Thursday, April 28, 2011

Program for Parish Renewal (part 1)

This is a post I have been waiting to do for over a year, but I had to wait for two things to happen before it would be prudent; in the first place, since I intend to blog about how my pastor turned a crazy, liberal parish (my parish) into a bastion of orthodoxy, I thought it would be best to wait until I did not work for said parish anymore before I decided to do any sort of blog posts about it. This was also in accord with what my pastor wished, inasmuch as I was a staff member and he didn't want my opinions, whatever they might be, to attach themselves to himself or the parish at large, which I thought reasonable. Since I have not worked for the parish since August of 2010, I think I am now able to put these worries behind me and speak more freely.

Second, I also was waiting for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass to make its debut at my parish. I thought that, in a story about the renewal and transformation of a parish, the reemergence of the Extraordinary Form would be like the jewel on the crown, and that any renewal would be incomplete without it. Well, two months ago our pastor started offering regular (though not weekly) Extraordinary Form masses at our parish. The jewel has been fixed in the crown.

In this two (or maybe three) part post, I will begin with where my parish was five years ago when my pastor arrived and then explain how, step by step, he brought the parish around to the point where now an Extraordinary Form Mass is offered regularly, the faithful hear the Mass (EF & OF) in Latin, Gregorian chant is regular, Communion is received at the rails and orthodoxy is preached. It is a wonderful and amazing story with a happy ending like something out of a fairy-tale.

As I go through this story, I want to encourage anyone who may be a parishioner at my parish to chime in with their thoughts on the matter, even anonymously if you like. I have omitted city names and other geographic indicators to maintain some degree of anonymity.

Let's begin with where this parish was in 2005, the year my pastor arrived.

THE STRUCTURES

Our parish is the third oldest Catholic Church in the state and the oldest English-speaking parish in the state. It still has its original structure, an 1875 neo-gothic edifice with its original high altar, which somehow survived the wreckovation of the early 1970's. However, not everything escaped unscathed - some Victorian era paintings of our Lord and the saints that were on the ceiling panels of the apse were whitewashed over, and the communion rails were removed and placed in front of the front row of pews facing backwards, forming a kind of "wall" between the front pew and the sanctuary. Though the high altar remained, a little table altar was set up in front of it. The high altar, as far as I can tell, was never used between 1969 and 2008. All in all, though, we were very fortunate that the building was preserved as well as it is.

We also have a parish center dating from 1980 and a rectory building, which is the original farmhouse from the property before it belonged to the parish. There us a graveyard adjacent to the parish rectory as well.

THE DEMOGRAPHICS

The people of the parish came from the surrounding town and countryside. A good number of them came from the nearby metropolis, which was only a few miles away. Many also came from a smaller town north of the parish, and the remainder from the surrounding rural countryside. Almost all parishioners were local; almost all kids were public school with a smattering of private schoolers. Many parishioners had long ties with the parish - the roads in the surrounding countryside were named after their families, the original settlers of the area, and the cemetery across from the parish bore the names of their ancestors. Income ranged from upper class to middle class.

THE PASTORS

Our parish really went downhill in the early 70's, when we got a very liberal, social-justice pastor, complete with long-hair and side-burns. He preached against the Vietnam War, spoke out on the progressive issues of the day and was very liberal liturgically. During his 9 year administration he became very popular in the local community, but by time he left he had firmly entrenched the people of the parish in liberal ideology and liturgical practices.

He was followed by a pastor who lacked his charisma but shared his liberal views...I know nothing about this next pastor save that (as I am told) he refused to give people communion if the knelt and would angrily tell them to get up in a loud voice, warning them not to "pull that stunt" again. This guy stuck around for about ten years - so by now we have had nineteen years of this sort of thing.

Then came the priest who immediately preceded our current pastor. What a piece of work this fella was! He was a late vocation - in his former life, he had been an alcoholic and was divorced. Somehow he got himself ordained and sent to our parish. All hell broke loose when he arrived, as we shall see. He never wore his clericals, not even for Mass (throw the vestments over his regular clothes), encouraged people NOT to call him father, delegated almost all his authority to numberless, useless committees, and then allowed them all to rack up HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS in debt. As one older parishioner told me, it was more of a country club than a parish. And, of course, he was a liturgical and theological liberal. This guy was here for ten years. That makes 29 years of liberalism and poor catechesis before my pastor came. Yikes.

THE LITURGY

Liturgies were a nightmare, and I have the photos to prove it, which I dug out of the parish archives. Tie-dye vestments. Streamers. Dancing. Lay people with incense in bowls. Drum set in the choir loft. Beatles songs during Mass. Holding hands in a circle around the altar. Children's liturgies. Outdoor Masses on all occasions. Home made "altar bread" hosts with honey, sugar and all sorts of extraneous ingredients. You get it. There was also weird stuff outside the liturgy; I'm told that some parish women used to do some kind of ritual where they would throw incense to the four winds and invoke them. When I was cleaning out a closet after I became Youth Director, I found a pile of bizarre, cardboard masks that looked like African or Aztec gods. Lord only knows what these were used for.

The religious ed program was big, several hundred students, but catechesis was poor. Many kids went to Communion and Confirmation without the most basic understanding of the Faith.

THE STAFF

During this pastor's tenure, a huge and useless staff was maintained at everybody's expense, something like 14 full time employees and some more half-time for a parish of like 600 families. The DRE had his own secretary. There was people on paid salary that my pastor, when he came in, couldn't figure out for the life of him what they did exactly. But the main staff (beside the pastor) consisted of a parish secretary, maintenance person, DRE, Youth Director (a couple) and music "minister."

The secretary was a divisive woman who hated everything traditional, but I don't know much more about her, except that when my current pastor came in he had to fire her for actively subverting him.

Our music "minister" was not even Catholic, nor was he really a trained musician, just some guy who had some skill on piano and drums. We were subjected to the usual fare of "They'll Know We Are Christians", etc. He seemed to be well-liked, however.

The maintenance man was not a Catholic, either.
The youth director was very interesting...this position was filled by a couple who had been doing it so long that they were an institution unto themselves....I think they were in their sixties. They were devoted to young people, but did not agree with the Church on many important issues, being of a more progressive bent. There was a great emphasis on questioning and seeking, but not as much on answering; I was told that one time a discussion on the arguments "for and against" the Real Presence left more kids confused than edified, since it is easy for anyone to throw out objections to the Real Presence but it takes a good working knowledge of the Faith to answer them. Since nobody had that working knowledge, these sorts of discussions were, in my opinion, ultimately detrimental to the Faith of the kids in the Youth Group (many of whom did not even attend weekly Mass). Some of the Youth Group kids were mixed up in New Age ideologies; I know of one who graduated and immediately abandoned his Faith in college to take of Buddhism.

There was a whole slew of second-tier support staff, too, many of whom were paid in some manner. I think the number of people that were said to be "on staff" was at least a dozen, though it is up for debate what to be "on staff" meant.

THE COMMITTEES

As is usually the case in these sorts of arrangements, there was a excessive number of superfluous committees. I couldn't name them all, but of course you had your standard parish council, liturgy and worship, outreach, youth, cemetery, etc. Some committees were active, others were drains on funds and did little. Later, our pastor would eliminate and consolidate them into only, I think, two or three and things ran better than ever. 

We also had the standard parish organizations present - Knights of Columbus and the Council of Catholic Women. The Knights council was large but took an extremely activist approach to the Faith - an emphasis on performing charitable work at the expense of formation or spirituality.  This was true of the parish as a whole, which was very active in charitable works and involved in a lot of service projects. I'm not sure what the state of the CCW was.

The activism, however, was largely something that replaced rather than supplemented authentic Catholic piety. For example, despite all the charitable works and activism going on, it had been decades since the parish had one man who even went to seminary let alone was ordained. I asked elderly parishioners once if they could remember when was the last time our parish had a seminarian and they could not recall.

THE FINANCES

The financial state of the parish was an absolute disaster. Giving was average, but spending was out of control. When my current pastor took over, he found the finances in disarray. Out of control spending for decades had brought the parish to the brink of insolvency. Money was wasted for years on frivolities; for example, one DRE alone had taken out something like 21 magazine subscriptions, paid for by the parish, and some not related to anything Catholic. As I mentioned above, there was a huge group of support staff who were paid salaries to do jobs that could have been easily combined; I myself did the job that used to be divided up among four people who all were paid. Youth were taken on lavishly expensive trips with little formative value - a $14,000 trip to New York to go skiing, for example. Granted, they raised some of this money themselves, but much was subsidized as well. Older parishioners who remember these days told me the atmosphere was that of a "country club" where money was always flowing to pay salaries, compensate expenditures, have big dinners and fund large and popular (but costly) events like the parish's yearly Labor Day festival, which used to be profitable but by the late 1990's had become a drain.

Couple this with the horrendous record-keeping, and the situation was made worse. The parish book-keeper was actually a very competent, hard-working and responsible woman; the problem was not with the accountant, but with the various staff members and volunteers who were charged with keeping track of their expenditures, categorizing expenditures, allocating funds, etc. From what I understand, nobody really bothered to keep track of how much was spent and what it went to, despite the protestations of the accountant. People just spent and spent with no accountability, and this was encouraged by the pastors, who liked to lavish money upon the parish to keep everybody feeling good.

The truly ironic thing is that, despite this lavish spending, necessary expenditures were put off. The elevator in the parish center leaked oil terribly for years; instead of fixing it, the oil was simply siphoned out of the elevator pit every year and dumped into the field behind the parish center. The drop ceiling in the parish center was allowed to warp and deteriorate until it was quite unpleasant to look at. The historic church itself was allowed to begin to dilapidate so that, when my pastor took over, thousands of dollars of repairs to the concrete, brickwork and roofing was necessary. The trend was to spend lavishly on idle frivolities while refusing to spend for the upkeep of the facilities, choosing instead to take short-cuts and do half-measures just to put off the problems for another day.

THE BISHOP

The bishop at the time did not really do anything to oppose any of this. This bishop (now retired) was a good and pleasant man who loved the Lord, but he was not the best administrator and allowed, some would say encouraged, this sort of management in his diocese. He took no steps to halt liturgical abuses, never bothered to seriously inquire into the financial status of the parish as far as I know. He didn't see a problem with ordaining the alcoholic, divorced man who served as priest for a decade and in general allowed things to go on and on.

That was the state of affairs in my parish for several decades, until in 2005 the priest retired and my current pastor, an young, energetic, orthodox priest with a background in Aristotelian metaphysics and an interest in reverent liturgy was transferred down here. Then all hell broke loose. We'll look at that next time.

8 comments:

Andrew Hill said...

"When I was cleaning out a closet after I became Youth Director, I found a pile of bizarre, cardboard masks that looked like African or Aztec gods. Lord only knows what these were used for."

Puppet Masses, of course!

Pete Hoge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander said...

I can’t wait to read more.
This makes me wonder how it all happened.

Was there some kind of psychological effect of the 1960s; did political, social and church revolutions make some bishops tolerate or even promote this kind of stuff?

Clearly Vatican II and the rules thereafter do not allow and do not encourage these kinds of situations. But did simply relaxing discipline and putting emphasis on pleasing people create psychological impact that resulted in such an acceptance of this for decades? And what does that say of the Church 20 years before the 1960s revolutions? I would love to find out specific causes, who, what, where, and how because the problems seem to have started to generate in the 1940s I think..

Anonymous said...

Fr. G is a saint!!!

Anonymous said...

Wow! This is so close to where we are as a parish! Can't wait to read more!! God Bless!

Seán said...

I assume you have the book that traces the history of the parish? It is a green book with gold lettering. I think it is pretty recent (published in the 80s or 90s?). There are some good shots of the church in there and the changes. The parish wasn't destroyed, but they did remove some of the more beautiful aspects of it. There was a nice pulpit which is gone. There was painted Gloria in Excelsis Deo at the entrance of the apse. The reredos at the altar are reduced too. All in all you've gotten though it quite well. More blessings to you all!

BONIFACE said...

Sean-

You go to my parish? All these years I had no idea - who are you? I have consulted all the old books - the one from 2006, plus the one from the late 80's and all the old bulletins going back to the 50's even.

Seán said...

No I don't attend your parish. Sorry if it sounded like that. I live in southern California. I know a lady who grew up in your parish and has family out there. She gave me that parish history book, which I just happen to be looking at last week. I actually didn't know you attended that parish and just looked at the book as an interesting book. Then your post came out, and I went to see the picture of your church in a PDF from when the Latin Mass was celebrated (an older post), and I said, this looks familiar. Then I put two and two together. It's a really great story, and I wish this story for every parish. Obviously the great grace from God for our generation, if indeed it is for us, is to take part in the restoration. Really a singular opportunity that we all shouldn't drop the ball on, for our part. Pax tecum!