Why Are Exciting Catholic Parishes So Rare?

Eucharist, incense, adoration
Photo: Josh Applegate via Unsplash

Why Are Exciting Catholic Parishes So Rare?


A recent article in the UK’s Catholic Herald recounted a letter from a Anglican who was inclined to the Catholic Church.

In this fabulously blunt letter, he shared his hesitation in making the journey to Rome due to all the things we are doing so badly at the parish level. These included:

1. No one says hello
2. No one sings the hymns
3. Lack of reverence in the Eucharistic celebration
4. Homilies are often boring and trite
5. Priests are aloof
6. People are just taking their Communion and exiting before Mass has ended

He describes his encounter with a Catholic friend, who he says defensively informed him that Catholics attend for the sacrifice of the Mass (i.e. not for the wonderful experience of it all). Which is true, but also a terrible cop out. 

He goes on to state:

I noticed that Roman Catholics do not like any sort of criticism. I don’t know what parish life is like in England, but in Canada or USA it is non-existent. Catholics have a culture of obligation and it shows in their apathy...

I am deeply grateful for letters like these. I think it is a great service for non-Catholic Christians to share what they found lacking in their experience of our churches, and I echo his sentiment that we Catholics seem to be defensive when faced with legitimate criticisms about the way we “do” church.

Which is a shame, because being thin-skinned only helps us continue to be seen as irrelevant by the masses who should be populating our Masses!

Why didn't he have better things to say about Catholic parishes? In other words, why are exciting Catholic parishes so rare?

Why didn't he have better things to say about Catholic parishes? Why are exciting Catholic parishes so rare?

Here are 5 reasons:

1. We don’t know what success looks like

I know from personal experience that some Catholics sincerely believed that there was nothing to his criticisms. And that is because we are accustomed to a generally mediocre experience of parish life.

If you’ve never been in a vibrant parish, how would you know what was wrong when you were in a parish that was rather dead? If you’ve never experienced amazing hospitality, how would you know whether your church was on the inhospitable end of the spectrum?  

Because exciting Catholic parishes are so rare, we don’t even know what standard we should be measuring ourselves by.

Now rare does not mean non-existent, and brave pastors and lay people are looking to examples of the exception to the rule- St. Benedict Parish in Halifax (i.e. Divine Renovation parish); the Rebuilt parish in Baltimore.

And THESE parishes got exciting by looking even outside the Catholic Church for examples of churches making a deep impact in the culture. Churches like Saddleback (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church), Willow Creek (Bill Hybels), or Holy Trinity Brompton (Nicky Gumbel of Alpha).

We Catholics shouldn't be afraid to look at what appeals to people about these churches. Pop into your local Evangelical church. Look at how they do music, hospitality, preaching, small groups, child care, etc.

Look at how they attract new members to their church. Shouldn’t our Catholic parishes be attracting new people as well?

It may be painful, but we have to face our failures, and that entails revisiting what success looks like.

2. We don’t remember the importance of "first things first"

I heard someone say that “the first thing is to remember to keep the first thing the first thing.”

Yes, it’s kind of a twister but the point is that we need to remember the core of what we do. And the core of what the Catholic Church does is proclaim Jesus and invite people into relationship with Him.

Pope Paul VI reminds us that:

Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection. (EN, 14)

What happens when we forget the first thing?

Imagine you run a swimming school, but you don’t offer the basics of how to swim. You will serve people who know how to swim already, you’ve got some upper level classes on improving techniques and all, but you don’t actually teach non-swimmers how to swim.

Wouldn't that be a strange and niche sort of school?

Sadly, I see many of our churches as operating this. They are a club for insiders, rather than a school for beginners. They don’t evangelize formally in any way, and because of this, both the outsiders and even the insiders suffer.

Related post: Does Your Parish Have a Shallow End?

Pope Francis reminds us that:

In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers.

But rather than engage in trite self-congratulation, he bluntly states:

We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented. (EG, 28)

He’s right. And we need to deepen our renewal by returning to core and keeping the first thing the first thing.

3. We aren’t team players

I have visited Protestant churches (and even a couple of Catholic ones) that were made up of large pastoral teams of 6-10 people. In this set up there is a sharing of responsibility for the spiritual needs of the people of the parish.

But as the letter writer states, most Catholic parishes consist of one or two priests, a secretary, and maybe a youth minister.

Additionally, through many priest friends I have learned that very little leadership training is given to them in seminary or even post seminary.

This is not a model for team-based ministry.

Why have teams? This is like asking, “why have spiritual care?” We need to evangelize and disciple the masses, people.

We also should be guarding against putting too much on our pastors, who are people, too, and who can burn out.

A team-based approach can also help them avoid the danger of “spiritual worldliness” that Pope Francis warns against:

(T)he vainglory of those who are content to have a modicum of power and would rather be the general of a defeated army than a mere private in a unit which continues to fight. (EG, 96)

If we want to be successful as parishes in the 21st century, we need to become team players.

4. We think they need us- they don’t

In some ways, the Catholic Church can dangerously take on the attitude of a government office.

Government offices don’t need to spend much time on customer service training because people need the government. There is no competitor they can go to.

In a way, we are like that. The Church has the sacraments, the Apostolic teaching, the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit. They need us to meet their Sunday Mass obligation. Where else can they go?

The problem is that they don’t believe that those things are real when they don’t see any fruit!

I have a friend who read his way into the Catholic Church a few years ago. He was a Protestant pastor before and had seen the Holy Spirit work in those contexts.

One of the biggest obstacles he had was the lack of vibrancy in Catholic parishes. He went all over looking for one and couldn’t find it!

Many people will go where they see fruit. We can reassure ourselves all we want, but if they don’t see fruit then they won’t believe what we say. We can think they need us but in their eyes, they don’t.

5. We don’t have enough faith

Do we truly believe that God wants to transform the world? Do we believe that God wants to use our parish to transform our neighbourhood and city?

I’m being serious!

I think that too many of us have given up on our parishes being truly exciting. We have accepted the status quo. We know it isn’t great, but who is up to the task of fixing it all?

And can’t you picture Jesus saying to us: “Oh, you of little faith…”

Pope Francis has a lot to say about this in Evangelii Gaudium:

One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”. Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents. While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil. The evil spirit of defeatism is brother to the temptation to separate, before its time, the wheat from the weeds; it is the fruit of an anxious and self-centred lack of trust. (85)


If you want to buck the trend in your parish, try to move against these tendencies I've outlined. Look to examples of great parishes. If you haven't read Divine Renovation or Rebuilt, start there. Then ask your pastor if you can have some conversations about what renewal might look like in your context, and what would be the immediate steps to take in getting there.

And start evangelizing as soon as you possibly can. Urgent, imperfect evangelization is the best kind!  

A self-critical parish is a healthy parish. A parish caught up in celebrating itself all the time is doomed to mediocrity. Or worse.

Let’s allow ourselves to look soberly at our reality and open up our minds to new possibilities. And let us beg God to use us in building up a better Church in the world.

Come, Holy Spirit...

A parish caught up in celebrating itself all the time is doomed to mediocrity. Or worse. — Josh Canning

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