(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.