I have been a pastor for more than half of my 36 years of priesthood. In that time I have learned, to paraphrase the late Congressman Tip O’Neill, that “all church is local.” Scenes From a Parish (airing on PBS stations on Dec. 29), James Rutenbeck’s documentary of life in St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, Mass., offers one portrait of the Catholic Church in this country during a time of transition.
What kind of parish is St. Patrick? Early in the film, we are shown a stained-glass window emblazoned with the name of an Irish-American donor. In the background, we hear a choir singing a hymn in Spanish. An older immigrant congregation is making room, as often is the case in American parishes, with some difficulty, for a new group of faithful. An elderly parishioner informs the pastor of her displeasure with bilingual liturgies and says she will stop attending Mass if he continues them. She does not, however, give up her attendance at bingo. At the same time, we witness the St. Vincent de Paul Society and staff members doing their best to help people in need. Some of the staff and parishioners clearly struggle to accept those they are helping instead of judging them, and some apparently succeed.
The parish comes together in two main ways. The Eucharist is celebrated with an inclusiveness that most parishioners understand as a way of defining the community and revealing its reason for existing. Quite organically, this leads to the creation of a community center and outreach program known as Cor Unum that serves dinner to 300 people from the parish and city every night, with a staggering 100,000 meals in its first year, in a welcoming, flowers-on-each-table environment. As a pastor, I found the connection between the two meals, the ritual and the practical, to be the heart and soul of the documentary. Both are necessary. St. Patrick Parish feeds God’s people in every way they need to be fed.
Clearly the parishioners and staff who were filmed grew accustomed to the crew and their equipment. Seldom did it appear that they were censoring themselves or playing to the cameras. This made for some painful scenes, as well as some moments of true grace. In one vignette, Bobby, a mentally challenged adult, celebrates his birthday with his mother and sister. The sadness permeating that event prefigures a scene later in the film when Bobby’s mother walks into church and remains alone while others embrace one another. Her son’s handicaps have apparently become irritants for some parishioners, and for that she is isolated. She will be left even more alone after her daughter finds a way to afford college even while wondering if her brother Bobby will remember her. This bittersweet mo-ment is difficult to watch.
Throughout the film are shots of the massive church edifice, often looming in the background, a presence of seeming stability in a community torn apart by prejudices and financial decline. The building serves as a backdrop during the Good Friday Passion play that unfolds on the streets. It is visible as the two priests walk the streets. And it stands in the middle of closed stores and urban flight as a reminder that God has not abandoned Lawrence.
I watched Rutenbeck’s documentary with a group of parishioners and friends one evening after dinner. The film’s pacing is slow, moving as “God’s time moves,” in the words of one deacon. Others remarked on the number of volunteers and the amount of organization needed to feed so many people nightly. Yet those doing these works of charity chose to remain in the background. The women who watched the film celebrated the gentle openness of the music director toward Rosario, an alienated cantor who needed to know that she was loved and accepted. The group also acknowledged that parishioners who were helping others seemed themselves to grow. In short, we saw how the concentric circles in the parish bound the people’s lives to one another with their gifts and their limitations as they responded to God’s call.
The Rev. Paul O’Brien, the pastor, who wears a T-shirt and shorts while helping to decorate the church for Christmas, jokes that he is everywhere. But the priests do not take up most of the camera time. That is as it should be. A good pastor listens and then affirms the dreams that grow out of the shared faith of the parishioners, even when they are not able to articulate them fully. Then the pastor empowers the people to turn those tentative visions into the reality we call church. A pastor’s task is to ensure that since everyone is gifted, everyone is called.
As at every parish, there are those at St. Patrick who fully accept the call as they gather to be nourished and strengthened around the table of the Lord. We see a young adult leave gang life behind because of the belief in him shown by Father Paul and the community. But God’s call, like any gift, can be accepted or rejected. A woman who loves her children does violence to the very parishioners who are trying to help her family. Not every parish story has a happy ending.
Still, “Scenes From a Parish” remains hopeful. The film chooses not to dwell on what is sapping the energy from so many parishes today. There is no reference to anyone’s theological positions on hot-button issues, nor mention of the recent church scandals. These are important concerns, but they are not the focus of this documentary. Even a reporter’s attempt to make the appearance of the talk-show host Conan O’Brien at a fundraiser for the community center into a “celebrity event” fails. Most parishes do not make headlines doing what they are called to do.
What has been distilled from the thousands of hours of filming? Evidence that God finds ways of working in and through the ordinary people, the old and the young, the lifelong parishioners and the new arrivals, the ordained and the lay, indeed, all the people of St. Patrick Parish who choose to answer God’s call. And there is always more work to be done.
My friends who watched with me concluded that PBS’s “Scenes From a Parish” presents an honest look at one parish in one place over one time period. It is worth taking the time to view and discuss the program in light of one’s own experience of church and parish life.