Trying to Choose the Best Parish

I have a problem:  I don’t know where my family and I should be attending Mass.

When I was first hired as the youth minister for two different parishes, both pastors were new, so we didn’t have any idea which one would be the best fit.  We decided to join the one that was closest to our house.  Now, we’re 3 years in and the two parishes and pastors have developed very unique personalities and charisms, and I just can’t figure out which one is the best fit for our family.

Part of the struggle lies in the difference in faith development between me and my husband.  My husband only recently became Catholic and has had some pretty disillusioning experiences of Church life (Someone remind me how I could have ever thought parish council would be a good idea for a new Catholic?) and he mostly goes to Mass because he knows how important it is to me.  I, on the other hand, am a cradle, Catholic-school going, Church worker with a Master’s degree in Pastoral Studies who tries to get to daily Mass at least once a week.

The problem is that the two parishes meet two very different needs for our family.

Parish A has a very orthodox pastor who truly lives and breathes liturgy as “the source and summit” of our faith.  He busts out all the Catholic smells and bells every week because he wants the parish to understand how important the liturgical experience is.  He’s a stickler for following the Church liturgical documents and is incredibly obedient to the directives of our Bishop.  His homilies are grounded in strong theology and catechesis (teaching).  I love his homilies because I learn something new every week – he speaks to my level.  My husband on the other hand, often finds these homilies flying miles over his head.  He doesn’t have the same appreciation for the chant, incense, and bells, so he complains that the Mass feels like a production at this parish rather than worship.

Parish B has a pastor who is all about personal relationships.  He makes each person he encounters feel as though they are the most important thing he is doing in that moment.  He doesn’t use all the smells and bells at every Mass, but his homilies are strongly grounded in real life experience.  I don’t often learn something new during these Masses, but I find myself engaged in the personal stories, jokes, and parables he uses to challenge us to live out our faith better when we leave the Church doors.  I miss some of the more traditional aspects of liturgy when we attend this parish, but my husband really enjoys this pastor’s personability and the easy way he can relate to the homilies.

We’ve been bouncing back and forth between these two parishes on Sunday mornings for the past few years, but we’re running into a problem with that approach.  See, our son is going to be receiving his First Communion next year and has started to develop an understanding and appreciation for what’s happening during Mass.  He really wants to go to Parish B every Sunday.  He likes that pastor because, “he sometimes sings songs or talks about Indiana Jones” during his homilies.  I like taking him to Parish A because I can count on so many teachable moments – like when we talked about how they use the incense honoring the 4 places in the Mass where we find the Real Presence of Christ (Word, Eucharist, Priest, & People)

I know how important it is to develop a strong Catholic identity and love for the Mass in my children, and this is where I’m feeling torn.  I’m trying to figure out how to balance all the factors:

  • Is it okay to keep bouncing back and forth, or do we need to foster a sense of parish identity for our children (and ourselves) by picking one and sticking to it?
  • Is it more important that my children are exposed to all the sensual experiences of a truly strongly developed liturgy or that they are able to connect with the Scriptures through the homily each week?
  • Is it better for my children (particularly my sons) to regularly see the innate holiness of a priest, or that they are able to develop a positive relationship with a friendly priest each?
  • Should I sacrifice the liturgical experience that speaks more to me so the rest of my family has a more positive experience or should I continue to push my family outside their comfort zone to bring them deeper into that experience?

It’s not an easy decision because both parishes are really good.  Both pastors are holy men who care deeply about the flock entrusted to them. And ultimately, despite the occasional frustrations, that’s what makes me grateful to be in this position.  Having to make this decision means I’m a part of something that’s bigger than me…bigger than my husband…bigger than our family.  The diversity of our universal Church is played out even in our small town, and I am reminded of how many gifts and talents we are blessed with in our parishes.  The river of grace flows wide in Oshkosh and all Catholics can find a holy experience of liturgy that can reach them where they are – which makes us truly blessed.

Have any of you navigated the “choosing a parish” waters successfully?  I’d love your advice and thoughts on how my husband and I should prioritize moving forward…


  1. Maggie Melchior (@MaggieMelchior) · January 30, 2012

    This is a great article, Kristin! Thanks for sharing your honest struggles with this. Obviously, having no husband or family to worry about, my immediate answer is to go for Parish A with its solid Catholic identity, liturgical beauty, and grounded orthodoxy.However, you’re right about the needs of your family and how Parish B helps with those. Pastoral sensitivity even within our own families is so important!!

    So I will be totally unhelpful and say: continue to float between the two. Both offer value and both offer needed things for a life of faith. And because our Church is universal, both are fully Catholic and fully beautiful, and at both places you hear the Word of God and receive the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. By experiencing both Parish A and Parish B, your kids (and husband) might have a more universal understanding of the Faith; that is, Catholicism isn’t just “me and my local parish” but “all the parishes in the world united under Christ.”

    For your son’s First Communion, I would recommend Parish A, because First Communion is one of the first places he will personally encounter the liturgy in a real, concrete, memorable way, and the experiences he has will set a lifetime of habits about his reverence for the Holy Eucharist.

    Good luck and let me know your decision. Praying for you, my friend!

  2. Eileen · January 30, 2012

    I can see where your dilemma lies. It is so hard to chose a parish that’s right for you, and since you have a family to think of that can make it even more difficult. My personal advice would be to choose a parish based on liturgy and the closeness it has to the Scriptures and traditions of the Church, not by personality. The reason I suggest this is because personalities will always vary and will not always reach everyone. But a well formed liturgy with all focus expressing the source and summit of our faith with great devotion and energy does the work itself. Christ doesn’t need a great personality to introduce himself to us. That being said, I know the decision isn’t simple because you also want someone reltational to inspire your family to go deeper in their faith. I will pray for you sister.

  3. Amanda · February 1, 2012

    Hi, Kristin!

    This was interesting to read and it has caused me to reflect on a few things, keeping in mind not only your family but also my own situation and recent conversations I’ve had with friends.

    My immediate reaction was that you should keep bouncing back and forth. It sounds like each parish (and each priest) offers something very valuable and it’s not a bad thing to change up the scenery by alternating between the two, thus benefiting from the best of both worlds and pleasing everyone involved. (Side note: I’m realizing how much more complicated things get when you’re not just thinking about your own needs!) This isn’t a bad situation to be in, you know? I wish more people had this problem of too MANY good options! Unless you think that it’s too hard to feel “at home” in any of the two parishes if you continue to attend both, or that the flip-flopping is somehow detrimental to your family or the parish, I see no reason why you should have to choose one or the other.

    As for your son’s First Communion… even if YOU want him to have a certain experience, doesn’t it mean so much more if he’s actually showing interest and expressing where he would like to celebrate this Sacrament? That’s so impressive that he can say, “I like this parish because x,y,z…” Wow! I am certainly nowhere near qualified to offer parenting advice, but it seems like his personal investment in the events of that important day is more important than the building you’re in. if he likes Parish B, he should do it there.

    A few more thoughts: It does sound like Parish B does a slightly better job of meeting the needs of your family as a whole– at least where they’re at now. For your daily Masses, you could go to Parish A so that you get that sense of Liturgy you enjoy, which you’ll hold onto even when it’s a Parish B Sunday. Like you, I enjoy being challenged intellectually at Mass; I appreciate homilies that teach me new things and make me think. I often leave Mass frustrated if I thought the homily was empty, superficial, or not sufficiently connected to the readings from that day. But I’ve introduced certain friends/family members to priests who approach things pretty academically and my guests become extremely bored– it’s just not REAL enough for them. They want to feel drawn in. They want someone to speak naturally to them. They want this “big thing” to be accessible. And that makes sense! If Mass doesn’t send us forth with some kind of sense that we belong to something bigger than ourselves and we are called to live out that special mission, then what’s the point? I have friends with whom I argue repeatedly about what “the whole point” of Mass is, and of course I understand that it’s a memorial of Christ’s death, etc. etc. etc., but I know a lot of people who are getting theology hammered into them right and left and yet have no personal sense of connection to it.

    I used to get upset when people at Mass with me would totally miss the priest’s subtle connections between the First Reading and the Gospel or fail to grasp the significance of some recitation or ritual. But I’m not convinced that Liturgical pomp and circumstance (and theory) is what keeps people coming back Sunday after Sunday. And ultimately, especially when you’re talking about kids’ developing faith, that’s what it comes down to: will this become something that is important to them? When they go to college and have to decide what to do with their weekends, will going to Mass be a priority? If they can’t personally connect, all of the gorgeous processions and proclamations are for nothing.

    A sincere and relevant homily (this is NOT to say over-simplified or empty), a down-to-earth and charismatic priest, and a welcoming and communal environment cannot be understated. With so many [young!] people abandoning the Church and lamenting its inapplicability to their lived experiences, it’s pretty important to feel that sense of connectedness and “home” that Parish B seems to foster. Throwing in some Sundays at Parish A– and your teaching moments– will make the experience richer as a whole, and maybe your family’s needs will evolve and Parish A will be more of a crowd-pleaser later on. But if there’s energy around going to Mass somewhere, I think it’s good to follow that. Too many people go through the motions, recite dogma, quote the Bible– and yet have no personal relationship with God. In my opinion, I think it’s easier to introduce an appreciation of symbolism and high Mass to someone whose heart is in the right place than it is to light a fire in somebody whose passion for their faith dried up long ago.

    Those are just my thoughts, though. And I’m 24 and have no kids, so take it all with a grain of salt as my perspective may be a bit different. 🙂 xoxo

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