Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lily and Poinsettia Catholics

Easter is a big family visiting time, almost as big as Christmas.  Why, I'm not sure.  Maybe it's the Spring weather that puts people in a mind to travel to the lands of their births and visit with their long-estranged ancestors. And, quite often, their long-estranged churches.

It's a well-known fact that a significant portion of Catholics are actually what are called "Lily and Poinsettia Catholics," people who only find themselves inside a church twice a year, once at Christmas and again at Easter.  The proof is in the packing: on these two days of the year almost every Catholic church is filled to bursting.  It is possible that many of the people in these churches are actually visitors from out of town, regular churchgoers in their own parishes who wish to participate in services with their families.  But if this were the case, it would stand to reason that there would have to be a certain number of churches that would find themselves depopulated at these times, as their congregations attend services elsewhere.  But anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case, that instead almost every church finds itself crammed beyond capacity on these days.

The Catholic parishes of Nanticoke have experienced consolidation in recent years.  Church buildings have closed, and where once there were numerous parishes throughout the city and its outskirts, now there is a single Catholic parish with two worship sites, with the former Holy Trinity serving as the primary site and the former St. Mary's - my home parish - serving as the alternate site.  Beautiful churches with proud traditions and rich histories - St. Stan's, St. Joe's, St. Francis, Holy Child - now stand deconsecrated and empty, stripped of their fixtures and ornaments - or in the case of St. Francis, completely demolished.

And why?  Because dwindling parish rolls could not justify keeping so many churches open.

Fair enough.  A church is a big, expensive building to maintain, and if you have only a handful of parishioners dropping money in the collection basket, it may be impossible to keep the lights on.  Though almost anyone affected will tell you that consolidation went too far, resulting in overcrowded services and overpacked parking lots.* And that's on a typical Sunday.

This Easter was insane.

My sister was in for the holiday, and she and my mom headed out to church separately from me.  They left at about 9:10 for the 9:30 mass a mile across town.  I left the house at about 9:20.

The scene that I came upon looked like a carnival.  People in their Easter Sunday finery were milling about in front of the church.  (I wore my typical clothes - a Henley, jeans, and a black raincoat, with a pair of black dress shoes added as a nod to formality.) Cars were everywhere.  I had to park two blocks away and hike up a hill to get to the church.  Halfway up I saw my sister walking along another hill; she had dropped off our mom and parked three blocks away.

As I approached I saw numerous people walking away from the church - they had decided that they were not going to do this, that they would go to another mass elsewhere or maybe none at all.  As I got closer to the church I saw people stationed on the steps, and on the front landing of the church; perhaps they were planning to stay there through the mass, I don't know.  When I entered the church the vestibule was crammed with people, and more people were sitting on the steps leading up to the choir loft.  I had to get up there, so I mumbled apologies and heaved myself up the steps past them, all the while puffing like a steam engine from my recent hike.

The choir loft was more of the same.  Where normally between two and five choir members and maybe two dozen kibitzers would be scattered about the loft, over a hundred people were crammed in the elevated area, filling the pews and the chairs and all the available floor space.  I took up a position at the railing amongst a sea of unfamiliar faces.  I would stand through the mass.  Heck, I used to stand for twelve hours at a time at work; one hour at church wouldn't kill me.

The pews below were full.  The side aisles were full of people.  Normally, I am told, the church has a capacity of 400 people, and most masses have half that number or less in attendance.  On this day there were over 575 in it.**  I recognized maybe one face in every eight.

I have no idea who these extra people were.  Some were visitors, of course, extended families home for the holiday to see their parents or grandparents.  But many, I think, were people who just can't be bothered to  go to church most weekends, but feel that Easter is somehow special and important.

Ironically, the standard Catholic mass is a recreation of the events of Holy Week and especially Easter.  Opening prayers are followed by readings from the Bible - one from the Old Testament (or, between Easter and Ascension Thursday, the Acts of the Apostles), one from the New Testament (except the Gospels), and a reading from the Gospels.  Responsorial Psalms, the Prayer of the Faithful, then the Liturgy of the Eucharist, recounting the Last Supper through the Resurrection. Finally the mass climaxes in Communion, followed by final prayers and a sending forth.  It's the same routine on Easter as it is on any other Sunday. 

The injunction on Catholics is to attend mass every Sunday.  There's nothing magical about Christmas and Easter. People who just go to mass twice a year do their parishes a disservice in two ways.  By displacing regular churchgoers at these holiday masses, they deny some people the opportunity to attend mass as they normally do every other week.  And by not being in attendance the rest of the year, they help contribute to the low attendance rates that have resulted in church closings, consolidation, and overcrowding.  If all the Lily and Poinsettia Catholics had been attending services regularly throughout the year, Nanticoke wouldn't be down to just two churches.

*A similar consolidation of Catholic schools went through a bit earlier, spearheaded by the same now-former bishop who forced parish consolidation on the diocese.  But an explicit purpose of school consolidation was the reduction of  enrollment: the total available student space at the consolidated schools was smaller than the total enrollment pre-consolidation.  It seems illogical and irrational to attempt to pare back the total number of church-goers through parish consolidation.  But perhaps that was, in fact, part of Bishop Martino's plan.

**There are twenty rows of pews on each side of a central aisle.  There are hat hooks in each pew (for holding hats, of course) - twelve in each pew, except for the front three, which have only space for ten hat hooks to allow for wheelchairs and/or maneuvering space around a casket during funerals.  Assuming one (fairly skinny) person per hat hook, that gives a capacity of 2 x ((17x12)+(3x10)) = 2 x (204+30) = 2x234 = 468 people in the pews, plus maybe another 60 or so in the choir loft.  So I think 575 may have been an underestimate.

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