The “Superparish” as Liturgical Problem

(This is Neil.) The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate’s 2000 National Parish Inventory tells us [PDF] that “parishes report an average of 2,260 registered parishioners” and 855 households. (“65% of self-identified Catholics report being registered in a parish,” we learn.) But perhaps even these numbers are too small. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, drawing on the work of the research analyst Joseph Claude Harris, says that, in 2000, “the average parish had 3,254 members, or 1,269 households.” In comparison, “a typical non-Catholic congregation included approximately 303 members.” I can’t imagine that the size of the average Catholic parish in America has decreased in the past several years.

Does the size of our parishes present our major liturgical problem? This suggestion might sound unlikely. Perhaps it seems too clever – an evasion of the thorny theological debates on the liturgy. It might also appear far too convenient, insofar as it proposes a problem that has no immediate solution, implicitly justifying a sense of resignation.

Furthermore, we can ask how it is that the large size of a parish might pose a specifically liturgical problem, instead of more general difficulties. To briefly answer that question – and discover that the concern about the liturgical ramifications of large parishes is not new – we can glance at part of the late Benedictine liturgist Fr Godfrey Diekmann’s address at the National Liturgical Week in Chicago in 1965:

Plato recognized that community ceases where personal relationships become impossible. The structuring of the people of God into mammoth congregations instead of communities would seem to be the greatest long range pastoral, and therefore liturgical, problem facing the American church. At the Council, in the discussion of the role of bishops, the schema enunciated as a first principle that a diocese normally be only so large that the bishop can personally know his priests. What a structural revolution would ensue if this principle were to be applied further to the parish! Is the phenomenal success of the Cursillo movement in our day due perhaps to the fact that these people are, for the first time in their lives, experiencing that sense of Christian community which the Eucharistic assembly and celebration gave to Christians of early times, and are of their nature meant to give today? … Whatever the difficulties, and they are mountainous, it would seem imperative therefore that our superparishes similarly undergo a new structuring into community-sized groupings. For only thus can the divine command, reiterated by Trent, be observed: that the pastor know his flock by name, that is, as persons. Only thus can Eucharist make a true people of God.

In a 1974 essay, entitled “The Crisis in American Catholicism,” the distinguished Lutheran theologian George A. Lindbeck, an observer at Vatican II (Diekmann was a peritus), worried about the “erosion of traditional piety” among Catholics and wrote, “The reformed liturgy does not seem to serve as an adequate substitute – in part, as frequently has been pointed out, because it is in its essential structure a celebration of the intimate communion of believers with Christ and with one another, and simply does not fit in large parish settings.” He did say that the then-new liturgy “may prove admirably adapted to the small-group intensely communal celebrations” that could (but ultimately did not) become the norm.

Let me be speculative for a few paragraphs. I think that many oft-mentioned liturgical problems have their source in the ur-liturgical problem, if you will, of the anti-small group – the “superparish.” More specifically, the root is in the inevitable discrepancy between the expectation that the celebration of the Mass be “intensely communal” and the reality that in many of our “superparishes” it is impersonal. This leads to two common problems:

1. During the first parts of the Mass, the people are meant to “gather together as one” and “establish communion.” They are further meant to be conscious of Christ’s presence in the midst of them as they gather together to sing and pray. The Holy Eucharist is meant to change them, as the priest prays, into “one body, one spirit in Christ” (see my post here for citations). This communal awareness is more difficult to foster in “mammoth congregations,” in which congregants, unknown to and unnoticed by their fellow worshippers, are more likely to attend as individuals. Thus, we have inevitable, often ill-advised, attempts to draw attention to the presence of Christ in the gathered assembly that, in their desperation, can make it seem that the community is fascinated by itself. (I don’t think that I need examples.)

2. The priest has received the sacrament of Orders so that he might “work for the building up and care of the Church” (Presbyterorum Ordinis 12), and “teach and rule the priestly people” (Lumen Gentium 10). But what if this would-be shepherd is unknown to much of his congregation? What if he does not – really, cannot – know “his flock by name”? One can imagine the insecurity of the priest, who, facing countless strangers, must trust that he can by virtue of office gather them together as brothers and sisters in the Spirit to celebrate the Eucharist. It is not impossible to imagine the priest trying to make this unity more palpable to himself and others by appearing before them as a uniting figure – as especially friendly, welcoming, wise, or deeply pious – bringing his personality, sometimes jarringly, into the service. (I don’t think that I need examples here, either.)

Furthermore, the priest must preach. In preaching a homily, as our bishops have told us [PDF], the priest “does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures … to interpret peoples’ lives.” The word of faith emerges when “the text and the actual human situation are allowed to interact with one another.” This means, the bishops go on to say, that priests must “get to know their congregations and allow themselves to be known by them,” so that they can grasp the “peoples’ lives.” But what if this is impossible? Is it any surprise that the priest will then preach generically? Is it any surprise that the priest, facing those who have not had the opportunity to trust him or even to hear his unamplified voice, feels unable to take any sort of risk?

Again, I am being speculative – perhaps unfair, despite my best intentions. Would you agree with Fr Diekmann’s claim that “it would seem imperative therefore that our superparishes … undergo a new structuring into community-sized groupings.” Is the impossibility of “new structuring” our main liturgical failure? If you disagree, I would love to know how very large congregations might actually manage to flourish.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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6 Responses to The “Superparish” as Liturgical Problem

  1. Katherine says:

    This is a thought-provoking post. Since moving to the DC metropolitan area, I’ve moved away from the Church for a number of reasons… one of the primary reasons being the gargantuan SIZE of these parishes. I was confirmed in a pretty small parish about four years ago (I want to say about 20-30 families tops, if that!) and to walk into a place where I feel like just one of the stampeding herd, perhaps with a barcode or even a brand on my butt (a la the old western ranches) just made me feel too generic. Maybe some parishioners get off on being one of the crowd. But I was looking for something more, and I didn’t find it in any of the parishes in metro area.

    I know someone will attack me for being a cafeteria catholic, but going to church didn’t feel meaningful or right without a connection to the community, and I’m certainly not getting it in the “mega” parishes around here.

    Now that I’m a grad student, I even tried going to the campus mass, but honestly… the guitars at mass totally turned me off.

    Maybe I’m looking for something that can’t be found except in Upstate NY… but a nice, small catholic church must be around here somewhere! Where the priests won’t glare at me for choosing to pursue a graduate degree rather than getting married (yes, that did happen, plus a pretty nasty lecture, which I did NOT deserve–I’m not ready for marriage) or I won’t be ostracized for being young and single and preferring my dogs to whining, screaming children.

    sorry for the rant. I miss church… but I can’t subject myself to those huge parishes. I want to enjoy big “c” communion and little “c” communion, you know?

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Katherine,

    Thank you for your generous and honest reply to my post. I do sympathize with you. I remember reading one of the letters from Taize from last year – “In the Church there are men and women able to listen to you. Being listened to over time in this way will enable you to discern how to give yourself fully” – and wondering if the first sentence would ring true for many Catholics. And, if not, what that could possibly mean …

    I don’t know the DC metropolitan area very well, but I hope that you can find a “nice, small catholic church.” I would think that with the various religious communities, something similar to that would be available. Hopefully, a priest glaring at you for being single and pursuing graduate education will be an unusual, if deeply unpleasant, experience.

    As you might expect, I would advise you to keep going to Mass even if it is somewhat disappointing. Perhaps God might even be asking you to trust in him even through disappointment – to believe that he can give himself away even in the face of human failure. But I think that you are still right to feel something missing. After all, even the late John Paul II said that mutual love was one of the criteria “by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged.” Something is missing.

    I’ve gone on way too long, but thanks again for writing. Please feel free to rant at any time.

    Best,
    Neil

  3. FrMichael says:

    Regarding the point about priests’ personalities intruding on the Mass:

    I have served at both small parishes and “superparishes,” which are generally known in these parts as “megaparishes.” I don’t see a cause-and-effect between parish size and priests imposing their personalities upon the parish liturgies.

    In my experience, once you get above about 500 people coming to Mass over a weekend (which is about 500 registered families) that parish feels “big” in the sense that you can’t know everybody. So whether its 1,000 or 2,000, it has a similar feel. Only at a “supermegaparish” (5,000+ at Sunday Mass) did I find yet another problem: not that the priests didn’t know the people, but many people often didn’t know the priests.

    My 2 cents.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Fr Michael,

    Thanks for your comments. Do you mind if I ask a couple of questions:

    1) Are there liturgical differences between celebrating in a smaller parish, a “megaparish,” and a “supermegaparish”? It really does strike me as counterintuitive to respond negatively here.

    2) What do you think causes a priest to impose his personality on the parish liturgy? Education? Bad theology? Personality flaw? Sad realization that many people don’t pay attention during Mass? Insecurity?

    Thanks.

    Neil

  5. Meg says:

    Sorry to come late to this discussion, Neil. My own parish is now up to 3500-4000 families, and is getting bigger all the time. I have no serious complaints about our priests. Our liturgies are mostly by the book – personality is saved for the homily.

    But I can vouch for the necessity of the small community. I struggled for years, feeling like an outsider, despite being a Sunday mass-goer adn having children & husband in various Sunday ministries. That all changed when I joined RCIA as a sponsor.

    Suddenly I knew people at any mass I might choose to attend. I knew the priests and they knew me. I kept my eye out for inquirers and catechumens, to make them welome, to keep them in my prayers as well as to socialize with them afterwards. I began to attend non-Sunday devotions, just so that I knew what else the parish offered.

    This year I again signed up with RCIA and dragged my husband with me. He is having the same experience that I did. Our faith has been renewed, and for the first time, we actually FEEL a sense of community with other parishioners. We know people – friends, acquaintances, and they know us.

    I can see how people would stop attending mass at a megaparish if they were looking for anything more than the fulfillment of an obligation.

    But community in larger parishes is voluntary – you have to choose to belong, you have to make the effort.

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Meg,

    Thanks for writing. I do think that, from a more general pastoral point of view, large parishes or congregations can work (so to speak). I think that some megachurches encourage most, if not all, members to join cell-like small Bible-study or faith-sharing groups. Other large churches can suggest that members find a particular activity – whether it is serving as a sponsor in RCIA (as in your case), helping at a soup kitchen, or joining something like a charismatic or centering-prayer group.

    So, one can voluntarily find community within a large church. You’re absolutely right about that.

    The question, though, is whether that sense of community exists outside of the small communities – I mean, during the Sunday liturgy, when you are alongside hundreds of people – known, barely recognized, unknown, purposely anonymous – and before a priest who does not (cannot) know your name.

    And, if not, whether that poses a real problem.

    Thanks, as always.

    Neil

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