What makes a parish successful? Hint: It’s not a particular liturgical style

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One winter Sunday last year, before the Omicron Variant hit, our family arrived at mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Providence, RI, just before the procession, and I was a little apprehensive. Would we find a place? In the end we made it, but the benches were actually very full. Latecomers ended up setting up folding chairs in designated spots, a common practice when we’re short on seats.

This, of course, is not a problem in all Catholic parishes. But these days, it’s a nice problem to have.

In 1970, 55% of American Catholics attended Mass; by 2019, that number had dropped to just over 20 percent. Many parishes have closed or merged, and many more will follow.

The pandemic appears to have only made the situation worse – although we won’t have clear accounts for some time – and left many parishes with new rows of empty seats. Even in our parish, the pews are emptier these days as the Covid-19 virus surges.

Yet our community has continued to thrive even in these trying times. So what’s going on here at St. Patrick’s Church?

You would think that the first thing that would attract people would be a beautiful church. But we don’t have a nice church. We don’t have a church building at all, in fact, if that means a structure designed to be a church. Our story in this regard is a story of loss. In 1843, a small community of enterprising Irish Catholics laid the cornerstone of what was to become an imposing Gothic Revival building, seating more than 1,000 people and standing face to face with the State House of Rhode Island (or, d another point of view, scrutinizing his left shoulder).

For over 100 years, this building welcomed wave after wave of Irish immigrants. The parish established the first Catholic school in the state, a group of Sisters of Mercy arrived, and St. Patrick’s Church served as the kind of religious anchor in the heart of the city that is now rare.

In the late 1970s, however, everything changed. Parishioners were already leaving town in large numbers when a devastating discovery was made. The foundation of this magnificent church was not solid. The estimated costs made the repair impossible, so a terrible and necessary decision was made: the church building was demolished.

The church furniture was salvaged or sold. The community took what they could – a few stained glass windows, a wooden Stations of the Cross – and limped a few blocks west, where the parish school was housed in a substantial two-story brick building. There, the school auditorium is requisitioned and consecrated, and the parish settles its life in an unexpected architectural exile. It is in this former school auditorium that we meet to this day.

One might also think that another attraction for our parish would be a clear and unified version of a “parochial identity”. But we don’t have that either. Our identity is neither traditionalist nor progressive; we are neither liberals nor conservatives. We come from many different geographical locations. Every Sunday you can find a group of young men in jeans and sweatshirts on one bench and a young mother wearing her chapel veil on another. You can see parishioners arrive, rosary in hand, to pray before the service, while a guitar is tuned in front. I strongly suspect that if you turned to politics, you would find our voting habits just as varied and eclectic.

Nor do socioeconomic status and race help us find a label. Most of the parish is made up of working people, as it always has been, raising families and living from paycheck to paycheck. But many other types of people are mixed: professionals and professors; a large percentage of people working in social services; teachers and civil servants. There are a few long-established people with more money and a few, on the other end of the spectrum, who live without safe housing or food.

What attracts so many people to its benches week after week?

We are a racial and cultural mix. There are still a few grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these early Irish Catholics. Other whites, like me, have drifted. The majority, however, are a mix of black and brown people, including Cape Verdean, Haitian, Colombian and Bolivian heritage, as well as many others. We are at a turning point when it comes to language: about half of our community speaks Spanish as their first language, while English, Creole and other languages ​​are among the mother tongues of the rest.

Considering all of this, you might well be wondering: Is hold this parish together? And what attracts so many people to its benches week after week? In the decade or so that I have been part of this community, some crucial characteristics have become increasingly clear to me.

First of all, worship is central to our life. Our parish has what might be called a living style of worship. Contemporary songs are sometimes sung; the drums are played; the liturgical responses of the congregation are pronounced with energy. However, features of a more traditional cult are also present. Liturgies are celebrated with reverence and rubrics are carefully followed. Latin is regularly included, and liturgical life beyond Mass includes all-night rosary vigils and an always-open adoration chapel. In the end, one thing seems clear to me: it’s not a particular style that people are most in love with. It’s God.

In these hectic and restless times, it’s easy to forget this: we come to Mass to worship God. With our words and with our bodies, we unite to say that God is God; that though we are broken by sin, here we find the true medicine for our wounds. We come to offer our lives on the altar, to unite them to the one true sacrifice that reconciles all things. We come to be nourished and remade for all that awaits us.

In our parish, this love for God is palpable, as well as a second element: love for one another. Through interactions inside and outside the church building, true friendships are the norm. I know I can show up and be greeted as if I was coming home. A beautiful, elderly Cape Verdean woman – the closest thing we have to a single parish-headed matriarch – always pulls me to me and says unapologetically, “I love you.” I believe her. As I have been integrated into this community, I have also had invaluable opportunities to love: to pray or offer advice or simply to show up at the front door of someone with dinner when it’s needed most.

Our parish is at the service of our neighborhood and our city.

We do our best to accommodate others as well. If you come to Mass, you will be warmly welcomed. We want to know your name. And we try to meet you where you are. American Sign Language interpreters are available at Mass every Sunday. We offer catechesis tailored to a continuum of individual needs, and we have organized a summer program specifically for people with disabilities. In the midst of a pandemic and all the divisions it has spawned, we have done everything to support each other, be generous and patient.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this love also overflows. The final hallmark of this parish is that both as a community and as individual members, our parish serves our neighborhood and our city. We have a food bank and a meal kitchen; a food-truck ministry is heading to neighborhoods where it’s needed most. Our Parish High School welcomes all students, regardless of ability to pay, and supports those who lack math or English skills so that everyone can finish well. Individual members deploy in countless ministries, including teaching and outreach to the homeless. One runs a center for the elderly. One is a state senator.

At the heart of all this activity is our pastor. He has many traits that nurture our community: He is humble and hardworking; he works collaboratively and generously with lay leaders; he is open and curious when he asks where the Spirit is leading us. Ultimately, however, the trait that shapes it is deeply connected to the traits I have already described: it focuses on our central calling, to live together in the love of Christ and to share that love with others. . Specific programs and initiatives come and go. What is essential is that we remember this central truth and live by it.

It is important to say that our parish is of course not perfect. We lose our focus. We become impatient with each other and with ourselves. Money is always short. But love is a powerful thing. It covers a multitude of sins, and it gives us energy and hope, even in these difficult days.

It would be easy in a parish like ours to focus on what we lack or the challenges we face. We could spend our time longing for this beautiful gothic church that was once ours. But that is not our task. We can only be here, now, drawn to the altar and then sent back, in a rhythm that gives us life. And even if the details and the story were very different, what more could you ask for?


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