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‘Destination parishes’ offer a sense of home for seeking Catholics

13 PAGE jump.elizabeth.ing.starLongtime Star of the Sea parishioner Elizabeth Ing holds her friend’s baby after Sunday Mass.  (Photo by Valerie Schmalz/Catholic San Francisco)

July 27, 2017
Valerie Schmalz

In San Francisco, many Catholics travel miles past their local church to find a parish where they feel most at home, part of a national movement that observers attribute to a mobile society and a church structure that no longer requires Catholics to attend church within their parish boundaries.

“Today’s Catholic experience is not governed by where you live. That’s just a reality,” said Dominican Father Michael Hurley, pastor of St. Dominic in San Francisco, which attracts people from throughout the Bay Area.

“The trend is for more parish-shopping,” said Charles Zech, co-author of “Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century,” (Oxford University Press, 2017) with Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The researchers found that more than 30 percent of parishioners and 40 percent of millennials attend Mass at a parish they choose, rather than the church closest to them. That compares to Catholics in the 1980s where about 15 percent of Catholics crossed parish boundaries to attend Mass, according to the extensive 1989 University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute of Church Life “Study of Catholic Parish Life.”

In San Francisco, three parishes epitomize that trend: the Jesuit parish of St. Ignatius, the Dominican parish of St. Dominic, and neighborhood parish Star of the Sea. While St. Ignatius and St. Dominic’s parish cultures are defined by the spirit of the orders that run them, Star of the Sea’s culture revolves around traditional liturgical practices and music, including a number of Masses celebrated according to the pre-Vatican II 1962 Missal of Pope St. John the XXIII.

Despite at times great differences in the liturgical and even political outlooks of priests and parishioners, all three parishes in their own ways attempt to create a parish as described by the U.S. bishops in their 1993 document “Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of Parish,” which begins: “The parish is where the church lives.”

“No matter how much we like to organize it, the church is not a group of buildings in an administrative structure. The church is a movement of people toward Christ,” said Claire Henning, executive director of Parish Catalyst an organization founded by businessman and philanthropist William E. Simon Jr. to help parishes thrive. “If you have to cross town to find that for yourself, to be disciples and to be led – then more power to you.”

The destination parish trend is not negative, if it means Catholics attend Mass but also find ways to be more involved in the parish, said Melanie M. Morey, author with Jesuit Father John Piderit of “Renewing Parish Culture: Building for a Catholic Future” (Sheed & Ward, 2008).

“The downside is that they can easily reinforce and sharpen distinctions among Catholics that add to the church’s polarization, fray our unity, and when that happens, the church suffers,” said Morey, Archdiocese of San Francisco associate schools superintendent for administration and governance as well as director of Catholic identity assessment and formation.

While Catholics are required to attend Mass on Sunday and holy days of obligation, there is no requirement under canon law to either register or attend church at a specific parish, said canon lawyer Robert Graffio, vice chancellor and manager of the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Under canon law, however, pastors have responsibilities to those who reside within their parish boundaries. Parishes are organized territorially, by nationality, language, rite or other characteristic.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, many Catholics still attend one of the churches closest to their homes, but because the Archdiocese of San Francisco has so many churches within a relatively small geographical area, many also travel a bit farther to find a specific parish ambiance. There are ethnic and Eastern-rite churches. In addition, Masses are celebrated on Sundays in Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Portuguese, Italian and Arabic, to name just some.

The 2010 CARA study “The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes” found that 37 percent of parishes indicated that they regularly serve a significant number of Catholics who are not registered in the parish.

The three San Francisco parishes profiled here attract each other’s parishioners for devotions, daily Mass and an occasional Sunday Mass, partly because of their physical proximity to each other. St. Ignatius, St. Dominic and Star of the Sea are in the same archdiocesan deanery, or geographical subdivision of parishes, so pastors and staff meet and work together regularly, Father Hurley said.

Diversity of approach and liturgy is a positive trend because different styles attract, and help keep, Catholics in church, Father Hurley observed. “If we are thinking as a church strategically and effectively, as a group of parishes we hopefully offer the diversity so that the goodness of what Star and St. Ignatius can be complement each other.”

“The church is a different community than society at large,” said Michael O’Smith, director of adult faith formation at St. Dominic. “We are bound together by Christ.”


Destination parishes
These three San Francisco parishes illustrate the national trend of “destination” parishes that attract followers from beyond parish territorial boundaries. The three, which are among many in the Archdiocese of San Francisco that could be termed destination parishes, offer different but complementary styles of liturgy and spirituality and each has its own characteristic mix of ministries. Profiles of the three appear here.

St. Dominic: Home to 10 Dominican friars, the parish has more than 70 ministries.

St. Ignatius: Ignatian spirituality draws from afar to this Jesuit-run parish formed in 1994.

Star of the Sea: A neighborhood parish recently transformed with traditional liturgy and music.

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