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August 13, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 90




Pat Morrison Maybe it's time to change pews

By Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

Catholics are known to be creatures of habit. Some years ago a speaker at a major church conference reported a phenomenon observed in the large office buildings in Chicago's Loop. At the time, before the anti-smoking campaign was in full force, most buildings still had prominent receptacles to hold cigarette butts, and many of these were positioned just outside elevators. One could always spot the Catholics about to get onto the elevators, the speaker said. They were the ones who, when the doors opened, dipped their hands into the ashtrays as if they were holy water fonts and started to make the Sign of the Cross - then furtively glanced around red-faced to make sure no one had noticed.

Last week I read in a diocesan newspaper of a 150-year-old country church in the Midwest that had, sadly, been destroyed by a fire. The story went on to recount that the church's oldest member, age 99, had been born and raised in the parish and hoped to be buried from the now-destroyed church.

Then a sentence jumped off the page: "A lifelong member of the parish, he sat in the same pew all his life." His parents started sitting there in 1893, and Elmer (not his real name) joined them when he was born in 1904.

The episode reminded me of the incredible dedication to their parishes I experienced firsthand when working in dioceses that include rural churches. Often without the benefits of paid staff that larger urban and suburban parishes have, these rural parishioners take a fierce and well-deserved pride in their church buildings, volunteering to do repairs and decorate, mow the grass, plant flowers, rake leaves, shovel snow. They run bake sales and dinners to raise funds they wouldn't have any other way -- monies that diocesan offices "downtown" are too often reluctant to allocate to small country parishes. These churches and their members often represent Catholicism at its best and most vibrant.

But Elmer's story made me reflect on a downside of regularity and predictability -- and it's not something that Elmer or other rural believers have a monopoly on. Sitting in the same pew all one's life (whether literally or figuratively) can also give one a limited perspective. If I never move from this spot, however cherished and beloved and rightfully mine it may be, I'll miss out on a whole lot of other views.

Maybe if I move back a few pews I'll notice how the sunlight coming through the stained glass windows hits the altar and the nave floor differently. If -- an even more radical concept! -- I move across the aisle to the other side, I'll see the presider and the people around me from a whole new angle. I never noticed that statue before, or the candle stand, or how well those plants are thriving near the baptismal font. And if I move upstairs to the choir loft (assuming the organist and choir don't bar my entry), I'll enjoy an entirely different panorama in my worship experience.

We humans don't always have the interior or physical freedom to move around comfortably or at will in the spaces we inhabit, whether they be the parish church, the global community, or even our own skin. But maybe we ought to endeavor to summon the courage to make just a minor move and see what it's like.

I hope that Elmer's church will soon be rebuilt. And I wish him wonderful discoveries as, at least for a while, he sits in a different pew from the one he's been in these 99 years.

Sitting in the same pew all one's life can be a real witness to presence and faithfulness. But maybe there's a richness to glean, even just once, in moving to a different spot.

It's something all of us might ask the courage to try. Who knows? We may see things very differently.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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