Committees are no substitute for true community

We used to belong to a parish that was a true community. It was genuinely diverse, with rich and poor people, old and young, able-bodied and impaired, and racially and culturally varied; but there was a sense of unity that I rarely experienced elsewhere, in any group of people of any kind, Catholic or otherwise.

When we got on the parish mailing list, we started to get regular emails: So-and-so needs a ride to the doctor on Thursday; So-and-so needs help changing the oil in his car. I didn’t happen to give birth while we attended that church, but I can easily imagine the landslide of casseroles and hand-crocheted booties that would have come my way if I had.

There was a very clear spirit of love present, and it was concrete and immediate, not abstract. They did have programs and official groups, but there was also a constant exchange of help and concern between individuals, one to one.

It’s tragic that this parish stands out in my head, rather than being the norm. Part of the magic was, of course, that it was small.  Of course little parishes aren’t automatically kind and generous and warm and giving, but they can be. But more and more in the 21st century, they don’t have the chance, because smaller churches are shuttered and de-consecrated, to be transformed into condos or pubs, or just bulldozed; and their former congregations are shunted into high capacity consolidated churches that can serve a wide community.

This is partly because of poor attendance. You can’t pay for lights and heat and insurance if hardly anyone is turning up. But it’s also because astronomically huge gobs of money are going to pay off sex abuse lawsuits, and there’s none left to pay for things like, well, keeping lots of little churches open.

Don’t get me wrong: Victims should be paid. Pressure on parishes is not their fault. But this slow-moving avalanche of the sex abuse scandal is largely crushing other innocent people, and because of the sins of some perverts in pointy hats, people who depended on the Church for help can no longer get it.

And so it goes. Each time a little church closes due to financial strain, there’s one less opportunity for a little gem of a parish to become a warm, busy little hub of charity in the name of Christ.

In big parishes, of course, it’s still possible for the church to care for needy people, whether what they need is food or clothing or help with their electric bills or help finding a job. But what often happens, if the money is there at all, is that there’s a program for everything: A program to feed the homeless, a program for divorcees, a program for widows, a program for youths.

It’s a good thing for needs to be served. Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death. But there are grievous drawbacks to the “there’s a program for that” model. . .

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14 thoughts on “Committees are no substitute for true community”

  1. Another possibility is to form smaller groups within a larger parish community. I attend a mom’s group at a local ‘mega’ parish, and the members often pitch in when someone just had a baby, or needs babysitting.

  2. At the diocesan level, I agree committees can be a lame-O thing, but on the parish level, it’s my experience that committees are not sterile ivory towers, but actual people carrying out the corporal works of mercy among other things. They’re the ones picking up leftover, unpurchased, fresh food from stores and delivering it to the soup kitchens. They’re the ones cleaning the Church. They’re the ones visiting the nursing homes. They’re the ones collecting and sorting diapers and baby clothes. They’re the ones coaching the CYO, running the school and Church fundraisers, and on and on.

    I’ve lived in huge urban parishes my whole life and in our current parish about two dozen years. Our experience has been that each separate ministry of our parish is very much its own small church as described in this post. As we’ve raised our family in the Church, our reach into our parish community has expanded tremendously. Neither my husband nor I are very outgoing, but at a typical weekend Mass with hundreds of worshipers, I’ll bet we know more than half of them. That familiarity comes from those many committees we’ve been over the years, even the unofficial ones, like the daily Mass goers. Parishioners from big committee-heavy parishes ARE there for each other, though perhaps that is not always known or felt by someone who is unable to be involved in any aspect of a parish besides the Sunday Mass. But it just takes one person to send an email to a group – e.g. so and so is going through chemo, here’s a sign up genius for some rides/dog walking/meals/whatever. And people will sign up. Set the example in your own little committees, send out that email when somebody needs help. It is a practice that spreads like wildfire.

    Involvement with any activity (Church related or not) forms connections, but Church related ones bring prayers and ideally should bring other, more tangible support. Christians are hardwired to want to help the suffering. So I would say if you’re in a big parish but want to feel that small church community, join a committee!

  3. I think the committee is a knee jerk reaction. First, I think people feel the casualness of community allowed us, the parishioners, to drop our guard making it easy for the abuse crisis to happen. And to go uninterrupted for such a long time. The Church reacted by formalising the community to cover itself and it’s people, of any issues that may arise. By sterilising the idea of community and running the Church “professionally” the Church figured they wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes. The effect of the abuse crisis has had a huge domino effect. Secondly – Social Media. (Says I on the other side of the keyboard). People have lost the skill for one on one interaction. We don’t relate, and therefore lack genuine empathy for others. We don’t know how to react to someone’s reaction to our action. I think we forgot how to be genuine and wear our hearts on our sleeves. I think we lost the skill to read others. It’s all done from a distance. Abit robotic.

    On a side, I have a hard time seeing how financial compensation to victims of clergy abuse provides any real justice or healing. I would imagine the perpetrator being behind bars (taking him away from the public), depriving him of all freedom or peace, would be the best long term earthly justice. I think the Church paying the victims is just the Church washing its hands of the problem.

    1. I believe if it weren’t for the financial compensation the American Church has been forced to hand over to victims and their attorneys, our bishops would still have their heads in the sand. No small part of me is glad our Church is suffering financially. The days of McCarrick and his ilk being driven around in limousines are over – Praise the Lord!

      1. Yes I guess the compensation has contributed to therapy. But shouldn’t the Church hold these victims hands and stay with them and help them heal? Have parishes put together support groups for these victims? The Church is meant to be a family, and a father wouldn’t simply hand over money to his child and say go get therapy I can’t help you, after a family member abused them. That’s not love. There needs to be ongoing support and accountability from the Church. Anyway, the only slap in the face these bishops need is to send a few to jail. Real perpetrators (not innocent scapegoats to appease the media, as they have done in the Pell case). McCarrick to begin with. If they dug deep enough they could build a criminal case against him. Doesn’t he have personal assets? Isn’t he wealthy? How? He has gotten off very lightly in this haze of Church secrecy. Publicly defrock him. Publicly hand over to the police any information. More transparency from the Church. Ha! A committee could do this. It needs to be open, public and straight to the point. The faithfuls cynicism, the public’s distrust is all still there because all that is being done is sending diocese broke thinking that’ll teach ‘em. I don’t think it has or will. Anyway, I think Ive digressed a little from the article topic.

        1. It is very hard to heal and remain very close to the perpetrator of one’s abuse at the same time (spoken as someone who went through some major trauma inflicted by family members as a child). In the example that you gave of a father handing over money to a child and telling them to go get therapy, yes, that could be the loving response. Especially if the father was complicit in the abuse or aware of it or failed to protect the child, he cannot be a source of healing for that child. Let a trained professional help the person heal. Some kind of relationship could be re-established at some point, sure, and that would be good. But I think it’s good that abuse survivors choose their own therapists and work through their trauma outside the church, with trained professionals.

          I do think there is room and a need in the church for support groups like you’re talking about (and I know of one in Indianapolis that’s great), but that is not the same as individual therapy and should not supplant it.

          1. Im sorry for your struggles inflicted by family members. I can’t imagine anything more difficult. I pray God continues to give you strength.
            I understand your reasoning about the importance of therapy. I acknowledge this. I hope though, that distance from the Church to heal, does not mean distance from the Sacraments- notably the Mass and the Eucharist. This is the most awful thing about the horror of clerical abuse. This is why I would hope the Church goes above and beyond to regain that trust.

  4. My son died at age 35 and many people in our parish (at Mass), avoid us at all costs. It is completely disheartening.

    1. I’m so sorry Mary. I have said some prayers for you and your son. Having such a horrific loss compounded by your church community’s seeming indifference is horrific. Does your parish (or a nearby one) have a group for parents who have lost children? If not, perhaps you could put a line or two in your bulletin with your contact info inviting other parents who’ve lost children to meet? Just to pray and support each other. It sounds like such a group is desperately needed in your area. I am so sorry you are dealing with the loss of your son.

  5. “In theory, we come to the Church for the sacraments that no one else can offer; but in practice, normal human people are going to have a hard time seeing Jesus, the giver of life, in a crowd of people that acts like they don’t exist.”
    Oof. I’m just gonna…stick that in my pocket.

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