I knew from the get-go that St. John the Baptist Church in Madison, Alabama, was an active and vibrant parish. After all, the people there scooped up 550 copies of my Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism in order to use it as a text during the Year of Faith. That’s some serious Catholic mojo happening there. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, I received an email a while back asking if I’d be willing to come down and do a series of talks for the parish. That’s typically something that would happen on a diocesan level, at least where I come from, so the fact that a single parish would have the resources and motivation to do this intrigued me. Clearly they get it: If you don’t feed people, they just might walk away. And at St. John the Baptist Church, the people are being fed, and not just tiny scraps but endless buffets of spiritual goodness from what I saw on my recent visit.
The bulletin alone is enough to make that clear. Page after page of activities and devotions and opportunities for people of every age and background. But if you want the real proof of this parish’s vibrancy, sit through all five Masses on a weekend — I did just that last weekend — and watch in amazement as 3,500+ people come pouring through those doors, most of them with little children. I don’t think I’ve seen that many newborns in one place outside a hospital nursery. And at every Mass, when the children brought up donations for the food pantry as part of the offertory, I kept waiting and waiting for the lines of kids to end, but it seemed to go on forever. As far as I’m concerned, you can measure the health of a parish by the presence of so many young families with children.
As I listened to the announcements at Mass, as I looked around at the physical structure of the church, as I listened to the pastor and the associate pastor at Mass and watched them laugh and visit with their parishioners in the vestibule after Mass, I have to admit that I felt some pangs of jealousy. THIS Is the parish I’ve been looking for all my life. Can I commute from New York to Alabama every week?
Do you know what I think makes this parish work so well? It’s a beautiful blend of the best of our Catholic traditions. You cannot look at this parish and try to pin it down or label it, which is probably why I felt so at home there. From the obvious focus on Eucharist — the tabernacle at the center of the altar, the post-Communion prayer that weaves together Thomas Aquinas and the Baltimore Catechism in order to focus parishioners on the reality of what they have just experienced, the Adoration that occurs every single day in the little chapel after daily Mass — to the welcoming and easy-to-sing contemporary music and the inclusion of children and the casual rapport between the priests and the people. It all worked like a well-oiled machine, and as I watched happy faces streaming in and out of Mass after Mass, I thought: This is a parish that gets it. This is a parish that understands its people.
Confession is available three times a week. THREE times — on Saturday afternoon and two weekday evenings before the weekday evening Masses. Weekday EVENING Masses. A clear recognition that not everyone can go to Mass at 9 a.m. or noon. And those confessionals are active. Father Phil, the pastor, told me he was in the confessional on Saturday from 2:50 until just before 5 p.m., so two solid hours, and people just kept coming. And Father Joy, associate pastor, was hearing confessions at the same time.
It’s not hard to see why this parish is successful. There is a basic understanding that people need to be fed or they will go elsewhere, and so they are given sustenance through the sacraments and through ongoing adult faith formation, through babysitting for parents with young children who want to attend presentations and through conveniently timed faith formation programs for families, through its variety of musical styles at Mass — from choir to contemporary group with electric bass to single cantor and piano, depending on the Mass — and through its active Life Teen program and moms’ group. And on and on. If any pastor wants to see a successful parish in operation, stop by St. John the Baptist one Sunday and be amazed. I was. I’m just sorry I can’t go back next weekend.