The Church’s thinking on subsidiarity is that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. It’s a sound principle and one that I often think about as bishops decide on which parishes to save, which to close and just how far they should take parish mergers. We all understand the practical needs that bishops are attempting to address — and practicality does matter; to the world being “practical” is expedient and sensible. But faith itself is often neither practical nor expedient nor sensible, and sometimes I wonder if human practicality really gives the Holy Spirit the best opportunities to work God’s purpose. In that vein, I write today in praise of small parishes.
In my small parish, about 100 families gather every week for Mass. The ushers know everyone by name, and notice when someone is late or missing. We have our customary seats, but we’re always willing to make room for a visitor or a new family. When we pray for the sick or the dead, we know the faces that go with the names, and we know who is worried or grieving.
Our religion classes have four or five students to a grade. The parents and teachers know each other, and the students can see that their friends’ parents and grandparents love the faith enough to pass it on. We watch one another’s children grow, help one another through tantrums, and cheer one another through triumphs. When my toddler can’t stop moving during Mass, my walk to the back is not a walk of shame, because I know that most other women in the parish have made the same walk — weeks ago, years ago, or decades ago.
In a small parish like ours, everyone helps. We may not have an environment committee or a maintenance committee, but we have a group of parishioners who plant their gardens with an eye toward decorating the church, and we have talented people who happily donate their time and talents to repair and maintain the church and grounds. When there’s a need, someone steps up.
In our parish the work of children is as valued as the work of adults. My kids are altar servers, man booths at the festival, clean the church weekly, and plan to help more as they grow. Because a small parish always has plenty of work to do, my children are growing up to see that they’re needed. The church wouldn’t be the same if they left. They feel important and treasured.
When you attend a small parish, there are too few people for a mom’s group, a senior group, a single’s group. Instead, you’re all together, learning from one another and growing. You’re forced to face humanity in all its variety. There aren’t enough people for the lovers of “Tantum Ergo” to avoid the “On Eagle’s Wings” groupies. You have to accept and love one another, even when you have different ideas about liturgy, theology, or music.
On paper, small parishes may be messy, anachronistic, a waste of time and resources. They don’t fit into neat check boxes and they give diocesan consultants headaches. They’re also brimming over with life and love. They’re the mustard seeds that grow to house all the birds of the air, the leaven in the loaf.
Dioceses want to eliminate small parishes because we’re facing a vocations crisis. What they don’t realize is that these same small parishes are our vocational seed corn. In these little parishes, our children learn to revere the faithful of generations past, and to pray for the faithful of the future. It’s here where they first learn to serve people unlike them, all for love of Christ.
It’s in these small parishes that children have the time to get to know their pastor, and maybe learn that he wasn’t born a priest, but that he was an ordinary boy who answered an extraordinary call. In a small parish, when we pray for vocations, we know we’re not just praying for a stranger to join the seminary, but for some of the children we’ve known from birth. Big parishes may be a quick cure to current priestly logistics, but if we want an end to the vocations crisis, perhaps we should start by thinking small.