Discerning whether it might be time to leave one's parish is always a serious business
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A few weeks ago you suggested to a man that he should consider finding another church. My opinion is that shopping for a new parish shouldn’t be done before extensive prayer for your present parish.
I don’t actually disagree with you; I’m not of a mind to advise superficial church-hopping, especially when it’s about something related to church decor, or a Mass schedule that suits one’s preference. There is a good argument to be made that remaining in your geographical parish is important in maintaining the strength of a community.
That is not always the case, though. If one’s current parish is spiritually harmful, it might be essential to shake the dust from your shoes and move on. One can still pray for the old parish — just do it at the new one. No one is obligated to remain at a parish that makes a soul feel uncomfortable or marginalized.
So when should someone pull up the tent stakes and look for another church?
You should leave your parish if it makes you angry, or if your reasons for staying are not spiritual.
Many years ago I made the difficult decision to leave my home parish because I couldn’t take the guitar music and a liturgy that was more focused on the congregation that it was on Christ. Every week for years, years I tell you, I left Mass feeling exhausted and angered.
I say it took me years to leave my home church because I felt so much guilt for wanting to leave. My friends were there. My son was baptized there. I was received into the Church there. I volunteered there and was well known and liked there. I thought only Protestants church shopped. All the reasons I hung around for as long as I did where superficial reasons. Once I weighed them against the spiritual reasons to leave the answer was clear. I needed spiritual sustenance.
That’s not to say all temporal reasons are not good enough reasons. Sometimes life circumstances may be reason enough to leave — special needs children who are not accommodated or welcomed, for example.
And lastly, one should most definitely leave a parish if — as rare as it may be — heresy and seriously errant doctrine contradictory to Church teaching are being taught.
If your priest is encouraging acceptance of sin under a guise of mercy run amok, it might be time to leave.
If you are being asked to compromise your Catholic identity for the sake of an outsized ecumensism, ditto.
If your parish is unbalanced — focusing more on social work while spiritually nonchalant, get out.
Whatever you decide, and however long it takes you to come that decision, you absolutely should approach it prayerfully. And you should, in all fairness, talk to your priest or the parish council about your concerns before you take any action, and talk to members of your Catholic community. Sometimes just having an outlet for your feelings is enough to help you stay and manage through. Other times it can help discern your next step and find the courage to eventually leave.
However, if you do decide to leave your church you should never stop praying for it and its community. Also, if you leave your church it doesn’t mean you can’t always go back later. My story is a perfect example of that: after being away from home church for two years I was able to return last fall. During my two-year absence, I found a wonderful parish that was devoted to the liturgy in such a way that I my understanding of the Mass was forever changed. During that time I continually prayed for my old home parish, its priests and congregants. When the liturgical issues at my old home church were resolved I gladly returned.
Just know that you will never find a “perfect” parish. If you leave your current parish because you think there’s a perfect one out there, you’re going to spend the rest of life bouncing from one parish to the next. And then you will have to ask yourself the most dreaded question: is the problem not all of the other parishes, but something within you, yourself, that maybe you need to look at — a hyper-critical nature; a habit of preferring one’s own tastes? A real self-examination is part of the whole journey.
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Have you ever shopped for a new parish?]