Mary Pope-Handy 408 204-7673

Are you feeling nourished by the Church? There are some wonderful parishes and priests out there. Right now, one of the silver linings to Covid is that we can live stream Mass from anywhere in the world. If your own immediate parish situation is not good for you, I would like to suggest changing parishes or getting nourished by the Church online if nothing else immediate can do the trick.


Catholic means universal not uniform


If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed that one of the central concerns I have is in the area of alienation and belonging with the Church (two sides of the same coin). In other words, what helps people to stay Catholic when the going gets rough? And what motivates people to leave when they just cannot take it anymore?

To me, these are core questions. How can we help to stem the alienation and increase the welcoming and belonging which are central to having a Christian community?

We want to be nourished by the Church and to also be nourishing to others in that setting or community. But not every parish will be a good fit for each of us. (I can hear someone screaming “cafeteria Catholic!”, but please bear with me and keep reading.)

Ecumenism is important. Jesus didn’t want us as Christians to splinter into a million denominations. Just as important, though, is not alienating believers by the harm that we do as individuals, people, or Church leaders. If we cannot change the parish (or perhaps the priest) to stop doing harm, the best thing may be to move on. But hopefully not out of the Catholic Church!

Alienation from a Parish

The Church itself is a multi-faceted body of believers. We are not all on the same page. Catholic means universal, not uniform. You don’t have to look any further than the Acts of the Apostles (which is a bit like Luke Part II) to see divisions among believers.

Among the priests, there are all kinds of strengths and weakness, both personally and in the way they minister. Most are wonderful, of course, and do their best.

And sometimes it isn’t so much the priest as it is the parishioners. Various parishes can get a certain spirituality, or perhaps it’s a charism (like we find in religious orders), or just a personality. Parishes can change, whether from demographic shifts or something else.

A friend of mine in another Bay Area diocese had been a member of a large parish for decades. It changed over time and the sense of community, among other things, fizzled out to the point where he and his wife just had to go elsewhere. “It’s not good when you leave Mass angry week after week”, he explained – but it was hard to leave even so. That parish had been their spiritual home for over 30 years. They found another parish, a healthier one, and have happily settled in.

When in doubt, check how you’re doing with the fruits of the Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness”. If you’re angry or annoyed often, you may not have room for joy, peace, patience, or anything else. Something needs to change. (This requires also looking in the mirror.)

Waiting it out if it’s a poor assignment

When the problem is the priest, we may just want to wait it out in the hopes that he will be moved somewhere else. Perhaps somewhere that is a better fit, if that can happen.

I remember decades ago talking with a woman in another diocese on the central coast where they were assigned a truly disastrous pastor. (No exaggeration: he fired most or all of the long term parish staff and took the parish’s money and bought himself a house!) I asked her how she could stay at that parish when he was such a nightmare and there was so much animosity between him and the faithful in the pews. She said “this is OUR parish. Priests come and go…” But it was hard on her and on others. He did eventually go, that bishop had to bring in a mediator to calm things down, and it was slow to heal.

In that case, the parish previously had been run in a very progressive spirit, possibly too much so, where parish council was making all of the major decisions. The bishop in that area removed the collaborative pastor and assigned a priest from the opposite end of the spectrum – who thought he was a CEO or king and could do whatever he wanted regarding the staff and finances. It was like the parish had a violent whiplash.

That kind of bad mix may be done with the best of intentions by the bishop. Change is easier when done incrementally, though. And it’s best when everyone isn’t angered in the process of correcting potential excesses.

It will be a personal decision for each of us on what we need to be a fruitful member of a Catholic community. One old friend of mine who loves the Latin Mass attends services outside of a parish setting because there are some members of a religious order who use his much preferred old liturgy (it’s thousands of miles from here, so I don’t know if it’s sanctioned or not). But when he attends a normal parish Mass, it is beyond distracting (he finds them not reverential enough), and rather than end up angry by worshiping at a normal parish, he finds what he needs.

How do you know if it’s time to find another Catholic setting for your worship and participation?

To me this is difficult. Some situations may get better over time, some may not (and not all of us have the strength to wait it out). Saying something, if you think it may be fixable, can be challenging, particularly if it’s a priest whose mind is set either on a way of behaving or a theology that compels certain decisions. On the other hand, it could be a lack of maturity, and perhaps things could get better.

I dislike confrontation in a big way. There were times I attended Mass and saw something awful and didn’t say anything (a stoned priest in southern CA – I hope that he got help) and regretted it later that I didn’t do something to try to help the situation.

Sometimes it is stylistic and I can get over it because I am traveling and don’t have to deal with it again (a nutty and theatrical priest in Orange County, who before the Eucharistic Prayer shouted to the congregation “Christ or crackers?” and then “Jesus or juice?” to which they responded loudly “Christ!” and then “Jesus!”). Not my parish. They seemed to like him. And the kids liked that during the recessional he handed out red rope candies to them. Not my style, but I don’t know that he was causing any harm per se.

Other times, I’ve said something. Once at Mass a priest made up the words of the consecration. I’m not kidding. (I wasn’t angry, I was horrified.) I couldn’t believe it and asked him nicely about it after Mass. He said he created it himself and wondered if I liked it. Really? No, actually, we have several to choose from. But he was not in a parish setting, and I was grateful that he was just visiting. I wonder if he ever straightened out?

And I think about the times people are looking for nourishment from the Church and send signals out that they need help – can we figure that out and help them? An old friend of mine asked me where she could attend a Catholic bible study. I remember telling her that they are very common in parishes and suggested that she try a couple. I wish I had slowed down to help her to locate one. She found what she was looking for outside of the Catholic Church and I have felt bad about that ever since. Wish I could get a re-do of that episode. It could have had a better ending if I had taken more time.

Something to keep in mind, too, is that in our diocese we have Catholic communities that ae eastern rite as well as Roman. There are Masses at non parish settings (hospitals, colleges) also. If you feel the need to leave your own parish, you don’t have to leave the Church. And there are different styles at different parishes – some are more formal, some more relaxed. In some the preaching is moving and transformational. In others, well, it’s either not the priest’s strong suit or he does not realize how important it is to spend time during the week to prepare a good homily.  We do have a lot of variety here. There’s a place for everyone.

Hanging in there, speaking up, leaving – these are deeply personal decisions and I don’t claim to have an easy answer. There are good Masses, and excellent homilies, out there and you and I can find them easily now that there are so many live streamed Masses.

It’s no good to go to Mass and leave angry. We are not called by the Spirit to live that way. If we are angry at or after Mass, we should take a good look at ourselves and see first if we ourselves need changing. That’s something to think and pray about. We cannot change anyone else, after all.

Anger is the appropriate response to injustice

I have almost never gotten angry at or from Mass, but when I have, it’s because I believed that the priest was causing harm while doing his priestly work. That is a terrible combination and it should not happen. Anger is appropriate – but we should allow that upset to spur us to action to make it better if possible. It may not do any good to have a word with the priest, but we won’t know if we don’t try. And it’s worse to have regrets later for not stepping up when we should.

When Covid is over, I hope to be more involved with parish life. Since I’ve got some immune issues, we are mostly at home for Mass right now. We have found some wonderful Catholic communities around the state. I’m so grateful for the live-stream Masses. I am reminded, though, that being Catholic is much more than just watching Mass, but rather we are to be participants in the life of the Catholic community. Not only do we need to be nourished by the Church, but we need to be nourishing others. Right now I’m not doing that in person. My hope is that these reflections are helpful to someone else and it can be a small contribution during this pandemic.