Less than one year after his election as the 263rd successor to St. Peter, Pope John Paul II made his way to the United States. It was the first of his seven trips to the fourth largest Catholic country in the world. Only France, with eight, and his homeland of Poland, with nine, had more papal visits. One always got the feeling that America held a special place in his heart, and not just because of the large Polish immigrant communities situated throughout the land.
With his visits came a vision of what the Church should and could be in such a land of plenty, and central to that vision was the importance both of the parish as a home for the family as well as the family home serving as a “domestic church.” Certainly, for a Catholic population made up of people from just about every nation on earth this vision would strike a chord, especially with those who were themselves immigrants.
Both those who were new to the United States and those who came here a generation or two ago understood just how essential a parish was to assimilation. Ethnic parishes were such a part of the landscape that one could, as on Fulton Road in Cleveland, stand on the steps of an Italian parish like St. Rocco and look a few hundred yards south and be able to wave to someone on the steps at Blessed Sacrament, the Irish parish.
With the proliferation of urban flight the abandonment of most ethnic parishes was an inevitability, as was the growth of deracinated parishes in the suburbs and exurbs. Just as McMansions sprang up, so did McParishes, indistinguishable one from another, part of the cookie-cutter landscape of middle class America, and more prone than ethnic parishes to American – rather than traditional Catholic – demographics.
And that is exactly what I was expecting when my wife Ann and I ventured to Sunday Mass at Sts. John and Paul Parish in Sewickley, PA, about 20 miles north of the Beechview neighborhood in Pittsburgh where our daughter is living during her post-grad year of service. Sts. John and Paul’s parish center was the site of a fundraiser on Saturday night for Change a Heart, the Franciscan program at which Mary Kate is a volunteer, and so we thought it would be an appropriate place to attend Mass the next morning.
What I was expecting and what I got were two entirely different things. This was no McParish. It may not have exuded any specific ethnic culture, but it oozed the type of culture that would make the namesake of its two patron saints proud. St. John Paul’s emphasis on the domestic church – the church of the home – as a manifestation of the Culture of Life appeared to animate all that is done at Sts. John and Paul.
They rightly boast on their website that they have the youngest population of any parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. They are 2,400 families strong with over 1,000 children in their PSR program. One look around at the congregation confirmed the statistics – I felt like I had stumbled upon a Lamaze class and a day care center all wrapped up into one, or that I had been transported back in time to the beginning of the Baby Boom.
I know that the parish, founded in 1994, was not ‘named’ for St. John Paul, yet the statue of the Polish pope, the Marian icon on the outer face of the church and the papal insignia carved into each pew give a clear indication that this church was to be imbued with the spirit of the former parish priest from Cracow. Even their tradition of the ‘children’s blessing’ where after Communion all of the children under the age of receiving the Eucharist are called up for a special blessing had the stamp of John Paul all over it. I was reminded of how his life was saved from an assassin’s bullet when he bent over to embrace a baby in the crowd of St. Peter’s Square on that fateful feast of Our Lady of Fatima in 1981.
Named for the two greatest theologians of the first era of the Church, yet also giving a very obvious nod to the pope who spoke and wrote so often of the need for us all to embody the virtue of hope, this parish models what it is to be a home away from home for the Catholic family, the domestic church. If our hope is in the young, then this parish is a great sign of life in the Church in America in the 21st century. Let us pray to St. John Paul that there are many such parishes throughout our land.