Parish Hopping

Parish Hopping

Parish hopping is defined as moving from parish to parish in the hope of finding the “right” one. It is the Catholic version of the “church hopping” found in Evangelical, Pentecostal, and some mainline Protestant churches. (Some interesting discussions of “church hopping” can be found online.)

The reason such hopping occurs more frequently among Protestants may be explained by the fact that the primary, in some cases the sole, emphasis in their religious services is on Scripture, whereas the primary emphasis in the Catholic Mass is on the Eucharist. For obvious reasons, it is easier to find cause for complaint in the presentation of Scripture than in the celebration of the Eucharist.

Of course, enterprising complainers can discover offenses in the celebration of the Eucharist, as well. They may say, “Father Aloysius doesn’t fully kneel after the consecration” or “He mumbles ‘the body of Christ’ when he distributes communion.” In their minds, that is enough to warrant the “I’m outta here” response.

There are many other reasons (aka excuses) for parish hopping. Some people don’t like the kind of music favored by the choir director. Others are upset with the flower arrangements on the altar. Still others are outraged when sixth graders from the parish school tap dance to the tune of Ave Maria at the foot of the altar. (OK, I made that last one up.) Some just don’t like the cut of the pastor’s vestments.

Historically, a major complaint of many Catholics about their pastors has been that they talk too much about money. No doubt some of today’s parish hoppers would cite that as their reason for leaving. They expect to find, somewhere, a pastor who will have the financial skills to manage the parish and school with the few dollars they put into the basket each week . . . or at least one who will have the good grace not to whine about his inability to do so.

Some Catholics engage in parish hopping because the pastor is “too liberal.” To be fair, this reason sometimes has a solid basis in reality, notably when the pastor expresses from the pulpit views that, in times past, would have gotten him burned at the stake or at least declared a heretic. But then again, in other cases “too liberal” can be a fancy way of saying “he disagrees with me.”

An interesting variation on “He’s too liberal” is “His sermons are more about politics than spirituality.” This is not a new complaint by any means. Nor is it entirely lacking in merit. In the 1960s a friend of mine had such a reaction to his pastor. As he put it, “I can read the New York Times myself without having it read to me from the pulpit.” However, he didn’t go parish hopping in response—he dealt with his frustration in a more mature way, by grinding his teeth during the sermon.

Today’s Catholics, being more mobile than their parents, can be more adventurous in their search for the perfect parish. I know a woman who drives three hours, round trip, to attend Sunday Mass. (Apparently, there is an extraordinary dearth of acceptable churches in her area.)

Not only do conservative Catholics flee priests they deem “too liberal”; liberal Catholics also flee priests they deem “too conservative.” The offenses of the latter can include behaviors such as giving favorable mention to the Church’s teaching on birth control, abortion, or gay marriage.  Such protests remind me of the Pentecostal woman given to shouting her approval of the preacher’s words. One day, the pastor was reciting the Ten Commandments. After each Commandment, the woman shouted “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” When he reached “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” however, she turned to her neighbor and said, “Now he’s beginning to meddle.”

A number of people leave parishes not because of the substance of the homilies but because of the poor quality of their presentation. Truth to tell, the homiletics course is not among the most effectively taught in many Catholic seminaries. That could be because in Catholicism the Liturgy of the Word is subordinate to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Or, equally plausible, because seminary professors have the same “whatever” attitude toward elocution as their peers in colleges and universities. In any case, leaving a parish expecting the next pastor to be the second coming of Fulton Sheen is likely to result in disappointment.

I am not saying there are no good reasons for leaving one parish for another but only that when people do so serially, the problem is more likely to be in them than in the parishes. More specifically, they are likely to harbor one or more of these mistaken ideas:

1. They see their role at Mass as spectators or judges. Thus their minds are programmed to cheer or boo the performance (silently, thank goodness). If they had scorecards like the ones used in diving competitions, they would hold them up at various points in the Mass—5.5 for the sermon, 8.0 for the creed, and so on. Their parish hopping is akin to channel surfing.

Such people have never considered attending Mass as participants rather than spectators—that is, giving thanks and praise, reenacting the Last Supper, reverently receiving Christ’s body and blood, and pledging obedience to God’s word, instead of just watching the priest do these things. If they accepted such active, personal involvement in the Mass, they would be less inclined to judge the choir, the lectors, their fellow congregants, and the celebrant.

2. They expect the Mass to be a peak experience that produces wonder, awe, ecstasy, and (to borrow a phrase from an excited political commentator) “a shiver up their legs.” In other words, the spiritual equivalent of a Super Bowl halftime show. Accordingly, whenever they do not have that experience at Mass, they conclude there is something wrong with the celebrant, the choir, the ushers, and even the Mass itself. And so they set out in search of a parish that offers constant peak experiences.

The truth, alas, is that there is no such parish, nor is there any other place that meets that expectation. Just as mountain peaks rise up from valleys, so peak experiences rise up from unremarkable, even humdrum events. (This truth is also missed by those who strive to make church services, Catholic or Protestant, more and more exciting and relevant on the assumption that doing so will necessarily make them more meaningful.)

3. They assume that if a subject, event, ritual, or person bores them, there must be something wrong with it or him. It never occurs to them that they themselves may be the problem. To be sure, sameness and repetitiveness (as one might find in, say, a bad homily) can tempt us to disinterest. But whether we submit to that temptation or not is a matter of our mental disposition and free will.

G. K. Chesterton made an interesting observation about different reactions to monotony: “[Children] always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

This observation deepens our understanding of Jesus’ admonition: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Parish hopping is the contemporary form of Phariseeism, proclaiming how wonderful we are and wishing the rest of the world would shape up. (If the Pharisees of old had owned cars, it’s a good bet they would have been synagogue hoppers.)

The cure for parish hopping is awareness that God won’t be judging us on how many flaws we found in Father Aloysius, but in how many we conquered in ourselves. Focusing on that fact will both make us better Christians and save us a lot of gas.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero