Finding God in Sweat Pants and an Eagles Jersey

Note to Catholic Churchgoers: Dress nicely for mass and stop texting during the homily

So I have gone church shopping. My route back to church—I’d been away a while—is, to my chagrin, a predictable one: Crisis in late summer had me a wreck and thinking that I needed any and all help I could get, including the celestial. So on one sunny Sunday morning I walked into Our Lady of Good Counsel in Ocean City, where I was down for the weekend, and took a kneeler. It was my hope that simply being in that kind of environment—the faint smell of incense, the sun streaming through the stained glass, the organ music—would provide a forum where I could reconnect to something bigger than me, and get some desperately needed calm in the process. And to my delight, it worked.

Last summer I had also moved to Penn’s Landing, so I have spent a good part of the fall trying to find a spiritual “home base,” a church close to where I live that I could feel comfortable going to every week, where I could find some sustainable connection to God. It seems odd to go foraging for a church like a good Thai restaurant or designer shoes on sale, but there you go. I was raised Catholic, so naturally wanted to go back to what I knew. But I had also come to a point of, shall we say, progressive thought on some fronts where my thinking and that of the Church didn’t exactly dovetail. So what I decided what I needed was, basically, either a groovy Catholic church (preferably run by the Jesuits) or a tiny one where the services were small and personal enough not to be overwhelmed by thundering sermons from Rome touting the hard party line.

And after touring half a dozen churches in Philadelphia, here’s the question I have been left with:

What the hell happened?

I’m not talking about the pedophilia scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church, here and nationally, to its core. I’m talking about the congregants themselves. Somewhere over the last several years, while I have been on my self-imposed sabbatical from Catholicism, the Church has somehow morphed from a place where people went for solemn worship and Christian community to some sort of casino lounge with nicer architecture. In church after church that I visited, I was bowled over by the lack of respect for the service itself, by people texting during the homily (I cannot even begin to imagine what the nuns of my youth would have done with that), and most of all, by the attire.

If you’ve been to an African-American church service, you know a few things: It’s not going to be brief and it’s not going to be boring. You also know that no matter what socio-economic pool that church serves, the congregation is going to, to use an urban phrase, turn it out. The women wear hats and pearls and dresses; the men wear suits and ties. No one at Ebenezer or Bright Hope Baptist would ever dream of showing up for services looking like they were on their way to a kegger. As I was growing up, the dress code at Catholic services was undoubtedly relaxing; people wore sweaters and corduroy pants and khakis and golf shirts. But they still looked … nice.

So I was a bit unprepared when I walked into Sacred Heart of Jesus at Third and Reed and found almost all of the men there dressed in … Eagles jerseys. And sweatpants. (Sweatpants!) The couple in the pew in front of me held an animated conversation as if they were sitting in the Melrose Diner having eggs, including at one point telling jokes. I heard some odd clicking noise and turned around to discover the teenage girl two pews behind … on her laptop. While her mother looked absently at the ceiling, no doubt wondering what to have for dinner.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: What right do you have to get all high and mighty, to saunter back into the faith and judge? A salient point. But here’s my rebuttal: At least when I was having a crisis of faith, when I was unsure whether God was listening anymore, or even still alive for that matter, I had the good sense to stay away. I didn’t keep going, looking like a slob and doing busywork or chatting during the Scripture readings, just so I could puff out my chest and swagger up for communion and pat myself on the back for another Sunday of punching in and out on the spiritual clock. It would have been disingenuous at best and disrespectful at worst. It’s God’s house. And if you aren’t going to come in the right fashion—whether that’s the right mindset, or the right clothes—you shouldn’t be coming at all.

I wish I could say the decorum was far better at other churches I’ve been to. There are certainly people who are dressed neatly (and who are not wearing DeSean Jackson’s number on their back), and who are paying attention, participating. But it seems that somewhere the tide shifted rather badly, that somewhere along the way going to church took on the same flavor as shopping at Home Depot. Because a lot of folks certainly dress the same and behave the same doing both. And I can understand why the Catholic Church may be reticent to address this, to call out its congregants for, well, looking like hell. These are tough times for the Church; another round of school closings and parish consolidations is scheduled to be announced next month. It’s not the best time to be finger-wagging at your customers, telling them to shape up or ship out. And yet is this our fate, to be consigned to a Church where, in order not to rock the boat, we have to watch the membership steadily devolve into a crowd more fit for the 700 Level than the 700 Club?

And so I hang on to the glimmers of light where I can find them. On Thanksgiving Day I went to Mass at St. Paul’s on Christian Street, a lovely old church that was filled with maybe 60 people. As I looked around, I noticed how many of the congregants seemed to have come right from work: a SEPTA worker, a security guard. The parish, located not far from the Italian Market, is hardly wealthy, and the people there were not stylish but they were neat, and attentive, and were there not because they had to be, but because they wanted to be. During the Mass the priest announced that at the end of the service there would be a wicker basket on the altar, and any donations collected would go to buy Thanksgiving meals for the poor. I looked around, at a sea of worn coats and old shoes, and thought, This isn’t going to net much.

After the Mass I stayed in my pew to see how many people would give. And my heart swelled as I watched every single person—every single person—walk up to that altar and give what they could: dollars, in some cases the only change I’m sure they had. Maybe their own dinner money. And as I fell in line behind them, I noticed something else, too.

There wasn’t an Eagles jersey in sight.