Just 50 years ago, your Catholic community was most likely made up of your neighbors who lived within your neighborhood parish’s boundaries. These days, Catholics are just as likely to drive past a church or two (or more) on a Sunday morning as they are to attend Mass at the closest parish.
And attending Mass, though a meaningful celebration of our communion with one another and with God, doesn’t always fully meet the need or desire for spiritual kinship. The Mass is meant to send us out into the world and foster the relationships and community we celebrate liturgically.
Community is hard to find, and sustaining it can prove even more challenging. Still, we all need friends who remind us of God’s love, who challenge us, who help us to grow ever deeper in our Christian commitment to love and serve each other.
U.S. Catholic asked six writers in various stages of life to reflect on their experiences of community, its challenges, and its rewards. We invited these writers to recount honestly when they’ve struggled to connect spiritually with others as well as what makes community worth the search. Each reflection, we hope, is an invitation for our readers to do the same.
Two churches, one family
“Well, you two certainly didn’t choose the easiest of paths.”
Sitting in a prayer circle with members of my husband’s Baptist church on a warm late-summer evening in Virginia, our pastor named that which is often left unsaid: Our Protestant and Catholic “interfaith” marriage—preferably ecumenical since both my husband and I are Christian—is challenging terrain for wedded life.
Some of our hurdles are merely logistical: establishing a liturgy schedule, determining a tithing budget, and incorporating distinctive prayer and spirituality practices. Others, however, concern church membership and communal belonging: How do we remain dedicated to both of our churches? When should we share our situation with our priests, pastors, and other church members? How should we respond to the inevitable awkwardness when our situation is revealed? These challenges propel us in constant motion, literally and figuratively, spending our weekends on the road between churches, navigating two paths of Christian devotion and discipleship that merge within our marriage.
Every married couple has a love story, and ours unfolded against the vibrant backdrop of ecclesial difference and Christian unity. We met while studying theology at an ecumenical divinity school, fully cognizant of our different faith backgrounds even as we were astounded to discover the shared role St. Anselm’s Proslogion had played in our particular faith journeys. We fell in love while pouring over pages of Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. Our relationship blossomed while praying rosaries, studying Romans, and arguing over the appropriate extent of papal authority. Our differences challenged both of us to express our beliefs with greater clarity and to live our faith with deeper intention. Our commonalities revealed a shared faith founded on partnership in Christ, our common center being his promise “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). Our love story, like other ecumenically-married Christians, offers a glimpse of the loving unity in joyful truth that is promised in the kingdom of God. But it doesn’t make the scheduling any easier or shield us from awkward glances during coffee hour.
The difficulties of our ecumenical vocation culminate every weekend as we participate in separate eucharistic celebrations. Since the communion in the sacrament of marriage is not coordinated with the communion in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we do not share a common table. We have been blessed to savor the joy of common worship, yet we encounter a painful weekly reminder of Christian disunity. But we do our best to bridge the divide. I make a point of laying hands in prayer upon my husband when I return from receiving Christ’s body and blood as an embodied reminder of the enduring promise of reunion. The gesture is insufficient, but it is my small way of remembering this particular assurance of Christ’s sacrificial love.
Moral theologian Jason King characterizes ecumenical marriage as the frontline of the ecumenical movement, uniting married people physically, interpersonally, socially, and theologically through love. Uniting as members of Christ’s family, our faith is lived on the borders between communities, creatively navigating the terrain between prayers, practices, and principles while we wait for the irruption of the Spirit that will heal our divisions.
While it is easy to think of Christian disunity in abstraction, ecumenical couples remember both the pain of separation and the joyful promise of reconciliation in the structures of daily life. And while we inhabit the pain of Christ’s divided body, we are among the first to arrive at the vigil of Christian unity, experiencing the first fruits of a new heaven and new earth where that which divides us will pass away.
Though I’m a member of a very welcoming parish in New York City and certainly count a number of other members of the LGBT community among my friends there, my strongest experience of spiritual community—and of healing—has been with a group I never expected to encounter: the parish’s second graders.
Several years ago, while I was already active as a lector and eucharistic minister, I felt I needed some deeper anchor, some greater commitment. I prayed about it, thought about it, forgot about it, prayed about it again, and ultimately decided to play dice with God: I promised God I would pursue whatever opportunity showed up in the Sunday bulletin. It was the very next Sunday there was a fairly desperate call for catechists. I answered the call and the following September found myself in a room full of 7-year-olds.
The primary focus of second grade, of course, is first communion, and there’s something about preparing for a major sacrament that automatically—even instantly—builds community. From the very first day and the very first time we prayed together, we knew that everything was leading to that Sunday in June when they would fully participate in the church’s central prayer, its most sacred ritual.
That knowledge gave our time together a special grace that drew us beyond the mere rigors of catechesis into mystery—the mystery of our union with Christ and the mystery of our union with each other. When Jesus said that whoever receives a child receives him, I suspect he was referring to the ability of children to love spontaneously, to trust the goodness in people, and to use that trust and love to perform miracles. For my part, sharing my faith—the most intimate part of my life—trying with all my heart to impart it to children has transformed me in a way I never could have imagined.
I was so struck by the change working as a catechist was effecting in me that I reread Silas Marner, a book I hadn’t approached since I first dragged myself through it in high school. And George Eliot had it right:
“In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.”
Working with my second graders, opening myself to their love and experiencing the joys and responsibility of love taught me more about communion—and community—than I could ever teach them. Last Father’s Day, a holiday I hadn’t really celebrated since my own father’s passing many years ago, I saw five or six of my kids in the communion line, and the tears in my eyes brought home the fact that I had indeed been guided by angels.
College was a blast. It’s not just the lack-of-responsibilities-tons-of-freedom equation that fosters the joy that is an undergraduate career, it’s also the fact you live close to—sometimes even with—all of your closest friends. These are the people you eat, do homework, work out, and hang out with.
The relationships I formed in college brought me closer to God. I began attending Mass because my friends reintroduced me to the Catholic Church—two of whom even stood with me as my sponsors when I was confirmed. Through their kindness and unconditional love I was able to see God reflected in them, something I hadn’t considered before attending a Jesuit university, where I was encouraged to seek God in all things. These people made it easy to do just that.
My college friends supported me through family troubles, depression, and loss. They reminded me through their actions that God is present even in the darkest times. It’s a rare gift when people come into your life, stay for the nitty-gritty, and, without even knowing it, support you spiritually and emotionally. Thanks to them, I also gained a spiritual community.
Postgrad life, however, has stripped this community from me and sprinkled it across the United States—from San Francisco to Detroit to New York City. I can no longer walk down the street, knock on an apartment door, and see one of my friends’ smiling faces. Sure, I can talk to these people at any time thanks to cellphones and Facebook, but it isn’t the same as getting to be with them every day or even every weekend.
Where is the community I worked so hard to foster over the last four years? Why do our jobs now suddenly take precedent and our romantic relationships always come first, even when our friends need us most?
Maybe it’s the adult world, and I’m just not accustomed to it. Change is tough, it tests us and, it seems, sometimes puts our relationships on hold. I am struggling with this. I am struggling to let go of the carefree friendships I had just a year ago, and I am struggling to find ways to form new ones.
My best friend and I have a saying we often use when we’re feeling down: “You can always help yourself.” It’s simple but effective. It means that if you want something to change, reach out and change it yourself. If you’re unhappy, do something to make yourself happy. We always have a choice.
So as I work on keeping the community I built over four years, I am also trying to help myself build a new one. I am fortunate enough to work in an environment with women who are like-minded and kind, but I recognize the need to reach beyond that. I may not have all of my friends nearby, but at the end of the day I still have the relationship they helped me build with God. Postgrad life certainly isn’t what I expected, but I am coming to find, each day, that more than one community can exist for a person. I just need to get out there and discover it.
I’ve spent half a century as a solo act. Turns out this is me: happy, solvent, and solitary. A good environment for a writer.
Among the agreeable aspects of ordering a table for one is making decisions without a lot of consultation. It’s meant the freedom to move around, which I do. I’ve lived on both coasts, in seven states, and in God knows how many cities. Each move involves finding a new parish home. That factor is among the handful of deal-breaker considerations attending each rental decision. When I zoom into town to look at apartments, I start by compiling a map with all the Catholic churches pinpointed. I circle neighborhoods with walkable churches and confine my searches to those. While in town I visit those churches, catch a Mass, peruse the bulletin, and try to get a feel for the community and its values. Wherever I go, the parish is home base, so it has to be a good fit.
A good fit doesn’t imply finding a church that hits all my sweet spots, however. I may not love the music program, or maybe parish resources are too humble to sponsor a lot of activity beyond liturgy. Small towns may have only one Catholic parish, leaving no room for negotiation. I worked at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for several seasons and was truly grateful that an elderly priest in Utah drove 70 miles south most Saturday nights to supply us with a Mass at all. I never appreciated Eucharist more than in a situation where it wasn’t guaranteed.
I’ve come to see church as a give-and-take situation. Sometimes a city full of bustling parishes meets all my preferences for challenging biblical preaching, amazing liturgies, and opportunities for ongoing adult faith formation. It can be hard to choose among them! (Sometimes I don’t and float between parishes instead.) In other contexts, the poverty of options means there are few goodies for me on-site, in which case the question changes. Years back a pastor of a California desert church invited me into his office as soon as I enrolled and asked bluntly: “What are you going to do for us?” I hadn’t considered parish life before in terms of what I bring to the table. I have ever since.
Having grown up in a devotional Catholic setting, I’ve wheeled 180 degrees from that in my personal quest. Communities focused on internal spirituality don’t draw me as much as those invested in the outward tasks of connecting, studying, and doing justice. But when I wind up in an assembly where contemplation is their thing, I consider it an invitation to go deeper for a time. Parish life isn’t a never-ending “Like” button. We grow as much from experiences that chafe as those that charm. Sometimes more.
For many people, certainly those of a younger age, the very definition of community is “friends to hang out with.” My own definition is broader. Because I’m in motion a lot, I’ve got enough meaningful relationships everywhere that I don’t need to discover a new nest of them where I happen to be living right now. I collect people of like mind and heart, and this “parish without walls” is my virtual spiritual home. We check in by email and at religious conferences; share Vatican news clips or books we’re reading or writing; discuss the burning issues; dream together of what the church can yet become. That larger conversation sustains me through years and miles and self-reinventions. Does this mean community is in the conversation? To a writer, words are the most authentic part of life.
Two years ago, I joined the Catholic Church. I’d separated from my wife and quit the Protestant ministry, losing 16 years of my life and a few friends along the way. On top of all that, I started a second career as an editor at Ave Maria Press, which required me to move six hours away from my children.
The loneliness I felt during that first year crushed me. I wish I could say my local parish helped, but it didn’t. There are great people there, and I really love my parish. But, I’m an oddity the church doesn’t know how to handle: a 42-year-old annulled Catholic male who goes to Mass by himself. Sometimes I feel like everyone is staring at me during the sign of the peace, reluctant to take my hand. It makes me wonder what they think about me.
Most of the church ministries are geared to families, youth, the elderly, and the sick. These are all good ministries, so I feel strange complaining about them. A friend suggested that I attend the young adult ministry. But I don’t even qualify for that group, as age 39 is the cut-off. I’d feel too much like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, trying to impress the younger generation with his football war stories.
One day I met a fellow writer, and we started to talk. We realized that we shared a passion for some of the older, stranger practices of the Catholic Church that no longer resonate with many baby boomer Catholics. It’s not that we are Latin Mass folks, but we share a desire to revisit some old-school Catholic practices.
So we decided to start a blog called Sick Pilgrim to share these conversations with the world. The blog exploded with popularity, forming an odd community of soccer moms who love obscure saints and Goths who say the rosary while smoking.
I love the online community we’ve created at Sick Pilgrim. They’ve become family and friends in the midst of my lonely world. It’s why I get annoyed with people who say “get off social media and engage with friends.” All my friends live out of state, and my virtual world is the only way I get to engage with them. When I do, they encourage me in my faith, and I hope I encourage them in theirs. I learn from their struggles, their questions, and their doubts. They give me a Catholic community that keeps me going back to my parish to look for Jesus, even though I haven’t found community there. Given the diverse nature of Catholic community, I’d say I found my ethereal tribe.
The last time I had a traditional faith community was many years ago. I was a student at Saint Michael’s College, part of the sprawling University of Toronto. My friends and I would attend Mass at the Newman Center, housed in a building off campus, whose chaplain was
considered a bit of a radical.
Our hymns were the songs of popular singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, whose lyrics mixed the sacred with the secular. We would receive the Eucharist under the auspices of both bread and wine and recite the “Protestant” version of the Lord’s Prayer, a change the church had not approved. We felt like revolutionaries: part of the Catholic Left, and soon to be the cutting edge of the new Catholicism. Like many boomer fantasies about the future, this one did not quite pan out.
Since then I have found community through a variety of strategies. When I used to attend Mass in my parish in the suburbs of conservative northern Virginia, I felt an intense loneliness. That has changed since I joined the parish choir.
I enjoy music, and the choir rehearsals give me the opportunity to get to know my fellow parishioners a little better. I’ve grown to admire the quiet heroism of some of my choir colleagues taking care of ailing parents, dealing with a spouse’s health crisis, or raising growing families.
But while I felt a sense of church in the choir, it was not enough. It was my sense of longing for community that drove me to write Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield). I was looking for women like me who struggle with Catholicism, trying to determine whether it’s possible to be both a practicing Catholic and a feminist. I learned much from the women I profiled. They were so generous with their time and their insights. They taught me many lessons.
One of the biggest was that community is not limited to the confines of a parish. As theologian Teresa Delgado put it, communities exist whenever people of good will work together to establish a just world “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Delgado taught me to value the community I experienced among the activists I worked with in Washington, D.C. We were employed by a number of environmental, consumer, social justice, civil rights, and labor groups. But we worked together in coalition to persuade Congress and the White House to enact laws and policies that help the poor and marginalized, protect public health and safety, and protect the planet.
I don’t think I ever knew which religious faith, if any, most of my colleagues held. It didn’t matter. We shared the same values. I have met whistleblowers who risked everything to warn that body armor protecting our troops was defective. I was privileged to work with a group of amazing consumer safety advocates who worked long hours to prod Congress to finally strengthen our laws, so fewer kids would die because of dangerous toys. I bonded with a union public safety activist who had spent her entire career trying to prevent construction workers from being exposed to silica dust, which once in the lungs can cause a painful death.
I believe our work and dedication was its own prayer. We may not ever have discussed God per se, but I think God was in the room when we shared our frustrations, mapped out our strategies, and celebrated our few but meaningful victories.
In an ideal world, I would like to attend weekly Mass and feel a deep sense of community. But I’ve come to realize that faith must be lived out in the world. And it is in the world that we will most likely find the community we seek.