Parish: An Ash Wednesday anniversary reflection

001I write for Young Adult Catholics on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. This year, I have the privilege of posting on Ash Wednesday. I could do much with Ash Wednesday.

But I want to say something not about Ash Wednesday in general, but about what Ash Wednesday means to me. It is my anniversary. It is an unlikely anniversary at that.

Four years ago, I did something I never thought I would do. I quit being a practicing Catholic for an extended period of time. Two years ago, I rescinded my choice. I “came home” on Ash Wednesday, 2013.

The experience was multidimensional. Here, I want to focus on just one dimension: the “home” part. Specifically, my parish home: what it was before, what it is today, and some thoughts for folks who are where I have been.


I grew up in a parish in the south suburbs of Chicago. I was active from the beginning of high school through the age of twenty-eight: lector, Eucharistic minister, Market Day grocery-hauler, summertime janitor, quasi-sacristan. In the summer of 2011, I bolted. I did not go to church, except on holidays, for the next year and a half.

It was a combination of factors. I’ve written about what it was like to be a “lapsed Catholic” at Catholic Majority. I’ve written about the chilling effect I experienced from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at my personal blog.

What I’ve written less about is the local community aspect. My parish, into which I had been born and to which I had given so much of my life, was no longer a safe space. We’d had one pastor who had done his best to keep us a “Vatican II parish.” By 2011, he was long dead. Subsequent priests meshed better with what the congregation, in its heart of hearts, wanted: to fuse with the religious and political right wing.

I could not play a role in the church justice movement, write for this blog, make the friends I was making, and then go to Mass on Sunday and feel any spiritual coherence. And I knew, too, that if anybody in parish leadership ever Googled me, I’d be shown the door. That was what we had become. I awaited a signal that my end had arrived.

It came that August. One of the Eucharistic ministers, and an influential parishioner besides, cornered me in the sacristy. She began to praise the new liturgy translation that would arrive that fall. She was excited that the Latin Mass itself might return. She’d heard hopeful rumors. All this was said in a forceful way that suggested my agreement was assumed, and that I should begin to agree if I did not already do so. I did not come back next weekend.

Later, I found that all hell had been breaking loose, in ways I was not aware of, for much of the previous decade. I was forced to wonder if my parish, which had done so much to nurture my development, had ever been anything I thought it was at all.

We had girl altar servers. But the people who ran the acolyte program understood it as a way to “show girls how to be submissive.” Kids who asked too many questions in CCD class, again especially girls, were made to kneel before statues of the Virgin Mary and “pray she’ll teach you to be submissive.” I heard that women who wanted to serve in higher-level ministries had best “ask your husband if it’s okay.” Single mothers couldn’t serve at all. Confirmation students were charged what amounted to a fee for the sacrament. The bishop’s office had to slap down our incipient simony.

My parish also spawned a distinct, identifiable refugee community. Much of it had decamped en masse to another area church, the one where I subsequently ended up. It seemed to consist of everybody who’d had any sort of higher theological education. Yet another area church maintained a special support group for former members of my parish who were now “in recovery.”

With time, I got sick of not going to church. I remember the cold, fresh wind that bent the trees on the morning of February 11, 2013, when Pope Benedict announced his resignation. It said a new age was dawning. I should do a new thing.

On February 13, Ash Wednesday, I drove to a new church, known for its community pantry and its homeless shelter and the occasional use of terms like “liberation theology” in the pulpit. I received my ashes. I’ve remained there since. In recent months, I’ve returned to what I once was: lector, Eucharistic minister, volunteer.

The place is not perfect. Yet to be there, and work there, is to get the same feeling I get from Call To Action: that another world is possible, and indeed is already here.


As I write, I consider my embarrassment of riches. I live in a church-choked borderland between the diocese of Joliet and the archdiocese of Chicago. I have at least eleven Catholic churches available within a half-hour drive, and that’s just off the top of my head. I’m probably underestimating. My ability to rebel, then to switch, is a privilege.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that for much of the country, being progressive and staying involved in church life means you can switch from your parish twenty minutes away, where Father preaches against abortion in a perpetual loop, to the parish forty-five minutes away, where homilies are ineluctably homophobic. Or you can go mainline Protestant. Or you can start an intentional community, if there are enough of you and you’re really brave. Or you can quit.

I take account of all that. I would never make decisions for you. I live within a context. So do you. That said, I want to make a suggestion. If you are not active in a brick-and-mortar parish associated with a diocese, I invite you to consider this Lent whether or not you can, or should, change that.

I know how much power a parish has to demoralize. I’ve seen it, smelled it, felt it, and described it. But if a parish has power for dying, it also has power for rising.

The church justice movement, and the DIY spiritual community associated with it, does a great deal. It has resources for contemplation and action. It provides safe space where we gather and remember we are not crazy. It is innovative and indispensable. I am glad to work within it.

But I am also a semi-Chicagoan who lives at the edge of our local machine politics. Thus I have a keen appreciation for what power is, who has it, and how you get it. In Chicago, someone else will take your power and use it if you don’t, and they will probably wield it to hurt somebody. Your principled, logical refusal of power will soon look like weak sauce. So you’d better keep your hand in, and your face and your shoe leather, too. And I daresay our only power is as an active laity plugged into the official Roman Catholic polity.

See if you have more options than you think. If you grew up in a parish like the one I left, seek out a parish like the one I’m in now. I don’t think a lot of people know it’s there. Maybe you don’t know it’s there, either. There are even well-known parishes that don’t fly under the radar, that maintain their own integrity, and that compel the hierarchy to live with them largely on their own terms, like St. Cecilia’s in Boston’s Back Bay, or St. Sabina’s in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham. True, those are in big liberal cities. But they’re proof of what parishes can accomplish.

Brick-and-mortar parishes are where most Catholics go. That includes the giant movable middle that’s already disposed to agree with us progressives, assuming we plant the seeds. Brick-and-mortar parishes are also the only places that bishops pay heed to, when they feel compelled to pay heed of any kind at all. And in both the U.S. and much of the globe, bishops retain much of the real-world, brass-tacks clout–not just religious, but political–that they had back in the ancien regime when they reigned with kings.

Brick-and-mortar parishes are where the poor go for meals, for second-hand clothes, for a cot to sleep on when the night shelter is open, and for the Catholic Charities counselor who will help them for free. Brick-and-mortar parishes still bear the brunt of the grunt work about which Jesus spoke. It was brick-and-mortar parish life that “claimed and held the allegiance of the masses of people in all the cities where I had lived,” as Dorothy Day indicated in The Long Loneliness. That remains true enough, for enough of the world.

Brick-and-mortar parish life, if you can do it without harm to your spiritual well-being, is something that nothing else can match. It provides access to the church’s entire bloodstream. Things do flow from bottom to top. Church history shows it. Use your own discernment. But join me, if you can.

4 thoughts on “Parish: An Ash Wednesday anniversary reflection

  1. This is a great post, Justin. Whenever people ask why I stay, I tell them that if I leave and everyone else gives up too, we’re just *giving* the Church to those we disagree with. You make great points about Church and “power”–running an institution comprised of people is never clean business, but without any people at all, there’s no point of in “instituting” them.

    • Thank you for this, and all very well said. Indeed, there are no ideal communities, only real ones. And when we can, we should make them better rather than withdraw from them.

  2. Justin, thank you a well-written post and for sharing your story with us. I’ve never taken the leap of leaving the church for a time, but I believe that’s because I’ve been lucky, too. I’ve been raised by parents who have shown me what the church can and should be about. I found agreeable spirits in the Jesuits running my high school and the Norbertines running my college. Perhaps this is why I still find it better to stay. Thanks for your help in articulating it.

    By the way, you should SEE how many churches we have around here. This comes in handy when you realize that work and school get in the way of attending Ash Wednesday Mass at your home parish :-)

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