Feeling excluded at your parish? Join the crowd

4 mins read
feeling excluded

Normally, when someone claims that one thing will make a “game-changing” difference in a community, I am skeptical. “Yes, that is a factor, but what about …?” is generally how I respond to that kind of claim. But today, I am going to make one of these claims myself. There is one thing that people could do, in any community in which they find themselves, that will change everything. Here it is:

Stop thinking that you are excluded from it.

Every day — and I do not think this is an exaggeration — there are Catholics on social media claiming that because of X or Y they are excluded from their parish, some other Catholic community (such as a Catholic school) or the Catholic Church writ large. “Because my kids go to public school,” “Because I homeschool,” “Because I have toddlers,” “Because I am divorced,” “Because I am single,” “Because I am gay,” “Because … because… because.”

A two-way street

I’m sorry to get salty here, but just stop it. It seems to me that everyone saying these things is using whatever it is as an excuse to get out of the hard work that is Christian community, and they are fundamentally misunderstanding the realities of parish life.

I hate to break it to you all, but Christian community is hard work. There is maybe one person out of a thousand who feels completely comfortable, accepted and loved in their community all the time. Why? Because that community is made up of human beings who are a bit of a mess, at their best. It is made up of people like me and you. Can you honestly say that you are always friendly, welcoming, happy to see everyone at your parish on Sunday? That you smile and say hello to everyone in the pews around you? That you remember people’s names and their kids’ names and that their great-aunt was having surgery last week? I don’t think so.

A lot of you feel like you can barely make it to the parish for Mass. You barely make it out the door with shoes on all the kids. But at the same time, you expect everyone else to be better than you. To do the relational work that you feel yourself incapable of doing. To initiate conversation, reach out, offer empathy. To support you when you are sick and make meals for you when a new baby arrives. To be Christ for you. I’m here to say: You’ve gotta meet people halfway.

All are welcome

I am in one of the groups in which people tend to complain about this: Yes, my single friends, I’m looking at you. No one said hi to you at Mass. No one invited you to brunch after. No one would have noticed if you hadn’t come at all. Yes … what’s your point? What did you do? Did you introduce yourself to anyone? Did you invite any families to your house or offer to help with a task in the sacristy/choir/etc.? Maybe you did one time, and because it didn’t work out the way you wanted, you are sulking. OK, sulk away, but that won’t get you any closer to the goal of being part of the community.

The other day, my neighbors — two women who live together — told me that they took a finance class at the local Catholic parish to understand their household expenses better. One of them commented, “We both are, or used to be, Catholic, but, of course, we don’t count.” Well, of course they count! They are no less loved by Christ because their relationship is not ultimately what he wants for them. No one stopped them from taking that class at the parish; No one polices the entrance doors of the Church on the lookout for women who live together. Rather, these women are opting out of the Church while blaming it (us) for that choice.

I met a guy who said he stopped going to Church when he got divorced. “I just don’t feel welcome there,” he said. Why? How would anyone even know he was divorced unless he told them? (They wouldn’t.) Why would anyone care? (They wouldn’t.) When you walk into a Catholic church, unless you are wearing something outrageous, I promise that no one is paying attention to you. This can be a bad thing but it also means that “everyone is welcome” is just a fact. You can come in. No one cares.

Your feelings are valid

Beyond those who exclude themselves intentionally, many people who are part of the Catholic community and look super active and involved do not feel that way. One of the things about being single in my community, made up primarily of families, is that women tend to tell me things that they may not tell other married women or moms. I can tell you with assurance, ladies, that the mom that you are jealous of, whom you think has everything together and is friends with everyone and is the heart of the community (picture her, I’ll wait) — she sometimes feels like no one understands her, no one cares about her, and that she doesn’t fit in. Really.

I hear from the extroverts, “No one reaches out”; from the introverts, “I’m just not a fun mom”; from the parents at the school, “I feel like none of the other parents want to talk to me at the 3rd grade social”; from the homeschoolers, “I don’t feel plugged into the parish”; from the older women, “Everything at the parish revolves around the school children”; from the young moms, “I just don’t know how to juggle the little ones and have a conversation at the same time.”

The thing is: They are all right. They are all saying something that they have experienced and that they feel deeply. Maybe they have been truly excluded from a conversation, a party or a gathering, or maybe there isn’t a program at the school for their child’s particular needs, or maybe they feel out of place because they do X or Y. It happens to everyone.

But to each of them — to each of you — I say, “Yes, it is hard. Life is hard. Did you …?”

Sara Perla

Sara Perla is the communications manager for The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America. She sits on the board of directors for the Gabriel Network.