Faith and Family Live had a priest address the question of whether you were obligated to attend your neighborhood church or the church of your choosing. His answers were very interesting and he addressed the idea of "parish shopping."
For me this is certainly a hot-button issue for many reasons. Twice in my life I have first hand experienced being in a parish where I felt my "spiritual needs" were not being met. The first time I was a child and had very little say in the matter until my parents had finally had enough of the parish and we found sanctuary elsewhere. In reality the first parish was closer but not by a whole lot. My parents had very definite reasons to leave the first parish which I will not address as that is private information I do not have permission to disclose. The original church was one my parents had helped to found and the separation was painful. The architechture was unorthodox (something I could get over) and the worship was, for me, less than spiritually fulfilling. You could not quietly pray before mass because people, grown adults, were talking out loud. I learned a lot when I was there about listening for God as the quiet voice amidst all the banging noises. It was and is a parish that would be considered "liberal" by most standards. The parish we joined afterward had a very different feel to it. It was older, much more traditional, and most of the ministries felt more like ministry and less like a social event. Ironically, it was there that a charismatic (both in personality and Catholicism) youth minister named Ralph Poyo ignited many young minds, including my own. He was a wonderful example of how traditions within the church could, for the most part, peacefully co-exist.
When I went off to college, I utilized the local Newman Center. There was a church relatively close by but you needed a car to get there and I had none. When I did go though, it was with a heavy heart. I found what at first appeared to be a melding of contemporary and traditional mass/Catholicism but came to realize it was more of a hodge-podge of things thrown together and the right hand never seemed to know where the left was much less what it was doing. On top of all of this my boyfriend at the time (now my husband), not Catholic, felt VERY uncomfortable there. He received judgmental stares when he did not go up to receive communion, the priest never looked him (or me for that matter) in the eye when he greeted us or shook our hands, and people rarely offered their hand to him or even a greeting during the Sign of Peace.
A few miles down the road was a small Catholic church that was much more traditional where we found ourselves welcomed, where the priest remembered our names and offered to bless Jeff after mass privately since he was uncomfortable receiving a blessing during communion, and parishioners were warm and inviting. We were sad to leave it when we moved.
There is no "neighborhood parish" where I live now. In fact, our county only has two and they are almost 40 minutes to 1 hour away. So, I travel into the adjoining county to a parish only 20 minutes away. A beautiful and historic parish, it is one of the few that melds a fairly diverse population of Catholics well. There are members of many ages and stages there and several couples of mixed religions. Two of our three children have been baptized there (the one who wasn't was baptized at my parents' church) and we recently celebrated Joey's Godmother's wedding there. Jeff has always felt comfortable there which is very important to me and we have made good and close friends while still being members of a fairly large parish.
The point I am finally coming around to making is that it is a luxury that I, myself, and Catholics in America have to be able to choose which parish we would like to worship in. That being said, prayer should lead one to decide if they should try and help change a close by parish that is not "meeting their needs" or find a new parish. Before I complain about something at my current parish or any parish, I stop and take a moment and pray for those in prison who do not have a true parish to worship in or those overseas in non-Christian countries forced to practice in a home. Those in the hospital in small dioceses who may not be able to receive communion if they become sick or shut-in. Christ is present in the Eucharist in all parishes even if they allow girls to be altar servers or the priest invites children out to a Liturgy of the Word. If the parishioners are welcoming and see everyone as part of Christ's body or are openly hostile to outsiders, Christ is present in the Eucharist. We are blessed to live in a prosperous (and yes, I know about the recession) country where churches flourish.
For a slightly different perspective on this, last year Jen posted a blog about mass in the vernacular. Again, realizing that Christ is always present in the Eucharist, if we are in a foreign country or something has happened that the Spanish mass is the only one we can attend, "I don't speak the language" is not an acceptable excuse. So next time you consider bemoaning something at your church, perhaps the old Catholic stand-by of offering it up would be a better use of your time than complaint and then pray. If you are meant to be the light that changes things, do it, if not, God will let you know!
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