Deacon Greg pointed me to this link from Joe Ferullo and the National Catholic Reporter
My cousin is a business graduate student back at home, and is staying with us while doing a corporate internship in town for his master’s thesis. He’s gone to Disneyland and downtown, to Hollywood and Malibu — but our local parish has made a real impression.
Usually the place is pretty full on Sundays, which is not the case in Italy. Not even in the small town outside of Naples where my cousin grew up and still lives. There, a scattered dozen or so old ladies in traditional black still bother to make church-going a steady habit. An ancient organ heaves out traditional tunes, but no one sings along.
And the priests, my cousin says, are as ancient as everything else — preaching an Italian version of fire-and-brimstone homilies to the few in the pews. He was stunned to meet our pastor, who is a youthful 50 years old and sometimes wears Hawaiian shirts on his days off. His homilies are humorous, thoughtful and straightforward, speaking to everyday life and tying that to the gospel. Same thing when our bishop came recently to deliver the sacrament of Confirmation to my daughter and forty other teenagers her age. He didn’t speak over the heads of kids, nor did he condescend to them — he was simple and direct and genuine.
My cousin said he understood why the church was full, and why the ones back home were not.
Indeed. I’d go a few steps further. You fill the pews by doing the following:
1) Welcoming: Quite often nobody becomes engaged in a community unless someone else comes over and talks with them and gives them some kind of formal welcome. But we often don’t do that at church. The ones that do are the ones that thrive.
2) Good preaching: Now we lay people have little control over this one, but pastors often value feedback and believe that their preaching time is the most important thing they do all week. As someone who gets to do reflections from time to time, I can tell you first hand, this is not easy work–but it’s very much appreciated by the congregation when it is done with care.
3) Singable music: Notice I didn’t necessarily say “good music”. Why? Because we can argue about our individual tastes in music with some preferring Gregorian Chant to Praise and worship–but I think we can agree that if you spin out a catchy little tune people will sing along. They aren’t intimidated by giving them something that they can sing along to and singing with a cantor who has an inviting presence and not an intimidating one that says “I could never keep up with her/him.” It also guards against the “performance” style where the congregation listens and the “performers” sing. That might be entertaining, but it sure ain’t church.
4) No diatribes against modern culture: We all live in this culture and helping people live in the world according to the principles of the church need not be a fire and brimstone activity. When we stand against the culture necessarily at times, we need not denigrate the ENTIRE culture. The world is good. God said it and we believe it. Help our unbelief.
5) Point people to life giving ministry: In short, let people know that there are things going on–but be focused. In many good parishes there is so much going on that we miss most of it because of challenges on our time. And people get overwhelmed by things easily. If we focused our community on one big project per month that everyone could (and wanted to) participate in—that would go a lot farther and keep the community engaged. Now, other smaller things will happen organically and those involved in them will invite others to those events but the parish at large doesn’t need to push those as hard in a litany of various announcements.
6) Size matters: We used to think that we should start small and build on the little event that we can blow up to a large scale event. But in truth, doing something that is a huge event that is done extremely well is far better than a bunch of small events that nobody was particularly engaged in. So build something that attracts a lot of attention to start and then from that excitement, you can build smaller events to keep those excited people coming back. Campus Ministers should do large Habitat projects, mission trips and Alternative Spring Breaks as well as retreats. Parish ministers should think about human concerns and making a difference in the community and having big gala events for celebrations. Both should think about large-scale prayer events that bring people together for mass or prayer for a particular reason.
It’s time to rally the troops and it doesn’t sound like that happens with fire and brimstone in churches that are indeed barely alive.