Colin Parrish is a 2nd year theologian for the Seattle Archdiocese. He is currently on internship in Washington at a parish near Seattle. In this excellent interview, Colin details his experiences with parishioners who are hungry for Christ in a secular culture.
Robert Mixa (RM): I’m sure you’re used to comments on your last name being “Parrish.” There’s no way around the fittingness of your last name. So…Mr. Parrish, what parish are you in?
Colin Parrish (CP): I am at St. Luke parish in Shoreline, WA. It borders Seattle city limits in the north. It is a mid-sized parish in a part of Shoreline that ranges from middle-class to hyper wealthy. The parish is ethnically Anglo and has been around for nearly 60 years.
RM: What has your experience been so far? Has your studies and preparation in the seminary helped you in your encounters in the parish?
CP: Yes, of course! But if it hasn’t would I say so? But in honesty, the seminary very much helped me. What comes to mind as essential courses for my parish assignment have been our Doctrine of God, Christology, and Christian Anthropology classes. While our moral theology classes (from both Fr. Marek Duran and Dr. Melanie Barrett) have been essential for time here, they have played a background role while the first three I mentioned have been explicitly influential for me.
The reason for this is because the disconnect between faith and life is so pronounced that moral questions become secondary factors–usually they are conversation starters for someone speaking to me (“why does the Church say x, y, or z?). But rarely have I encountered a situation where this was the most important question present; usually the person asking the moral question isn’t really asking a question but making a statement. So, answering the moral question and thinking that it is the primary focus or is sufficient for the person in front of me has been a misnomer that I have had to deal with. Honestly, the disconnect between the person and Jesus is so pronounced that most moral doctrines are completely abstract and useless to many parishioners.
Obviously, in reality this is not the case, but because they haven’t had an encounter with Jesus–and hence with His Church either–the most pressing issue in front of us here is to facilitate a true encounter with Jesus in their lived existence. They really don’t see how Jesus has anything to do with their humanity! For example: If I ask them about contraception, they will have their own opinion and not raise a question; but if I ask them if it is possible that they can go to the job they hate with joy and peace–because Christ is interested in their existence–they become all ears!
So, the questions of “who is God”, “can God speak to me”, and “what does it mean to be human” are the most important questions for them–even if the parishioners don’t have the vocabulary to describe it that way.
This leads to the other unexpected facet of seminary life that has been helpful for the parishioners: our spirituality classes and spiritual formation. There are a lot of people begging for a language to communicate to God with! They deeply desire the relationship with Truth and Love Itself, but no one has led them into it! Fr. Barron’s emphasis of the priest as “mystagogue” has really been coming to fore in the parish. And besides, without prayer, those big questions that they have about God and themselves cannot be answered without prayer and without the encounter with Jesus.
RM: No critiques allowed, Colin! But may I turn the tables and ask what parish life in Seattle is like?
CP: Every desert has it oasis and wellsprings. In Seattle, even if the majority of Catholics are, in a sense, high-functioning agnostics, there are many saintly people and faithful priests. These people have been the conduit for the Holy Spirit to continue to flood into any given parish (including mine) so that it will not completely collapse.
That being said, I usually have critiques for the Church in my own diocese. But these are (hopefully) constructive critiques and not me simply grinding my axe. The only agenda I have is the maturation of the Christian and the conversion of everyone with in my parish boundaries. It is from this desire that my critiques stem from.
Seattle is in the vanguard of secularism in America; hence, we are the bleeding edges of the Church in the U.S. (So are places like San Francisco and, in a different way, places like Boston or New York City). Secularism is so deep that it is the dominant culture. Unlike truly Catholic cultures, anything that is foreign to secularism must be leveled–there is no place within public society for the Catholic here in Seattle. Situations and circumstances that are hypothetical for moral theologians in the Midwest are actualities and everyday realties, at the parish level, for us in Seattle.
Because of this, the Church in the Pacific Northwest has done a poor job about evangelization. More often than not, many of us in the thick of the Church in Seattle implicitly assume that our faith cannot be more attractive than someone’s Mercedes-Benzes or luxury apartment. In Seattle, those charged with proposing the Gospel have not been converted ourselves. What I am trying to say is that there is a sad lack of hope and an un-Christian sense of pessimism in ourselves. Really, what we have failed to do in our parishes has been to proclaim Christ as the method and endpoint of human fulfillment. Instead, we have assumed that if we live according to x, y, and z then everything will work out. And so we tell others the same, but this is false and ultimately detrimental to the new evangelization.
Since Jesus is divorced–extrinsic–from my humanity and everyday life, going to Mass and confession are (at best) seen as a “tax” on my time and life. The faith has been proposed as a principle to live by, not a person with whom we are in relationship with. At worst, going to Mass (and even more so confession) is simply useless and unattractive.
I point these out because I see this as the coming reality for dioceses in the Midwest. In fact, in my opinion, it is already there but it is more subtle.
RM: How can the parish reach out to fallen-away Catholics or non-Catholics in Seattle?
CP: First, I think we need to be converted ourselves. This means that our own parishioners (myself as well) need to have our humanity enlivened because of our deep communion with Jesus. Really, we need saints, that is all. No program can substitute the encounter with Jesus through someone who is fully alive with Christ. St. Paul and St. Irenaeus come to mind as particularly important saints for Seattle.
We must also come to trust that Christ is actually present in every moment and in every circumstance. This is a journey of conversion because secularism (with all its historical baggage that gave it birth) denies this as a possibility–and we have been raised in the soil of secularism as Catholics. If we come to this knowledge of Christ present, then we can also begin to be obedient to reality–to listen to reality. That means seeing the vast sea of sorrow, isolation, and lack of humanity that defines the majority of people here. This lack of fulfilled humanity is the hallmark symptom where I think the Church and Her saints can propose the Gospel. For example: in meeting a guy who has thoroughly taken his identity from the homosexual subculture, the first question at hand isn’t concerning his moral incoherency. The first question is, “what has been your experience of God, who do you think God is?” And if this man, over time, does encounter Jesus, only then will the moral issues become relevant to his life. It is hard to be obedient (to listen) to a principle or equation because an equation doesn’t have a face. It is much easier and totally attractive to be obedient (to listen) to a person, because a person can speak to you. And once you have fallen in love with this Person, you desire to no longer to follow your own path, but to follow His.
RM: Most people view Seattle as the epicenter of everything “alternative”. Mundelein is in the heartland of American – a region consciously very far from the style of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. What do you think the Seattle Church can offer to the Church at large?
CP: What can we offer? A word of caution and a word of encouragement: the deep secularism of Seattle is already in the blood of most Catholics in the Midwest and is quickly getting worse, but there is hope because Christ exists and asks us to participate in His life, which mysteriously co-exists with all the decay around us.