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Finding the Catholic Village in the Big City

A friend recently invited me to hear Dr. Jordan Peterson speak when he came to Sacramento on a book tour. He was a mixed bag of ideas, as expected, but thoughtful and provocative and worth listening to. One of the things Dr. Peterson said has stayed with me: “What you need most is always to be found where you least wish to look.” Apparently, he was paraphrasing Carl Jung, one of his primary influences. That is precisely what was happening in my own life at the time, yet the truth of it came as a shock to me.

I’ve spent most of my life planning my escape from California, my native state and home to my family for several generations. Although I love this place dearly – there’s no place like it on Earth – the political, economic, and cultural frustrations of living here often get the better of me. Similarly, I grew up on a farm and have always disliked big cities, despite living for twenty years in California’s capital. It was always my plan to raise my family in the country.

Fourteen years ago, we left Sacramento for rural Glenn County, where we bought twenty acres in pursuit of an agrarian ideal I still cherish. We commenced raising cattle, goats, chickens, and loads of fruit and vegetables. It was a good life, but after eight years, it became impractical for various reasons. We ended up on just one acre in a semi-rural district north of the small city of Chico. Still, we had our dirt, fruit trees, a vegetable garden, peace and quiet, spectacular sunsets, starry nights, crickets, and hoot owls. All this time we maintained ties with the FSSP community in Sacramento as best we could, often driving two hours to Mass each way on Sundays twice a month and sometimes on feast days. The one thing missing, though, was a normal Catholic parish life – no, I mean the extraordinary parish life we left behind at St. Stephen the First Martyr. As the children at home grew older, this void became more acute, and filling it became more necessary.

Fast-forward to last June, and our circumstances changed dramatically. But leaving the state wasn’t an option, nor was rural or small-town living near an orthodox parish like St. Stephen’s. We could stay put living two hours away, or we could return to the one place I never expected to live again – A Big City in California. We prayed, of course, and made a choice for our children that was immediately fruitful. we now rent a small house on a tiny lot in an old neighborhood about six minutes from the parish. Our neighbors are a mix of retirees; young families; and cohabitators of all stripes, some of whom advertise their “orientation” with lawn signs. When we drive to church, the experience typically includes multiple wretched souls strung out on meth, gang-bangers with their pants falling down, cars booming rap music that rattles our windows, dilapidated buildings, and apartments with bars on the windows. But all of that, it turns out, is a small price to pay.

St. Stephen’s offers two Masses every day, and three on Friday and Sunday, with confessions before all Masses. Benediction and adoration are offered several times per week. The children participate in multiple groups and activities at the parish. They are able to spend time socializing with good Catholic young people and to build strong friendships. Our priests are exemplars of holiness, zeal, and erudition. We are close enough to have friends over just about any time, on Sunday or any other day. We are close enough to help other parishioners and to be helped by them. My wife is thriving, my children are thriving, and I find myself utterly without excuses when it comes to living the Faith. My teenage daughter often drags me to Mass during the week when I’d rather catch another hour of sleep. The Lord of the Universe, it turns out, is a nosy and demanding neighbor.

I once heard a homily where the priest said, “We know the place where God wants to be worshiped when the Church consecrates the ground.” Think about that: God wants to be worshiped in certain places. For reasons that may seem inscrutable to us, Divine Providence has chosen some of the most unlikely places for His most faithful churches and communities – not only unlikely, but for many of us, these places are simply undesirable. We can’t imagine raising our families in such places. And indeed, we still need to be prudent and to make sure our children are as safe from violence and other evils as possible. But if God wants to be worshiped in a certain place, it follows that He wants His people to be there, too, and I think it’s fair to say He wants to capture the surrounding territory.

In any case, God chooses, not us. That should be a sign and a comfort. As for me, it is indisputable that I found what I needed the most – what my family needed the most – only in the last place I wanted to look.

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