Does the Mystical Body (or at least the portion represented by your parish) need a transplant? Is your parish missing some body parts? It could be, if some members have left for other parishes. St. Paul tells us:
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body…If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy. (1 Cor 12:12, 26)
The Parish as Community
Ideally, even in large parishes, the laity have developed a sense of community within their particular parish. This sense of community can act, look and feel like an extension of the family. It can result in moral and spiritual support, as well as material support, in times of need. For example, other parishioners may ask if a family member, whom they haven’t seen in a while, is okay. They may offer to help with meals, transportation, or delivery of Communion. A palpable sense of solidarity truly can exist between us and others within the parish extended family. This sense of unity develops over time. It comes about through the relationships we build by our active involvement with other people at the parish.
Leaving a parish is serious business, but parish hopping seems to be fashionable nowadays. When people leave a parish, though, it disrupts relationships. It can upset the order of things at the parish. For those leaving, it can be difficult to create similar, new relationships at the successor parish. This is particularly so if the new parish is located far enough away to put a damper on personal engagement there.
For those remaining at the former parish, a gap exists in the relationship network, especially if the departed laity were somewhat active at the parish. Discontinuity in parish ministries can occur with these changes. That can be good if the ministry needed some freshening up, or it can be bad if it was otherwise working effectively. Of course, some personal relationships might continue outside the new parish of choice. It’s just not the same at the former parish, though—there’s often a sense of loss when someone leaves. Consider also that we each have some unique talents and charisms we’ve received to build up the Church. When someone leaves, that unique set of charisms goes with them. Will it be replaced by someone else’s charisms? Maybe. Maybe not. If not, what impact will that have on the parish?
Why Parishioners Leave
The reasons for leaving are as varied as the parishioners who leave. They might include the need to move because of a family’s relocation to another area. Perhaps the parishioners are leaving one parish to join the parish within whose boundaries they actually reside. Maybe the parish they’re leaving is somewhat unorthodox in its practices. As a result, the parishioner leaves to seek the orthodox truth and all that goes with it. These all seem to be sensible reasons for making a move.
On the other hand, many people leave a parish for other, arguably more arbitrary reasons. Many of these moves are driven by the parishioners’ opinions about, and dislike of, individuals at their parish. Usually the departing party will have accumulated a list of beefs about parish life that led them to look elsewhere. In those cases, they’re often running from something, instead of to something.
Parish Volunteers’ Complaints
Everyone is different. What aggravates one of us may not bother the person in the pew next to us. For example, a hum-drum homily may offend one’s sensibilities. It may not bother the others next to him or her, though. In talking with acquaintances from my diocese and elsewhere, I’ve heard a variety of gripes from parish volunteers that led them to go elsewhere. For example:
I will no longer distribute Communion; I don’t like the priest and can’t work for him.
When we distribute Communion, it is important to remember that this truly is Christ in our hands. We lay people, with unconsecrated hands, have the privilege and blessing of distributing Communion to others. That is an awesome responsibility and we ought to ponder it from time to time. Our personal opinions of the priest, deacon, or anyone else should have no bearing on our role as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. We’re not working for the priest or deacon—we’re working for God, as unworthy as we are.
Perhaps we might want to reflect on scripture when these kinds of things make us crazy:
It is good sense to be slow to anger, and an honor to overlook an offense. (Prov 19:11)
Know this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God. (Jas 1:19-20)
Other Complaints at the Parish
Regardless of who the offending party is, we probably can find something to be offended about with them if we look hard enough.
He walked by me without even speaking to me, and that’s just plain rude.
On the face of it, most of us would agree that this behavior is rude. Normally etiquette would dictate that we acknowledge others. This especially is true if they’ve made eye contact with, or have spoken to, us. Most people have a lot on their minds much of the time. On top of this, some people in pastoral ministry may be at least somewhat introverted. As a result, their social skills may need a little work. If we seek to affirm our self-worth through others’ acknowledgement or affirmation of us, though, we will be disappointed. (They just don’t know that it’s really our world and they’re taking up space on it.)
The priest [or deacon] preached about [abortion, or some other hot button topic].
Given what I’ve heard as homilies both at home and in my travels, this seems to be a less common complaint. The important, although potentially divisive topics, just don’t seem to get that much air time. However, I’ve talked with priests who have had parishioners read them the riot act after Mass when they did preach on one of these topics. Sometimes the Good News—the Truth—is hard for some to hear. Be that as it may, we ought to praise God for having clergy who are brave enough to share it with us.
But We’re All Human
Something we forget at times is that we’re all human. We need to look at others through the eyes of Christ who suffered horrifically and died not only for us, but them as well. It’s interesting that we judge ourselves on our words, deeds and intent. We judge others on their words and deeds. Sometimes we assume others’ intent, and our assumptions about their intent hardly ever are positive. As well, in most disagreements or conflicts, rarely is only one party at fault. Often there’s at least some part of the blame to share. How much of the drama and trauma is due to our own words and actions?
Looking again to scripture, we might consider reflecting on the following:
Do not give your heart to every word that is spoken; you may hear your servant cursing you, for your heart knows that you have many times cursed others. (Eccl 7:21-22)
[And] be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ. (Eph 4:32)
Do not speak evil of one another, brothers. Whoever speaks evil of a brother or judges his brother speaks evil of the law and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save or to destroy. Who then are you to judge your neighbor? (Jas 4:11-12)
Giving It to God
In a broader sense, when it’s time for our particular judgment, what will we tell God about all the various choices we’ve made in our lives? Or, to borrow from Ignatian discernment techniques, in the light of eternity, what will we say to God about our decisions? If we’re agitated to the point of leaving our extended parish family, might it not be better to take it to prayer and spiritual direction first?
Michael Casey, a Cistercian monk, has written a book on St. Benedict’s Rule, titled A Guide to Living in the Truth. In that book, he notes that, “It takes much sober reflection to lead us to the conclusion that more often than not we are the real cause of our troubles.” My own painful, personal experience has led me to agree with him on this point. More often than not, when we look in the mirror, the person we see is who we have to change first, with God’s grace. May God give us the grace to work on that person in the mirror. May He give us the grace to seek and to live the Truth with charity towards one another, to build up the Body of Christ.