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Hallo again to all.

Recently we noticed that it has been several months since a certain man (we'll call him Tim) has been in church. For years and years he and his wife have sat in the same spot in the same pew. He never had a lot to say, but he was a faithful member of the 'parish family', and he came to almost all parish events. He is a talented folk guitarist, and sometimes played his guitar at church events where guitar-playing was the right thing to do. He's tall and very handsome, not the sort of person we'd fail to notice.

But he wasn't there this week, or last week, or the week before. And since the 'parish family' is a lot like a parish family, we care about his well-being. But we didn't know where to turn for information. It seemed rude to seek out his wife and ask her to explain. It felt as though it would have been gossip-mongering of the lowest sort to ask the clergy. So we still don't know where Tim has gone. Probably we'll end up deciding that it's OK to ask a clergyperson, and one of them might even tell us. (It probably all depends on what the answer might be.) We know he's not gone in the manner of Argentina's desaparecidos, but beyond that, we just don't know.

This got us to thinking about the notion of 'parish family'. We've seen that term used all over the world, in almost every parish that we've visited with enough time to read its newsletter or bulletin board. As a congregation we do family-like things together, and we can call on one another for help in emergencies and we call one another by our given names, but in some situations, such as this one, it feels different.

We've seen similar phenomena in university and boarding-school and military communities. If you form close bonds with 'family members', the chances are good that one fine day they'll be gone, to another university or another school or another military base, and your close friend will be gone. We can't say that the missing Tim is a close friend, but we've greeted him and perhaps exchanged a few words with him every week for a very long time. And now, at least for the moment, he's gone, and we don't know why. If a whole family vanishes from university housing or a military base, it's just a transfer or a move. But if one member of a family falls out of view, and the others don't talk about it, the situation feels similar to our parish puzzlement.

There is so very much gossip in parishes that we find the need to consciously avoid it. We might wonder 'Hmm. Sally's teenage daughter looks pregnant but we know she still lives with her mother', or we might wonder 'Hmm. Is that an ankle monitor there on Jim's left ankle? I wonder what ever it's about? I didn't see his name in the crime section of the newspaper.' But we try hard to keep those wonderings to ourselves. And if we should learn about some less-than-ideal circumstances around Sally's daughter's pregnancy or Jim's ankle monitor, we might be tempted to tell someone else what we've learned. That would without question be gossip, so it's better that we not know.

Every parish priest knows that people are fallible, and every congregation has its share of folks who are there to worship and not to share the dark corners of their life's story. The Gospels quote Jesus preaching a message of inclusion, of welcoming all. If we say we are welcoming people but then proceed to gossip about them, we're diminishing them.

Besides: Tim is probably missing from the parish because he's off taking care of his sick parents, or because he has some lucrative business in another state, or because he's gone off to Stockholm to receive a Nobel prize. It would be very presumptuous of us to assume that his absence has a dark cause. What's stopping us from simply asking is that there is a tiny little chance that there might be a dark side, and we don't want to take that risk. We know that we will eventually find out, and waiting a few months to find out where Tim has been (even if we never see him again, which seems unlikely) isn't going to harm us in any way. Choosing not to participate in parish gossip seems to be more important than us knowing about everything that is going on, especially since most of it is likely to be very boring.

We're rather confident that if we mentioned this dilemma to the youngsters of our parish, they would look up incredulously and ask 'Why don't you just check his Facebook page?' We're also rather confident that they wouldn't understand our answer.

See you next week. We promise.

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Last updated: 13 September 2009

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