When a lady complained to the great short story writer that her works “left a bad taste” in her mouth, Flannery O’Connor replied that what she wrote was not meant to be eaten. For the conventional palate, those often-macabre stories can be distasteful, but Miss O’Connor deliberately wanted to avoid the sentimentalism of much pious diction that eviscerated the sharp Catholic understanding of the human condition. That is why she could be acerbic about the parochialism which neuters Catholic apologetics. For her, “parochial” was the comfortable narrow-mindedness that suburbanized the Heavenly City and turned successors of the apostles into benevolent salesmen for annual charity appeals.
My one gripe with Miss O’Connor—and I parade it with a confidence born of the sense that deep down she might actually agree—is that “parochial” is not a bad word if one really understands a parish. Actually, what is parochial is anything but parochial: parochia is an existence outside the confined dwelling, and you might say that it means a family aware of more than itself. Use of it to mean something limited and narrow goes back no farther than the mid-nineteenth century, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary which, while not the Oxford English Dictionary, is reliable. The parish is an atom of existence, and everything in a parish, from baptisms to burials and all the joy and grief in between, is a microcosm of life, which by its authenticity is more compelling than any fictitious comedy or tragedy.
No one is more parochial than a pastor, and the pastor of a parish in the heart of New York City is most parochial of all. The amiably mindless Bertie Wooster was amazed that the great thing about New York is that as soon as you get off the ship, you are already there. He may have had in mind my parish, whose canonical boundary extends to the middle of the Hudson River. Anyone drowning past that point must appeal to Newark.