Two girls and I pulled into St. Mary’s Greenville Saturday evening with half an hour to go before the vigil Mass. Thirty minutes is too long for tired children to prayerfully admire the architecture, and too short to go anyplace else. So we went to the playground across the soccer field, by the school. It took about five minutes on that playground for my eight-year-old to start campaigning for us to move to St. Mary’s and enroll her in the parish school. I pointed out there’d be classes and homework, and not just cute skirts and endless recess, but she wasn’t deterred.
Playgrounds aren’t how we choose our religion, but when it comes to making a parish welcoming to families with children, yes, playgrounds matter.
What are some other things that make a difference?
1. Don’t let me drop off the face of the earth.
When I was seriously ill this spring, I was grateful for Catholic (and not-so-Catholic) friends who showed up with everything I needed – Holy Communion, rides for the kids, interesting conversation. When I was finally able to return to Mass, that weird Catholic thing happened: A longtime pew mate turned to me and said with genuine happiness at seeing me there, “I’ve been wondering where you’ve been!” I might have been mildly irritated, except I don’t know her name either. If she quit coming to Mass, I’d miss her, but I’d never know what happened.
I don’t know what the solution is, because everyone looks at me funny when I suggest we start wearing name tags. I know that the need to be known is at odds with the curiously Catholic need to be unknown — sometimes it’s pleasant, or necessary, to roll into a Mass with the dark confidence that no one will bug you. In and out, alone with your thoughts, Mass for the Introverts.
But we have to solve the Invisible Parishioner Problem, and it isn’t only a Catholic problem. I listened Friday night to someone telling me how he and his wife just didn’t feel like they’d found their place in the big Baptist congregation in the town they’d moved to late in life. No one knew them. They weren’t part of the inner circle, so they didn’t really have any church friends.
“How long have you been there?” I asked.
“Oh, since 1985.”
2. Respect my time.
Because I run in catechetical circles, I hear a lot of moaning about those awful families that Just. Don’t. Care. If only they loved Jesus more, they’d have better attendance. Clearly they aren’t putting God first, because the parish is offering __________, and the family has a reason they aren’t coming. If you really cared, you come.
Yeah, no. I’ve heard an awful lot of reasons people couldn’t come to the classes I’ve taught, and I’m still waiting to hear from someone who just doesn’t care. Pretty much the real reasons boil down to three:
- My class isn’t a good fit. Big surprise: There exist people who just don’t need what I happen to be teaching. This is a relief for me, because I can’t write a class that’s perfect for everyone. If you need something else, please go find that something. I’ll help you find it, if I can.
- They have another more pressing obligation. I’ve been stood up for the Girl Scouts, the baseball team, the art museum . . . there’s an awful lot of good out there. Far be it from me to tell someone that their ten-year-old boy doesn’t need sports. I’ve got a boy. Boys need sports. Everyone knows this. Spit at a Catholic school, hit a sports team. That’s how it is. The world doesn’t revolve around my program. I understand that parents have to make hard decisions about their time.
- Their life just stinks. A mother once apologized to me for her daughter’s extended absence from religious ed. Mom was down with pneumonia for two months, and the rest of the family hates the Catholic Church. Bad things happen. If I can’t help you, at least I can let you know you’re welcome to come when you can.
When parishes start playing the passive-aggressive I guess you don’t love me game, we show our hand: It never really was about your relationship with God. It was about making me feel good about myself in my display of “serving” you.
If I care about my fellow parishioners, what I want is to help them find what they actually need, in a format that works with the many other legitimate demands their vocation makes upon them.
3. No. Really. Playgrounds.
If you mention “playground” and “church” in the same sentence, the remarks from parents fall one of two ways:
- Happy: My parish has a great playground for the kids to run around on after Mass.
- Unhappy: I can’t get to know anyone at my parish, because there is nothing for my kids to do but stand in the parking lot after Mass.
This isn’t rocket science. This is the physics of having human bodies. Is there a place to change diapers? Is there a place to take the loud baby / rambunctious toddler during Mass? Even when it’s raining? If I take my kids to religious ed, are there classes or activities for the whole family, or is religious ed one more thing that breaks apart our family life?
What’s true for families is true for everyone else. The structures have to work for the bodies in question. When I’m an able-bodied person, I love my parish facilities. We have a fabulous campus. But I’ve gone through periods of illness and injury when I dreaded the place. The distances were suddenly enormous. Impossible. Not designed for people like me.
I like coffee, donuts, and humans, but I avoid coffee-and-donut hour because the room is loud, and it’s hard for me to understand what people are saying, or to be understood without shouting. There’s nothing to be done about it, so I just go to the playground instead.
Photo by © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0F, via Wikimedia Commons