Some suburban Catholic parishes in the United States are flourishing, especially in the more economically healthy areas. (It will be interesting to see the effect of the current economic crisis on these parishes.) However, it is not news that overall there is a decline in Catholic parish viability—studies show that fewer than 35 per cent of Catholics report they attend Mass two or more times per month. As in a number of other western cultures, regular Mass attendance is no longer the Catholic cultural norm. In Renewing Parish Culture, the authors try to address this significant waning of parish life.
Piderit and Morey describe Catholic religious sisters as “the most effective transmitters of Catholic culture in the United States.” The authors look at the strategies used by these women to successfully cultivate and transmit Catholic culture in specific institutional settings. They apply insights from the cultural legacy of religious women’s congregations over the past two hundred years to come up with new ways of nourishing parish life today. They also base this study on extensive interviews conducted in forty parishes, mainly in the New York City metropolitan area and some in Chicago.
Recruitment, financial realism and leadership are important in parish life and are addressed in three thematic chapters in Part III, "Issues for Parishes and Dioceses." The general analytical framework applied throughout this book, however, is made up of four specific principles for success that historically marked the institutional approach of religious women: narratives, norms, benefits, and practices. Narratives were used to help institutional participants make sense of Catholic culture. These women’s congregations also established and enforced clear norms or standards of behaviour for all those involved. Spiritual and real-world benefits, such as high quality education and health care, were provided by women religious. Numerous small practices or rituals were used to reinforce Catholic cultural beliefs, values and norms.
The authors concede that the cultural story of women religious is not perfect. However, for all their difficulties, their gains and losses, they maintain that these congregations still remain the best exemplars of Catholic cultural maintenance and transmission.
Renewing Parish Culture was written as a guide for parishes negotiating their way to a new equilibrium. It analyses the key areas that define parish culture: Eucharist, the sacrament of reconciliation, prayer, loving service and education. The authors also develop the four historic "principles for success" of women religious to help evaluate current and proposed new practices for parish cultural renewal.
The authors make the point that cultures can only change if cultural components (content, symbols and people) change and change slowly. Also, because parishes are still in a period of great change, it is difficult to predict what they will look like in the future – but they must make changes in a way that attracts people to the parish.