Part of “being military,” or at least being part of a marriage whose employment rests on transience, is learning to settle yourself in a new place as quickly as possible. You get a good head for how to adapt your furniture to your new rooms so that you can start unpacking right away; you have a couple of boxes of those little trinkets that are yours, and you set them up and hang up a few pictures so that the walls are a little more your house and instead of new house. You spend hours digging through boxes labeled “kitchen” and cram as much into the dishwasher at one time as you can so that you can have real plates to eat off, even if the dining room table is still covered in, say, your liquor collection. (We really need to find a place for those, come to think of it.) You make yourself go to the non-mandatory welcome events and pick up all the brochures and calendars (and free swag at the information fairs) and write the more interesting opportunities down on the calendar in an effort to remind you to make the effort to get out and start getting involved.
And, for us at least, you try to find a church.
At our first duty station, located in the Deep South, we lived on-post and gave the on-post chapel a shot. Having never been to a military chapel before, I marveled at all the tricks to making a non-specific religious space work: the boxes on the wall that could be opened to reveal the Stations of the Cross, the Crucifix above the altar area that I would later see rotated to a plain cross for the Protestant services (and I would place bets that it also had something for synagogue too). The tabernacle, of course, couldn’t be kept there; it was in another room in the building, radiating its peace and calm in containment. It was all very practical and not a little odd, realizing that after every Mass someone had to go around and close all the Stations and clean off the altar, removing all the traces of denominational difference. I completely understand how and why it happens, and it really is quite clever, but that doesn’t make it less weird. The community there was small, and very transient: a few people dedicated to making sure the basic educational and liturgical needs of those who came were met, and a lot of soldiers in and out.
We ended up going to the parish off-post, as the community there was larger and had, thanks to the retiree population, a more stable base. And we loved that little church; it’s the church where my husband was received into the Church, where we went to RCIA classes and helped decorate for Christmas and Easter, where the craft club meets once a month and wonderful women taught me to crochet and quilt, where we went to Adoration and Confession, and where we just met absolutely wonderful people.
And then we moved and had to say goodbye, as I talked about at the beginning of this blog, and so we set about trying to find a new church. Since we lived off-post we looked off-post and found a beautiful church with a glorious choir and chant and incense and all those trappings that aid us in our frail human bodies in understand the transcendence of the Mass. But between all the traveling and the fact that in my first trimester I was too sick in the mornings to make it to Mass, we just as often ended up going to an evening LifeTeen Mass at the big church in the county, which was currently having Mass in its Parish Life Center while the new church was being built. (They dedicated the new church literally the week after we left, but we did peek in, and it is gorgeous.) It almost reminded me of going to Mass at my old high school; the inside of the building was nicer, but there were chairs and no kneelers and people stood or knelt, and the front of the space, while beautiful, still held that somewhat transient feeling that all this could be put away, if need be. And then once during Advent we hit up a daily Mass at a third church that was lovely and intimate and perfect, in the way an evening daily Mass so often is when you come to the tired end of your day and decide to make the effort to go anyway.
And there is certainly something to parish-hopping, as it were, the experience of all the different churches and ways of doing the liturgy, and we definitely appreciated living in an area with so many Masses and having the flexibility to attend Mass when I felt up to it. But we are called to be people who root ourselves in community and who, once we have made the commitment to that community, stick with it. Sure, at our old parish it was nice to sneak away every now and then and go to the big cathedral for Sunday Mass, with the organ and the choir and the beautiful stained glass; but we always returned home, to the place we’d decided to make the effort to get involved with and support, the place that will only ever be as good as her parishioners make it.
A lot of people lament or bemoan the practices of parish hunting or parish hopping; just go to the place nearest you, they say, and work at it. I’d say that when you first arrive in a new place, and you have a few options available, it’s okay to check them all out and figure out which one seems best suited for you. I think Catholics tend to be suspicious of this because it sounds like a very Protestant thing to do, hunting out a church that delivers exactly the message you want to hear–a practice that is much easier when churches are founded as much on their pastor as they are on the kind of worship they do. Picking a parish based solely on the priest is silly because he’s going to move; the liturgy and the people who work it are what lasts, and it’s okay to look for a church that has those things in a way you connect with. Especially for the transient military population, who isn’t necessarily going to have the time to start up the ministries they want to see (although if you feel called to do it, GO FOR IT, because without you nothing will get started) or the ability to advocate for certain changes (this latter being especially true when you are a known transient member of an otherwise established population).
We in our hunting have had outwardly both the richest and slimmest of pickings, but like I said, a lot of choosing a parish is what you’re willing to put into the community when you get there. Which, again, is what you’re supposed to do, though I am aware that I was blessed to be raised in a family that took participating in the various ministries of church as almost for granted. It allowed me to learn, growing up, what ministries I know for a fact I’m good at participating in, and from there I can meet people and get sucked into other side projects. But even if you don’t know what specific ministries you’d be good at, you can still take stock of yourself and your abilities and then ask the secretary, “Where in the church do you need someone with these skills?” The bulletin is another great place to start; it’s practically another welcome brochure, listing the meetings and ministries and clubs within the parish, giving you names and contact numbers for people who are in the know and usually happy to help give you a clue.
And–and I’m always so bad about remembering to do this myself, though I’ll happily recommend it to others at the drop of a hat–pray! Ask God where he wants you to be. Say, Lord, is this the parish you want me attending? What is it that you want me to learn or do by being here? How do you want me to grow? By offering to give of yourself–not in the “I’m here to save the day” way but in the “how can I serve?” way–you will inevitably be enriched.
Having moved again, after a lovely month of going to the church where I grew up, we are parish hunting once more, trying to figure out where God wants us to be. We’re lucky to have two to choose from again. Funnily enough, this post has so many chapels that it appears the Catholic chapel, despite clearly being designed to be transient if necessary (nothing says come let us worship like a rotatable statue of Mary), has in fact become the permanent Catholic chapel, and it’s quite lovely–decorated for Christmas and everything! The off-post parish has a brand-new little church of its own. So clearly, both parishes are active and have people who are dedicated to making sure the community grows and is nourished, which is our number one criteria in looking for a parish. From here I think it’s really going to be just a feeling of which one feels more like the place we want to call our parish home–and once we decide, we’ll go about unpacking and decorating however they need us to, so that it’s a little less new, and a little more ours.