I have, for the past half-year, or so, been wandering through the desert, or at least through the county. When I moved to my current location I set out on a quest to visit all the parishes in my city. I have since completed this quest and further, have visited the parishes in two neighboring cities. I have yet to visit a parish more than once since I moved here. I would like to set down some reflections on this quest, propose a set of criteria to evaluate a parish and finally attempt to lay out what I personally seek in a parish.
I have seen many different parishes in the recent months. They have ranged quite widely, from modern churches built within the last decade, to the cookie cutter buildings from the postwar boom times, to the great turn of the century gothics that served the spiritual needs of some of the earlier settlers in the area. Churches packed full and quite empty. Music in Latin, music from the Gather hymnal, and even things I had only heard in Protestant services, preformed with solo voices, full choirs, the Organ, piano, drums, tambourine, guitar and bass, and just this Sunday a string trio. Smells and bells, altar boys, altar girls, anywhere from zero to maybe a dozen extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, simple humble services, a grand pontifical mass, and unfortunately at least one made up creed. Communion under the form of bread only, communion under both forms, communion with substantial (read: crumbly) bread, one place where a full quarter of the parishioners didn't approach the altar to receive Communion, and numerous where maybe one or two did not approach to receive.
In all of this, there were only two parishes which I strongly considered returning to the next week. There were also two parishes where I considered leaving before the liturgy was completed. I shall reflect on some of these.
First, Our Lady of Hungary. This was a beautiful building, established in 1916, with the current Church built in 1949. Although many of the parishes I visited which were built in this era were bland, and lacking beautiful sacred art, this parish was an exception. The mass I was at was almost empty, the neighborhood has taken a downturn in the last couple decades, and the Parish is probably just barely getting by. The pastor was an African born priest with a thick French-African accent. What struck me was the utter humility with which the Pastor celebrated the mass. Despite having a nearly empty house, it was a simple, though beautiful liturgy. The music was provided by a soloist and accompanied by organ. The Priest had only male servers (on this day at least) and they held patens for him and the deacon when distributing Holy Communion. They rang bells at the consecration. The priest spent considerable time carefully cleaning all of the altarware, presumably "caring for the crumbs". About one quarter of the parishioners didn't approach the altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament, though there weren't a large number of people there. Perhaps this meant that the priest had delivered catechesis on Sin and the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Confession. Finally, after mass was over, the congregation kneeled and recited the prayer to St. Michael as a congregation.
Second, Queen of Peace. This parish was founded in the late 50s post war boom. The building was decidedly not beautiful. It did have some stained glass, but it was otherwise a typical large '50s or '60s era building. Though not half-circular, it was closer to "L" or "T" shaped, and pews pointed 3 different ways (as far as I can remember). The tabernacle was front and center, you couldn't miss it. The pastor had 4 servers, all boys, in cassock and surplice. They used lots of incense and rang the bells at consecration. They played the organ, and the only time they used the piano was to set the note for the choir when singing without musical accompaniment. The mass was beautiful, reverent and full. There seemed to be an extensive "parish life", lots of bible studies and catechesis, some sort of reading group, a regular speaker series, etc.
Finally I mention St. Augustine Parish. This was located in a bad part of town, and in the neighborhood of a Baptist and some other protestant church. It turns out this is a predominately black parish. The church was completely sideways, "short and fat" rather than "long and narrow", with only 4 or 5 rows of pews. The Choir was set above the parish and to the left. My guess is that the parish once was oriented toward where the choir was, and this, being higher than the rest, had been the sanctuary at one point. I immediately felt uncomfortable. Before mass even started, the pastor asked for any newcomers to identify themselves (I did not, though it was probably obvious). The music was all from "Lead Me Guide Me". They used solely substantial bread, including in repose in the tabernacle. The creed they used modified the wording significantly (in a vertically and horizontally inclusive way). I felt like leaving at that point, and might have if it were a larger space. The sign of peace was completely out of hand, which is surprising considering how small the space was. At the final blessing, the priest remembered that he hadn't asked anyone if they had a birthday, and so after asking us to bow our heads to ask for God's blessing, but before the blessing, we had to sing happy birthday and clap. Never returning there again.
It is amazing the plethora of expressions of the Faith seen in but one fairly narrow geographical area. This underscores the identity crisis in the Church today. When almost everything is mutable, it becomes very hard to identify with uniquely Catholic things, which can help to develop a Catholic identity, giving us an anchor in the faith. When even the form of the bread and the words of the creed can change, these things which should define a Catholic identity now define identity with a parish only. "We go to St. Augustine. They use the cleaned up version of the Creed."
This quest has served to give me a view of American Catholicism that I would not have been able to have in any other way. It has also given me a chance to objectively observe some of these liturgical actions. Parishes where I grew up, because I know the pastors and the history, etc., are hard to evaluate objectively. It's much easier to overlook some of the deficiencies in the liturgies in my home diocese because of the history I have with them. That said, I really am only interested in evaluating the liturgies, I'm not qualified as a one-time visitor to evaluate the parish as a whole, or the Pastor. And, of course, it is possible that I wandered in for an aberration which is not representative of the normal liturgies of the parish.
One thing I noticed that surprised me was the lack of obvious correlation between atypical practices (meaning not my preferred practices, laid out below) and strange or flaky theology. I would never have expected to hear a homily all about the evils of abortion at a parish where they had drums and guitars and hand holding. It was not what I expected to hear. I have no idea what the other homilies the parish has had since were about, nor how orthodox all other parish practices and activities were. The questionable liturgies, by and large, were not accompanied by questionable preaching. A larger, longer term sample would be needed to see more of these correlations.
So, with all of this laid out, what cues are there to look for in a parish visit?
First, there is the architecture. Where is the tabernacle? Is there a high altar? Is the altar rail intact? Is the sanctuary set apart from the congregation? Are there any stained glass windows? Stations of the Cross? Statues, paintings, shrines etc? Can you find the confessionals, and do they look like they're used at all? These things are important especially the tabernacle placement. Sacred art, though important, doesn't necessarily reflect on liturgical or theological soundness of the parish, it may just be due to the era in which it was founded, the shortsightedness of a previous generation, or the financial situation of the parish.
Next, there is the congregation. Is the Church full or empty? How are people dressed? How do people act during Mass? Do they sing along if the choir is singing? Do they show proper respect for the Eucharist, i.e. bowing before receiving the Blessed Sacrament, genuflecting to the Sacrament reposed in the tabernacle, etc.? Do at least some people refrain from receiving the Blessed Sacrament (at least on Sundays)? Do they hold hands during the Our Father? Do they maintain decorum during the sign of peace? Does anyone kneel after mass to pray? Many of these sorts of actions are systemic to the parish and independent, generally, of the specific parishioners in attendance at this particular mass. It is probably indicative of the catechesis in the parish.
Now, notice the liturgical ministers. How are they dressed? How many lay people does it take to do _____? Are there Altar servers? How many? Are they mixed gender, only boys, or only girls? How are the servers dressed, are they wearing slacks and nice dress shoes? Do they have cassocks, surplices, albs, or are they wearing their street clothes? How many extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are there? Do they gather around the Altar before the priest's communion, or wait outside of the sanctuary? The actions of these ministers tell a lot about their training and disposition to their positions.
If the parish has music at this mass you will surely encounter it. Is there an Organ here? If so, is it used? A piano? Guitar? Tambourine? Drums? Anything more exotic? Is there a choir? A choir loft? Is the choir in the loft, or where? What sort of hymnals do they have? Is the music resplendent with beauty or in a tawdry, folksy style? Do you sing in the voice of God?
Now to the priest. Does he start mass on time? How are the vestments? Does he follow the texts of the liturgy carefully, or change certain parts? Does he chant anything? During the Eucharistic Prayer, where is his focus? Does he genuflect after the consecration of the bread and of the wine? Does he leave the sanctuary after the consecration (for instance during the sign of peace)? Does he hold his thumb and forefinger together after the consecration until communion is completed? Does he offer communion under both forms? (I realize here that a single trip doesn't indicate a habitual parish action, but if it is an ordinary Sunday for the parish, you could extrapolate.) Does the priest (or a deacon) purify the vessels during Mass, does he do it after, or does he leave it to an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion? Does he care for the crumbs and drops carefully? Is the homily Orthodox? Interesting? Too long or short? Does he seem rushed? Does he greet people coming in or leaving the Church? Did the priest at any point ask you to clap for any reason?
Finally, there are some subjective parish-wide things to notice. Does the environment seem uniquely Catholic, or could you see some of it (architecture, music, liturgy) at a protestant service? Do you feel uncomfortable about things? Is it easy to fit in as a visitor? Are there any particularly obvious local traditions, like different sorts of gestures or postures, particular parish prayers, praying the prayer to St. Michael after mass, the rosary before, etc.? Do you get a sense that the parish does things together (announcements at the end of mass and the bulletin can help with this). These are much more subjective than the previous observation, and will definitely vary from person to person. That said, they tell you about the parish in ways that can't be quantified in the other ways.
These are the things that I generally notice when I go to a parish. Many of them are passive observations that I just happen to make. Some of them I make a point to look for. So the only question remaining is what I want to see in a parish.
I enjoy a church with traditional architecture, beautiful art, especially in the windows, with a high Altar in place and the tabernacle at the center. I have come to no longer expect Altar rails, but am overjoyed when I see them. If there is an organ, it should be played. If they have an organ and play a piano instead, it pains me all the more. The liturgy should be reverent, and by the books. Incense is a plus, and I really love to hear the bells at the consecration. Special care of the sacred vessels is a must, and I am really drawn to places where the priest obviously has reverence for the Eucharist. I don't like it when the parish holds hands at the Our Father, especially when it is essentially mandatory. I wish more places would restrict their offering of communion under both forms to special occasions, and I think that many places would be able to suffice with just the priest offering communion, very few parishes are so unbelievably big that there is not enough time to have everyone come up to one priest. Liturgical innovation is almost always an automatic strikeout for me.
I have yet to find and settle down at a parish. That will likely complete my quest.