My home parish is located in a small town in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t one that is obviously aesthetically beautiful. Its community life wasn’t notably stellar. Growing up, I would have never described myself as particularly attached.
And yet I remember…
I sat in the second pew on the left side, directly in front of the choir. I practiced gymnastics on the kneeler when I thought my parents weren’t looking. The tabernacle, even if off to the right of the altar, was impossible not to notice, and I could tell you the exact seating arrangement of 9am Mass.
When the homily was over my head (usually) I used to memorize the way the stain glass was arranged. I’d quiz myself on which colors were where I closed my eyes and pretended to pray. On the Easter vigil I had kept entertained by dripping candle wax on the floor beneath my seat. I kept count of how many weeks it would take before it was removed. 5.
My first confession was said in the confessional closest to the exit. All of my CCD friends said it was easy to make a first confession, but, I still tried to disguise my voice in fear of being recognized. It did not work even one bit. “Have a good day, Regina,” father said to me as I left.
On the day of my first Holy Communion I said the third petition. I had to stand on my tip toes while also standing on a ladder in order to almost reach the microphone.
To my confirmation, I wore a periwinkle mock turtleneck sweater that matched the exact hue of the hydrangeas on the altar. It was the night of my grandmother’s viewing. I went third, and I lost my breath when the bishop put his hand on my shoulder in a mix of nerves and grief. My priest reminded me of what to do and gently braced my arm to show support, but I never managed to thank him out loud.
In college I took interest in church architecture and sacred art and traveled far and wide to see it. No matter how beautiful or edifying the sight before my eyes, I never felt like I was home, home.
On the day of my wedding I ran to my church early in the morning. I would marry at my fiancé’s home parish. But the day didn’t feel complete without spending some time in the pew that had heard the most important prayers of my life on the most important day of mine.
And now, on occasion I’ll go back with my five kids and their less than appropriate Mass behavior. Sometimes its as if I can hear my childhood kneeler saying “how does it feel when they do gymnastics on your lap?”
The Church that built me still feels like home, and I think to some degree it always will.
In dioceses across the country including my own, though, home parishes are closing. By 2023 my diocese will go from 188 parishes to 57. They are being sold, consolidated, renamed, and repurposed. Pastors, too, are without their parish, as they are reassigned or replaced.
A parish, according to canon law, “possesses juridic personality.” The personality of mine was of course rather obvious to anyone who witnessed my weekly gymnastics routine. Jokes aside, if our Church is to regain its life, we must consider deeply, and grieve properly, the loss of particular manifestations of parochial personality.
Buildings might crumble, but the life inside them ought not.
The pragmatic part of me understands that when money, due to consistent mismanagement, is tight, and only getting tighter, something has to be done. Culture has changed, too, and so has the population of Sunday Mass. Of course, the vision of parochial life must transform to fit the times in which it is contained.
Yet, as church leaders attempt to navigate their way through decisions of what to do and how, I have found myself wondering, do they remember that these places are our homes? Do they know that when we bulldoze onward that part of us gets bulldozed, too?
The hope, of course, is where it always is, right there in the tabernacle. No matter how poorly mismanaged the diocese, or how attached we are to our parish homes it reminds us that we must look beyond leaders, the hierarchy, and even above the most intricate of our cathedrals.
We must remember that our truest home is beyond a building, more than memories and that the truest church is not a building at all, but, a living body.
If we are to rebuild what is lost, we must begin in ourselves. The personality of a parish begins within our own person and the personality we express. Strong individuals of faith will build stronger communities of faith, and that is the church that can never be lost, closed, or torn down. Together let us do the rebuilding of something beautiful for God.