Because Parish Life Isn’t Easy

Guest post by Allison 
My husband and I, both cradle Catholics, grew up in households where one of our parents was not. Consequently, going to Mass was more or less the only way our families expressed their Catholicism; they didn’t pray family rosaries, or read the Bible together or talk about their faith journeys. And they didn’t involve themselves in the life of their parish, other than my dad, who sang in the choir from time to time.

In contrast, Greg and I have immersed ourselves in our parish life. My husband serves on the parish council, where he oversees parish communications, and he is a lector. I sing in the choir and the Chant Club and I also co-founded and coordinate a youth group. Our eldest son is an altar server and also sings in the Chant Club. Because our parish is tiny, we know our parish priest well. He is a family friend who has shared books and meals with us on many occasions.

This all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Well, sometimes it isn’t.

Being involved intimately in a small parish means we are witness to everyone’s foibles and failings and they get first-row seats  to ours.

Good writing means offering your readers good detail, painting a picture so they can see what you are talking about. But I’m unwilling  to provide specifics, because anyone with even a passing knowledge of the families and staff at our parish would recognize the people I am describing.

Suffice it to say that the whole human condition is on display at our parish—people who have trouble holding their tongues, people who fail to speak up even when it would be in their best interest to,  people who gossip, and people who hold grudges. I will confess here that sometimes I have fit every one of those descriptions.

And sometimes, the whole enterprise is discouraging. If we adults can’t behave ourselves in a parish,  of all places, where can we?

Recently, another thought has occurred to me: parish life is hard because life is hard. You don’t get to pick your parents and you don’t get to pick who sits next to you in a pew.

What continues to draw me to the Catholic Church is not always my fellow travelers. It is always the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Because of His presence, we don’t need a telegenic pastor or the loveliest of voices singing in the choir.  We don’t need our lectors to sound like voice-over artists or for all our parishioners to be saintly and charitable at all times.

I like the metaphor that a church is like Noah’s Ark transformed into the boat, or Barque of Peter. Yves Congar, the late French Dominican cardinal and theologian, described it this way:

We are pilgrims and passengers and members of the crew beckoned onward by what the Church calls “the universal call to holiness.” Which is to say, beckoned on by Christ and the promise of the Kingdom. What is expected of us is to respond to the call where we are, and in doing so to allow ourselves to be carried where we are to be.

I am Catholic because parish life isn’t easy. It isn’t supposed to be. We are imperfect travelers—sometimes scared, sometimes grumpy, sometimes just bone tired. We journey together on a boat, through a storm. We are holding on for our lives and praying we make it to our destination safely.

  • Anne

    Excellent post and very true to life! Sometimes we forget that Jesus is not only in the Eucharist, but He is inside that person sitting next to us in the pew, who sings off key and whispers behind our back. Loving others in our parish isn't easy either, which is part of what makes parish life hard. Trying to remember that Jesus lives and breathes within them and us, helps. The boat analogy is wonderful-lets all hold on for our lives!


    Your best post yet Allison! It dovetails beautifully with Webster's "Mea Culpa" post below. How about sending this guest post to Father Barnes? It is a testimony of all the reasons he should be proud that he is serving as a diocesan priest. @Webster: Kudos for such a timely guest post: coincidence, or the Holy Spirit?

  • Anonymous

    What a wonderful perspective you bring to the table. Your insight is uplifting and requires us to pause and contemplate our true reasons for abandoning a parish. Further, your words provide comfort, courage and motivation to seek Jesus in everyone's heart and embrace him.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Anonymous. Thank you. Your response leads me to another thought. In the diocese where we live, the bishop relaxed the rules for parish membership. No longer must one worship in one's territorial parish. Also, there are ethnic parishes – organized by cultural group that one may join if one chooses.I am ambivalent about all of this. Part of the strength of Catholicism, I think, is that we are "stuck" with folks in our home parish and they with us, and we all have to learn to work and worship together. I don't like the idea of folks shopping around for a priest they like; the Church offers so much more than the personality of a pastor. Also, the designated ethnic parishes can rob a local parish of its diversity.A parish defined by geographical boundaries can make life difficult; that is not a bad thing. It forces us to become more Christlike with one another.

  • Athos

    As I pointed out quite some time ago now (!) here, if you count everyone in Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee, there are too many disciples! There's Our Lord, and the Twelve, but who's the fellow up front hanging on for dear life to the rigging and his hat?Rembrandt painted himself into the painting. A perfect metaphor for all of us in the Barque of Peter. Cheers

  • Frank

    I think the bishop has the right idea there.

  • James

    Your parish is lucky to have you and your family as members with all the energy and productivity you bring to the table. Our parish is likewise blessed with a host of talented and dedicated individuals who help our pastor to keep the wheels turning. Myself, I do a bit but it is precious little especially for what I receive in turn. As for the Rembrandt, it last hung in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and was one of several paintings to have been stolen in a still unsolved heist some twenty years ago. My wife and I visited there often and for me that painting was the draw. Its beauty and power is awe inspiring and I haven't brought myself to return to the 'Gardner' since the theft. Odd as it might seem we don't even discuss visiting there. I suppose that when it returns we will also.

  • Allison Salerno

    @James: How sad about Rembrandt. That is just awful. Thanks for your remarks. I am sure your family is a blessing to your parish. At this point in my life, I am working very parttime and so have time for parish work. I do what I can now, and know that in another phase of life I might have less time. @Frank. I suppose on balance the bishop is correct. I don't like the idea of FORCING folks to attend Mass at a certain parish. On the other hand, I don't like priest or parish shopping. Again, as Catholics, the Eucharist is far more important than any individual.

  • Webster Bull

    Sorry to come in late on this very good post. @Allison, The reasons you and your husband dive into parish life, despite or because of others' foibles, are like my reasons for attending our Saturday morning men's group. More than anywhere, that's where I see the rough edges, in myself included. It's a microcosm of the males in our parish, including one mentally challenged man, several very well-read (sometimes too) guys, and everything in between, with a couple of people predictably hogging the microphone pretty regularly, a few who never say anything. I could give you ten reasons not to go back next Saturday, but here's the thing: These men are my friends in Christ, my companions within His Church, and that makes all the difference. @Mujerlatina, "Coincidence" used to have some undefinable mystic meaning to me (just never really thought about it, but thought it important). Now, it's only a statement of fact: two events coincided. The question is, Why? It's impossible to pin any one incident on the Holy Spirit, but when you see one darn thing after another….You have to believe that there is an answer to the Why. That would be the Holy Spirit, wouldn't it?

  • Jackie Parkes MJ

    Fabulous post!

  • Sue

    This is why it annoys me when the priest/deacon/whatever says "My friends" instead of "brothers and sisters." "Friends" implies we get to choose the company we keep; "brothers on sister," on the other hand, tells it like it is: we are stuck with each other.Our parish had quite a dust-up a few years back when some well-intentioned but frankly clumsy people issued a statement during announcement,s lecturing parents on keeping their kids quiet during Mass. (Like they weren't already trying.) On my blog I posted a parody of the announcements, lecturing older people on keeping quiet, not leaving their walkers in the aisle, not falling asleep and snoring in church. My point was, Yes, we all have to put up with young children and the challenges they present no matter how well-behaved they are; and yes, we have to put up with the aged and infirm; in fact, in a parish community we put up with each other. And putting up with each other may be how some of us get into heaven.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Sue:I pray I never become one of those older parishioners who rolls his eyes and actually says things like how they never needed to give their toddler cheerios during Mass to keep them quiet. Remind me I said this folks.On Sunday I was delighted to exit the choir loft for Communion to find FOUR babies in the back of the church screaming away, plus a friend in a silent standoff sitting on a piano bench in the hallway with his third of four children. She was sulking and he had a look on his face like "If you think YOU are stubborn, you don't really know me." All wonderful signs of a vibrant, growing parish.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Jackie Parkes, MJ: Thanks for reading. I checked out your blog page. You have a lot to contribute to Webster's blog on ecclesiastical communities. Perhaps your own guest blog, too. Life in England as a devout Catholic? I would love to hear more. I am your age and think two boys is a full plate.You are raising 2 boys PLUS 8 daughters. What a blessing.

  • deanna

    I work in a very large parish and it's the same. I have a priest friend who says that the best and worst thing about the Catholic church is the same thing, everyone is welcome. And so, whatever/whoever is in the world is in the Church too.

  • Allison Salerno

    @Deanna: Your priest friend is wise. Thanks for reading.