It has long been a practice in the U. S. Catholic Church to accept members into its parishes according to location. Catholics living within certain geographic areas effectively "belong" to a particular parish, though registration at the parish is required in order to officially be listed in the parish census. Many Catholics, dissatisfied with their most proximate parish but still wishing to remain within the larger Catholic community, have taken it upon themselves to literally shop around to discover a Catholic Church which is still conveniently located but which will more effectively serve their particular spiritual needs. Using this multi-step plan can help you to find the Catholic Church that best suits the special needs of you and your family.
- Read Parish Bulletins, Information Books and Newsletters. An easy way to begin your search for a good Catholic parish is for you to do a little basic reading. Without ever leaving your home, you can go online, find the website for the parish you are considering, and then read all the parish information that pertains to you and your family. Today, many Catholic Churches post all of their events online on their own website and many provide e-mail addresses for those who may wish to pose a question to a staff member.
If the parish you are trying to learn about does not offer these features, then you can simply go to the website of the larger church district (the diocese in which you live), find the address of the church being considered and write a quick note requesting that a parish bulletin or newsletter be forwarded to your address.
If this effort returns no results, then you can stop by the actual church and you are likely to find copies of the most recent parish bulletin available at the exits of the church.
No matter how you go about getting the printed material, the important thing is, of course, to read it thoroughly. Before reading, make a quick mental list of the kinds of ministries that you are hoping to find at this church. As you read, take note of how well your needs seem to be addressed. Pay special attention to the schedule of weekend Masses, noting how many options are available and how well they suit your family's schedule. If you are a parent, you will also want to check out when grade level meetings are offered in the parish religious education program.
- Attend Weekend Mass. If you read the bulletin and like what you have read, the next logical step is to take everyone who attends church in your family to a Mass celebration. Going to Mass gives you not only a sense of what the celebrants have to offer but often gives you a feeling for the parish as well.
If this first visit isn't all you wanted it to be, talk with your family about what you liked or didn't like and then make a commitment to return for a second visit. If you still don't have a comfortable feeling for the priests or the community, this church may not be a good fit for you. Sometimes what looks good on paper just doesn't deliver in reality. You must be prepared to extend your search to other area parishes.
- Attend a church activity other than a Mass. If, in fact you have a positive feeling about the parish after several visits to weekend Masses, your next step is to investigate the less formal aspects of the church.
Using the bulletin, select one or more church events and arrange with those in charge either to take part or at least drop in. Most parishes are eager to be inclusive. If you encounter a parish that isn't, you may have answered your own question about whether or not this church is for you.
Attending parish activities like gift wraps, picnics, bazaars or service events all can give you valuable insights about the parish community you are thinking about joining. Do the members appear welcoming? Is the leadership present to help you get involved? Is there a good rapport among staff and participants? Answering these questions will take you another step closer to determining if this is the parish for you.
- Talk to a Staff Member. When you have read the bulletins, attended weekend liturgies, and dropped by a parish activity or two, you will probably be close to making a decision about joining the parish. If you have a positive reaction, conclude your parish survey by making an appointment to meet with a staff member.
Ideally you'll want to speak with the pastor, but his time may be at a premium. Speaking to an associate pastor, pastoral minister or parish Director of Religious Education will probably produce the same results.
The purpose of this visit is to clear up any outstanding questions or air any personal issues that may be standing in the way of your joining the parish. It is important, for your own sake, to be up front and straightforward in this meeting. Know what you need or want to discuss before arriving and stick to the point.
If you are sure, after this short conversation, that you wish to join this parish, you may ask to register. The parish secretary will provide you with appropriate parish census forms. If you have children, you may be asked to fill out forms for the Religious Education Office and eventually produce sacramental records. But if you are not yet ready to make a decision...
- Think it over. Many people , after going through the investigative steps above, feel more comfortable stepping back a bit, thinking things through and then returning to the parish office to register at a later date.
As you go through the review process, make sure to reflect on what it was about your last parish that you found most difficult to deal with. Will that issue still be present in this new community? Think, too, about the things you liked best about your previous parish. How many of those features are present in this new parish?
If your review leads you to a positive decision, return to the parish office and ask for registration materials. If you determine that this parish is not a good fit for you or your family, then return to step one. The task of finding a parish where you are comfortable is important enough to go through the process until you find a good match. Remember it could be the place at which you worship for the rest of your life.