I continually wrestle with the fact our parish is not especially seeker-friendly. I recall how I was as a seeker 30 years ago and recognize I probably would not have come back for a number of reasons: no women up front; people standing or kneeling to recite prayers in unison from a book (how weird!); and the stress on believing and reciting creeds.
Twenty years ago, when I first started attending Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I was ready for all of the above. At the time, Annunciation permitted a kind of open Communion—if you believed in Real Presence in the Eucharist, you would receive. I wonder now if I would have continued to attend services at Annunciation if we had the Catholic discipline we have now: that one must be a baptized Catholic in good-standing in order to receive Holy Communion. I totally accept this discipline now.
I was reminded of this by a recent post by Fr. Christopher Phillips on his Atonement Online blog:
Some years ago I had a brief exchange of emails with an Anglican clergyman who lives a little distance away. It’s an exchange I will always remember. His parish was, I think, part of the American group that had a pastoral relationship with some of the Anglicans in Africa. I don’t really understand all the connections, and I don’t know who’s in communion with whom, but he came across as a very nice man who plainly loves Christ. He was writing to express his interest in talking with me, so I let him know I’d be delighted to see him, and we suggested some possible dates and times.
One of my suggestions was a time right after one of the weekday Masses. “In fact,” I wrote, “perhaps you’d like to come to the Mass, and we can meet right afterwards.” That sounded like a great idea to him, and I thought we were set.
Then I got another email. “Am I ok for Holy Communion?” I knew what he was asking, and I wondered why he would even ask. “Sadly, no,” I wrote back, “I’m a priest under orders, as I know you understand, and I wouldn’t be able to administer Holy Communion to you.”
Here’s what he wrote back: “This is one of the things that stands in the way of real unity – the RCC treats other Christians as though they aren’t really Christians – denying them the Body and the Blood. This is especially problematic in light of the fact that you and I do nearly the same service, and our ordinations share many of the same apostolic roots, along with a common apostolic succession. That’s gotta hurt the cause of Christ in a world that desperately, desperately needs Him.”
In the run-up to our becoming Catholic, we lost some parishioners for the very reason that our discipline around Holy Communion would change.
Fr. Phillips acknowledges maybe he should not have invited the Anglican clergyman to attend Mass. And one of the reasons why we have choral Evensong a couple of times a month is that it offers an opportunity for us to invite people to our parish to experience the beauty of our liturgy without telling them, oh, uh, please do not go forward to receive Holy Communion. We also have wine and cheese in the parish hall afterwards for fellowship.
This spring, I attended the New Evangelization Summit, and Fr. James Mallon, spoke on the necessity of throwing out those old things that have not worked in attracting new people. He is the founder of the Divine Renovation: from maintenance to mission movement that is based on his experience transforming a parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, using Alpha, small group ministry and providing opportunities for people to have a spiritual encounter with Christ before undergoing catechesis. Fr. Mallon recognizes many new Christians are not ready for sacraments, so he advises they be brought into “connect groups” where they receive further teaching and mentoring to prepare them.
I wondered, if Fr. Mallon would tell us we should throw out our liturgy, our hymn books, our thees and thous because that’s the reason people aren’t lining up around the corner to get into our Mass on Sunday. (To this day, frankly, it astonishes me that they are not lining up, but I digress).
Recently, I had a conversation with a Roman Catholic priest who used to celebrate our liturgy for us during the period after our parish was received into the Catholic Church in April 2012 until the first of our former clergy was ordained as a Catholic priest in early 2013. He loved our liturgy and ordered our missal when it was published. I spoke about my concern about our lack of a shallow end; that we are not seeker-friendly as such.
Your parish is a disciples’ church, he said.
Not every parish is meant to be for seekers, offering milk, I realize. Our parish offers meat, and nourishes and equips us to go out into the world in a range of different apostolates from medicine, to teaching, to public service to vocations of marriage and family.
I remember the first few times I attended Annunciation. It was a small community, and the average age was much older than it is now, but what made me want to stay was the beauty of the Mass and the reverence of the priests, especially Bishop Robert Mercer, in the way they honored Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Holiness attracted me. Theology conveyed in the ballet of genuflection that imparted a sense of being lifted to the worship of heaven attracted me. Oddly enough, two friends who I introduced to the parish around that time on separate occasions had the same experience and became members in short order.
My Roman Catholic priest friend said we need to do a better job of getting the word out. I am looking forward to doing that once I have retired from journalism later this year.