I belong to two Catholic parishes, one in the city and one in the country. They offer a striking contrast in liturgical experience and congregational demographics.
The city church is late 19th-century Victorian and built of brick and stone; the interior space is a rectangle with seats facing the altar in traditional formation. It is unheated and cold and I wonder if it is part of Australian Catholic culture for city people to endure wintry churches. Small congregations and small parish incomes may also be a factor.
The country church, by contrast, is a simple rectangular building with a pine and plaster interior, heated against the Blue Mountains winter cold. The interior space is a cruciform, with many people sitting in the side wings close to the altar. The warmth is welcoming and enhances the liturgical experience.
In city churches it is a common experience to see mostly grey heads as young families tend to live in the more affordable outer suburbs or the country. This demographic also affects the liturgy we experience. In an ‘older’ parish, the space is quiet, the singing more subdued, and the church does not hum with the sounds of children. Not many of the families with children at the city parish school attend church.
However, in an old inner city parish there is sometimes celebration of a very different kind; that of a historically long life and experience .
Mary has just celebrated her 90th birthday in the city suburb and parish in which she has spent her life. She went to the parish school until she was 14 and then left to work, like many working class young people. I asked her what she remembered about the church then:
'It was strict; you had to be quiet or you got the cane, and you had to genuflect until you touched the ground. Everything had to be done properly and the mass was all in Latin'.
She particularly remembered the celebration of St Patrick’s Day with maypole dancing at the Sydney Showground. The mothers, she said, made the dresses out of crepe at sixpence a yard, all in pastel colours like pink, green and blue.
‘We couldn’t wear red – that was the devil’s colour the nuns said!’
So what does she notice now?
Well, the church is a more friendly and informal place, and she can understand the language. Mary has lived in her worker’s cottage for 70 years, 65 of them married. She was married at 18 to her 19-year-old husband; they lived in the house owned by his parents, later purchased by her son. Now widowed she lives there still. Three generations of one family have lived in that cottage, which holds the memorabilia of their history, including service in the Light Horse Regiment and photographs from World War Two.
For her birthday celebration many of the senior members of the parish gathered, some on walking frames or in wheelchairs. There was a festive air as priest and people honoured her faithful life, probably the longest lived in this parish.
At the Blue Mountains country parish, the space and the liturgy are very different. This parish has a wider demographic including elderly as well as many young families. Small children crawl in the aisles and older children attend Sunday school during the Liturgy of the Word. There is great energy provided by musicians, singers, lively music and a gathering which sings almost as well as their Protestant friends. The space is colourful with banners and flowers appropriate to the season. There is no resident priest, another sign of the times, so a roster of visiting priests preside over the eucharist. During the week other forms of prayer are led by lay people. The parish is led by a religious sister and pastoral team.
Both of these parishes struggle financially, but both realise that liturgy is at the heart of parish life and commit as much as they can to offering a rich experience of community celebration.