I grew up in a large parish that had an elementary school. Most of my family’s social life revolved around parish and school events – Spaghetti Dinners, Summer Socials, Christmas plays and so on. Gatherings that took place off the church grounds involved people I recognized from Mass. As a child, I even empathized with people I didn’t know by way of the church bells. Depending on the how they rang, someone was getting married or buried. I felt connected.
Sadly, many people today limit their involvement with their parish to weekend Mass.
What’s the Big Deal? Isn’t Mass Enough?
The Mass is the source and summit of a Catholic’s life, or should be. However, without community, without an active parish life, the Sunday Mass can become an appointment.
When I first heard God’s call to return to the Catholic Church after twenty-something years away, it came in a longing for community. I missed that sense of belonging. That feeling of fellowship that came not only from attending Mass with the same people, but also from socializing with them. Knowing their names. Sharing their joys and sorrows. That longing for community was the lure that God used to draw me back into communion with Him.
I wasn’t ready to embrace the Sacraments. I wasn’t in a place to appreciate the Mass. But I was trying. If I had been coming in cold or without the meager formation I already had, I might not have stuck around. Also, I’m one of the lucky ones who was raised with a volunteer’s heart, so I joined ministries. Through them, I made friends and built my own community. However, I am the exception, not the rule.
“Our parish has plenty of activities,” you might say. And you may be right. There may be an admirable amount of Bible studies, small faith groups, and such, and that’s good, but faith groups and Bible studies are more likely to feed the brain than touch the heart of one whose spiritual journey has not yet reached a point where he or she can appreciate the deeper meaning behind the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
So, why don’t more parishes have social events?
One reason may be that too many churches put their parish hall to use almost exclusively as a rental space to bring in income to cover expenses, so there isn’t a place to hold social events. The volunteers who make summer socials and bingo nights happen are in short supply, as schedules are often saturated with children’s sporting events, and attitudes have changed from ones of service to what’s in it for me? So, should we just accept that parishes as communities is an idea whose time has passed? Not if we want to maintain, let alone grow.
Pope Francis has spoken out on the necessity of parish life. “It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.”
A community. How many people are where I once was, ready to take a step toward Jesus but needing friendship and camaraderie before committing to the next step? We know that there is a crisis of loneliness exacerbated by cell phones and the Internet. Doesn’t it make sense to meet this need first?
People are initially attracted to other people, not doctrine. Jesus ate dinner with sinners and drew them to Him. Once He satisfied that need, people wanted to know more. Note that He didn’t approach them and hand over a list of the Commandments.
To evangelize, we first need to connect with people. Not just those outside of the parish through outreach programs, but with the very members of the parish as well. Our parishes need to get a life.