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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