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WE ARE STILL FAITHFUL: Relevance keeps the church pews filled today
The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA) ^ | June 23, 2007 | Lane Lambert

Posted on 06/23/2007 5:48:05 AM PDT by siunevada

MILTON - When it came time for the Gospel reading and homily at the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Agatha Catholic Church, the Rev. Peter Casey didn’t take his usual place at the pulpit. Instead, he pulled a large puppet figure of a priest onto his hand and joined the assistant pastor, deacon and a trio of parishioners with other puppets.

As dozens of grinning youngsters watched from the foot of the low, open altar, the ensemble acted out a good-humored sketch of the story of Jesus’ miraculous feeding with a few loaves and fishes. When one of the puppet characters said, ‘‘Wow! That’s what I call Wonder Bread!’’ the adults in the pews chuckled, too.

The monthly presentation is called ‘‘Puppet Parables.’’ This is what a 21st century church looks like, and it’s one of the reasons parishioners like Valdemar and Ella Welz and Janet Evans and her husband, Michael Vhay, rarely miss the more relaxed, family-oriented Mass with their children.

The Welzes and Vhays are among 2,500 who attend at least one of the six weekend services at St. Agatha’s. That total is the largest of any South Shore church, Catholic or Protestant, and the sheer number reflects an often overlooked fact:

Despite declines in overall attendance since the 1960s, waning social pressure to go and an ever more-diverse array of spiritual choices, the United States and New England continue to be places where regular worship is of the deepest importance to tens of millions of Americans - perhaps as many as 40 percent of the population, one of the highest rates in the world.

Several Catholic parishes in the area draw 1,500 members every week - affected only temporarily, if at all, by the clergy sex-abuse scandal. The largest Protestant church on the South Shore, Calvary Chapel in Rockland, averages 1,200. Mainline Protestant congregations have as many as 300 on a Sunday. Pentecostal, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist services also draw hundreds.

All those congregations include lifelong believers like Janet Evans, who says she ‘‘always wanted to be involved one way or the other.’’ These days she’s a lector and is active in parish programs as well as a person in the pews.

At Weymouth’s Old South Union Congregational, one of the best-attended Protestant churches, retired teacher Edith Bridges explained her steady devotion much the same way. While some of her childhood friends drifted away from church as young adults in the 1960s and ’70s, never to return, ‘‘my faith journey takes me there,’’ she said.

How the faithful get there - and why they stay - isn’t a simple thing for many these days. Traditional music and liturgies no longer strike the same chord with everyone. ‘‘Church shopping’’ is a fact of parish life.

As the Puppet Parables illustrate, even well-established churches now feel the need to offer provocative programs, the same as contemporary congregations like the evangelical North River Community Church in Pembroke, where drama and plugged-in music are the format.

A full shelf

Around the South Shore, seekers and shoppers can find everything from youth-led services with guitars to candlelit worship and small-group get-togethers - and Mass schedules to accommodate almost any age group or family demand.

Earlier this month First Congregational in Hanover opened a labyrinth, where people can follow the increasingly popular meditative, walking ritual.

No local pastors are blogging like Cardinal Sean O’Malley, but the Rev. Rick McKinley at Harbor United Methodist in Scituate is podcasting his sermons. Congregations of every faith have Web sites.

Clergy and scholars say such activities aren’t mere marketing ploys for a consumer culture, but rather an effort ‘‘to engage people on their own terms ... so you don’t lose them,’’ said Boston College history professor James O’Toole of Milton.

O’Toole, who’s writing a new book about American Catholics, said that strategy may not be too different from the Polish and Lithuanian services that Boston area parishes started offering for immigrants a century ago - as Holy Family Church in Rockland now does for Portuguese-speaking Brazilians.

Boston University religion professor Nancy Ammerman said American mobility has also complicated the task. At a time when people move often and communities aren’t as close-knit, ‘‘there’s no natural place where people are going to go (to church),’’ Ammerman said. ‘‘Any congregation is going to have to make itself known beyond its neighborhood and bloodlines.’’

As mainline Protestant churches struggle to hold members, evangelicals and Pentecostals have widened their presence since the 1970s, locally and across the country.

For Roman Catholics, meanwhile, the Vatican II era of reform heralded a change as profound as the advent of English-language Masses and female Bible readers and altar servers: Most Catholics no longer believe they’re ‘‘in sin’’ if they don’t go to Mass every week.

Post-Vatican II pastors like the Rev. Casey are well aware of that reality. When he greets people outside the sanctuary door after Mass, he says, he often thinks, ‘‘They don’t have to be here. They’re here because they believe.’’

Or are searching for belief. Like other pastors, the Rev. Donald Remick sees plenty of those souls at First Congregational in Hanover, as does the Rev. Paul Atwater at North River Community Church.

The adult baby boomers who’ve been returning to church since the 1980s have been asking different questions, the Rev. Atwater said: ‘‘They want to know, how does this help me? Who will help me raise my children? Is this true?’’

‘‘There are so many other things people can do these days,’’ the Rev. Remick said. ‘‘When people do come to church, they want to find something that feeds what they need in their lives.’’

‘Easier not to go’

Here and elsewhere, formerly lapsed boomers and ‘‘seekers’’ who may not have grown up going to church are taking seats alongside the two most reliable groups of worshippers - parents with young children and older members like Edith and Warren Bridges at Old South Congregational in Weymouth.

St. Agatha’s parishioners Valdemar and Ella Welz quit going to Mass as teenagers. Though they never abandoned their beliefs, ‘‘it became easier and easier not to go,’’ Ella said - until a charismatic experience brought them back with a passion a decade ago.

Peter and Laura Conway were turned off by the lack of welcome at their previous church in a suburb west of Boston. When they moved to Milton with their three young children, the family Mass at St. Agatha’s ‘‘made it easy (to join),’’ Laura Conway said.

For Betsey Josselyn of Hanover, going back to First Congregational was a homecoming to the church she’d attended as a child. After pursuing a personal spirituality for years, ‘‘it’s like an extension of my family,’’ she said.

For Terri Brenner, First Congregational has become the church home she never had as a youngster in Maine. ‘‘It’s my haven,’’ she said.

In larger congregations, middle and high school students are getting more attention than ever. At Holy Family and numerous other Catholic parishes, the nationally popular LifeTeen program features youth Masses, with students taking every role except the sermon and Communion.

‘‘It makes you feel more connected (to worship),’’ said Rockland High graduate Meghan Hunt, who has taken her turn as a lector and Eucharist server.

Weymouth teenager Martina Spain started as a visitor to Old South Congregational’s youth group. ‘‘Everybody made you feel like it was okay to be there,’’ she said, so she has joined the church along with her father, even though she’s still a student at Notre Dame Academy in Hingham.

‘Sign of hope’

For all the up-to-date ministries and worship styles, pastors and their parishioners say word-of-mouth invitations and an old-fashioned welcome like Martina Spain’s still go a long way toward drawing visitors and encouraging them to return.

‘‘We don’t go banging on doors,’’ said the Rev. Terry Martinson, the pastor at Old South Congregational. ‘‘But people hear about things here if they’re church shopping.’’

The Rev. James Hickey wants people around Rockland to hear about Holy Family, too, though not by watering down the teachings, however they’re tailored for the times.

‘‘I used to worry that we weren’t getting the largest possible number, but I don’t anymore,’’ he said. ‘‘You don’t worry about turning people off. You stand up for what you are.’’

‘‘It’s not gimmicks,’’ he said of programs like ‘‘LifeTeen’’ and mission trips. ‘‘It’s Gospel living and being Catholic.’’

At St. Agatha’s, the Rev. Peter Casey says families like the Welzes and Conways are keeping the faith for much the same reason: They found a parish with meaningful worship, where they can take an active part and are challenged to think about ‘‘why we do what we do.’’

Like the Rev. Hickey, the Rev. Casey knows those expectations may not produce ever-bigger parish rolls amid a society so heavily geared to self-satisfaction. But attendance is steady, and the pews are near full with the next generation as well as the older ones.

‘‘That’s a sign of hope,’’ he said.

TOPICS: Catholic; Evangelical Christian; Mainline Protestant; Worship

1 posted on 06/23/2007 5:48:11 AM PDT by siunevada
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To: siunevada

OMG!!! They need GIMMICKS????? The Holy Eucharist doesn’t need any GIMMICKS!! This is disgusting.....Massachusetts is a VILE place.

2 posted on 06/23/2007 5:59:16 AM PDT by Suzy Quzy
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To: siunevada

A modernist puff piece like this could just as well be dated from 1974. Same rhetoric. Someone should set this happy-clappy congregation up with Vosko, Gumbleton, and Chittister and they can all go off and be “relevant” together.

3 posted on 06/23/2007 10:01:12 AM PDT by marsh_of_mists
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To: Suzy Quzy

(sigh) It’s bad enough that 40 years of bad catechetics has made two generations of Catholic parents almost totally ignorant of the Faith. Now, it’s come to THIS with the third generation?

There once was an Age of Piety in Europe, when most everyone had sufficient knowledge of the Faith to cooperate with God’s grace and get a good leg up on saving their souls, and this while most folks were illiterate. The Mass was not dumbed-down for their sake, AFAIK. Now, in an age with near-full literacy, universal access to mass media, computers, the Internet, and any number of other superb outlets for catechetics people in former times couldn’t even dream of, we’re reduced to silly puppet shows replacing the Gospel at Mass???

Were it not for my full faith in Christ’s promise of Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 28:20 to be with the Church till the end, I would throw up my hands in despair and admit that “We’re doomed!” Only a miracle of grace can bring about a Restoration if this nonsense goes on unchecked much longer.

As for your comment on Massachusetts: as an inmate myself of that unfortunate plot of earth, I can only say that I couldn’t agree with you more!

“Libera nos, quaesumus, Domine, ab omnibus malis, praeteritis, praesentibus et futuris!”

4 posted on 06/23/2007 10:23:32 AM PDT by magisterium
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To: magisterium

We can pray for you and all the residents (inmates, as you call them) of Massachetts)!

Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord, have mercy!

5 posted on 06/23/2007 10:29:26 AM PDT by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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