Every so often the time comes in a Catholic's life when he must consider finding a new church to attend. Usually this time comes when he is going on a trip, whether for business or pleasure, and needs to find a parish in which to attend Sunday Mass. Other times he is moving to a new city and needs to find a new parish in which to register. And, occasionally, he is simply dissatisfied with his current parish and wants to find a new parish in his diocese that is more to his liking.
That is when he calls Catholic Answers and asks, "Can you tell me what is the most orthodox Catholic parish in the Diocese of X?"
Very rarely are we able to fully satisfy the person asking this question. One, there is no Better Business Bureau of Catholic Parishes for us to consult, and we simply do not know the state of each and every parish in all of the dioceses in the United States. And, two, the label Most Orthodox is often subjective and depends to some extent on the beholder's perception of orthodoxy. A parish we might think is fine may turn off some Catholics because there may be customs in that parish of which they do not approve (e.g., altar girls, Communion in the hand, children's Liturgy of the Word, etc.).
The bottom line is that we here at Catholic Answers cannot find the perfect parish for you. That is a task that you must accomplish on your own. But we can get you started in your search by giving you some guidelines on how to find a good Catholic parish.
The first thing travelers should keep in mind is that they ordinarily will only be attending a new parish once or twice during their trip. If they do not like the parish they end up in one Sunday, they are free to never return. All they really need to do is to find a church in the diocese in which they are traveling that is recognized by the local diocese to be a Catholic church.
One of the most valuable tools for Catholic travelers is the web site MassTimes.org. This site has been around since the dawn of the cyber age and exists "to help Catholics get to Mass by helping them find churches and worship times worldwide." Just go to the site, enter the location where you will be traveling, and a list of Catholic churches will pop up.
Suppose you are traveling in an area where Catholic churches are sparse. If you are camping in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park, you might think it will be difficult to find a Sunday Mass you can attend. Before you give up and decide you are dispensed from the Mass obligation because you are traveling, remember that Google is your friend. Type key words into the search engine and you may be surprised what you discover. For example, in the case of Yellowstone, a search on "Catholic Mass Yellowstone" brings up a link to Catholic ministry in Yellowstone, which has been available to Catholic travelers since the mid-1920s.
Finally, remember that you can always call the diocese in which you will be traveling. If you ever have a question about whether or not a church that looks Catholic really is Catholic, or where to find Catholic liturgies in a strange city, call the diocese you are visiting and ask. If you do not know the name of a diocese in a remote location, call the state or national Catholic bishops' conference and ask.
Your company has just informed you that you are being transferred across the country. Your elderly parents in your home state want you to move home so they can enjoy their grandkids. Your high-school senior has been accepted to an Ivy League university. How do you find a parish in a new city for you or for a family member to call a spiritual home?
Now the research becomes more in-depth. You can usually find a list of Catholic parishes on the diocesan web site. Check MassTimes.org to find out which parishes are closest to you and start there. You can branch out later if need be. Here are some tips for evaluating contenders:
Collect weekly bulletins. Or, if a parish puts the weekly bulletin on its web site, read a few back issues of the bulletin. Pay attention to bulletins published during Lent and Advent. Is there an emphasis on confession, eucharistic adoration, and the importance of Mass attendance on holy days of obligation? Does the parish offer Lenten or Advent missions? If so, who is invited to give the parish missions? Google speakers' names on the Internet if you don't recognize them.
Assess your family's needs. For example, do you have school-age children you are educating? Are you homeschooling them? Look for a parish with a homeschool support group. Do you want to put them in a parish school? Then look for a parish school and make an appointment to visit the school. Does your family have other special needs, such as a need for support for a disabled family member? Then make an appointment with a pastor at a parish you are considering and ask what kinds of pastoral services are available. If a young adult needs a community while at college far from home, investigate young adult ministries in his new diocese.
Assess your spiritual needs. Do you go to daily Mass? Find a parish that offers one that is convenient. (Keep in mind though that you don't necessarily have to go to daily Mass at your home parish. If there is a daily Mass that is more convenient while you are out and about each day, go there instead of at your home parish.) Do you have personal devotions that are important to you (e.g., adoration, rosary, Divine Mercy, etc.)? Look around to see if there is a parish that meets that need.
Assess your liturgical needs. Do you prefer the extraordinary form of the Roman rite of the Mass? Call your diocese to find out if the extraordinary form is offered in your area by apostolates recognized by the diocese. Are you an Eastern Catholic or simply prefer an Eastern divine liturgy? You can call the nearest Eastern Catholic eparchy, but the local Latin Catholic diocese will also be able to help you figure out if a church offering a divine liturgy in your area is in union with the Holy See.
Go to Mass and confession. Once you find a parish you like, attend it regularly for a few weeks. Go to confession there to one or more of the priests. Take part in parish activities. The best way to find a parish home is to treat a parish like home for a while and see how it works out.
Once you find a parish home, the most important thing you can do is to stay put. Don't church-shop. Some years ago, a gentleman contacted Catholic Answers asking if he could register at a parish outside of his diocese because "all of the parishes in his diocese" allegedly were so problematic that he felt could not worship as a Catholic in his own diocese. The only church at which he felt "at home" and "spiritually fed" was in a neighboring diocese.
I told him that he was free to register at any Catholic parish he pleased, but I also cautioned him against the church-shopper attitude. Being "at home" in a parish is simply a matter of attending long enough to become part of parish life and Catholics are "spiritually fed" through valid sacraments. Privately, I highly doubted whether he had actually attended all of the parishes in his diocese and was in a position to make such a judgment about his ability to attend them. It seemed more likely that he was making an over-generalization about his diocese based on an overall impression of the diocese.
I have to concede that church-shopping can be justified in rare cases, such as when you need to make sure that your children are properly educated in the Catholic faith, or when the problems in the parish completely outweigh any benefit the parish provides. But church-shopping to find a parish that you think will be heaven on earth will end in bitterness.
Parishes are rarely static—pastors are reassigned, liturgy committees change hands, religious education teachers come and go—and a parish you think will satisfy you could shift toward laxity within a few years. If you too easily throw in the towel and move on, where will your roaming end? For a former cyber-acquaintance of mine who was disturbed by abuses at the parishes he visited in his diocese, his roaming in search of heaven on earth eventually ended in sedevacantism.
Sometimes I fear that Catholics in the United States take for granted their opportunities to attend Mass and receive the sacraments. Unlike in many parts of the world, Catholics here have an abundance of choices when it comes to Catholic worship. We can quite literally pick and choose the worship style that rings our spiritual chimes. In other parts of the world, Catholics are fortunate to have just one parish where they may safely attend Mass and receive the sacraments.
The next time you find yourself becoming bitter over minor liturgical abuses, or a curmudgeonly priest who has a poor pastoral style, or a lack of support for your family's challenges, remember Dayenu, the Passover chant Jews sing so as to thank God for the blessings he bestowed upon them during the Exodus from Egypt. Dayenu means "it would have been enough." Think of all the blessings you do receive at your parish—the Eucharist, the Mass, confession, the other sacraments. If nothing else, a safe place to worship.
And then say "It would have been enough"—because God has given you all that and more besides.