When my family moved in 2001, before we settled on the house we were going to buy, we first went to the local parish one Sunday to attend Mass "incognito." We wanted to make sure that our future town would have a solid church community, since that was just as important to us as finding the right house.
I was only seven, but I remember that Mass like it was yesterday - the priest walking down the aisle while smiling and waving at everyone, the morning sun streaming in through the stained glass windows onto the brightly-lit altar, the throngs of people gathered together outside after Mass just catching up.
Needless to say, we registered in the parish soon after.
Fast forward to 2017 - my fiancé and I were looking for apartments to rent after we got married, and we ended up finding a moderately-priced place close to our work. I was giddy when I found out there was a Catholic church about five minutes down the road, and we attended together the weekend we moved in.
The first time we attended the parish, I loved it. It was open, airy, and seemed like an active community.
The second time, I liked it a little bit less.
By the third time, I was regretting our decision to attend this church.
It was small things, but they were adding up - the deacon was very pompous while giving the homily. The priests were kind of standoffish. The choir was not my favorite. The church always felt dark and empty.
Then I started seeing things that bothered me even more - the pastor was rude to the Eucharistic Ministers, correcting them in the middle of Communion about where they were standing. No one, literally no one, stayed after Mass to talk to each other. It was all very cold.
It took another month or so, but finally, I burst out after Mass - "Can we please find another parish?"
And so the search began.
Over the next few weekends, my husband and I divvied up the few parishes within a half hour radius and hit up one per week. On the way home, we'd talk about the pros and cons and belabor our decision - we wanted this parish to be OUR parish and not make the same mistakes again.
We had a few things that were most important to us:
Welcoming, active parish community
Tabernacle in the center of the sanctuary
The first parish we attended checked off most of the things on our list, but I didn't want to just rush into it. The main drawback was the distance from our house - almost 20 minutes.
The second parish got an A+ on friendly priests (we pulled up and all three of them were outside on the front steps greeting people as they walked in) and comfy seats (can we please make padded seats a common feature of all churches??). But that was where the accolades ended - the church was almost 30 minutes from our house, the Mass times were not convenient, and the tabernacle may as well have been in another town, it was so far removed from the sanctuary.
The final parish we attended was closer to home (about 10 minutes), but that was about the only thing going for it - everything else was pretty much terrible.
Now, this may all sound like we are really judgmental people, and of course if each of these parishes were our only option we would make it work, but we really wanted to find a parish that had the right fit for us, and we needed to be honest about what we felt.
When it came time to make our decision, we did what anyone else would - drew out a dry erase board of pros and cons for each parish.
In the end, we decided to go with the first parish. Even though it was 20 minutes away, it was where we felt the most welcome, and I was confident it would quickly become our home (which, in less than a year, it already has).
But you want to know what really convinced me that this was our parish?
Because I had prayed to God almost two years before, asking Him that it would be someday.
It was the fall of 2015, my first year in youth ministry. I was fresh out of college and was working at my childhood church "until I could find a job." Within a few months, it became apparent that that would be my job.
In September, Father approached me to let me know that the youth minister had just announced that she wouldn't be able to keep running the youth group, and would I be interested in doing it?
I believe my first answer was no.
But, over time, he managed to convince me, and it became one of the best jobs I've ever had.
Anyway, within my first few months, the archdiocese offered a training night for youth ministers to get together, talk about archdiocesan resources, and network. It was at a parish about 25 minutes from my house, so I decided to attend. Plus, it was well known that this was the parish everyone in that county who was really really REALLY Catholic attended, so I was intrigued and wanted to find out more.
The training was good, but what I remember most was walking out to my car and glancing up at the church before pulling away. It was nine o'clock at night, almost pitch dark, but I still felt such a sense of warmth emanating from the building. I desperately wanted to go inside and be part of this parish family, even in the pitch dark, at nine o'clock at night.
Before I drove away, I remember praying to God, asking Him to let me one day attend Mass there.
And now, that's my parish.
If you work for a parish, here's some things to take away from my story:
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to make sure your parish has a friendly vibe. As much as my husband and I had our list of "criteria" that had to be met, we ended up going with our parish not because of those other things, but because we felt like it was a place we would be welcomed and could call home.
You see, I'm currently driving almost 20 minutes each way to Mass each weekend, and I would honestly drive double that amount, just to go to this parish. THAT'S how much I love it.
So how can you make sure your parish is welcoming? Start a welcome ministry. Assign greeters to the doors of the church before and after Mass. If you are a priest, take a few moments to say hello to parishioners after every Mass, not just the ones you're celebrating.
It can make all the difference. If you don't work for a parish, but are a parishioner, there are things you can do to help people feel welcome in your church as well. As a "newbie," I felt so relieved when people would actually acknowledge us, say hello, and begin to remember our names each week. Especially as newlyweds with just the two of us, attending Mass on our own without our families, it was so important to us to feel included, and our current parish family does an amazing job of making everyone feel welcome.
And if you're looking for a parish of your own, know that you are in my prayers. In the end, all that matters is that Christ is there...but if you need some help deciding, take it from me - dry erase board lists can definitely help!