What Is Wrong with This Picture?

What is remarkable about this is the population. When my husband and I moved here about two years ago, we were told by relatives that this is a small town. It is true that our plotted territory of a town is small, but it is surrounded by numerous other little towns, all closely-knit and sharing the same two local free newspapers. One town couldn't really stand on its own without the support of the other existing towns. Alone the towns lack employment and many residents would have to travel quite a distance to make a decent income. Thus, the towns share immensely in economics but also, apparently, in religion.

My first impression when scanning the paper for church services was, “Wow, they have a lot of churches here!” If the population is so small, how can they possibly support all these individual congregations? After I started looking myself for the “perfect” Catholic parish, I realized how it happens. I travel across two individual towns, side-stepping several others by keeping to the main road, just to attend one of only two Catholic parishes in the area. I choose the parish that offers adoration and weekly confession and where the priest’s love of Our Lady is obvious. Who could pass up that?

Each time I drive to confession and adoration on Saturday, I look at all these other churches along the way. Having been Methodist before I came into the Catholic Church, I can understand the appeal of Protestant churches — at least for those who do not know about Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament or the history of the Church. But with the construction of yet another one along my usual route, I was starting to wonder. Don't they realize what confusion they are making? Don't they ponder why they need yet another church? Perhaps they would answer that they are not the same. And that is true.

Recently in the state of Maine, the gay right activists (with help from outside the state) pushed against the voters two times and finally won the third time in order to get “gay rights” legalized. Twice the bill was rejected by the people, but they kept pushing and gaining the support of powerful political leaders until finally they crushed the “fundamentalist Christians.” The bill was presented as a “discrimination issue,” but practicing Christians fought against it because they knew what the real agenda of a “gay rights” law was about: same-sex marriage.

Not only that, the law now creates legal issues for landlords and employers who might wish, for religious reasons, not to rent to or hire practicing homosexuals. As Catholics we are to love and help those afflicted with unnatural sexual desires and encourage them towards a life of chastity, but how can we, law or not, condone homosexual behavior in practice by renting to a homosexual pair?

This recent turn in political law makes apparent one possible reason churches are multiplying. The homosexuals pick one church they like, where they can go and feel “accepted.” Other Christians pick a “politically correct” church or one whose leaders are staying neutral on the “gay rights” issue or one that rejects the homosexual agenda. Churches used to multiply over theological differences; now social issues split them. So does “worship style.” Some like the elderly pastor at the picture-perfect white chapel down the street for his eloquent speeches, while others feel more attracted to the youthful music-filled worship services where they never stop singing.

Among the abundant religious structures in the town are two that are not even Christian. A gigantic building was built a year ago by the Mormon community. Guessing from the size of its towering temple and its extravagant garden landscape, one can only surmise that outside contributors came in and helped with the construction. Why would Mormons care about some small, unimportant town such as this? Is the Mormon doctrine, though non-Christian, so appealing in our “modern day” that they are reaching even the remote, far corners of liberal Maine? Has Maine become so liberal that the morality of Mormon culture has actually become appealing to some? After all, this is the same region where Mennonites and other Amish-like groups walk around in seriously modest attire, complete with bonnets.

Or what of the locals who actually attend the two Jehovah's Witness halls, which are only a half hour away from each other? Again, their doctrine denies basic Christianity — Jehovah's Witnesses don't even believe in the Divinity of Christ. Yet their buildings remain, and someone is paying their heating bills. Are outside sources keeping the lights burning and sending members door-to-door to gain recruits? How could they possibly reach this remote area in the US and why would they even bother?

It stems all the way back to the Protestant Reformation, when a few men left the Catholic Church and began to construct religion according to their own standards. Each church being built, even with good intent, appeals to some individual’s ideal of the Christian faith. Some are outwardly charitable, doing lots of good in a community — running soup kitchens, pot-luck dinners and children’s holiday events. They give and give and give and their witness of Christian love to others is beautiful — but what of the oneness that Jesus said would be the best witness?

Our local Catholic parishes are dwindling. One parish near us used to have a priest of its own until he was transferred to another part of Maine. Now a resident priest from a town nearly an hour away has to drive down and celebrate Mass — only once each week, early Sunday morning — for the locals. The church structure itself is enormous, even grander than most of the Protestant ones in my area, but its members are mostly elderly and now with the resident priest gone, I cannot imagine it will do much better. The parish that I attend is made up of people from all over who travel, like I do, to attend Mass at a vibrant parish, but the numbers never seem to match our expectations.

Could it be that all this church building is really all about selfishness? Is some of it about avoiding the gospel message? Going where it feels good? Why is it that in my area, we Catholics don't have much of a choice anymore even as the Protestants are building to their hearts' content? Some of us face parishes that are wayward. Some of us are dealing with parish financial difficulties due to lack of membership. Maybe there are areas of our own country where local Catholics need outside support from other Catholics. Maybe my corner of Maine should be looked at as a Catholic mission field. Maybe the success of the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness door-knockers shows that people are willing to discuss religion with a stranger who bothers to talk to them about the subject. Maybe the groups that ask people to act different from the world around them show that moral and religious commitment is still possible, even here in Maine. I don’t know all the answers, but one thing is for sure, if our area is so important to the Protestants — not to mention the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses — that they are determined to keep building here, we Catholics cannot just close up shop and fade away.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Susan C. Stratton is a freelance writer, wife and mother in Maine. She runs Baby Bunny Memorial (www.babybunny.net) for parents who have lost a baby, and is currently chairperson of the Corinna Chapter of Maine Right to Life and editor of The Maine Journal.

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