniffle)

  • Dan C

    I think the language of “abuse” when it comes to worship is often a bit histrionic. I think for most matters, the language of law is best.
    Catholics know now what constitutes “abuse.” We actually tolerated it for a long time. We should not use hand-holding at the Our Father as an example of “liturgical abuse.” Outside of stamping on the Eucharist or other matters of sever defamation, one is unlikely to identify “abuse.”
    I recommend the language of compliance and “licit.” If something is “licit” but done incorrectly, one is likely to be a witness of liturgical non-compliance. It is less dramatic and tones down the conversation. It also shows respect for those around you who, even though they want to hold your hand, may be in fact better Catholics than you. In actuality, when one names something as “abusive,” it is quite frankly calling folks to an enormous sin.
    I suspect that hand-holding at the Our Father does not constitute that.

    • Hezekiah Garrett

      I won’t ever claim to be any but a bad Catholic, but anyone threatening unwanted physical contact with the stranger next to them (called assault under the law) isn’t likely much farther along the path to sanctity than me.

      Outside the liturgy, they are called gropers. Even in the liturgy, it’s unspeakably rude. But I always take the hand, if offered oh so adamantly, but only after obviously wiping my runny nose.

      • The people who want to hold hands during the Our Father are analogous to those guilty of assault? Seriously? Give me a break. I hate holding hands during the Our Father, but Dan C is exactly right: this is nowt but histrionics.

  • If the letter-writer says he hasn’t heard any iffy theology from the priests, then that’s a good thing! Lots of people end up leaving a parish *because* of iffy theology, even if the music is lovely and the statues are abundant to the point of repetition.

    The pastor has likely just inherited the architecture (that is, he wasn’t in charge when it was built). He might be open to some additional adornments, especially if someone is willing to spearhead a fundraising drive for that purpose.

    As for the music: ninety-nine times out of a hundred bad music is because nobody who can play or sing good music is willing to show up and do so. Our little mission church has terrific music–now. At one point it was a handful of people and a teen boy picking out a few tunes on the piano. That “teen boy” is now a young man who is an accomplished pianist and can play the little organ recently donated to our church as well, and the singers have grown to an SATB choir with 13 regular members and a few others who come when they can–and we’re led by a choir director/violinist whose beautiful violin adds greatly to our efforts. All of us except our young pianist are volunteers (and all but the pianist and one bass are Catholic–yes, we have two Protestants with us every Sunday at 8:30 a.m. in a little rural church in Texas!).

    The simplicity of the music the writer describes leads me to suspect that this is a situation where nobody who can do more has offered as of yet.