guest post

When there *is* no other option (Benedictine or otherwise) {guest post}

When I read my friend Christy’s thoughtful reflection on Catholic life far outside the reach of the urban mega-church (or even suburban medium church) I knew immediately I wanted to share it here with you, because I know that while she and her family are rather alone in the literal sense of the word, I know from talking to many Catholics from around the globe that they are not the only ones.

So what does it look like, this “bare-minimum” Catholicism, stripped of programs, support groups, galas and fundraisers and anything beyond the very basic and all-important availability of Holy Mass on Sunday? (And that’s one Mass on Sunday, so no scheduling soccer or bbq’s around a more convenient option).

Can it be done? Can the Faith be transmitted and lived out and nourished in the absence of anything – and I do mean anything – extracurricular to receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus once a week?

In my mind, Christy and her family are living proof that it can. And perhaps this is the kind of Catholicism that more of us will encounter as the Church continues to contract in the West, even while expanding explosively in Africa and Asia. We many not face a single Mass option 40 minutes away in our own lifetimes, but our children very well may.

All food for thought.

There’s a lot of talk surrounding the Benedict Option these days. At its most general, the idea of the Benedict Option promotes a concerted effort on the part of Catholics and Christians to form like-minded communities to support each other and keep the faith alive. As the idea of forming intentional and authentic Catholic communities that strive for orthodoxy gains a foothold in Catholic parlance, I’ve been thinking about how I feel that this has already happened to some degree organically when it comes to where Catholics live.

As someone who has lived the majority of her life in rural areas I want to sometimes shout from the rooftops that the Benedict Option of sorts has already happened; because most of Catholic community is found in enclaves of urban cities.

We all know the reasons why; the increasing urbanization of our populations in general, the lack of priests to serve rural communities and small towns, the shrinking of cultural Catholicism, the complete absence of Generation X and younger at Mass.

If you think you feel the reverberations of these problems in the Church in your city that has a population of more than 10,000 people, imagine how keenly felt this must be in small communities?

Let me give you a peek at what Catholic life in a small town looks like. It looks like sharing one priest with 3 other parishes spread over 100 miles. It looks like no daily Mass or standing confession times. There is ONE option for Mass each weekend. There are no ministries. There is no religious education for children or adults alike. There is no other family with young children who attend weekly at our parish. There is a Catholic school the next town over.

There are no plethoras of religious orders with which to affiliate. There are no small groups for men or women. There are no ministries to moms, divorced people, those struggling with addiction or same sex attraction, or grief. There are no dinners or fundraisers. There are no options when it comes to finding a liturgy you prefer. There are no other Catholics your age in which to build local community.

In other words, I want you to imagine a Catholic life where there is only the Sacraments, a parish that is barely scraping by, and the constant threat that your parish may be shut down by the diocese due to lack of attendance, financial support, or both.

I think most of us believe that in order to live a fully Catholic life we’ve got to have some form of Catholic community. We all are striving for authentic local connections. We know how difficult it is to remain faithful to the teachings of the Church in our culture when we are without any support from real people in our lives. We’ve seen on a parish level how hard it is to evangelize and bring people in when there are hardly any faithful in the pews to begin with. All these difficulties come to a head in a small community where there are hardly any Catholics to begin with, with even fewer attending weekly Mass, and where there are in turn little to no outreach and ministries to the community.

Vibrant, vital, and orthodox parishes are out there, but finding them in a small town is the exception to the rule, and doesn’t even approach a fraction of the parishes that serve rural areas. Parishes with resources, both in parishioners and cold hard cash, are found in cities. If you’re looking for good, life-giving ministries you may have to search your city to find one, you may have to drive across town, but they will exist. There are no ministry options in small towns. As we see orthodox parishes with a focus on beautiful liturgy grow, it is within a city that offers options when it comes to liturgy and the few who know it’s value to support it.

We know our families are the domestic church, and that the beauty of family life is a great gift as we lead and guide our children in faith. But it is increasingly difficult in today’s world to bring up children in a religious vacuum so to speak, where there is so little evidence of faith in their hometown and home parish. Small towns are not just drained of Catholics, they’re drained of believers of all denominations as increasingly our society of “nones” erodes cultural faith. As it seems to be increasingly difficult to even become friends with our neighbours, it’s even more challenging to find friends who share the faith at a local level.

I don’t think there are easy answers to the problem of rural Catholic life just as the Benedict Option isn’t an easy answer to our troubled Church as a whole. As Catholics we value the land, the connection with the land that we live on, the ability to provide for ourselves, to nurture that connection with creation, but as more and more people move to cities, rural towns are emptied of faith. How can we preserve a connection to the land, agriculture, self-sufficiency, and still be part of authentic Catholic community? Is the answer that the Ben-opters start communes in small rural towns? Are there economic opportunities enough for them? Does everyone become farmers?

I can’t help but feel that many rural Catholics are faced with the difficult call to live an almost heroic level of faith based on their isolation from vital Catholic community. Unfortunately in many cases people are in the position between choosing the land and lifestyle they know and love or moving to a more urban environment that provides even a slightly better opportunity for Catholic community.

Whether the Benedict Option takes off or not, there’s no denying that the light of orthodoxy in the North American Church shines from urban enclaves and that rural Catholics are going it alone.

Christy Isinger is a wife and mom to five lovely, loud children and lives in northern Canada. When not homeschooling, she is a devoted reader of English literature from Jane Austen to Agatha Christie. She writes about the beauty of faith, life, and the home at her blog Fountains of Home and is the co-host of the Fountains of Carrots Podcast.


  • Julie

    Wow. How spoiled I suddenly realize I am! And how frightening to think that our future (in urban areas) could become like this without vocations. Thank you for the reminder to be grateful for what I have–and to pray for those who don’t.

  • Katie

    This is true for the Western Europe as well- we live in a 170 000 city with one large catholic parish and a few smaller ones. We are lucky enough to have a Holy Mess at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. Sundays and one every second day. There are about a 100 attendees each time and together with my baby daughter we pull the mean age down a bit. We are one of 2-3 families that actually go to church. I dream of a vivid group of families that would support each other.

  • Claire

    Maybe this is a regional thing, but in my area, suburban parishes are much more active than the urban ones. Many beautiful city churches have had to close because of people moving to the suburbs. Of course people in cities still have more options and ministries than in the rural area that you describe, but the meat of the ministries is in the suburbs (at least in my region).

  • Elizabeth

    This is something I think about all the time. We live in a small town in Alaska and we just went through a year phase where we didn’t even have mass every Sunday. The next closest town is an hour and a half away, with one Sunday mass option that we couldn’t always get to. I keep realizing how spoiled I was growing up with the beautiful liturgy we were able to attend, but I feel so bad for my kids not having that experience. My husband grew up having Sunday mass only every other weekend. He still has a strong faith, but he says that in the cases when the church is not very supportive you need to foster the faith even more strongly in the family. Which I believe is totally possible with God’s grace of course. Also, there are so many other wonderful aspects of small town life here that I love for my kids that we would lose if we moved to an area with a better church community. There really is no perfect community and with God’s grace you just do the best with what He has given you.

  • Megan Hjelmstad

    Well I now have a completely new perspective and wealth of thanksgiving for my Catholic community (that I’ve often wished were much more robust). This is so darn sobering and eye-opening, Christy. It makes me think of the early Christians and all they endured to access the sacraments. Thanks for giving us a window in, and giving me a new focus for my prayers and offerings.

  • Scott

    While I appreciate reading someone’s subjective take on the state of the Catholic Church, it is still just someone’s subjective observations. So, I’ll give mine. The life of a rural parish depends on so many factors.

    I grew up in dairy farm land in Western Pennsylvania. Our little town was quintessentially German Catholic: a church and a bar. While living there as a child, the church was the hub of social activity. It truly was the center of the community. While evangelization was non-existent and catechesis was mediocre at best, there was a strong sense of Catholic identity with your fellow townspeople, ranging in careers from farmers to electricians to doctors.

    I left my small rural town about 24 years ago for college, post-grad degree, and “real life”. I lived in the heart of the city of Denver for 7 years and experienced the vibrant, urban church life. But, even then, the church wasn’t really the center of social and community life. It offered some great ministries and great liturgy, but it still was something else for people to do when they weren’t doing their “main thing”. I would travel to my home town during this phase of my life and marvel at how the small little church I grew up in was still bustling with activities to which the entire community would flock. It was STILL the center of life of the town and it was thriving as a social center. Everyone from teens to young adults to older folks was plugged into the life of the parish. People graduated high school and found ways to stick around to raise their families there. It was home in the deepest sense of the word. They still don’t evangelize well. People get a little uncomfortable saying the name of Jesus in social setttings. But, at a very basic level, they live it out as best they can and they have each other’s backs.

    Maybe my hometown parish is an anomaly. I don’t know. But, I do know that they have somehow succeeded at having their church be the center of life of the community and they continue year after year to do it well.

    • Christy

      Thanks for sharing that perspective Scott. I would love to have any community that was centred on the parish and Church, be it in a highly urban environment or small town. But I do think that the majority of small towns don’t have this great example of your small town. I know of small towns that do a much better job than my current parish, and thank goodness for that. But I think the general rule is that parishes that are growing, vibrant, and evangelizing are ones in cities. That doesn’t mean to say that every parish in a city or larger town/suburb is doing this because we all know that this isn’t the case, I’m just saying that by and large where we find vibrant parishes in today’s Church in North America we’re finding them in urban areas. And consequently many small town parishes are on the brink of closing their doors.

  • Aileen

    Christy is bang-on in her assessment here – I live in Quebec City now, but grew up in the Arlington, Virginia and Chicago, Illinois dioceses, which were the epitome of all the wonderful options you have as an urban Catholic. Quebec City, like so much of the province, is just depressing when it comes to finding solid, consistent, orthodox liturgical practices, etc., and this is in an “urban” environment. I switch between two churches because the one closest to me shut down – not enough money for the up-keep. I’m the youngest person at any given mass by about 15 years (and I’m 34). The newish pastor at one of the churches I attend caused a bit of a stir when he said he was going to have confession regularly held on Saturdays before mass…I go, and I see the same 3 other people in the church every week. The attitude seems to be: “get bodies in the pews, no matter what”, so you take what you can get.

    • Christy

      Thanks for your perspective Aileen. I think it seems that the Canadian Church is in an even more dire state than the American. We’ve completely lost all our Catholic culture and roots and have no idea how to offer real Catholicism to anyone younger than the baby boomers. It’s a really great tragedy.

  • J.P.

    The crisis in vocations – whether in the city or rural areas – is precisely because Catholics (myself included) are not practicing the “Benedict Option” i.e. living a life of constant communion with God. Our outreach to our neighbor flows from our own relationship with God. We can’t give what we don’t have ourselves. Not everyone can live an eremitical life, or understand it, but like St. Mary Magdalene, Pope Benedict has chosen the better part. I am very grateful to Pope Benedict for his example and life of prayer and suffering for the Church.

  • Tess

    I am a Catholic convert living in my hometown of 240 people with two other small towns nearby. We have an amazing priest who serves the entire county, which I believe is 5 parishes, the farthest of which are about 1 hour and 15 minutes apart. We have Sunday Mass at 8am in our town on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Sundays of the month; it is in the next nearest town, about 15-20 minutes away on the 2nd and 4th weekends. Sometimes Father is available for a weekday Mass, either on Wednesday or Thursday evening. If so, the weekday Mass takes place at the parish that held the most recent Sunday Mass. Weekday Mass is preceded by confession and followed by a pot luck. I love it when we have the opportunity to go. It is usually a small group, and it is nice to have an intimate gathering and be able to spend some time with Father since he has to spend most of his time at the other end of the county where the largest parish is. I do wish we had him to share between the two north county parishes, but I actually like having the Sunday Masses switch back and forth between towns. It can cause some confusion or inconvenience at times, but it really connects the two communities. I don’t know much about the Benedict Option or what goes on in urban parishes, but I suspect a lot of it is a “grass is greener” affect. As a convert, perhaps I would be able to find more guidance as to how to live a Catholic life in a city, but I think it is just as likely that I would be anonymous and fall through the cracks. There might be more people at the parishes in a city, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more connection. When my husband was diagnosed with MS and we were without income for a while, people at church took up a special collection for us, and for a year or more afterwards people were slipping envelopes into the collection plate with our name on them. A brand new kitchen stove was anonymously purchased for us. Our parish is small and aging (We are one of four families with kids), but we are still pretty vibrant. I also question whether turning inward to become “more Catholic” is necessary or even preferable; I think of the work of Dorothy Day, and the odd collection of folks who make up my town, most of whom are not Catholic, and I think of the loneliness and desperation to be loved that is carried by virtually every human. There is opportunity everywhere. And I think, “bloom where you’re planted.”

    • Julia

      Before having children I did give some passing thought to the “Benedict Option” vs. “bloom where you’re planted”, but now that we have four small children I wrestle deeply with the question of where to grow our family within a Catholic community. If we lived in an area where there were no options I know I would not agonize over this so much. I grew up in a small town where there was only one Catholic church and no options other than public school for education. My parents were able to raise us in the Catholic faith and my sisters and I are still practicing Catholics to this day. Now that I have my own family our situation is much different because we live in a suburb of a large city and the options for churches and schools are endless. Our children are still young, but we are entering our elementary school years and friendships are starting to be forged. Our small local parish is mostly full on Sunday for mass, yet there is little sense of connection among parishioners and very little support other than the Sacraments for growing in our faith. The parochial school is for the most part thriving, but the catechesis is pretty darn anemic and I know through conversation with older parents in the parish and school that a majority of the children in this parish/ school grow up to become non-practicing Catholics. There are some wonderful independent Catholic schools in the area where the dynamic of support between the families and the school is such that children are well-formed in their faith and remain faithfully practicing Catholics into adulthood. However, sending our children to one of these schools would mean sending them outside our physical community. I think sometimes it is clear that it is best to “bloom where you are planted”, but sometimes perhaps finding a “Benedict Option” might be better for another family. It’s not always obvious which is right, however! I want so much to be a part of the community at the independent Catholic school that is 25 minutes away, but at the same time we feel the weight of the importance of “bloom where you’re planted”. Anyway, no major conclusions here other than each family has to find the right situation to thrive and sometimes geography, jobs, and family ties will affect that decision immensely.

  • Ari

    This is very sobering. I feel like the Canadian situation might be the future of America’s situation. The Church in the west has suffered from a few generations of bad catechesis, which has rendered Jesus meaningless or the phony theology of “don’t judge/be a nice person.” Meanwhile, Africa and Asia are flourishing and other areas are producing martyrs. Most of the growth in our Churches is from immigrants (I’m speaking of American, urban churches.) Until we see the absolute necessity of Christ, His Church, His Sacraments in our lives, I don’t know how this will turn around. I think living the faith no matter where we are will be a small community of love – as Mother Teresa always talked about starting where you are.

  • Sarah

    This happens to us when we plan a vacation. We have to find a weekend Catholic Mass, so it limits our options of where we can go. I often become frustrated that we’ll either have to drive far out of our way to go to Mass or we can’t get away from towns or areas where churches would be located.

    Yes, this won’t be just a problem for the Catholic Church. It will affect all Christians as our educated and wealthy populace turns its back on faith. We’ll be like the days of frontier America or the Spanish colonies: a minister or priest would visit for a short time, maybe do a service or a Mass, do some baptisms and conversion, and then head off to another area. He might only visit once a year. I often wonder how missionaries were able to convert natives in this fashion.

  • Sarah

    In times before ours when the church and parish was the center of life, major feast days were celebrated not just during the Mass; afterward people congregated at the church to celebrate holidays with community feasting and carnival-like celebrations. Because the Church was center of life and community, people gave so much more of themselves and their resources for the Church. They gave time, donations, tapestries, art work, etc. There were more vocations. Today, the Church is just a small part of many of our lives as our attention is divided between school activities for the children (including extracurricular programs and fundraising for those programs), work, down time after work when we need to recover from the day, visiting extended family, vacations to relax and experience the world, etc.

    I’m sorry I can’t give as much to my parish as I wish because not only does the Church need money and time, but donations are also needed by cancer awareness organizations, my coworker’s kids’ soccer team, the local halfway house started by a Catholic lay woman, my alma mater’s Catholic Campus ministry, boy and girl scouts, the diocesan Lenten appeal, my missionary friend’s trip to Central America, the nearby ASPCA, the high school’s Future Farmers of America club, etc. I wish I could give just to my parish and/or diocese and let them do as they feel fit with the donation, including beautifying the church, but then I wouldn’t be supporting the other organizations that need gifts too. Now we have many organizations outside of the Church clamoring for our time, attention, and money; we can’t easily go back to the days when we gave so much to just the Church, because the Church (and the local tavern) isn’t alone in providing community anymore. Without the Church as the center of the community, I don’t know how we’ll fix issues within and outside the Church.

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