A holy parish is a powerful thing. It can literally save your life. At least that has been my experience. How about yours?
I feel blessed to live near to one such parish, which has played a crucial role in the formation of faith throughout my life.
Our little family’s home base is unmistakably Our Lady of Peace Shrine here in Santa Clara which does not disappoint when it comes to having a plenitude of offerings for the spiritual well being of its people, especially ample opportunity to go to mass and confession. There the seeds of my faith were first planted (though I did not appreciate it at the time) and there, at that holy place, it continues to repose and grow.
What do I mean when I say that the place is 'holy?' It's a multifaceted answer, to be sure. I could and probably will dedicate several posts to Our Lady of Peace. Its activities, history and its most striking feature - a thirty two foot statue of the Virgin Mary, nicknamed the Awesome Madonna (and she is awesome!), who stands with outstretched arms perpetually awaiting her Silicon Valley children, all merit their own write up . However, the sum total of everything I could say about the where the primary holiness of parish resides would be this: in its dedication to orthodoxy and reverence for the Eucharistic Lord.
In both the cases of orthodoxy and Adoration lies God’s circular way of doing things. A dedication to orthodoxy, for example, leads inevitably (as evidenced by my parish) to standing-room-only crowds for mass and the sacraments, (as well as overflowing conferences, religious education enrollment, and monthly pilgrimages) which, in turn, leads to more dedication to orthodoxy. The same can be said for Eucharistic Adoration. Jesus may be exposed in the Eucharist in the first place but the demand to be in His presence (and I'm not sure this didn't come first) has only increased over time leading now to our Lord being perpetually exposed in the monstance. Good luck trying to lock the church doors at any time during the day or night at Our Lady of Peace because someone is always inside adoring!
Which brings us to another secondary measure of holiness: I believe that church doors remaining unlocked most of the time is a good indication of whether a parish is holy. This may sound like a trifle but, in fact, I’ve discovered it shapes an entire worldview. A brief anecdote will demonstrate what I mean:
I once invited two of my students to Our Lady of Peace to attend an evening talk. I will never forget the look on one of their mother’s faces when she turned up with her student at the Learning Center.
“Look at all of these people!” she exclaimed. “I could hardly find parking! Is some sort of event going on here right now?”
So accustomed to the commonplace sight of hoards of people at the Shrine, I hadn’t noticed. I looked around and realized she was correct.
“No,” I replied, “It’s always that way here. It’s the busiest parish in the diocese.”
Her jaw dropped and then she said, “But I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never heard of this place before!”
Then my jaw dropped, but for a different reason. Two realities collided in that moment. I knew this mom and her family as Sunday mass attendees and while she probably had never experienced a parish functioning regularly outside of mass times, holidays and special events, I had never met anyone who lived in the area who didn’t at least know about the area's only Marian Shrine (there are only two on the west coast). It was a bit of a culture shock moment, for the both of us, to be sure. She didn't know that the Church could be so vibrant, I didn't know that you could miss it.
But what continues to be most striking about the incident is this: how two people, both mass-attending members of the same universal Catholic Church and diocese can have such polarized experiences of a parish. Again, I attribute this to holiness or lack-there-of: is one's parish a center of Catholic worship dedicated to orthodoxy and providing frequent access to the sacraments as well as education in the Faith? Or do the doors that lead to Jesus stay locked up most of the time?
Sadly, the parishes that have minimized the importance of Church teachings that are central to the formation and sanctification of the family (namely, life issues and sexual ethics) discover that, not before long, the number of cohesive families and children in the pews dwindles. And so where there is no demand, there is no longer a consistent "supply" of faith formation and sacramental practices.
In contrast, being a part of a parish where faith is life, you find something remarkable: families and individuals submerged in their faith at every hour of the day. This has been true for us: we don’t just go to mass, confession and conferences at Our Lady of Peace; truth be told, we live there and it is completely conducive to a family or an individual doing so.
And so, when I say that, without the Shrine, I simply don’t know what my family would do, please don’t read it as an assertion of some misconceived notion of my family’s personal holiness; if anything, it’s the sense of our unworthiness and need for the divine assistance that we utterly thrust ourselves with complete dependence upon our parish to supply the richness that life, centered on God, should contain. I personally credit the Shrine as being the root my family's domestic harmony. Our life of faith certainly would be lonelier and more isolated without OLOP, which can be deadly in today’s Christian-hostile environment. She is everything a parish should be, not perfect, but striving for perfection which is what we are supposed to be doing anyway.
Our Lady of Peace, with her dedicated priests and holy nuns, lay organizations, and homeschooling group (we’re just starting to investigate that one) is an essential part of our existence; it is a second home to us and to many. And I am confident that literally thousands would join me in declaring that short of the actual gift of faith itself, I consider Our Lady of Peace as the among the greatest gift that God could ever have given to me and to my family.
It goes to show that when God provides He does so in abundance! I submit that a holy parish is indispensible for both the life of my family and to that of the domestic Church as a whole. Starting with complete adherence to the teachings of the Church and reverence for our Lord, the droves of people who attend Sunday mass at OLOP continues to exceed both the capacity of her two naves and her two parking lots. There, in that standing-room-only-if you-are-lucky atmosphere one finally gets a picture of what a fully alive Church looks like.