I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say some variation of “The Mass is not for us. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anything out of it.” Which, for me, basically equates to, “your feelings don’t matter, just do it.”
To a certain extent, this is true. We believe Christ is present in the Eucharist, and that we are celebrating it to remember Him. Therefore, Mass has value no matter where we are as long as it is said correctly.
However, the Church you go to will play a huge role in how you and, if you have one, your family perceive God. It will affect how much you want to go to Mass, how much you want to volunteer, or even can volunteer, how much tenderness you feel for the thought of Church, and how peaceful you feel for the rest of Sunday.
Even more than that, I don’t believe that Jesus wanted us dreading the time we have to be with Him. I don’t believe it was meant to be an awful experience ending in tears every time. If we look at the events of His life, it’s obvious that Jesus valued the feelings of the people around Him. At Cana, He made more wine. When the people were hungry, He made an abundance of fish and loaves. When the people were hurting, He healed them.
That is what His presence among us should do, and that’s what I believe the Church should look like. An encounter with Jesus should leave you, most of the time at least, feeling healed, heard, and loved. I believe that’s what He would want from His Church as well.
What does that look like?
There are a few Churches through which I have had a palpable encounter with Christ, and there is an obvious difference between them and other parishes nearby. One of the most obvious is that usually they are packed, with more Masses than most Churches even have on a Sunday, this isn’t because the biggest Churches are the best, but because in my experience, when a powerful encounter with Christ is happening, people flock from all over. Another is how many ministries they have, most of the really amazing Churches I have seen have countless opportunities for different types of ministry, with plenty of options for what type of person you are. Opportunities for different types of prayer is a huge one for me, the two that are crucial for me to see is access to Praise and Worship music and Eucharistic Adoration, that may look different for you depending on your preferences.
I want to add something for those who are feeling discouraged. After I first went to a Church that really fulfilled me, I had to leave. The next place I lived there was another one. After that, I went several years without being able to find a Church where I could feel God. I had horrible experiences over and over again, so bad sometimes that I would cry myself sick on Sundays. I truly believe God sent us to where we are now because of a beautiful, amazing Church where I feel His presence almost every time I am there(even with two toddlers and that’s a big deal.) This Church has been a huge blessing in our lives already and we have come to call it home.
How do I Find This?
Obviously, I can’t find this for you in every single town, although I do plan on creating some posts about “recommended” Churches. This will just be a few Churches I have been too that changed my life or touched me in some way. I can, however, share what my own criteria is, and you can tweak it towards what works for you.
1) Internet Search
The first thing I do is search for Life Teen Churches around the area. If there are a lot, I narrow it down to Churches with a Life Teen Mass. I know not everyone loves Life Teen, but the vibrance I have seen from communities that have it is something I haven’t seen at other parishes. As a parent of young children, the availability of Catechesis of The Good Shepherd is now a non-negotiable for me as well.
When I look at the website, I also take into account how the website feels. On one hand, a website that is crappy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good Church, but a good one tells me that they value the younger generation and they understand how to reach us. A great one can even be life-changing. I cried when I watched a ministry video from our Church’s website when I first visited it, and felt inspired to change how I thought about a certain issue.
I check Mass times and availability. For me, having an evening option is a huge priority, now as a parent it is also becoming important to have childcare available which is rare(our current parish doesn’t have it.) I check confession availability, Eucharistic adoration, and ministries/events, that’s how I found the Women’s Bible Study I now attend.
Once I have a pretty good feeling about a Church, it’s time for the next step.
2) The First Couple of Visits
The first couple of times I go to a Church, I think of it as trying it out. I make no commitments, I try not to think about it as our only option, because that puts a lot of pressure. However, sometimes it is one of your only options, and if that’s the case, sometimes you may need to bring a little extra grace to the experience. I pray hard when that’s the case.
Obviously, the first thing is visuals. Often I will know within a minute or two how I will feel in a Church. The people in the Church create the decorations and art. You feel their presence when you walk inside. If a Church feels dry and stuffy, often the spirit there will feel the same way. If a Church feels super traditional, usually it is(if you like that, that’s a good sign, if not, then probably look for somewhere else.) Our Church has a giant painting representing one of my favorite theological doctrines, all about Love and the second I saw it, I knew I loved this Church. To the side they have a beautiful painting of Jesus with children of every race and nationality, that told me they would welcome everyone, including my children.
Next, the people. How welcoming are they? Do they smile at you when you walk in? Do you feel like an outsider or do people make an effort to include you? I believe that when people are living Christlike lives, it overflows out onto the people around them. It doesn’t need to be everyone 100% of the time, but you will get a general sense of the vibe of a Church pretty quickly.
What kind of room the Church has available for the kids is the next thing for me. If there is no cry room, I am out. I’m sorry, but if the Church has not found a way to support moms and dads who are having a hard enough time getting to Mass by having a place for them to rest with their kids if Mass feels like Hell, this is not going to be a home for me. In the same vein, if the cry room is stuffy and uncomfortable and has no toys, this shows a lack of commitment to families, and we have left immediately before for this.(Again, we have two toddlers; don’t judge me too harshly for this.)
Our Church brought tears to my eyes. They have a “wiggle room” instead of a cry room, and they had a little poster explaining that our kids are welcome in the Church, but they want us to feel at home when they have extra wiggles. Something really beautiful about this room is that the way the chairs are done mimics the chairs in the actual Church, so you could practice being in the pews without having to be quiet.
Now, for the obvious, the Priest and Homily. It is very, very, important to me to expose myself to priests who speak about God’s love more than His justice. I struggle with scrupulosity and anxiety and depression, so lectures about Hell and how evil the world is are NOT going to help me on my spiritual journey. Ideally, although I almost never find this, I would love a priest who breaks down Scripture passages and helps the congregation to understand Jesus more. Most importantly, though, the priest should somehow radiate Christ’s love. Our priest thanked my girls for bringing up their offerings, at another parish the priest talked about reaching out to the poor, lonely, and oppressed. You know it when you hear it, and you also know it when you don’t.
3) Long Term Discernment
I grew up in Churches that were extremely detrimental to my faith and spiritual life. Because of that, I am intensely passionate about guarding my children and what view they will have of God. This doesn’t mean I am looking for a shallow, light view of A God that has No Rules, but that I am looking for a Church that remembers that everything God does comes from Love-Always-No matter what, and lives like it.
As much as I want to stick with any parish forever, I will always be keeping an eye on what it does for my family, and how it affects us. That being said, there are such thing as temporary issues that are worth working out and I will keep an eye on whether issues we have are of that nature, or whether they are non-negotiables.
The most important thing is to remember that yes, the Mass is in remembrance of Christ, but because He wants to stay in union with us, He cares about our feelings, and what is going on in our lives. He wants Mass to help us grow closer to Him. If it’s a choice between no Mass and a Mass that doesn’t feel like home, the Mass that doesn’t feel like home is better than nothing, but don’t let people tell you that how you feel at Mass doesn’t matter. If you have options, find the right one for you, and don’t feel guilty about it. X