Forming Neighborhood Faith Communities

Faith Communites

Faith Communites

The Current Situation We Face Can Seem Daunting

In his recent e-mail to subscribers, Fr. George Rutler of New York’s Church of St. Michael summed up the current state of affairs here in the U.S.:

Our federal government has intimidated religious orders and churches, challenging religious freedom. The institution of the family has been re-defined, and sexual identity has been Gnosticized to the point of mocking biology. Assisted suicide is spreading, abortions since 1973 have reached a total equal to the population of Italy, and sexually transmitted diseases are at a record high. Objective journalism has died, justice has been corrupted, racial bitterness ruins cities, entertainment is degraded, knowledge of the liberal arts spirals downwards, and authentically Catholic universities have all but vanished. A weak and confused foreign policy has encouraged aggressor nations and terrorism, while metastasized immigration is destroying remnant western cultures, and genocide is slaughtering Christian populations. The cynical promise of economic prosperity is mocked by the lowest rate of labor participation in forty years…

The picture Fr. Rutler paints is not pretty, but it certainly seems to be accurate. We truly are facing some formidable challenges in this secular world.

It Can Seem Futile

What can we do to help shore up and rebuild our Christian culture in this day and age? What can we do to try to turn things around and make a real and lasting difference wherever we live? When I think of these questions, I am reminded of a homily I heard during a weekday Mass at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, AL a couple of years ago. The priest recounted how he’d spent some time the previous weekend with a group praying for life and an end to abortion, on the sidewalk next to a busy street. As I recall, he spoke of how, at one point, he was thinking to himself about how little difference it all seemed to make in the grand scheme of things. He began to feel a sense of discouragement and asked himself what difference all of this would really make. People were driving down the street at a high rate of speed—no one even seemed to notice the group praying. It just felt futile. But then, he thought better of it. Father told us how he realized that it did, indeed, make a difference.

The group of dedicated Christian Catholics praying together and taking a stand for what’s right did make a difference. They made a difference and group prayer will always make a difference. Group prayer is powerful—Jesus tells us, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” When it comes to prayer, the more the merrier. Of course, the message we send by the public witness of our faith makes a huge difference as well. In reality, it is not at all futile, although at times it may seem to be.

It Can Seem Unavoidable

A sense of foreboding can come as a result of our daily consumption of news sound bites and headlines from major media sources. On top of this, with all of the e-mail forwards, online magazine articles and blogs available today, even more “news” outside of what the media covers travels quickly. This can be both good and bad. On the one hand, it’s great to be able to stay updated on current trends and news. On the other hand, much of this real-time information is negative, or “bad news.” As a continual dietary staple, this bad news is pretty difficult to digest.

Consider that several bloggers are forecasting, from a spiritual perspective, some difficult times ahead, not the least of which might be some form of “chastisement” to open up the eyes of a human race bent on self-destruction. As I noted in a previous essay, a variety of secular trends are looking none too shiny as well—prospects of continued global military conflict, economic collapse and the like. One doesn’t need to emulate Chicken Little (“The sky is falling!”) to get a sense that something big may be coming. To many, some sort of come-uppance—some critical period that will try our souls—seems increasingly likely and unavoidable.

It Can Seem Unbelievable

Looking first at secular trends, many of those hawking investments tell us that another depression or recession really is not in the cards. “The market has its ups and downs and any ‘adjustments’ will be tolerable. Besides, some of the big companies that are on the ropes right now are too big to fail. Anyway, ‘they’ (the government, or some agency or someone else) wouldn’t let that happen. This isn’t 1929, you know.” Yet, many economic indicators point to some serious, impending financial problems.

In the same vein, many believe that, although the recent rash of violence against law enforcement personnel is terrible, it is not anything but isolated incidents. The same seems to be true for lone wolf attacks on innocent civilians in public places. These, they say, are all just part of the current culture and the fault of a few bad actors. On the other hand, some believe that the very real possibility of civil unrest on a grand scale exists in this country at this time. It really is not too much of a stretch to look at these types of incidents within the context of our current culture and see how wide-scale civil unrest could occur, especially given the post-election protests. Yes, I know that this sounds like more doomsday predictions, but many who are smarter and more educated than I are suggesting that the times ahead will be a challenge.

What Can We Do?

The “Benedict Option” made famous by Rod Dreher has received a lot of attention. Contrary to what it sounds like, it does not mean that we should all go to the hills and hole up in caves, as wannabe anchorites. It is not a call for many new, American “Subiacos.” Writing in his blog, Dreher says:

…it is incredibly difficult to grow in your faith without being embedded in a strong community of men and women committed to the same vision — and to growing and deepening into that vision, together, on the pilgrim’s journey of our life…the currents of the popular culture today are so strong, and so opposed to orthodox Christianity, that, broadly speaking, in order to hold your own, you have to ground yourself strongly in an adversarial stance to the broader culture. To live as an ordinary orthodox Christian will increasingly be seen by mainstream culture as an act of intolerable aggression. If you’re going to withstand the pressure to conform, you need to be rooted in a community that knows what it believes and why it believes it, and that is prepared to resist joyfully.

In the Washington, DC area, Leah Libresco, a young Catholic convert has taken to hosting gatherings of other, like-minded young Christians to share their faith. She tells us, “So far, in my own life, that’s been a matter of inviting people to movie/discussion nights…suggesting we pray Night Office together at the end of events or on walks home from pubs, and holding discussion groups like the one this weekend on the Benedict Option.”

We Can Create Stronger Communities

I think that people like Dreher and Libresco are on to something here. First, we need to begin by strengthening the ecclesia domestica—the domestic church in our homes. Finding ways to share the faith and help one another grow in the faith within our families should be a priority. Of course, in many Catholic families, one or more members has drifted from the Church. We can pray for lapsed Catholics to come home and live our faith in a way that shows the fire of Christ’s merciful love. That just might get them back into the fold. In some cases, that may be all we can do, but we should not underestimate the salutary effects of doing so.

Also, we need to create gatherings of other like-minded people to share their faith in practical ways—to build up the church and its members—if we hope to begin to change the culture. Of course, some of this community-building goes on in our local parishes. However, given the size of some parishes (mine claims an official registration of about 2,400 families), it’s difficult to do a lot of face-to-face relationship building and community building, especially for newcomers.

We used to have a supper club at our parish that was useful to make some new acquaintances within the parish. It consisted of four couples who met once a month for dinner for a few months. It was useful and enjoyable while it lasted. The conversations were pleasant, but had little to do with praying, other than the blessing before the meal. The discussions rarely focused on the faith and related issues.

What we need in these times is something far more robust—something that allows neighbors to get together to provide more one-on-one support for each other. Perhaps it might involve monthly potluck dinners and prayers, or monthly prayer sessions. The group could meet at a designated home or members could take turns hosting the meetings. The neighborhood group might provide not only spiritual support but also other practical support for the needs of the members.

I suspect that groups like this already exist in some cities and towns. We’ve been invited to prayer group meetings with broader attendance than merely from a neighborhood in our new community where we now live. It seems that, given what we’re facing as a nation and as Catholics, it would be good to develop stronger bonds with one another, to provide mutual support to one another through local neighborhood prayer groups as well. There is spiritual strength in numbers. Now, more than ever, we need to support one another.

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4 thoughts on “Forming Neighborhood Faith Communities”

  1. Every neighborhood used to have its own “faith community”. It was called “the parish”. Parishes used to sponsor all kinds of social events where children could see the example of their parents and grandparents volunteering for the greater good. Where children could mingle and perhaps interact with the opposite sex for the first time, in a supervised Catholic setting. How many of the older readers of this article learned how to date, or maybe even met their spouse, at a parish event or with the gentle nudging of their parish community.

    But in my experience, that kind of parish life died about two generations ago. I insist that this is one reason that the Catholic marriage rate is now almost zero. It’s why so many young people have left the Faith. And it’s why the singles that remain, have no idea how to identify other singles for potential dating and marriage.

    You’re proposing that, instead of resurrecting parish life and all the good that came from it, you’d rather barricade yourselves inside your homes chanting “woe is us” with other like-minded people? Exactly HOW is that helpful?

    1. Larry, thank you for your comments. You make some interesting observations. One thing to keep in mind is that, in the piece I wrote I mentioned that the size of my modern parish is nominally 2,400 families. There are five Masses on Sundays, with little time for socialization in between them, even if very many were to hang around afterwards, which few do. Outside of Mass, it actually is a pretty active parish–during any evening throughout the week, it may not be possible to find an open room for some ad hoc gathering, and there are a variety of workshops, classes, etc. during the days and evenings for people to take advantage of. As well, there are a variety of social events where families participate routinely and some parishioners volunteer more or less frequently. All that being said, it’s not what you’d think of as a neighborhood parish from a a generation or two ago–it serves a growing community which is a bedroom community between two larger cities. The demographics of the community make it different from an old time neighborhood.

      The neighborhood prayer groups concept would not be a replacement for parish life. In the experience of a Catholic friend of mine who came from an evangelical background, small groups, neighborhood groups, etc., actually seemed to strengthen the larger community by creating more and deeper contacts and relationships within the larger community, or what we in the Catholic Church would refer to as the parish. If it works for them, why not for us?

      I’d like to address your your point about chanting “woe is us.” Not sure if it was meant as humor or sarcasm (that’s the problem with comm boxes, e-mail and texting), but maintaining a connection with other like-minded individuals to strengthen each other in their faith, to pray together, to give thanks for the blessings they’ve received (which include things that we may not immediately consider to be blessings) and to explore Scripture and the Church’s teachings is not chanting “woe is us.” It’s a chance to bring some joy to bear in one another’s lives, and I think everyone can benefit from more of that, but then that’s just my two-bits.

    2. Dom, you’re the one siding with those who predict global collapse and various kinds of doomsdays. Not me. Isolating yourself with those of like mind is not good for you. You need a more balanced perspective. But that’s just my opinion.

      Back to the main point – the parishes in my area are perhaps double the size that you mentioned. The activities that exist are cliquish in nature, segregated by age or by a special interest. And none of them sponsor the kinds of “community” events that we all remember from days of yore.

    3. I appreciate your suggestion about getting a more balanced perspective–good point. When I referred to like-minded people, I was thinking more of spiritually-oriented, faithful folks, but I can see how it looks like I was saying something else. Thanks again.

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