My husband, John, and I are newly married and also new residents of a smallish town in central Connecticut, where we work in adjoining dioceses. During this time of limbo, we frequently find ourselves at a different parish each weekend for various reasons from professional to personal. It’s a different lifestyle than we are used to, but we rejoice in the opportunity to see the best of what is happening in communities large and small, progressive and traditional, urban, suburban, and rural.
John and I are living in a period of transition, which is increasingly common among young adult Catholics. In 2017 Pew reported that 20 percent of young adults between the ages of 25 and 35 moved within the last year. This shows that we are not alone in our “parish-hopping.” Thousands of young Catholics are moving around the country, finding themselves without a home parish more often than not. Parish-hopping, or attending different parishes from one week to the next, can be a welcomed solution for those without a parish to call home.
The “home parish” plays a key role in our Roman Catholic identity, so I understand why some suggest that parish-hopping is a practice not to be encouraged. Historically, the parish in American Catholicism was the spiritual, social, and familial epicenter of life for the faithful. It was not only the place of worship on Sundays (and in between), but also where weekends and evenings were spent, games were played, and friendships deepened.
A not-inconsequential reason contributing to this role was an anti-Catholic culture during a window of time in our nation’s history. During the evolution of Catholicism in the United States, rampant anti-Catholic sentiment subsided and Catholics were able to integrate into secular society, meeting their social needs elsewhere and relegating parish participation to spiritual practices only.
While John and I respect and celebrate this history of our Catholic identity, for us parish-hopping is not an indecisive game, flying in the face of the parochialism that, for better or worse, is a hallmark of Roman Catholicism. Rather, for John and me and many other Catholics experiencing moves and transitions, parish-hopping is a process of discernment while we seek community.
My husband and I are blessed with the freedom to move through many spaces and places, being welcomed in many different communities that rejoice at “officers of the diocese” joining them. Sometimes they are even more enthusiastic at the sight of two young adults. Showing up to these parishes means something. Beyond just the optics, it exposes us to what is happening “on the ground” away from the diocesan offices in which we work. We can live in real time what our parishes are experiencing so that we can better serve them.
Parish-hopping also gives us the unique gift of anonymity. In our line of work we have to visit many parishes. When we walk into a church building, sometimes our professional roles meet the parishioners before we do. In these instances we are greeted in one of two ways. We can be given the warm welcome I previously described or the guard can go up. “Oh no! A diocesan employee is here. They must be watching us.” When we go to Mass in new parishes, it gives us a chance to be part of the community as ourselves, not as our jobs.
Rare though it is, there are parishes that know us by name (via email or phone) but not by face, and so we have the opportunity to be anonymous in the pew. The chance to simply be Nicole, a child of God, nameless to those around me by design and worshipping with my husband for an hour on Sunday can be so life-giving when working for the church is not only your day job but also a huge part of your home life.
As we attend different parishes, it is not to denigrate the critical nature of becoming part of a parish community. We respect and honor the tradition of a home parish in our faith. Indeed, John and I spend inordinate amounts of time in our respective ministries accompanying people as they seek communities of faith that will welcome and nourish them. We are advocates for and cheerleaders of the parishes we serve.
Over time in our marriage, we will put down roots and do our diligence to find a community that feeds us, in which we will engage wholeheartedly. (I know John is already yearning for a place where he can serve as a eucharistic minister, as he did in his childhood parish.) However, the chance to experience the variety of parishes in our area allows us to “taste” a little bit of everything and see what feeds us and what doesn’t.
I would argue that our current methodology of parish-hopping does not detract from the necessity of the home parish in our Catholic identity. Taking the time to find a parish that feeds our souls nurtures seeds of greater participation and engagement. For me, I know that I am significantly more likely to participate in the life of a Christian community if I feel fed. The notion of tolerating a grouchy pastor, a dull homilist, or a depressing musical environment is one that contributes to the spiritual malaise found in many parishes.
Historically in the United States, the church relied on people who lived in a specific territory to worship at their local parish, no matter how inhospitable the experience might be. Although it was not the intent, it led to an attitude that there is no need to improve the worship experience, the hospitality, or the preaching, because parishes could reasonably count on a steady stream of participation.
In turn, this led to a culture wherein both the pastor and the faithful took each other for granted. Perhaps if Catholics had been more amenable to the fact that people will parish-hop until they find a place where they are fed, parishes might have been more likely to critically examine why people might leave or avoid a parish and endeavor to improve accordingly.
So, on any given Sunday, my husband and I might visit Fathers David and Rob at Saint Aloysius because we love witnessing our friends in the fullness of their Christian vocations. The next week we might pop in to Most Holy Trinity due to proximity and ease. Perhaps the next week we’ll drive down to Saint Thomas More for the life-giving experience of a robust liturgy and vibrant community. Some weekends might find us in a diocese in another state, visiting family. And someday we will put roots down and make a parish our home.
This article also appears in the January 2020 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 1, pages 33–37). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash cc via Akira Hojo