Upon arrival at UD I wasn’t exactly what one would call a lifelong Catholic. I was part of a mixed faith household, and though I attended Catholic school and received the sacraments, for most of high school I was not very religious. I had considered myself Protestant before losing my faith altogether, only to return to Christianity near the end of junior year, this time however on the side of Rome.
UD’s solid faith community helped me to regain solid footing; it further developed my interest in theology and deepened my faith. And so during the breaks when I was at home, I set out to find a parish to attend regularly. Because my family is non-practicing, I had a degree of freedom to choose which parish I could attend when I was home. There were also plenty of churches in my hometown of Sacramento, so I had many options to pick from. But what I quickly discovered was that this process was far more difficult than anticipated.
It seemed as if every parish I tried in my hometown, despite being of different strands of Catholicism, were united in these characteristics: being cold, impersonal, and unwelcome. No one ever greeted me or asked to talk after Mass, and I could almost never find people after Mass since most left immediately afterwards, including the priests. And the few that did have some vibrancy had a host of problems of their own. I found a Latin Mass parish that was incredibly beautiful and had lots of people attending. But eventually, a few homilies later claiming the pope was attempting to “exterminate” their church, I didn’t feel I could stay any longer. I have since learned that this same parish has ceased praying for the Holy Father altogether.
I also was not the only one who had this problem. My roommate Zachary Rothammer, a junior theology major and also a newer Catholic, experienced a similar situation in his home state of Vermont. Though he claimed that Northern parishes seemed to be friendlier than southern ones, he still observed that the evangelical communities in his area were much more outgoing towards visitors on the whole.
I discovered this part of the problem as well. As I mentioned in a previous article, I worked in DC this past summer and stayed with several other guys as we did various internships. We were all of different Christian traditions — two Baptists, three Catholics, and one Eastern Orthodox. As a way to cultivate fellowship, on certain days one guy would take a few others to their service so that we could see what it was like. What I quickly discovered was that, though I had my disagreements with the Protestant and Orthodox teachings, the congregations were incredibly friendly to visitors while also being tight knit communities. One Baptist church had a plethora of activities to engage interns both within the church and with the city by hosting service days in DC, social events for the church attendees and Bible studies. In the Orthodox parishes, they always invited visitors after the liturgy to a communal meal, where both the lay people and the clergy would get to know visitors and seek to form genuine relationships.
But to my dismay, the Catholic parishes I attended for Mass seemed very similar to the ones back home. No one greeted us or sought fellowship after Mass, and the few times this did happen were because either one of our group knew someone in the parish prior, or in one instance, the usher asked us to help since they were short of volunteers.
I’m sure that these observations are not reflective of all Catholic churches, but it is telling that this pattern is present in many of them, with probably many different reasons and explanations as to why. But upon further reflection, what I realized is that, where many of these Catholic parishes fail, the Church of the Incarnation and UD at large, succeed.
One can have valid criticisms of the New Mass — I myself prefer the Byzantine Divine Liturgy for example- but the Church of the Incarnation functions as a Catholic parish should. It forms a community with the activities it provides for the students like Men’s Society, Blessed is She, and the faculty rosaries. It engages the wider university population by encouraging acts of charity or helping with vocation discernment. And it fosters a prayerful and reverent atmosphere with daily Mass and Adoration. In other words, it has life. Many of the towering cathedrals and historic churches act more like dispensaries for the sacraments — you go, you receive, and then you leave. But with UD, the church has a life of its own. Its members support one another and encourage devotion and fellowship, and its clergy help to cultivate an environment that welcomes the faithful and encourages those who are struggling.
I am happy to say that I have since found a Byzantine parish in Sacramento that espouses similar qualities, and I am slowly getting more integrated into the community. But I encourage UDers to take this spirit of the campus church life and bring it to their communities back home. It could help fulfill the call for the New Evangelization, and encourage a much needed cultural revival, both within and without the Catholic community. These parishes are our Faith’s lifeblood, and we have an obligation to make sure they fulfill the purpose they are meant to serve.