The Parish of Choice

I’ve been in town only a few weeks, and I’m still looking for a good parish to join. How often have we heard Catholics say those words, or something like them? Searching for a worshiping community is a hallmark of Catholic life these days. Moving to a new place, we look for a parish where we feel comfortable, where people pray in a manner that fits our prayer, where the values important to us are articulated as community ideals and where the mix of people gives us a sense of family. That may mean parents with young children, or singles, or senior citizens, or business leaders, or feminist-friendly, progressive or traditional, straight or gayor the right combination of all these groups.

Choosing one’s parish used to be a phenomenon of urban Catholicism, where there were many churches within walking distance or a short bus ride. But the gradual sprawl of cities and the convenience of beltways has made it possible even for Catholics in suburbia to seek out communities where ministry and worship are done in a style they find attractive. Paul Wilkes, in his book Excellent Catholic Parishes, notes that Catholics today seek not just to be on the rolls of an institution through which they can dispatch their religious obligations; they want a meaningful spiritual home. And they are willing to shop.


The old practice of attending the neighborhood church is no longer taken for granted among Catholics. We may, indeed, be approaching something closer to a free market economy in parish membership. Magnet churches draw members from territorial churches that lack personality or a distinct culture. In the future, only the absolute growth in Catholic population and the fact that some churchgoers do not care enough to shop may keep some traditional parishes going.

Exactly how widespread is the phenomenon? A Notre Dame study of U.S. parishes in the 1980’s revealed that at that time 15 percent of active, core Catholics regularly attended a church other than their neighborhood parish. One has a distinct sense the percentage has grown in the years since, but there has been no equivalent national survey. However, early in 2001 a sampling conducted by Georgetown’s Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate indicated that in one unnamed large archdiocese, 30 percent of churchgoers regularly attend a church outside their local parish. If the CARA figure is true of the American church as a whole, the number of Catholics who shop around has doubled in two decades.

Gail Gregory, a 38-year-old schoolteacher from Bogoda, N.J., is one of those. She remembers being active and happy in her parents’ parish until she experienced a different kind of community as a student at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Coming home from college, she suddenly found her childhood church very rote, very dry, very preachy.

It just wasn’t as vibrant as Villanova, she recalls. There wasn’t a place for me thereespecially as a woman. I tried, I really tried, but it was making me crazy. I actually stopped going to church for a while.

Gail and her sister decided to see what was happening at other parishes. Each Sunday they would attend Mass at a different church. One day, she says, she just stumbled into Presentation Church in Upper Saddle River, N.J., and was struck by the fact that everybody there was singing.

That was 10 years ago. Today Gail still finds Presentation a very real place, and willingly drives 25 minutes to get there once or twice a week.

A Mixed Blessing

Presentation is one of the new magnet churches that draw most of their parishioners from outside the parish boundariesin Presentation’s case from outside the diocese and even from outside the state. Some of the people there keep membership with their home parishes for Sundays when a long commute is difficult.

The practice of selecting a suitable parish instead of attending one’s neighborhood church is a mixed blessing. Belonging to a group in which everyone has the same values may not be healthy for individuals or the group as a whole. There is something to be said for genuinely mixed congregations, in which people interact with others from different backgrounds and of differing social and ideological mind-sets.

The strength of Catholic life over the centuries has been grounded in communities that cut across social and economic boundaries: the rich kneel down and pray with the poor, the gay with the straight, the liberal with the conservativeand all of them together listen to the challenging word of God. Thomas Merton, when he first attended a Catholic service in New York City, was impressed by the variety of people he found in the pews: It was full not only of old ladies and broken-down gentlemen with one foot in the grave, but of men and women and children young and oldespecially young: people of all classes and ranks on a solid foundation of working men and women and their families. What better incarnates the kingdom of God than a rich cross-section of people gathered to witness its presence?

And yet it is specious to argue Catholics should not have a choice about where they go to church. We have always held it was proper for religious and clergy to join communities with distinct charisms. One could be a contemplative or active religious; the Franciscan spirituality and style, for example, differs from the Dominican. There are clear ideological differences between the Jesuits and the Legionnaries of Christ. And why not? Shouldn’t professed religious have a choice in the way they encounter and respond to the Holy Spirit? By the same token, laypeople also ought to be free to enter worshiping communities where they hear the voice of God in a special way.

A Privilege or a Right?

Here some may raise the issue of church law. Aren’t Catholics supposed to attend the neighborhood church put in place purposely for them? Well, yes, but the law in question is not absolutely binding. Canon law states that each person acquires his or her pastor and ordinary according to place of domicile. In other words, your parish is where you live. But there is a long traditionespecially in 19th-century Americaof nonterritorial parishes based on language and ethnic origin. The church in that era recognized that religious experience is mediated through culture and that people should have opportunities to encounter God in ways that are culturally meaningful to them. The practice endures today. Fully 10 percent of American parishes are nonterritorial ethnic communities for Chicanos, Dominicans, Vietnamese and similar groups.

Today we continue to maintain churches for groups who comprise cohesive communitiesfor example, at universities and military bases. The 1950’s saw the development of downtown chapels and information centers that were not territorial and that gradually attracted regular groups of worshipers. The Paulist Center on Park Street in Boston is one such place. Created to serve the needs of office workers, it soon drew Catholics from all parts of the city and from the suburbs for Sunday liturgy. Territorial or not, parish or not, it exists as a community.

Many bishops have made allowances for Catholics who want to choose their place of worship. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, for instance, acknowledges that the territorial nature of the parish is less rigidly observed today than in the past. His archdiocese permits Catholics to choose their parish as long as the pastor there is willing to accept them. Many other dioceses have similar understandings. In any event, there is little that bishops can do about it: if Catholics want to switch parishes, they will.

It has been suggested that the fundamental human rights of believers override the narrow strictures of canon law when it comes to choosing a place of worship. Both the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity and the Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council state that Catholics have the right of association within the church. This right was incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which declares that the Christian faithful are at liberty to found and to govern associations for charitable and religious purposes or for the promotion of the Christian vocation in the world. While this may seem to refer to voluntary associations other than parishes, James Coriden, a canonist at Washington Theological Union, maintains that it includes by extension the right to join and maintain local churches.

Even prior to the official establishment of a parish and after it has been long in existence, writes Coriden, the natural right of the people to join, actively participate in and sustain the religious community endures. The local congregation remains in communion with and subject to the authority of the larger church, but it also remains as a legitimate expression of the right of the Christian faithful to associate for religious purposes.

A Parish Is Entitled to Its Culture

Parisheslocal church communitiesare grounded in two realities: they are in communion with and subject to the local bishop or ordinary, and they are legitimate expressions of the faith of the people. If in practice difficulties arise in harmonizing the desires of the diocesan bishop with the desires of the faithful, there is nothing theologically wrong with the arrangement. The one same Spirit moves bishop and people alike. Making the two realities hang together is an ongoing exercise of politics and grace, demanding on both sides a measure of tolerance, respect and charity tempered by humility and legitimate obedience.

Both the local community and the larger church, represented by the bishop, bring their gifts to the table. The bishop’s gifts are well known and spelled out. The community’s gifts are less well known and more difficult to spell out, but what we know from history and what we learn from people who are searching for community is that the local church brings the gift of culture: a unique manner of witnessing divine life that flowers when two or three come together in God’s name.

If this is the authentic gift of the local church, then we can go one step further and say that a parish is entitled to its culture. The style of a particular community is expressed not by the bishop but directly through the lives and hopes and dreams of its people. It is part and parcel of a church that acknowledges incarnationwhere Christ is encountered and celebrated in time and space. Cultural adaptation, says the liturgist Anscar Chupungo of the Philippines, is not an option but a theological imperative arising from incarnational exigency.

But if the church has wisely permitted its liturgy and ministry to be adapted to non-European settingsin Africa, for instance, or in the Pacific rim countriesit has been less willing to acknowledge cultural differences between one American parish and another. Instead there have been attempts of late to suppress those differencesnot to legislate the spirit of communities (which would be impossible) but to put the lid on liturgical and ministerial practices where cultural values are lived out. As one example, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal issued earlier this year by the Holy See specifies precisely who may approach the eucharistic table and distribute communion. It insists that lay eucharistic ministers, when they are permitted to serve at all, wear albs or distinctive garb and receive Communion only after the presider. Micromanaging liturgical customs in this way is an attempt to control the climate that often gives communities their unique character.

The experience of Catholics church-hopping to find a parish that is distinctive suggests it is no longer possible, and certainly not desirable, to legislate liturgical and ministerial forms in minute detail. The vision of a larger church in which all parishes are identical is no longer a value.

Anscar Chupungo, speaking of non-European churches, articulates a view that applies equally well to the many varieties of American parishes. The church, he writes, cannot remain a stranger to the people with whom she lives; she must be adopted by [them]. This pluralistic view will not hurt the universality of the church; on the contrary, it will foster it. For there can be no truly universal church without truly local churches. Such communities, Chupungo asserts, will have their own place in the ecclesial communion only if they adorn themselves with their own traditions and define their own identity as local churches.

There is Tradition and there are traditions. The first comes from the larger church and is passed along in doctrine and law. The second arises from the lived experience of the faithful and can be discerned in the ways they come together and why. These days American Catholics are increasingly speaking with their feet and seeking out parishes that have distinctive cultures rather than prepackaged ones. It seems to be a buyer’s market.

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