On leaving my parish
This post is sort of related to the recent post on Trump’s election, but it is much more personal. Let me start with a story. About forty-five years ago, when I was six or seven, my family quit our parish, St. Patrick’s, and moved to Annunciation, the adjacent parish. I was young, and though my mother told me some of the story in later years, I am not sure that I know all the details. Apparently, my brother and his fiance went to a Saturday vigil mass, and the music was not to my brother’s liking. It was described to me years later as a “rock band on the altar,” but that can cover a multitude of things. After mass my brother told the assistant pastor his opinion, and there was some kind of argument. My brother came home and told my mother, who either called the rectory or confronted the pastor after mass the next day in defense of her “good Catholic son who was there with his Catholic fiance.” This apparently turned into a bitter fight, and within a short time we had left St. Pat’s.
After all these years the exact nature of the fight, who was right and who was wrong, is immaterial. My mother, God keep her, died a couple years ago, and I assume the pastor himself has been dead even longer. (My brother is still alive, and still married to the woman he was engaged to back then.) But I have recently been thinking about the impact that this fight had on our family. My parents had, by that time, belonged to the parish for close to 20 years. My five older siblings had gone to the parochial school, been involved in Boy Scouts there, been altar servers. My mother had belonged to the women’s guild, the altar society, and their version of the PTA, and had taken leadership positions in all of these organizations. She was an integral member of the parish community–which may explain why she felt free to call the pastor and give him a piece of her mind. She was uprooted from all of this when we left, and never became part of the Annunciation parish community in the same way. As she told me once, many years later, she felt as though she had left all her friends behind. At first we dutifully went to mass, but this began to taper off, and by the time I was in high school we had stopped going. Things changed for her when my father died, just after I finished college. She insisted that we have the funeral at St. Pat’s–I don’t really know why, though I recall her saying that was “dad’s church.” A new pastor (a relative of the priest who had founded the parish) welcomed her back with open arms, and for a number of years thereafter she was again a fixture in the parish. She stayed a member until we convinced her to move out of the family home and into an apartment which was some distance away in a nearby town. She switched to the parish there and was a regular attendee until she went a the nursing home.
For my part, my life as a Catholic suffered a body-blow that required God’s grace to set right. I stopped going to Church, and pretty much stopped identifying myself as Catholic. (The story of my return to the Church is long and complicated.) This might still have happened had we stayed at St. Pat’s, though it is hard to sort out the “might have beens.” I suspect that instead of a complete break, I would have become some variant of a low grade Catholic. I would have been confirmed in high school, gone to mass a couple times a month, and regarded my membership in the parish much like a comfortable old shoe: not good for much, but something I hung on to for some reason. But certainly, without my family anchoring me to the Church through membership in a parish, there was nothing to keep me in its orbit and I wandered off.
Tangentially: as I think about what happened I realize that my father did not seem to play much of a role in this. He was an old-school Mexican and his relationship with the Church was deep and contradictory—a man who would not go to weekly mass, but sincerely respected the Church and wanted one of his sons to become a priest. I talked a bit about him here. I have a very vague memory that at some point we stopped paying dues to Annunciation, and I remember my mother saying it was because my father was upset that the parish was supporting a family of Vietnamese refugees. In retrospect, this seems like a non-explanation: had my mother wanted to keep paying dues, it would have happened. Speculating, I wonder if my mother was using this as an excuse to distance herself from a parish she had never felt part of.
I tell this rambling story because last month my wife and I made the very painful decision to leave our parish and join the other one in town. As you may remember from a couple earlier posts, over the summer the bishop appointed a new pastor, and his preaching, and the preaching of one of our deacons, almost immediately began to alienate my wife and I. (See here and here.) Without going into details, let me just say that I found them painful, both theologically and pastorally. It came to the point that in early October I stopped going. My youngest son and my wife continued to go as they sang in the choir; I took my oldest son to the 7pm student mass at the University parish. (It was here that I got my first clue that I was not alone in feeling this way: I ran into the former Grand Knight of the KofC at our parish, who explained somewhat unconvincingly that “he liked the music better” at this parish.) However, my oldest son did not like going to mass at night, so I decided to swallow my misgivings and go back.
I returned just in time for an overtly political sermon, one which was the apotheosis of all that had come before. You can actually hear most of it: the pastor took the first half of it nearly verbatim from a sermon preached by Fr. Lankeit of the Cathedral in Phoenix that made the rounds on the internet. Suffice it to say that listening to it was a terrible experience. More so for my son, Francisco: half-way through he got up and walked out, along with a half-dozen other people. I found him after communion and we talked for a bit, then collected my wife and older son and went home. We had a long discussion and agreed that we would not go back. The following Monday I canceled our online donation, and wrote a letter to the pastor informing him that we were changing parishes and trying to explain why. We then immediately joined the other parish in town.
I have been happier since the move: I no longer dread going to Church, though as my son Francisco pointed out, in his acerbic fashion, we no longer have a homily to dissect and criticize afterwards (or at least not in the same way). We have met some other people who also left our old parish, and listened to their stories. I have been told by one of them that a large number of people have left, but I don’t know enough people there to count them myself. And I was told (not surprisingly) that people have complained to the bishop. For my part, I hesitated for a while, and then wrote to the bishop after consulting with the former chaplain at my old school in CT (who had been my confessor for more than a decade). I also gave an interview about what happened to the Wall Street Journal, who also interviewed my son Francisco. We played a small part in the resulting article, and the interview also led to my old pastor responding to my original letter to him. I am not going to get into the details of this exchange: I said what I felt I had to say, and I assume he believed likewise. In retrospect, I might have done it differently, but I am not sure this would have changed the outcome.
I am telling this story mostly to help me deal with the way I am feeling. Though I am happier, there is still a sense of sadness and loss that I cannot shake, a feeling of dislocation. At our old parish we had slowly started getting involved; now we are essentially back to square one. We had belonged to this parish for only a short time (about 15 months), but it still felt like “our” parish. Even though our new parish is friendly and welcoming (it gets the bulk of the visitors during home games), I still have this feeling of not quite belonging. In my adult life I have changed parishes five times before now; previously, each time was because we had moved for school or work. Each of those moves was a different experience as we adapted to the local Catholic culture and went through the process of integrating into the community. But this time is different, more unsettling in an existential sense, as it involved not just leaving but a tearing up. My experience is in no way as grave as the uprooting and dislocation that hit my family so many years ago, but there are echoes, which is why I am thinking about what happened back then for the first time in many years, perhaps decades.
Being a Franciscan has taught me a great deal about life in community, and its importance to our faith. Like the Trinity itself, our faith is relational. Whether in a fraternity or in a parish, we are most alive when we live with and for one another. I have had to break these bonds of community before, when I moved. There was sadness, but also a sense of completion: we left surrounded and sustained by the love and prayers of the people we left behind. But now it feels different: the connections, however tenuous (and I stress that they were only just beginning to form), feel open, incomplete, like a thought begun but unfinished. I imagine that this feeling will pass in time, perhaps even sooner rather than later. But at the moment it is there in the background.
Maybe, in this Christmas season, it would be good to meditate on the experience of Mary and Joseph: they deliberately set out on a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but then, unexpectedly, found themselves fleeing to Egypt, a land they had never been to. Cut off from their family and friends, they made their home with some unknown Jewish community in Egypt. Were they welcomed or viewed with suspicion? Did they yearn for the comfortable familiarity of what they had left behind? How long did it take them to feel at home there, or were they always outsiders? And what did they feel when they left Egypt to return home to Nazareth? Questions we cannot answer, but asking them tells me, tells us, about our own connections, our own sense of belonging.