Way Stations for a Pilgrim Church: The Changing Landscape of American Parishes


March 26, 2020

By Susan Bigelow Reynolds

Some people mark out eras in their lives by the places they’ve lived or the jobs they’ve held. I measure mine in parishes.

I grew up in a Catholic parish south of Denver that sat on a hill and faced the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The church was the apotheosis of post–Vatican II architecture, rounded and dark and a little odd. The walls were built of brown brick, the kind that clung to your clothes like Velcro if you leaned against them. Olive-green and burnt-orange carpet blanketed the floors, and ruddy tile gave the narthex a smoldery, numinous glow. The western-facing wall was made of plate-glass windows. As a kid, I spent most of Sunday Mass transfixed by rose-colored rays of sunlight shooting through the clouds onto the snowy face of Mt. Evans, a view that lent an organic logic to the sacraments: God, too, could be both grand and intimate, both transcendent and earthy.

Every summer, my parents shuttled my siblings and me off to visit our great-aunts in Streator, Illinois, a small, rural town ninety miles south of Chicago where my mother’s side of the family had lived for generations. Once there, we melded into life at their parish, St. Stephen’s. The church was the oldest Slovak parish in the United States, a distinction my Slovak-American family wore with pride. My siblings and I spent our summer breaks helping our aunts and the other ladies of the Altar and Rosary Society run the parish rummage sale, sell rozek, and lead the rosary at the local Catholic nursing home. At St. Stephen’s, the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were still being received in the 1990s. Mass-goers still knelt at the extant altar rail to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, a practice as foreign as it was enchanting to a nine-year-old future Millennial. St. Stephen’s was like an immersion trip into the Catholic past, into a world of ethnic religious enclaves that otherwise only existed for me in old family photos.

Shifting, too, are boundaries of belief, affiliation, and practice. An increasing number of U.S. Catholics locate themselves on the peripheries of the church. Disagreement with church teachings, dissatisfaction with the role of women and the treatment of LGBTQ persons, and disillusionment wrought by the sex-abuse crisis have caused many to reevaluate their relationship to the institutional church and, in turn, to their parishes. Such displacements are harder to quantify—statistics on Catholic disaffiliation tell only part of the story—but they are supremely evident to anyone who has spent time in Catholic communities recently. In a particular way, the relentless tide of abuse revelations has exposed the fragility of authority, the deceptiveness of charisma, the insufficiency of Catholics’ formation on issues of sexuality, and the dark consequences of patriarchy and secrecy. The crisis has forced lay people, many for the first time, to wrestle in a sustained way with the reality of the church’s sinfulness and the limits of their own power. Some have chosen to leave altogether. Together, these transformations are upending perceptions of the parish’s storied stability. Parishes today are spaces of ambiguity, uncertainty, and change—unstable communities of the faithful.

Note: This is an Abuse Tracker excerpt. Click the title to view the full text of the original article. If the original article is no longer available, see our News Archive.