Catholics. Disciples. Missionaries – Community
by Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
Why does it take a tragedy for us to know how much we need each other?
Facebook makes for very strange experiences. Someone will put up the face of a suffering, or even a deformed, child, urging us to pray. Another will show pictures from a funeral. When floods wipe out cities, we see overhead shots from helicopters or drones and on-the-ground photos of people crying or lining up for shelter. Camps of refugees in Syria, images of people on-the-run from war in Africa, earthquakes in one or another part of Asia-these images flash by on our screens. Immediately we feel great compassion and, for the religious among us, a rush of prayer comes forth.
All these people whom we never met… but we feel somehow connected to their lives.
I’ve seen it happen up close as well. An unexpected death in the family, especially if it’s a child or teenager, brings out the whole neighborhood. Friends take turns bringing things to eat, but even strangers drop off flowers or sympathy cards. Seemingly out of nowhere, people stroll by the house, stopping and looking in prayerful sympathy.
Someone’s pain belongs to all of us. As does their joy. We are all connected. As St. Paul says, with reference to the body of the Church: “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Several factors can make this connectedness hard to see today. On the one hand, we are all “connected”—mostly wirelessly —so we put a lot of our attention on the screens in front of our faces, rather than on the faces of others, sometimes even of those we love, right in front of us. On the other hand, community can seem overwhelming, and, furthermore, often gets a bum rap. “Big business, big government, big data, big church: I’d rather be on my own.” The community that church offers people today seems too much for them to engage.
The complaints about church community go back to the New Testament. This group is against that group. So-and-so is so self-important. What are they doing with the money? Who put that person in charge? I’m going to go off and form my own group. Some folks have more wisdom, or virtue, or gifts than other groups, right? No, I have a better notion, even if everyone disagrees with me. You do something bad, and I’m going to kick you out.
So, the interactions we see among the earliest Christians gives plenty of evidence of just how complicated church life can be. Yet the truth is this: all of us need community. Discipleship cannot grow apart from community. In community, we find ourselves accepted and supported. In community, we also find out if we are truly committed by our faithfulness to others. Through community, we receive the vision of hope that we need to persevere as disciples. Indeed, we are not alone in our journey in God’s life.
Popular American religion—that generally Protestant congregational model that runs through so many of our churches—subtly reinforces two “heresies” that tempt modern people. One heresy gives the impression that faith is almost entirely personal. People think: churches get in the way of faith—especially churches that practice sacraments. “I can talk directly to God, so I don’t need any church.” Church, if we need any at all, comes at our convenience and our choice. Yet, in the face of this “God-and-me” heresy, how do people who feel that faith is totally personal imagine that faith came to them? In a pill? Like lightning from the sky? Through an ad on the radio? No; faith always comes through a believing community.
The second heresy that beguiles America sees religion as a way to get consoled, comfortable, and even rich. “When I started to believe, God blessed me. He took all my troubles away. He found me a spouse, and a fine job, and a nice house. Faith brings blessings.” We can turn faith into a device for our own enrichment, using God to reinforce our modern idol of money. When we have this attitude of a “prosperity gospel,” we inadvertently turn away from the Lord Jesus who pronounced the poor, the sorrowing, and the meek as those who were blessed in his Kingdom.
Both popular American heresies—faith is personal, and faith is about what I get from it—diminish our appreciation of Church. They make the Gospel about “me” more than about what God is doing in the world in and through the Church. Disciples know the value of Church because we cannot live without a community of faith. We know that community thrives when it serves others by helping them see the Kingdom of divine love in their midst. We disciples know that Church is not about “me” and what I have or get. It’s about gathering around a Lord who gives himself to all humankind, a Lord who calls us together to be a community of faith as a model for the world.
Community Is Everyone
Clannishness is one of the great dangers of community. We can, almost imperceptibly, want to restrict community to our family, our clan, our kind: this is who we are, and we do not want others mixing with us. All faith can be tribal, even, despite itself, Christian faith. We can readily break into groups based on economic status, or skin color, or language, or some other factor that we feel separates us from others. Racism is, undoubtedly, the most conspicuous example of this tendency to separate into groups. But it is hardly the only one.
I remember visiting a city in the Northeast not too long ago. Parishes had been consolidated—but they weren’t closed. The buildings remained, often just one or two blocks from each other. The parishioners were encouraged to think of themselves as “one united parish,” but they continued going to their different church buildings. The Italians were at St. Anthony’s, the Irish at St. Bride’s, the Polish at St. Stanislaus, and African Americans had St. Benedict the Moor. These communities were irreversibly growing smaller, but they still clung to “their own.”
This method of organizing parishes prevailed in our Catholic American experience from the late nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth. People felt comfortable among their own. Indeed, if my community was big enough, perhaps I didn’t even need to engage with others. People could speak Italian, Polish, or Spanish, getting by very well in their neighborhoods for most of their needs. This mirrored the tentative way immigrants slowly left their enclaves to test the waters in someone else’s sphere or culture. In this world, it was easy to substitute “my clan” for the idea of Christian community.
But Jesus directly challenged this attitude when he confronted the divisions and separations among ancient Jewish people. After quoting the classic law from the Jewish Scriptures—“Love your neighbor as yourself”—a smart scholar of the law pushes Jesus further, trying to upend Jesus: “But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29) Jesus proceeds with the utterly damning story of the man left half-dead by robbers on the road to Jericho; the priest passes by, as does the Levite; each of them surely having lofty reasons to justify their indifference.
But a Samaritan, the group most despised by the peers of Jesus, stops by and shows compassion for the beaten man. Someone from the lower class, the other side of the track, the people we stay away from—one of those actually stopped and had pity on the beaten man. No doubt, Jesus is working plenty of irony here. But Jesus also shows us the truth of experience: it is often the people at the bottom who know what It means to hurt. The folks at the top have not been schooled very much in our common suffering. “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robber’s victim?” Jesus asks. “The one who treated him with mercy,” says the scholar, who just received from Jesus the lesson of his life (Luke 10:36-37). The Samaritan, so often denied dignity in the ancient world, shows the dignity of all when he has compassion on the beaten victim.
This is where the great social teaching of the Church, which emerged from reflection on the need for unions in the nineteenth century, has so much to offer both members of the Church and, in fact, the world. Community is grounded on the inherent dignity every person has because she or he has been called into being by God. God creates everyone with the same love and also the same destiny: to find the fullness of life and love in the Kingdom of God. From this arises those claims inherent in human nature: life, shelter, food, religious freedom, dignity in work, and the bonds of family. This is a dignity belonging to everyone and binding everyone together.
As disciples, we have this much-needed message to bring to the world today: we are not alone, nor are we divided into warring and competing factions. We are one, bound not only by the same human nature, but also by the same divine destiny. The teaching of Jesus unveils what even genetic studies show: humankind is one, bound by the same physical and social reality in which everyone shares. Shakespeare, in his famous play, “The Merchant of Venice,” has Shylock, the scorned Jew, say to his accusers: “Hath not a Jew eyes . . . If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
Of course, Jesus taught us this as well, two millennia ago, when he bled and suffered on the Cross.
Covenant and Community
On top of the inherent connections that we have with each other—all of us from the same Adam, and all of us with the same flesh that Jesus took on for our sake—there are special communities which are formed by covenant. These intensify for us disciples the common connection we share as human beings which form the basis of human community.
The covenant we saw among the Jewish people, the covenant now made new and eternal by Jesus Christ, becomes the covenant through which we bind ourselves to each other, intentionally forming a new community—one grounded in our relationship with God. We particularly see the structure of this new community in the sacraments of Baptism and Marriage. Each of these holy states reveal dimensions of community that God bestows upon us to enrich our lives.
Christians affirm the broadest of these covenants in baptism. This sacrament, this act of worship, places someone in the community of God’s new covenant in Jesus. In baptism, believers are so identified with Christ that they share in his priesthood, his prophecy, and kingship. They can do this because they share in his Spirit, the power of God now given to us as a force in our own lives. Discipleship works out the power of Baptism in our relationships with others.
We who are baptized, then, form a special community rooted in the life and ministry of Jesus. When Jesus bestows his Spirit upon the baptized, he gives us the ability to continue his ministry of serving God by bringing about the Kingdom. The community of the baptized, the Church, becomes the nucleus of this Kingdom—a center of grace so powerful that it extends beyond the visible borders of the Church, in mysterious ways, into all human experience.
But the community of the Church makes clear what God wills for humankind through its life of prayer, proclamation, and service. For a priestly community is one that prays, and, in this way, takes part in the sanctification of the world. A prophetic community proclaims God’s Word as a way of life for itself and as a beacon for all of humankind. It’s a Word that leads and a Word that judges. But most of all, it’s a Word that allows us to dialogue with God. And the Church exercises its power of kingship by doing those things that bring about the Kingdom of God . . . the signs and wonders of healing, forgiveness, acceptance, hope, and selfless love.
We disciples show that we are members of this covenanted community by the way we pray and live. For prayer, both personal and liturgical, leads to transformed actions. An oft-quoted line of Pope Francis goes like this: “You pray for poor people. And then you help them. That’s how prayer works.” As we pray, our lives line up more clearly with those actions which characterize people who have given their lives to Christ and who now live in the Spirit.
While we often use the Ten Commandments as a guideline for transformed behavior, disciples know that this only makes for a general outline. All those negative “shall not” phrases have to be translated into the positive “I shall” phrases that mark a believer’s life. Because Jesus translated “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)” into something yet more pressing: “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
This puts a Christian’s moral life into a whole other perspective. Far more than avoiding sins that will lead to punishment, Jesus calls us to do those actions that show the same love he showed—to the Father and to those he encountered. The vices of anger, greed, lust, envy, laziness—really they are all forms of selfishness—have no place because they lead to actions that hide or distort love. They do not lead to those actions that reflect Christ’s love in our everyday lives. When believers violate their covenant with God through sin, they celebrate its restoration in God’s mercy through the Sacrament of Reconciliation; we bring our sin, which violated God’s sacred community, to the same sacred community for peace and the assurance of forgiveness.
Another covenant that affects everyone is that of marriage. For even if people do not marry, or have not stayed married, they have all belonged to a family of one sort or another. And marriage is the covenant that sets the tone of love and commitment for the family. Following upon God’s covenant with us, marriage expresses the idea of a love that is unconditional, unending, free, total, and leading to life.
A very cute joke goes like this: a husband and wife are out on the patio, she at one end grilling and he at the other end having a beer. “I love you,” says the man. The wife looks at her husband and says, “Is that you talking, or the beer?” He looks back at her and says, “It’s me talking . . . to the beer!”
The punchline works because it is such a cynical reversal of exactly what we know marriage is about: people give themselves to each other for the sake of each other. They love each other, in all the dimensions of love, far more than they love anything, or any goal, or any vision. From the bond and energy created by that love a household emerges, one shaped by the exalted and human values behind every marriage.
What has marriage to do with community? Indeed, it creates the very ideals and assumptions that make community possible. We use words such as love, connection, helping, forgiving, give-and-take, generosity, peace. Where do our felt-examples of these values come from? They come from the relationships that were set up in our homes, how parents related to each other and how their relationship of love came to permeate a whole family, and, indeed, the whole world a family touches.
Marriage, when faith is lived explicitly in the household, builds the community of faith, the Church. The covenant between husband and wife, creating the bond that makes wife and husband belong to each other, comes to extend to all the members of the family who come under the same umbrella of love. But that love takes on particular meaning when grasped through the love of Jesus—his showing us the reality of God by his total love for others. Faith makes this love accessible in the family because all the family members come to see with the same eyes of faith—and love with his same heart of Christ.
Disciples never give up on family. We strive in our family connections to mirror the love that Jesus showed us. And we build many different kinds of families, beyond our households, on the model of Christian family—friendships, societies, communities of service. Just as Jesus made us family when he told his disciples that whatever they did to the least of his brothers and sisters, they did to him (Matthew 25:31 ff.), so disciples come to treat everyone as a brother and sister, informed by the practice of love as that has come down through human life.
We all build families. Parents obviously build families. But so do the unmarried-single people, consecrated and vowed people, formerly married people, people growing up—all of us are building up that family that God has willed from the beginning, and that Jesus’s love makes possible in the gift of his Spirit who is the love of God now made a power in our lives.
Family is not only the building block of community; family becomes, in the vision of Jesus, the metaphor of human community itself. We are all brothers and sisters.
We Catholics are a community of disciples with a particular mission to bring to today’s world. Because community rests at the heart of Catholic life, and because the scope and breadth of our membership spans all lands and languages, we Catholics offer the world an alternate vision to the provincialism, even tribalism, that so often obliterates the way we are ultimately connected. Globalism is instinctual for us Catholics!
Catholics can model the way humankind can be one by the way we bring about unity in the multicultural reality of our church experience. We can credibly be involved in ecumenical and interfaith experiences because our Catholic life so often invites us to be open to “the other,” the strangers who constantly find a home in our midst. We can model what acceptance looks like, as well as the richness that comes from reaching out to those who, at first glance, appear strange, because of the stronger community that results.
We Catholics exercise this missionary vision when we live out the social teachings that touch all human beings. Living for, and emphasizing, human dignity, Catholics can be a force for ennobling the life of every human being—and insisting that society uphold this innate dignity. By rolling up sleeves to work for sufficient food, housing, education, and health, Catholics can show the Gospel in action, particularly when it spills beyond our own church members.
Similarly, we disciples bring the values of covenant into play with all significant relationships that society values. We can point to the fundamental covenantal value of human existence itself, the bond of life, shown in our very genetic structure, which makes like sacred from beginning to end. This great chain of life cannot be broken at any point without breaking the chain for the whole meaning of life. Existence comes as a gift to each of us; no one has the right to negate that existence for anyone else.
The covenantal values of marriage apply in a direct way to every family: unconditional love, permanence, openness to life, and faithfulness. Every human being needs an environment built upon these values. When these values go missing, people’s lives are diminished. They pay a price in the relational defects they experience, defects which they, in turn, pass on to their families and other social networks.
The Catholic experience of community not only reinforces our own church life, but it also brings an essential perspective to the world. The vision of a community of humankind, united in love and peace, which has been the dream of humans from the beginning, is the vision that lies behind the Catholic community. Our bonding among ourselves, and our care for each other, present an invitation to the world to reconsider its divisions and enmities, and to open itself to a new way to experience human life. All human relationships are charged by our vision of life and community; this vision grounds our mission to the world.
Make a list of the communities in your life that are important to you, starting with your family. Write a sentence or two about the way this community has contributed to your life, what it has brought to you. Indicate how your experience in this community has deepened your personal life and your sense of God.
Catholics. Disciples. Missionaries. is an ongoing series on forming missionary disciples in our parishes and community. Follow the series here.