Allentown Synod Question 3: Does your parish offer a spirit of welcome and inclusion to all in the community? Why or why not?
How does Church Law, or Canon Law. define a parish? “Can. 515 §1. A parish is a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop.” This is not exactly a heart-thumping evangelical definition, but it does indicate that in the mind of the Church a parish is a real place with real people and a real leader—with human interactions and concrete sacramental celebrations. A parish is not a floating dice game nor a mythical concept, but a committed community of human interactions. While a parish has a mystical end—getting us to heaven in the next life—it is a nuts-and-bolts conglomeration of people, places, and interactions that we can manage and mismanage.
We have a decent body of research on why people are leaving the Catholic Church in the United States. The reasons given are  no longer believing in the Church’s teachings,  tired of religion and religious commitment,  feeling alienated from the Church,  having a problem with the Church’s teachings on marriage, divorce, and sexuality, including homosexuality,  being divorced,  marrying a non-Catholic,  the position of women in the Church,  regarding the Church’s teachings as arbitrary, irrelevant, and out of touch with the modern world, and  Mass being mechanical and boring. This summary I obtained from Dean Hoge’s research at Catholic University in 2001.
We can assume that every parish is affected by these trends and attitudes. But the Allentown question #3 is more focused in that it probes from us the concrete circumstances in our own local churches. For example, my parish has an active ministry for those seeking annulments and convalidations or blessings of second marriages, with a staff minister assigned for personal assistance. All things being equal, a divorced Catholic would find my parish welcoming and inclusive. On the other hand, it is rare to see any parish website or bulletin with outreach to LGBTQ Catholics. I found two parishes in my own diocese recommended by an independent national Catholic website as “LGBTQ friendly” but only one of the two lists such ministry in its website [with an exceedingly kind message of welcome, I might add.] There are only seven such parishes cited in the entire state of Florida. There is something very deficient here,
The beauty of the Synodal process is the opportunity to look at our local communities for our inadequacies and opportunities in embracing more folks to the Table of the Lord. Rather than break this down analytically, let me share two tales of “church inclusion” from my own life.
A Rocky Mountain High. During the week of June 7-13 Margaret and I spent time in Colorado. We had been invited to a wedding in Denver, and so we decided to make a vacation of it. We rented accommodations for two nights in Estes Park, just outside the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park. Because entrance to the national parks is now carefully monitored by timed computer reservations, we could not enter RMNP till after 2 PM, so on our first day we decided to undertake an AM hike along Estes Park’s Riverwalk, a waterside trail with dozens of shops and commercial ventures.
At the entrance to the trail is an enterprise called “Kind Coffee.” Located under trees and next to a lively little river, Kind Coffee had indoor and outdoor seating. It was obviously a community gathering spot for the locals. I said to Margaret that if I ever won the Florida Lottery, I would build something like this as a Catholic community and information center here in Apopka in conjunction with the Catholic Church I pastored here 35 years ago. I envisioned a place where you could just stop in, relax, enjoy some brew, mingle with other guests, read, browse our library, and/or talk with a catechist or parish minister in the building about anything. A Catholic home away from home.
Later that week we planned to hike out at the Red Rock Amphitheater, but the temperature was approaching one hundred degrees, so we just viewed the park and decided to check out a shrine to St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in the adjacent mountains. What a pleasant surprise! A religious retreat grounds set thousands of feet high near Golden. Multiple chapels, outdoor meditation paths, a large gift shop which included—you guessed it—a homey coffee and pastry corner. If I lived anywhere nearby, I would find my way up there and soak up the tranquil community, at least till the winter snows arrived.
The next day, Sunday, we found a parish Mass near our accommodations in Littleton. St. Francis Cabrini Parish is in Columbine—two of the shooting victims’ funerals were conducted at that church some twenty years ago. On this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, the pastor’s sermon tended to wander way off the feast and into Colorado’s abortion politics, but it was one of the announcements that caught my good ear. The parish was hosting food trucks on its property one night during the coming week for everyone to get together. I thought to myself: how clever, what a way to bring the parish together. I was sorry we would not be around. I try to visit such events when I am on the road and I always enjoy them, even as a stranger off the road. I attended a parish building fundraising social in the Adirondack Mountains in 2018 and spent several hours listening to parishioners talk about their local challenges. [Their parish school had been destroyed by an arsonist a few months earlier.]
The geography of Catholicism in the United States has changed since World War II. We no longer grow up in Catholic ghettoes as I did—spending most of my waking hours on church grounds for services, school, and sports with the Christian Brothers. It takes more work for us to come together and welcome each other into our lives. But that week in Colorado I stumbled into locales where community and inclusion are being fostered in some very imaginative ways.
Are We Keepers of the Gate or Greeters to the Banquet? During my final year in the priestly ministry, I encountered an interesting pastoral situation unexpectedly that I will never forget. I was approached for pastoral counseling by a woman who identified herself as a lesbian. She was raised Catholic and her main reason for seeing me was to find out if she could go to church despite her orientation. We talked for about two hours, and I did everything I could to encourage her to become a member of the parish family, explaining that orientation is a mystery of creation and no barrier to God’s love or the communion banquet. She cried, and I cried, and it was one of those grace moments you never quite forget.
What I came to realize, in subsequent weeks, was that I started getting more calls from women in similar circumstances, so I assume the word went out that I was a “safe” cleric and mine was a “safe parish” to hang one’s hat. Not unexpectedly, I was asked about cohabitation. This was a quarter century before the “civil same-sex marriage” debate picked up heat in the United States. Sometimes the Holy Spirit does work overtime. I explained to those who inquired: “The mystery of one’s sexuality is ultimately known only to God. I would not presume to tell you that your need for intimacy is a violation of God’s plan for you. We trust God and always ask for Wisdom. What I would say is this: if you are at peace with God, live with your partner with the same moral commitment we ask of different-sex couples when they marry in the Church. Be monogamous and faithful, commit yourself to the relationship wholeheartedly, try to be Christ for your partner, pray together. If you believe that God has brought you together, receive the Eucharist unless you have morally failed your partner, and then come to see me in the confessional.” [None asked me to marry them, which I interpreted at the time as an indication of their prudence and good faith as well as sensitivity to my position.]
I would also tell them that if someone questioned their arrangement, they should say simply that this is a matter between themselves and their priest in confession and thus confidential.
The Church has the responsibility to unpack the moral teachings of the Sacred Scriptures. However, I do not believe that should be the Church’s calling card, either. Of course, should discussions along these lines come up in Synodal sharing—and I believe they will the longer the groups work together—it is important that the position of the priests of the parish be taken into consideration. These are challenging times for clerics in public ministry. The so-called culture wars are entwined in parochial life, and even the confessional, in ways that are much more intense than they were thirty years ago. Pastors are under much greater episcopal and social scrutiny today than during my years in the ministry. Not all of them would agree with my conscience decisions, either, and I respect that. But from the vantage point of the Synod, it is good for priests to hear from the laity how certain aspects of Church ministry create unnecessary pain, as it is good for laity to hear the stresses of their leaders in the current environment.
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