Over the last few years, I have conducted something of an unplanned survey on parish life around the country. Since 2006 I have visited around 50 parishes—mainly in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania—but also in Maryland, Massachusetts, California and Illinois. So let me share some good news from my entirely unscientific survey.
The occasions for these visits are invitations to speak at parishes, usually in the evening, on a topic like the saints or joy in the spiritual life. Normally the schedule proceeds as follows: I am picked up at a train station by the pastor, driven to the rectory, where I dine with the resident priests (sometimes with deacons, sisters or pastoral associates) and shown around the church before the talk. Afterward the pastor or a parishioner drives me back to the station. In the process, everyone is eager to talk about what is going on in their parish.
Mind you, these data are rather random, and I do not aspire to the sociological standards of the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate. Nonetheless, here is what I’ve learned (no confidences will be broken).
1. Pastors are astonishingly busy. Nor-mally, it is the frazzled pastor, with his clerical collar askew, who meets me at the train station. “Sorry I’m late,” he’ll say. “It’s been a crazy day!” Now everyone seems busy these days, especially parents of young children and those working multiple jobs, but I wonder how many Catholics know how hard their pastors work. In between the sacramental services there is balancing the books, managing the school, visiting the sick and lonely, counseling and on and on. Typically, the pastor works with a small clerical staff. So the first finding: the hard-working, dog-tired pastor is the norm.
2. Sisters and lay pastoral associates are the lifeblood of the church. Last year I spoke at the jubilee Mass of a woman religious. When I arrived, I was deluged with stories about how much people loved her and with detailed descriptions of the dazzling array of activities she had founded. Even sisters in their 70s and 80s who have had several careers are full of zeal for the people of God. One night, following news about the Vatican’s apostolic visitation of American women religious, I met a sister who ran the parish adult initiation program, oversaw other adult education activities and saw a dozen people for spiritual direction. I thought, I wish the Vatican could meet her!
Working just as hard—and taking care of a family on top of it—are lay pastoral associates, who are usually highly educated and experienced but low paid. Without these two groups, sisters and lay associates, our church would grind to a halt.
3. People love their parishes. Before these lectures, I am usually guided through the church. It is always fascinating to take in the architecture (neo-Gothic 1900s, Art Deco 1930s, A-frame 1950s, airy 1980s), examine the statues of the saints and hear the pastor explain any mysterious stained-glass window images. And no matter what the diocese, the easiest conversation starter is, “You have a lovely church.” The response is invariably, “Oh, we love it here!” Then comes the best part of the evening: They tell me how much they treasure their parish, pastor, deacons, sisters and pastoral staff. Most Catholics just love, love, love their parish.
True, not all is well in Catholic Land. I also hear tales of rigid priests and grumpy sisters. And believe me, when people know you are not part of the local diocese and are not going to report them to anyone, the floodgates of complaint open up. But overall, the life of the Catholic parish is flourishing, and I have seen the proof.