The Need for Connection

Gathering the flock by filling the pews

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Father CarrionWhat is the password to the Wi-Fi here? I only have one bar on the cell service in this area! My cell phone needs charging, only 10% left. I can’t find my iPhone. I might be missing an important text or call! People panic when they do not feel connected. How and why in the social and media world is this the norm?

But in the Church world, being disconnected is not given a second thought and is often preferred. Have you ever celebrated in a church where there are too few people and too much space, where 20 people are attending in a church that could seat a thousand people? Families sit together, but typically everybody is, sadly, seated all over the place, so physically unconnected and so spiritually disconnected to the bigger picture.

From the presider’s perspective, using biblical imagery, the herd is scattered, and the shepherd cannot gather them. The herd likes being scattered. They do not want to be placed on your shoulders to be taken to greener pastures — that is, a better way to worship.

Place these same people in a Broadway theater and, if all the seats were the same price, they would be scrambling, racing in to get the best seats in the house and not minding sitting next to total strangers. Place them in a sports stadium and, if offered seating behind home plate or at the 50-yard line, they would not hesitate to move. If there were a stadium wave, they would be standing up and waving in que. Imagine what a stadium wave would look like when 98% of the seats are empty.

Sadly, too many priests know the feeling. It is not easy presiding with empty pews. Actors and athletes must feel the same when they see mostly empty seats.

Now, when the possibility of filling the pews by decreasing the number of Masses is considered, so that more people attend at the same time, that is an anathema. Having more people around the table means little or nothing to many parishioners. Whose family has several Thanksgiving dinners in the same home where different branches of the family come at different times? Most families borrow a neighbor’s folding tables and chairs to ensure the family is connected as much as possible. There is a fuller celebration of Thanksgiving as we gather together. This concept is often not transferable to liturgy in the minds of most parishioners.

“The parish is reviewing the Mass schedule to decrease the number of Masses.” These words are abhorrent to the ears of parishioners when read in the bulletin. You can announce that religious education will be canceled this year and there would barely be a murmur, but canceling “their Mass” is unthinkable. Then, all kinds of solutions are offered: “My brother is a retired priest, and he would be glad to help out.” Or, “The friary across town has many priests. We can even find volunteers to drive them to and from.”

Explaining that “more priests is not the solution; more people are needed” just falls on deaf ears. The connection between “pastor and people,” like the “shepherd to his sheep,” is primary. The bond of connectedness is paramount in a parish: “I know mine and mine know me.” The “hirelings” (visiting priests) don’t have the same connection as the parish priest to his people.

“Oh, Father, that is just a nice Bible story, we are talking reality here, it is critical to keep the Mass schedule as is.” We don’t even have a critical mass of people to have Mass here is the reality. The definition of “critical mass” is that there is a minimum number needed to maintain a venture.

Leading people where they do not want to go and taking people where they do want to be taken is not easy. The shepherd places that wayward sheep on his shoulders and takes him to a place the sheep does not know he needs. Once there, hopefully, the sheep realize this is better and wish they had been brought here earlier. Parish priests can only hope that will happen. In the meantime, we scan the empty pews to make eye contact with the few and far between.

FATHER PATRICK CARRION is pastor of five parishes in East Baltimore, Maryland, and director of Cemetery Management.

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