The answer to the question “What parish do you belong to?” is important where I live. Cincinnati is a town in which until the recent past “parish” was included on real estate listings. It was something most buyers wanted to know.
My answer brings responses ranging from “You drive that far?” to “Isn’t that downtown?” to simply “Why?” Our home is on a quiet couple of acres so far west of the city it’s practically in the next town. I’m sure there are a dozen parishes between us and the one we call ours. Why do I drive 20 miles to go to Mass in an area of town that’s historically been riddled with crime, drugs, and poverty? Why join an urban parish?
I. It’s Historic
Every downtown has its stories of those who first settled it, and your downtown parish probably tells the story of the first Catholics in your city. In the case of my parish it was nineteenth century German immigrants, possibly including my father’s grandparents. On the other side of my family, I know that in about 1945 my grandfather stood in the church where I now stand each Sunday. An Irishman, it was not his parish, but he was part of a huge assembly of Catholic men that celebrated a special Mass there. Unusual in his day, he brought my mother along with him almost everywhere he went. She’s fairly certain she was the only female in the entire church that day. And as she tells it, hearing nearly a thousand men’s voices raised in the signing of “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” is an awe-inspiring experience one never forgets. I often imagine what it must have been like for her to hear them as I sit in the pew with my own daughters.
II. I Can Breathe
A downtown parish tends to draw folks from a variety of backgrounds, socioeconomic strata, and even spiritualities. As a result, one doesn’t get the feeling that there’s only one right way to be a faithful Catholic. Some women wear veils, some don’t. Many people dress up, but then being downtown you also have your baristas just getting off work, your wandering-in-to-see-what-it’s-all-about types, and people like my homeless friend, Durell. More on him in a minute.
III. The Church is Large
If you’re a Catholic mama there’s a good chance you know what it feels like to try to get a fussy newborn to latch on during the gospel while the three dudes behind you (seem to) evaluate your progress over your shoulder. Not usually a problem in a church that seats 900. And when little Joey gets bigger and chimes in periodically with MAMAMA! followed inevitably by BABABA! you’ll be thankful for the way a large church seems to absorb sound from the congregation.
IV. It’s Beautiful
Where are your city’s most beautiful churches found? In the suburbs?
V. It’s Close to the Physically Impoverished…
Our downtown parish finds itself at the crossroads of poverty and affluence. It’s in an area of town undergoing a rather successful, privately-funded revitalization. Crackhouses have become hipster bars, dilapidated buildings have become high-rent studio condos. But the poor don’t go away, the poor are part of downtown life. That’s where Durell comes in.
It was an evening Mass and I was loitering in the back of the church with my toddler. A man who was clearly homeless came up the steps of the church to ask me if I could help him out. I explained that I didn’t have anything on me at the moment, but if he didn’t mind waiting I’d be glad to give him something after Mass.
Well now, this was a special Mass; after the closing we were to venerate a relic of St. Philip Neri. I had noticed the man who’d approached me in the back pews of the church, kneeling and standing with the rest of the congregation. I wondered whether he’d have the patience to keep waiting for me. After my children and I venerated the relic I looked around for him and realized that he was kneeling at the communion rail with everyone else, about to venerate the relic. After he did, he remained for some time kneeling, then slowly came down the center aisle. He was not looking for me; it was I who stopped him. When I gave him something he returned my kindness with an 80 proof hug and thanked me repeatedly. We talked for a few moments. He’d been moved by the experience of venerating the relic. When we parted he said emphatically, “I hope I see you up there,” pointing heavenward.
I can’t fix poverty. But I don’t want to live my life in such a way that I can ignore it.
VI. …and the Spiritually Impoverished
The bars, restaurants, artsy destinations, and other attractions that surround our church draw a wide range of people to the area who have no interest in Catholicism. But when the doors and windows are wide open on a Friday evening in spring and the choir’s plainchant wafts out along with the incense … well, we’re hard to ignore. And pacing around with the antsy toddler I notice the varied reactions of those who pass by. There’s “Glance in and then glance away before someone notices you’re interested” and of course the look of contempt or the laugh—“People still do that?” And of course “Eyes straight ahead! If you don’t look then it doesn’t exist!” In post-Christian America, it’s good that signposts still exist for the bar-goers, and I’m glad to play my part.
VII. It’s Where the Renewal of the Liturgy Finds its Epicenter
Look, “the liturgy wars” aren’t my thing. But it doesn’t take a genius (or an ideologue) to identify the music one hears in most suburban parishes today as banal. It’s not classic, it’s not contemporary, it’s not traditional… If someone could please pass on the message, 1972 called: they want their music back. Other aspects of the liturgy are suffering, too. As a result, many Sunday Masses are nothing short of lackluster.
But there are signs of hope. In some quarters, priests and laity alike are finding ways to restore the beauty, dignity, and grandeur of the Mass which are its birthright. This isn’t happening exclusively in urban parishes, but urban parishes—where the architecture, the acoustics, the very “feel” of the churches seem to demand reverence and beauty—do have a much higher participation rate in this renewal effort than others.
Perhaps you love your parish. Maybe it celebrates liturgies worthy of our Creator, serves the surrounding community in visible ways, and is beautiful and open-hearted. Then wherever you are, be grateful! But if not, perhaps it’s time to check out your city’s downtown parish. It might need you, and you might need it.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is St. Patrick’s Church, Cleveland.