Sunday, June 3, 2012

It's the Parish, stupid

Today I enjoyed mass at Holy Name Church here in New Orleans. It was the first mass presided over by my old friend, who was just ordained yesterday. It was a beautiful service, with well-selected music, a thoughtful homily on the Trinity, and some old friends praying with me. Plus, HNJ is an active, vibrant church attached to my alma mater. So I had a thought about what keeps people attached to their church.

church vs Church.
The local pastor of a church often finds himself or herself at odds with the institutional Church's current path. In a sense, that's how it has always been. Bishops are like the CEOs of their local area, and in the early history of Christianity they were the only disciplinarians. The priests in the village or throughout the city were just slightly elevated members of the community, often with minimal education, and often married and holding down a normal job (like permanent deacons today).

And the Pope didn't really exist. the Bishops of rather important places formed a sort of club due to their influence. By 900 the Bishop of Rome exerted more power than the others. Then the great schism led us to forget the Bishops of Alexandria, Constantinople, the ancient cities of the East. Rome was the gateway to Western Europe, so the Bishop of Rome had a lot of power over the creation of medieval Europe, and the development of the modern world. That's why the Pope is important.

But the Bishops try their best to maintain some power, with chess moves that take generations. Events like Vatican II in the 1960s re-establish conciliar power (the power of the council of bishops), which is to say the role of locals. But John Paul II and Benedict XVI are into centralized control, and over the last thirty years they have elevated more conservative, centralized bishops across the globe.

This places pastors of each individual parish into a tough spot. On the one had their rome-picked bishop pushes them to tow the party line. On the other hand, they need to be able to minister to a diverse community with its own problems. Which is why youth group on wednesdays might rock and totally speak to you, but mass on sunday messes up your groove.

Local community keeps folks attached.
The local community - the parish and the church - is what attracts people to the Church, and once joined it  will keep them attached over generations. That means that a good pastor with a warm personality and good management skills, or an active youth group, or well-executed music, or any other of the dozens of aspects that people relate with 'going to church' mean more to people than hierarchical decisions or orthodoxy when choosing a religious affiliation (or even deciding whether to be affiliated).

This theory of mine is based on my experience today, other anecdotal evidence, and real data. The US Christian churches had their biggest participation numbers in the post-war Eisenhower era. At that time, most survey participants ranked community (non-theological) factors far ahead of theological factors as reasons why they attended a church, or in particular why they changed churches. 

In my own experience, the times when I went to church as an adult were related to my friends going to church, or feeling a particular connection to the church. Even though I study theology and take it very seriously, I have not invested myself in a church unless it really connects with me. And every time I have stopped attending, it was because of some local problem, not because of my (many serious) disagreements with the Vatican, or with the local hierarchy.

That's just a little big surprising. The truth is that a good homily and a warm pastor goes further than all the bombastic posturing of the USCCB or the Vatican. That's good news. But a cold pastor can turn people away, even people who deeply love and respect the institution.

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