The Personalist Project

We were out of town this week, so we got to see how the other half lives—that is, people who aren't fortunate enough to belong to our home parish.

At first, we enjoyed the variety.  One priest preached about how great it is to be 70, because you can finally say whatever you like: what do you have to lose?  It was a solid homily, even if it did include more about Lois Lerner and the IRS than I was expecting. 


Then, the next day, there was the much more ancient priest, the one we’re always startled but happy to see still alive and kicking each year, who radiates a really glorious indifference to conventional wisdom.  Speaking about people who try to exclude religion from the public square, he chortled incredulously, “They try to get rid of God!  They’re not gonna get rid of GodThey’ll find out!”

And then there was Fr. Gerald from Nigeria, a straight-talking missionary recently healed of malaria and sent to the wilds of Up North, Michigan.

Beating around the bush was just as foreign to him as it was to the others.

Then, on the way home, our luck ran out. We unsuspectingly stopped off at Parish X.

There was a rug, but no kneelers, with chairs arranged in a circle, not a cross, around an altar, but not a tabernacle.  A small, defeated-looking Christ graced the crucifix in the front, close to the floor, dwarfed by the much more conspicuous screen that towered above Him, where words of prayers and hymns flashed on and off.

The homily was about filling a mayonnaise jar, which works best if you put your large rocks in first, your pebbles second, and your sand last.  Large rocks are the important things in life (family, friends, and—his words, not mine—making time for golf); pebbles are the less important ones; the sand is the extras. 


When Communion approached, four lumpy, middle-aged ladies (I say this with all affection, being one myself) in spring-green outfits flanked the priest to assist him.  The priest, who seemed almost pathologically unselfconscious, belted out high-decibel snatches of the abysmal Communion hymn in progress as he distributed the Eucharist.

There was also a piano-and-voices duet that reminded me of nothing so much as Archie and Edith Bunker's opening song in the sitcom All in the Family.

But right in the middle of my inner critic’s field day, I realized I was missing the point more thoroughly than the targets of my snark were.  My liturgical principles were correct, but I was the one firmly focused on the soprano’s failures, the architecture's incorrectness, and my nagging obsession with whether the lumpy ladies had all plotted (or been instructed??) to wear the same color, as a stab at quasi-liturgical something-or-other, or whether it was just a gruesome coincidence.

Worshipping God was the furthest thing from my mind.

It's funny how easy it is to slip unawares into critical-observer mode, as if our first duty were to evaluate other people's performance of theirs. Here was a pastor, probably formed, through no fault of his own, at the height of the Silly Seventies, who was at least throwing himself into his work. He'd been transferred to Parish X a year ago, we found out, after a series of painful mergers.  

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to guess at the burden of instability, misunderstanding, and sheer logistical nightmare he's probably contending with. The appearance of even a tactfully censorious tourist, explaining sotto voce to her puzzled and road-trip-bedraggled offspring that yes, this is a Catholic church, but these people are just a little mixed up--maybe this was not what he needed just then. 

And acting like a roving critic instead of one personal subject among others wasn't what I needed, either.

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