June 16, 2014
At St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington, Va., Fr. Tuck Grinnell realizes that some people only come through the door once. In a context where most people are fairly young (Arlington County has a median age of 34 and the highest percentage of singles in the entire DC metropolitan area), the church doors often swing open for those preparing for marriage. In fact, each year, St. Charles sees approximately 200 couples prepare for marriage. “They’re checking a box,” Fr. Grinnell says, “Our job is … not to browbeat them, but to try to pull them into a relationship with Christ… That’s a window [and] that’s why [the receptionist] would be a pastoral position. We pay real attention to it.” The person who first encounters those engaged couples, in other words, would have to recognize the unique opportunity their presence in the church represented, and respond accordingly.
At St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in San Francisco, as in Arlington, the parishioners are fairly young, and the turnover rate in the pews is (accordingly) fairly high. As Fr. Xavier Lavagetto explains, around the time that parishioners start families, they move into the suburbs—where housing is more affordable. Knowing that “40 percent of the parish will be gone in five years, simply because of the demographics,” there’s an imperative to be an especially welcoming community. Further, from Lavagetto’s perspective, rather than “bemoan the fact they’re not staying in San Francisco,” they “embrace the idea that [they’re] preparing them to go in as leaders in their next parish.” Put differently, at St. Dominic’s, the parishioner who relocates is not so much a lost disciple as one sent out. Perhaps this perspective on transient parishioners lends itself to Fr. Lavagetto’s new placement—as part of the Catholic chaplaincy at Stanford University.
Back at St. Charles, Fr. Grinnell takes a tip from the Protestant Evangelical world. He says, “I believe mega churches take seriously where people are. I think they’re a lot like Jesus in the sense that Jesus went where the fishermen were fishing, and he went where the farmers were farming, and he went where the people were praying. He went to them… [and] talked to them about basic things that they could understand and catch fire with.” For the 20-somethings of Arlington, then, Fr. Grinnell seeks to offer programs and even physical space that reflects them where they are in life. “I take seriously that they’re [young] and need to find a significant other or friends… We give you dinner free—how good is that? You eat dinner anyway, [and] we’ll put you in groups to meet other people. We can talk about religion and other stuff.” The question, for Fr. Grinnell, is where else these young adults might be if they were not at church—and seeking to offer them some of the things they’d seek there. And even though St. Charles has a large number of young adults in the parish, there are, of course, other parishioners as well. As Fr. Grinnell is fond of saying, “one size does not fit all,” and what works, ultimately, is “having lots of different ways” of doing church.