Making Parishes Personal

My family and I live in what many Catholics would consider a suburban “sweet spot”—smack between four Catholic churches placed conveniently to the north, south, east and west of us, with the farthest being only a three-mile drive away. Ironically, perhaps, this farthest one, the one to the west, is also our territorial parish. Ideally, we’d be frequenting our territorial parish. Ideally, there would not be three churches closer, but such is our gerrymandered life.

When we moved to our new home, we registered with this parish, and our kids attended the school there. When the eldest started high school, at a private Catholic K-12 campus, we transferred the younger ones there also, for a variety of reasons, and my wife started attending a more convenient parish for weekday Mass. We soon started going to that parish for Sunday Mass, also for a variety of reasons, and registered there. That church is about an 11-mile drive, and while the K-12 school we started out at no longer exists, this farther parish remains our home.

My wife still attends daily Mass there; my preference is the earlier one at the church about two miles east of us. For confession, we usually drive down to the church two miles to the south. This may all seem very complicated, and it is. In no way do I admit it’s the right way of doing things.

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Our story is not perfect, nor is it unique. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that, in my archdiocese, the percentage of Catholics who are registered in their territorial parish has dropped from 92 percent in 1959 to 63 percent in 2015. This number, while still appearing good, leaves out those who are registered at their territorial parish but have gone elsewhere for their spiritual needs on a regular or occasional basis, as well as the many who are not registered. Some also may be registered at more than one parish, because “unregistering” is inconvenient or problematic.

To quote the awful phrase, we are church. As Catholics, our faith is lived in community, and this community gives us sustenance—friendship, mostly, as well as opportunities to not only care for and about others, but to learn from them, and to help them to learn and mature in their faith. The importance of a stable parish community cannot be underestimated.

That said, the problem so many Catholics face is how parishes shift over time, as priests come and go. Let’s face it, not all priests place the same level of importance on the same things, whether it is community service or a reverent liturgy. A change in pastors can especially alter the nature of a parish.

All this came to mind when I read an interview over at Crux with a writer with a book coming out later this year. The title of the story was intriguing: “Making parishes more personal by making personal parishes.” The book, by sociology professor Tricia Colleen Bruce, is titled, Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church.

Unlike territorial parishes, the personal parish model ties together groups of similar backgrounds. There was a time when, especially in cities, one could find a Lithuanian parish, or Polish parish, for example. These churches were a big help especially to newer immigrants. To what extent these national parishes are still required is a subject for debate, but it’s clear there are certain demographics—Asian, Hispanic and African-American, for example—that can continue to be served by this idea of a personal parish, as long as it does not lead to too much segregation.

Here in St. Louis one finds the majestic St. Alphonsus Ligouri, a parish also referred to as St. Alphonsus “Rock” because of the stonework. It has a long history, dating back to its 1872 dedication, and has long been spiritual home to St. Louis’s African-American Catholics. It’s also a church with an interesting history. In 1887, Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first African-American Catholic priest, visited the church and offered Mass; in 1922, the Church became the birthplace of the weekly Tuesday novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, now prayed throughout the world.

Other areas where we see personal parishes arising are in serving communities attached to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, as well as those with the newer Anglican Usage of the liturgy. As these involve different specific forms of the liturgy, it’s easy to understand why one would want a personal parish focused on them.

I look forward to reading Dr. Bruce’s book at some point. I appreciate what she says in her interview, about parishes, with one caveat. She notes that personal parishes “can help to preserve particular iterations of Catholicism, to retain Catholics in the Church, and to pass along the faith for generations to come.” I hope her book title’s reference to the “American Catholic Church,” which often sets alarms off in my mind, was simply for brevity, not a recognition that there should be a separate rite or entity other than the Catholic Church in the United States.

Here’s an example. Recently, the National Catholic Reporter featured an article about New Ways Ministry, which a few decades ago began to publish a list of “gay-friendly” parishes. The list now totals more than 200 parishes, and the article notes that this list is the most popular part of the New Ways website. There is not a clear definition of what “gay-friendly” means, and it is admitted it is a subjective term. Likewise, the pastor of a parish on the list incorrectly, or who does not like the notoriety, may find it hard to get his parish removed. “Once there has been public acknowledgement, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” the executive director of New Ways commented.

This is problematic, and this confusion is why we need to ensure that these “particular iterations of Catholicism” of which Dr. Bruce writes are faithful to the Faith and its teachings, that they really do provide a community where Catholics can grow in their faith and worship with reverence, and where the Body of Christ itself can grow in the unity of its tradition and teaching, respecting the generations that have built our beautiful churches with their sweat and their sacrifices.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “High Mass at a Fishing Village on the Zuyder Zee, Holland” painted by George Clausen in 1880.


  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

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