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Religious Privatization and the Need for Community

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 14, 2005

One of the greatest challenges to the life of Faith in the modern world is the privatization of religion. This privatization consists chiefly in the elimination of religion’s naturally communitarian character. It makes each of us a voice crying in the wilderness, thereby removing cultural support for the Christian life. For this reason, one of our most important goals must be the restoration of community.

Communal Signs

In a truly Catholic community, the Faith is reflected not just in the Church but throughout the social order. Some of this comes through the hierarchy of the Church, as when the local pastor leads a Eucharistic procession through the streets, or when a bishop publicly calls a politician to account. Some of it comes from lay leaders, as when an employer makes a holiday of a Holy Day or when a public event begins with a few moments of prayer.

Other manifestations of Faith occur when groups of workers punctuate their day with prayer or families and friends celebrate special feasts. Corporate acts of charity also bear powerful witness, as when a group undertakes both to assist someone in need and to incorporate them into the group at the same time. All of these, and many more, are communal signs of a vibrant faith, signs which at once transform the larger social order and support individual growth in spirituality and virtue.

Loss of Identity

Over the past several generations, nearly everything has conspired to demolish the sense of community and identity among Catholics. Small communities that may have once occupied a few city blocks organized around a church have long since been eaten away by upward mobility and an unflagging desire to enjoy more of the “American dream”. Along the same lines, the rapid secularization of Western culture in the prosperity that followed World War II has profoundly altered mainstream and media-generated values.

Within the Church, the crisis of Faith among intellectuals, including priests and religious, has led to a generation of horrendous preaching, sometimes heretical, often merely vapid. A weak and obviously bewildered episcopate has irresolutely faced the crisis by abandoning not only discipline but distinctive Catholic practices such as fasting, abstinence, and Holy Days, while confused clergy have discouraged popular devotions and permitted endless tinkering with that focal point of Catholic unity, the Sacred Liturgy.

These examples are a but a brief portion of a very long list. The point is that by now few people have a clear sense of their own personal and social identity as Catholics. It follows that they have almost no idea of how they can begin to reconstruct their identity, including the sense of community which does so much to form it.

The Desperate Need for Community

For those with little sense of the Faith, community is very nearly a sine qua non of conversion. But even for those both aware and strong enough to maintain a Catholic identity, the privatization of religion has been very damaging. While it is true that individual clergy, religious and laity have sometimes learned to live the universal call to holiness more or less on their own, their wounds are legion. They are frequently regarded as odd and are repeatedly betrayed. They face constant temptations to suspicion and self-righteousness. They are extremely susceptible to an imbalance in both their appreciation and practice of the Faith, arising from excessive attachment to one or two undirected and untempered ideas. Indeed, too often they lack the context of the Catholic whole.

The question is how to form nascent communities which will enrich the committed and extend their commitment to others. I am not thinking here primarily of prayer groups or formation programs of various kinds which bring people together only for the purpose of nourishing their faith without any natural association in other areas of life. Such groups are important but they are not in any significant sense natural communities, and they generally do not provide a foundation for corporate action, though they will undoubtedly equip individuals to help build natural communities elsewhere.

Where to Start

For such natural communities, four possibilities come to mind:

  1. The Parish: The parish is first and foremost a supernatural community falling beyond this discussion. But through its spiritual activities, the parish also forms a community with the potential to be a Christian center for natural concerns and aspirations. Certainly the parish remains the only place where the most isolated of Catholics can bond with others who share their Faith. Rather than looking for ever-greater opportunities to play special liturgical roles, however, it is necessary for lay people to be lay people, striving to address not only catechesis and evangelization but cultural, social, economic and political life, reaching out to others, and making an impact beyond Church property.
  2. The School: It is not uncommon for natural communities to grow up around outstanding Catholic schools, precisely because these schools draw significant numbers of well-formed, serious Catholics to live in the same region, sometimes even in the same neighborhood. So much of American life revolves around the school, and so many people are willing to relocate and change various aspects of family and social life to suit the demands of a valued school, that school families can bond together not only academically but socially and economically as well, sometimes with astonishing results.
  3. The Workplace: Catholic businessmen can create true natural communities organized around the work they provide, simply by hiring a preponderance of Catholics and providing adequate compensation, a moral environment, opportunities for daily prayer, Catholic holidays, and encouragement of family networking and common projects. Employers are not priests, however. They should support, encourage and give good example, not dictate spirituality.
  4. The Home: No discussion of community is complete without mentioning the unique role the home can and must play in the formation of new and larger communities. Developing a communal Catholic life within the household is obviously the first step. But each household of one or more Catholics can also practice the virtue of hospitality to great advantage. Welcoming like-minded friends into the home provides opportunities for wholesome recreation, uplifting discussion and even shared devotions, all of which build a sense of community (and of identity) which transcends the home itself. In addition to friends, welcoming neighbors and associates into this environment is often the first step in extending the community to those not already aware of its benefits.

Christian Community Life

It is no idle proverb that in unity there is strength. The project of bearing public witness to the Faith and so beginning to transform the social order, which is so singularly difficult on one’s own, becomes immediately and dramatically easier in groups. Not only is there immense mutual support within such a community, which allows everyone to relax and use energy more effectively, but the diverse gifts and talents make every project easier. More to the point here, these initial communities quickly become natural embodiments of the Faith. They create the first opportunities for public manifestations of Catholicism to become the norm.

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