One of my favorite things about being Catholic is the sense of community and family that we have as a universal church. Whenever I am out of town and I drive by a Catholic church, I can’t help but think about the community that gathers there and my connection with them. However, as with any family (or group of humans), there are always disagreements and things that tend to divide us. Although I have always been aware of this, it became more evident to me as I came across one particular comment on the internet this week.
I work at a parish that was recently featured on the U.S. Catholic magazine website as a part of their Better Know a Parish series. One of our parishioners wrote to the magazine nominating our parish as a place that has helped her to grow in her faith and fostered a strong emphasis on the church as a community, rather than just a building. Our parish happens to be young, with a median age of 33, and we worship with contemporary music at all four of our weekend Masses. As a new parish we haven’t built our permanent church building yet, so we currently worship in a multi-purpose Parish Life Center that is used for everything from weekend Masses to blood drives. We use screens at Mass to project the lyrics for songs, and show live video of parts of the Mass like a baby being baptized, or the Eucharistic Prayer so that people in the back can be more present to what is happening in the Sanctuary. We know that we may appear a lot different than what may be the “stereotypical” Catholic church, but our parish continues to grow rapidly. We by no means suggest that our style of worship is the “right” way to celebrate Mass, but we have found that this allows our community to enter more fully into the liturgy.
At the bottom of the article on the U.S. Catholic website, one woman -- let’s call her "Emily" -- commented that this “...would not be a church I would attend.” At first I didn’t really give any thought to her comment because I know that our Catholic church spans a broad range of countries, musical styles, architectural masterpieces, languages and cultures. I would never be presumptuous enough to believe that everyone must have the same tastes that I do.
Several days later I was thinking about this woman’s comment again. One of the principal charisms of our parish is hospitality, so I am always thinking about how we can help visitors feel welcome. After further analysis of the article and of her comments, I came to one conclusion. Many times we tend to put our personal taste before our faith. Allow me to explain.
Whether we are celebrating Mass in an ancient Cathedral or the middle of a mission field, the essential elements are the same: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the the Nicene Creed each Sunday we profess that we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. But as soon as a parish has a kind of music different from what we would prefer, doesn’t have the most exciting homilies, or sees its people rush in and out without talking to each other, we dismiss it as a church or Mass that we don’t like. Perhaps something that we wouldn’t choose to attend again. Trust me, I am speaking from experience. I once attended a parish that made the Glory to God sound like the most inglorious piece of music I have ever heard. I found myself almost angry. I was letting my preference for music get in the way of hearing God move my heart for the rest of the Mass.
In a sense, I think this happened to Emily, too. She immediately perceived what she didn’t like (without ever experiencing it in person) before acknowledging that the same Jesus that is present in her parish with pews, chant and incense is just as present at our parish with screens, drums and chairs. It’s what ties us together as a Catholic family. Mass isn’t about our personal preferences. It’s about Jesus. I don’t think this should be an excuse for parishes to not have quality music (in any style), excellent preaching or a spirit of welcome for all. That’s a cop-out, namely not to try and be the best at what you do. However, as the faithful, we should recognize that a Catholic church is our home, no matter the language, architecture, music, artwork or ratio of incense to breathable air.
As you travel over these summer months (and make sure that Mass is still a priority on Sundays) I challenge you to recognize Jesus’ presence in each Catholic church that you pass. Perhaps say a prayer for their pastoral team, the sick in the parish, the next couple that will celebrate their wedding there, or the family that just mourned the loss of a loved one there. We are one family. We can’t afford for personal taste to come before our communal faith.