Notes from Nova Scotia…

Lots of people I know are praying the novena to the Holy Spirit right now in the lead-up to Pentecost. Just a health warning… be careful what you pray for. Two years ago, while on this jaunt round France, I prayed the novena to the Holy Spirit with some dear friends, and the day after Pentecost, the crazy idea of my PhD research ‘dropped’ into my head. It was unexpected and not in my plan… But somehow, the idea gradually became more and more real until I find myself here, on another continent, researching parishes.

Parishes that are bucking the decline trend

Wherever you see an exception to a general rule, something that is sociologically improbable – in this case, a parish that is growing, not declining – it makes sense to study what is going on there, right?! That is why I have travelled to California and Nova Scotia. I have spent one month each in two – quite different – parishes that have seen growth over the last 5-10 years. Before coming out here, I spent months studying different ways of analysing culture. There are a lot of different ways to do this – from the clinical approach of the business guru to the more robust immersion of the anthropologist. My methods sit somewhere in the middle.

The Hidden Rules of Parish Behaviour

However much I loved studying Theology at undergraduate and Masters level, there’s something about being a sociologist which is a lot of fun. I remember devouring Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour years ago and have always been a bit of a people-watcher, whether on tubes or in coffee shops. And now I get to do this professionally – and what is more – in a parish! And who knew – parishes that are alive and growing are pretty fun places to hang out, so the last few weeks have been super enjoyable.

Isn’t better catechesis what is needed for the new evangelisation?

I still see arguments all over the place that if catechesis and liturgy were both what they should be in parishes, they would be bursting at the seams. Perhaps this argument is true to a certain extent, but only to a certain extent. If we listen to the people who have fallen away, we find that some of them fall away for doctrinal reasons (which, yes, stem back to dodgy catechesis) but far more often they fall away for reasons relating to the community and life. They couldn’t connect the faith meaningfully to their life; they did not find the community or leadership compelling enough to stay; life just got too busy and their experience was not strong enough to hold them.

These reasons are all to do with the interior flourishing of a community. Read more here about the importance of the social influence of a community in evangelisation. If someone encounters people who are “like me” in our parishes, they are more likely to be open to the message the parish is offering.

“…More frightened of isolation than of committing an error…”

Political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville noted the following social phenomenon in revolutionary France:

People still clinging to the old faith were afraid of being the only ones who did so, and as they were more frightened of isolation than of committing an error, they joined the masses even though they did not agree with them. In this way, the opinion of only part of the population seemed to be the opinion of all and everybody, and exactly for this reasons seemed irresistible to those who were responsible for this deceptive appearance.

I am certain we see the same phenomenon taking place today in the idea of the inevitability of secularisation. The more it seems that secularism is “the opinion of all and everybody”, the less likely it is that someone will stand strong in their faith. Flourishing Catholic communities have power to persuade us, on the other hand, that secularisation is not inevitable, and that there are others “like me” who want to believe in something (and more importantly, Someone) counter-cultural.

What makes a parish thrive and grow?

When someone asks me what I am studying, this is generally what I tell them. I don’t mention the word “culture” normally, but that is essentially what I am exploring. What does a parish culture look like when it attracts new people to it? (And at the opposite end, what does a parish culture look like where people fall away?) What are the ‘hidden rules’ for behaviour in Catholic parishes that grow? And what are the hidden rules for behaviour that loses people and turns them away?

‘Hardware’ and ‘Middleware’: What is an anti-evangelisation culture?

‘Hardware’ and ‘middleware’ are terms that Sherry Weddell has used with regards to parish culture (which, I believe, come originally from Tim Keller). Our Catholic ‘hardware’ is Scripture and Tradition, our doctrine that does not change. But we transmit this ‘hardware’ by a kind of ‘middleware’ – our culture and vision – that has often not changed since times when our social milieu was different. And yet, we still use the same kinds of middleware – pastoral practices, ideas, values, vision – that no longer effectively transmit the message. Sometimes our middleware functions as an ‘anti-evangelisation’ culture.

If I had to summarise it in one line – this is what I am looking for: What is the ‘anti-evangelisation’ culture in our midst that is so familiar to us we have become blind to it?

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3 Responses

  1. Lesley Brennan says:

    Hannah, your research sounds so interesting and relevant. Over here even the seemingly most dynamic and inclusive parishes can lead to people falling away because they dont have any vision of what it is they are doing. Please kerp us updated and good luck with the writing up. X

  2. Liza says:

    Thanks Hannah, we have Fr James Mallon coming to us next week so this is good to reflect on before the meeting.

    • Lesley Brennan says:

      Not sure it is the right forum but has anybody read the book by Timothy Ratcliffe about baptism and confirmation?? It sounds really key to what needs to be happening in parishes right now. I havent got the book but i read an article on it and thought….wow it is so very true that these are not just a step/process we go through but should be life changing…..

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