Sunday, January 15, 2012
Groups and Church Communion
Our Catholic schools sponsored a fundraising dinner last night for the Imagine Project, an exciting effort to provide a community center at Sacred Heart Parish in one of Vancouver's poorest neighbourhoods.
They auctioned off the usual items: dinner for two at a fancy restaurant, a pair of Canucks tickets, a weekend for two at downtown hotel.
But imagine if they'd offered a dinner for one. Or one ticket to a hockey game. Or a weekend getaway for one.
No-one would have bid anything, except perhaps for a few hard-pressed mothers, who might have paid big money to stay alone at the hotel. But generally, we don't do many things by ourselves.
Have you ever wondered why that is? I still can't figure out why I can't go to a movie by myself; after all, you don't talk to anyone during the film—at least you shouldn't!—and conversation afterwards isn't usually the point.
The answer is actually quite simple: we are social beings. You can't understand people without realizing that. And that's just as true when it comes to the Church. Many aspects of her life and mission are tied to the social nature of her members.
That simple fact is the natural basis of what I want to talk about this morning. The supernatural side of the story is the word "communion." It has many meanings, the first of which has a capital C: we speak of "going to Communion," when we receive the Eucharist.
Today I'm using communion with a small C, because the word also refers to the community life in the Body of Christ that is the effect of the Eucharist*; it even refers to the nature of the Church itself—the Catechism says the Church is a communion (n. 688).
So there's our starting point: the members of the Church are people, who are social by nature; and the Church by nature is a communion of people in communion with one another and in communion with God.
From that starting point, Blessed John Paul drew a conclusion of enormous importance to the Church and to our own parish. In his letter on the life and mission of the laity, he wrote: "Church communion, already present and at work in the activities of the individual, finds its specific expression in the lay faithful's working together in groups…"
Think about what this means! Somehow, when groups participate in the Church's life and mission, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If a group of ten people visit the sick, something happens beyond what happens if ten people each decide to visit the sick.
That "something" is simply this: the group becomes a sign of communion. All the good done by each individual is present, but added to it there's what Pope John Paul called a "cultural" effect: the group becomes a sign of unity and community to a fractured world.
Groups, associations and movements in the Church are not only a result of the social nature of the person, but also a way of building community in the Church and in our individualistic world.
This doesn't take anything away from the enormous good that's done by individuals. Every time a single parishioner visits someone in hospital, or drives an elderly person to Mass, he or she participates in the Church's mission of charity. When one man or woman asks someone to Alpha, or shares the faith in another way, they carry on the Church's mission of spreading the Gospel.
What the late Pope is saying is simply that something specific and valuable comes when such things are done by groups or associations: namely, Church communion is expressed. Something central to the nature of the Church can be seen clearly.
Like so much that came from the brilliant mind of Blessed John Paul, these concepts—which might sound a bit abstract—have very practical consequences for us. In two words: groups matter. They matter to the Church, which needs them not only to promote its mission but to strengthen and manifest its communion. They matter to each Christian, since, as John Paul has written, belonging to a group can be a big help in remaining faithful to the demands of the Gospel and our commitment to the Church's mission.
And what he is saying matters very much to our parish, because whatever is true about individuals and whatever is true about the Church is, of course, true about the parish of Christ the Redeemer and its members.
Groups matter to our parish. It can neither be what it's called to be, or do what it's called to do, without groups and associations.
In concrete terms, this means a strong parish needs strong groups. It also means that we must fight the temptation of avoiding groups because we'd rather do good on our own time, in our way. It means that meetings are important even if no-one, myself included, likes going to them.
It means that we must support the groups that have traditionally been the backbone of Canadian Catholic life: the Catholic Women's League, the Knights of Columbus, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
It means also that we must be open to the new groups and movements that Pope John Paul identifies as part of a "new era of group endeavours." These include various and very different group forms, including organized new movements like Focolare or the Neo-Catechumenal Way, less formal groups promoting the Catholic charismatic renewal, or the prelature of Opus Dei.
And it means that the parish should encourage the formation of small groups to carry on various activities under its umbrella.
Today I want to focus on "the big three": the Catholic Women's League, the Knights of Columbus, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Today's society makes life difficult for all such voluntary organizations, whether they are Catholic or not: even the Masons have trouble recruiting nowadays, and I noticed in the paper the closing of a branch of the Canadian Legion. People are busier and busier, and more and more tired at the end of the day. Social ties among Catholics are weaker, and it becomes an uphill battle to find members and especially leaders for parish groups.
But there are compelling reasons why we must fight these trends. I've given you many of them already. Let me add two more: first, some good work can only be accomplished by groups. No individual parishioner should try caroling at a nursing home—at least not unless he or she has a wonderful voice and an ego to match.
And second, groups keep us moving. My Mom exercised for years with a group she called the pool ladies, who met regularly at a local swimming pool. Now that she's moved here, she has discovered her apartment building has its own "pool ladies," and she exercises with them.
I'm not doubting my mother's self-discipline, but it's hard to imagine she would have been so faithful to her exercises without the group.
The CWL, K of C, and SVDP have been part of the Church for so long that we recognize them by initials alone. Still, we may not recognize all that they do: in the parish, they are three pillars supporting much of what we do, and you know about that from the bulletin and your own experience. But all three also do tremendous work outside the parish: the K of C is one of the strongest supporters of the Church internationally, the CWL advocates for social justice and civil rights nationally, and the SVDP does extensive charitable work throughout the Archdiocese, notably in the downtown east side.
Attending a meeting may not be exciting, but it's fair to say "no meetings, no mission."
After Mass today, you will find members of "the big three" in the foyer asking you to join them. Please give their invitation some serious thought if you'd like to get more serious about living your faith and sharing in the Church's communion and mission.
And if you already belong, I hope that you might give some thought to saying "yes" when you're invited to leadership. Nowadays it's even harder to get leaders than members.
One final thought: As with every other act of stewardship, you're very likely to find that you receive more than you give. In his powerful little booklet called Is Real Change Possible?, Peter Herbeck writes that "One reason why many Christians don't experience the power to change is that they are living in isolation. The Christian life was not meant to be lived alone. Christianity is a communion of passionate lovers, of people whose hearts are together set on God."
* See L. Bouyer, Dictionary of Theology (1965) 91.