Making Church Matter

Avalon Journal Part 1: View of the Local Church

July 11, 2011

I began my annual vacation on Friday here in Avalon, New Jersey, joining a large group of extended family members. There were, on and off, about 25 to 30 of us.  Interestingly on Sunday morning, this group of Italian-American, parochial school Catholics mostly all stayed away from the local church.

What did they do instead? Some slept in, some went out in search of South Jersey “sticky buns,” some went running, a group hung out and read the Sunday papers and watched the Tour de France and sipped coffee; some hit the beach early…only 3 went to Mass.  Since many of this group are under thirty, you might wonder what I did about this unchurched environment in the heart of my own family?  What did I do?  Well, sad to say, I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness they didn’t go to church, at least this church.

I know what I’m talking about, I went.  Every year I dread going, its always bad and boring, but this weekend was even worse than usual. Interestingly the church, which was constructed not so many years ago to double its seating capacity in summertime, with large adjacent wings, was definitely not full. I easily remember when this place was full on Sunday mornings in July. Not any more. In fact, the wings were not even in use, just like off season. The congregation was old, I didn’t see many families, few young people or teens.

Where I sat I could not see the sanctuary very well and the sound system distorted the speakers so it was difficult to listen.There was no opening hymn, because the organist hadn’t arrived. Sometime during the homily she apparently showed up because when it was time for the offertory hymn she lit into it, with volume, if not precision. The music was old school stuff which everyone knows (and no one likes).  But no one, and I mean NO ONE, sang. There was a lector I’ve seen before; he read the readings in a way that convinced me he didn’t understand a word of what he was reading. It was simply impossible to follow the readings, if you wanted to. It didn’t look like many of the people around me wanted to.

More than any congregation I have ever experienced there is a huge “us – them” culture at this church, which is funny being in a resort community. A hundred little details underscore for us visitors that we don’t belong, that we’re not parishioners. And this intentional distancing comes as a huge relief.

Of course, the lion’s share of my comments are reserved for the celebrant.  It was not the pastor, but a priest who did not bother to introduce himself. He sort of assumed we knew who he was, but it didn’t matter. Who he was or what he had to say seemed deeply irrelevant to the assembly. As became clear, he was a visiting missionary, there to raise funds for his mission.  We never got a clear view of what his mission is or what he does, but we did get a great big dose of guilt.

He started out talking fast and just talked faster and faster. He said, “Your pastor loves you, so he told me not to talk for more than 5 minutes.” The fellow in front of me turned to his companion and whispered “If he really loved us, he’d tell you to shut up.” The preacher then proceeded to quote a different gospel than the one just read (always a clear indication of a canned talk), tell a few stale jokes and then turn on the guilt about hungry children. Meanwhile ushers were handing out pledge cards to be filled out as soon as possible, preferably immediately, for gifts preferably in the $50-2500 range. The instructions took up the largest part of the homily. Here’s the thing: virtually no one, NO ONE, paid any attention. They stared at the ceiling, they stared at the floor, they texted, they talked to one another, they gave a glance to the brochure then dropped it to the floor, but they paid no attention to the presentation.

Then we powered through the rest of the Mass and the congregation was definitely on fast forward too: following communion almost the entire section I was seated in was gone. Finally we listened to a string of announcements which were actually, unbelievably, more fundraising appeals (50/50 Raffle, donations for the bishop’s appeal, two new statues the pastor wants out front).

To be sure, the giving opportunities are vast, but why would I want any of my dechurched family members to have set aside their various Sunday morning activities to witness this gathering (such as it was) of the Body of Christ? I was relieved they weren’t in this half empty church for a half hearted exercise in fund raising and a full miss when it comes to what the Christian community is suppose to be about.

Meanwhile, just down the street at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, the waiting line snaked around the block.

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  1. I am a recent member of the Church of the Nativity. I am now a little upset whenever I have to go to my hometown church (during the summer when I'm not at college) instead of Timonium. Your church is like no other Catholic church I've ever been to (and I've been to a lot in many different states). I wish other church's would follow your lead. You are an awesome pastor and your weekend messages are the best.

  2. There is no place like Nativity! Thank you, Father White and everyone who works so hard each week to make our church a pleasure to attend.

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