Memorial Weekend is indeed upon us, and for us in Wisconsin, that means that “summer” has arrived, regardless of what the weather is actually like outside. This is the time when we try to fit a whole year’s worth of activities into about 9 weeks of calendar space.
The common experience in our State of trying to cram as much as we possibly can into the short summer months is a good lead in to a few reflections about the continually changing nature of parish life these days. And the changes in parish life are of course reflective of the changes happening around us in the culture in general.
Maximum Options, Maximum Mobility
Using our mentality about “summertime” in this State is a helpful way to tease out a deeper dynamic that most of us are caught up in all of the time. The dynamic could be described this way: we do not want to waste a minute, or miss out on any opportunity. This makes sense when it comes to summer: most of the time in Wisconsin we wake up and go to sleep when it’s dark out, much of the year we cannot walk around in shorts or swim outdoors, much of the year we cannot sit out on the porch next to a smoking grill listening to the Brewer’s game, much of the year we cannot work in the garden.
Therefore, as soon as Memorial Day Weekend arrives, and until Labor Day Weekend, the collective mentality is to soak up as many opportunities as we can, and enjoy the whole, wide menu of options of activities that are suddenly available to us that we cannot do much of the rest of the time.
Broaden this same dynamic to the cultural experience of America and of family life these days. It is true to say that many of us want to make sure that we do not miss out on any opportunity that comes our way, and so we are reluctant to commit to various things in case we get a better offer, last minute. Our ease of travel, our disposable incomes, and our technological devices have now made it very easy for all of us to be way, way over scheduled.
Or, paradoxically enough, for the same reasons we are also able to be way way under-scheduled, preferring instead to make our plans for the evening or the weekend at the last minute, choosing from the menu of options that are always available these days.
Related to this is the recent phenomenon of not wanting to miss any event of our kids or grand kids lives, no matter how fleeting it may happen to be, a mentality that compels us to constantly run after them to sporting games, recitals and the like so that we are just as “booked” as they are. After awhile, many grandparents just move houses to be closer to their grand kids, often out of a need to help their children take care of them because today EVERYONE has to work two jobs to afford to raise children and give them all that they apparently “need” (like trips to Disney World, for example).
Once upon a time it was the case that, in general, most of the events of life consisted simply of daily work and chores so there was not much to miss out on; and, families did not move away from each other like they do today, living instead (usually) in the same neighborhood or even the same house- kids, parents, grandparents all together. What we have today is a new problem.
To sum up: we have become a culture of people who do not stay put, and we treat most of life like Wisconsinites treat summer: something to pack as many events in to as possible, and to maximize all of our options, all of the time.
Stable Organizations Cannot Exist in Such a Climate
The implications of this tendency are enormous and they impact every facet of family life and our daily routines. One cause as well as consequence of it all is that the role of the individual has been greatly emphasized to the near extinction of the role of “the group.”
Groups assemble, disassemble, gather and disintegrate on a moment by moment basis because they are all built out of the options of the moment, and many groups exist now via the virtual or electronic world rather than existing in person, in a common physical space. We do not bend for any schedules, routines, or preferences other than our own anymore because frankly we do not need to.
In such a climate, service clubs or fraternal organizations (to name one example) cease to exist. They all rely upon a regular routine of in person meetings, which relies upon a group-wide commitment to a common schedule and location. Who does that anymore?
Parishes Cannot Exist in Such a Climate
In the face of all this, how do Catholic parishes function? Not very well. The parish structures that we have are built for a cultural fabric that does not exist anymore, by and large.
While much of the rest of our institutions are transitioning to electronic and individualized delivery systems for information and activities, parishes cannot do this very well. Some of that is because we cannot afford the expense of such a move. But, most of the difficulty is that our Catholic understanding of the world and of personhood does not allow us to go where the consumer culture is going.
At the core of parish life are Catholic worship and sacramental celebrations. In absolutely no way can those things ever move to the virtual realm; it is a theological and canonical impossibility. The Lord built a sacramental system that requires groups to assemble, in person, in one place. He did so because he knew we needed it.
That means that the defining element of our Catholic parish life will fall further and further behind the prevailing cultural curve. As that happens, we will either continue to lose members (especially the young and “the busy”), or, eventually as the culture becomes essentially insane, Catholicism will be rediscovered as a haven of humanity in an otherwise robotic, and mechanical, and virtual world.
In the meantime, programs like schools, CCD classes, service work, socials, festivals, etc, are going to suffer from the whiplash of everyone’s personal preferences that reign supreme. Just try getting ANYONE to volunteer IN ADVANCE to cook for a festival, offer child care, be a catechist, read or serve at Mass… it’s becoming impossible.
And Mass attendance will continue to swing wildly as well. It would be interesting to track, or poll, how often it happens that a given parish member, or a whole family, attends Mass at the same parish for several weekends in a row. In one month, across four or five weekends, most of the parish is not really here. There are always summer homes, graduations, business trips, first Communions of nephews, etc, etc to divert large sectors of the parish roster elsewhere.
What Will Become of Parish Life?
With that sort of fluid movement of people (in every age group- especially grandparents), what exactly is a parish anymore? It is a place where sacraments are offered, although oftentimes these days without a lot of other enhancements, in the absence of regular choir members, lectors, servers, or sacristans.
But beyond that, with only a handful of volunteers who commit to being around, it is difficult to say what else really constitutes parish life going forward. One day there will be an iPad app for most of it, but when that happens, the rupture between the parish’s active apostolates and its worship life (which can never be substituted for with an app) will be complete. That is like a person torn in half. Such a person, such an institution, does not survive.
A Call To Pray About What “Community” Means To Us
What is the answer? It is complicated, but at the heart of it will be the recovery of an authentically Catholic world view, that translates to the creation of a different pattern of daily life, that will inevitably put us at odds with the rest of the culture in a way that has likely not been true for centuries.
For now, it would be important for each of us in our parishes to contemplate just what parish commitment means to us and to our families. The parish is the primary place where we encounter what I would call “formal” Catholic reality, so that we can learn to discern how to encounter Christ out in the world, or, how to bring Him to the world in the places where we do not encounter Him. If our parish is not a priority for us, then our lived Catholicism will be radically incomplete, to the point where we will cease to be Catholic.
All of this will be at the heart of any ongoing conversations about parish cluster sharing, mergers, realigning, etc, etc. Those questions cannot be answered without an en masse personal soul searching about what it means to be a Catholic in today’s me-centered culture. Indeed, we have a lot of soul searching to do.
This is great fodder for prayer. The Lord always provides the answers and the next steps forward, provided that we are paying attention to Him. Let us make it our most important “summer” activity to make time for the Lord, and allow Him to lead us back to an authentic sense of community. Lord knows we need it.