Life & Soul

Phoenix leaves me gasping in admiration

Downtown Phoenix, backdropped by Piestewa Peak (PA)

My retreat work brought me to Phoenix, Arizona, and another opportunity to experience the Church in the United States. This always leaves me gasping in admiration, and I continue to try to assess why exactly this is. I wrote about catechesis last week, and how there seems to be a whole lot more of it, and more people availing themselves of it.

The most striking difference between the US and the UK is that of scale and resources. The parish I stayed in last weekend had a weekly Mass attendance of 4,500. A good proportion of these were Hispanic. There are 10 Sunday Masses. One of the Spanish Masses is televised live via YouTube. The fine church looks much like any other, but positioned reasonably discreetly are three robotic cameras which film the Mass. Where you might expect to find the sacristy there is a television control room, so that the parish priest can mastermind the broadcasts. If this were not enough, in the rectory (what they call a presbytery) there is a small, state-of-the-art studio used for making programmes on catechesis or current Catholic issues.

This media equipment must have cost many tens of thousands of pounds, but it is seen as an important part of the new evangelisation. If, as the feedback suggests, these Masses regularly attract viewing as far afield as Saudi Arabia, then they are clearly on to something.

The parish employs 30 people in various capacities: administrators, cleaners, musicians and catechists. It can afford to do so; its annual income is around $4 million (£2.6 million). It also boasts an elementary school with a staff of 35. This would be remarkable in itself, but feels even more so when the pastor (parish priest) explains that his is only a small parish. You have to be really big, he says, to get an assistant priest assigned to you. He has help with his Sunday Masses from various local religious, and there are several permanent deacons. This, along with his 30-something staff, makes it hard to know how much more onerous his workload is than that of his English counterparts. At the risk of being partial, it did seem to leave him plenty of time to indulge his obvious passion for high-tech media, albeit in a good cause.

If those are the resources, one must also make allowances for the different culture. It seems to me – and I put it down mostly to all the coffee and Coca-Cola – that Americans have an awful lot more energy than we have, or at least are more driven. They appear not to need to stop and repose much; an extrovert culture means they seem to thrive on being permanently busy and sociable.

After 10 days here I am almost prostrate, because I do need a little personal space to regroup. I keep reminding myself of the advice that one of Evelyn Waugh’s characters gives in The Loved One: very nice people, Americans, but you have to remember they talk entirely for their own benefit. They don’t expect you to listen. As a guest, one nevertheless feels so much the obligation to do so and respond. I find myself missing two things about England: a decent cup of tea and a little English reserve and reticence – the bliss of a moment’s quiet reflection.

The culture feeds the faith in terms of the charitable giving. Wealthy Americans are very philanthropic and like to endow things. I have to say that the rate of their contributions to their parish would shame most British people’s Sunday offering. Some families – generally the more conservative, home-schooling types – actually tithe, that is, donate a 10th of their income to the Church.

All of this helps produce an exciting, can-do, feeling. When combined with a culture that is less individualistic and more community-minded, it makes for some thriving parishes in which community involvement and systematic catechesis form parts of the involvement of a significant proportion of the Mass-going community. This, of itself, generates its own momentum. I am sure that many parishes would still bewail the rate of lapsation in Mass attendance, which is something like 50 per cent. This is still not as high as ours, but, as the old adage goes, you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it. At least those who are coming are being well fed and enabled to grow in many different ways.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/2/15). Also in this week’s issue: John Charmley on how to respond to those who claim Catholicism is not compatible with British values, Mary Kenny glimpses the future of the family and Freddy Gray says we must beware the wristbands that are ruining our lives

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