Because of yesterday’s blizzard in the Northeast, I didn’t get to mass today. The reason, however, is not what you may think. The Saturday vigil mass was canceled: the snow had stopped 7-8 hours earlier, but there was blowing snow all day, and the Governor of CT did not reopen the roads until 4 pm. Nevertheless, the plows went through on our street—a first pass, but enough to drive on.
This morning I was scheduled to be one of the lectors at the first mass at 8 am, so I put on my boots and heavy gear and walked up to Church. (I live two blocks from my parish.) The front steps were not shoveled, but the parking lot was open. However, as I walked in I met a couple who were stopping cars to tell them that mass was canceled. Surprised, I walked into the parking lot where our pastor was standing and he repeated the same message. When I asked why, he said that the crew that did the parking lot had not cleared the sidewalks or the steps. And indeed, there were large drifts between the parking lot and the doors. But they were not that big: by myself it would have taken maybe an hour, but 4-5 adults could have cleared it quickly. Since people were still trickling in to go to mass, I suggested this to the pastor, but he just shook his head no, and said he wanted people to stay safe. He then said that he was granting everyone a dispensation from their mass obligation.
I had mentioned the same idea of pitching in to finish the shoveling to the couple I had met on the way in, and the man had agreed with me. But when I asked if he had raised the idea with the pastor (instead of volunteering to turn folks away), he seemed surprised, and said, “No, the pastor didn’t ask.”
This comment stuck with me because, by chance, the night before I had had dinner with a friend who had gotten involved with crafting a vision statement for his parish. His experience was almost surreal. The pastor wanted the parishioners to write a vision statement and a strategic plan, so he told the parish council to organize the process. They dutifully followed his instructions, but had absolutely no idea how to proceed. The problem was not that they didn’t know how to engage in the systematic self-reflection needed to produce a meaningful statement; rather, they had no idea how to act independently of the pastor in anything but the most limited way. As one member of the Council put it: “I thought the Parish Council was supposed to organize the parish picnic!” My friend, who does this sort of thing professionally, is slowly helping them to accept responsibility and to act on their own initiative, but it is slow going.
Both of these incidents illustrate a problem which has bothered me since moving to Connecticut: the peculiar combination of priests who are unable to ask for help and seem unwilling to accept it when it is offered, and laity who seem unable/unwilling to act without an express invitation and substantial oversight from the pastor. I don’t know how widespread this is—my sample is fairly small. On the other hand it is far worse here than it has been anywhere else I lived.
How might it have gone differently? Well, my pastor could have said, “Thanks, David, that would be great. Maybe you can find some other people to help.” Or I could have gotten a call earlier, say from the Grand Knight of our Knights of Columbus Council (of which I am a member): “David, the pastor says the parking lot is plowed but the sidewalks are blocked and the company that cleans them can’t get to it this morning. Can you come up to Church and help shovel it out?” Either way, I am sure that enough people would have pitched in, we would have gotten the doors open, and our pastor could have said mass. A lot of people would still have missed mass, but the folks who were able to get out would have been able to go.
I must also contrast this with the fact that later in the day my wife and I were able to walk out and go to a performance at the local theater company. They had to cancel two shows because of the storm, but enough volunteers turned out that they could get their sidewalk cleared and have the people necessary to put the performance on. We are friends with the executive director and I am pretty sure that she worked the phones during the storm to make this happen. But I am also sure that a lot of folks volunteered to fill in for those who were still stuck because of the snow.
What does it say about my parish’s sense of community, or rather, our lack of community identity, that this didn’t happen at our Church? What does it say about our Church that the local theater company inspires more engagement than the local parish? I think it could: I don’t think I am special in my desire to want to help out. But it comes back to the combination of priests who won’t ask, and laity who won’t volunteer. How can we break out of this dead end?