Recently I was asked to speak at a local Catholic women’s group. It had been awhile since I’d put on my speaking shoes, and I was genuinely excited. That is, until I was given my topic. Fellowship, they said. Fellowship? I couldn’t help but wince. Not suffering? Prayer? Family discord? Keeping the faith during crisis?? Nope, fellowship.
It was hard not to think about potlucks with slow cookers full of unrecognizable cuisine, or coffee and donut functions where one lucky greeter uncomfortably stands at the entrance of the parish hall while the attendees dine and dash. Or when a really progressive church asks the congregation to greet one another before Mass (gasp!) and people awkwardly start digging through their purses or suddenly find themselves absorbed in the missalette.
Without a doubt, a common theme among fallen-away Catholics who are now happily nestled in bustling Protestant communities is that they felt unwelcome at their parish because there was a lack of fellowship. So what is fellowship and why are we, as Catholics, so notoriously bad at it?
Fellowship, by its very definition, is merely a friendly association and the gathering of like-minded people. How is that so difficult? Yet the very concept brings disdain from some Catholics. In a group chat discussing this issue there was a common theme: We don’t need fellowship; we go to Mass for the Eucharist. One commenter even said, “The difference is that Protestants need people; we don’t need people, we have Jesus.”
Really? Catholics don’t need people? Yes, we do have Jesus in the Eucharist but it’s a fallacy to espouse a spirituality without community. We are the Church, and that in its very essence means we are a people. The concept of fellowship is essential to our journey as Christians; Jesus Christ himself taught us this.
In establishing the Church, Jesus made clear that we aren’t meant to navigate the Christian journey alone. That we need the love and support of like-minded people to help us to stay the course — in the good times and when the waters get rocky. Yes, I do attend Mass to receive Christ in the Eucharist, but that doesn’t mean my experience of Church should be limited to my moment of Communion.
Some years ago I was asked — several times — to attend a Catholic women’s Bible study. Eventually I ran out of excuses to avoid it and couldn’t keep dodging the invite. So I went. And though there were some women like me, some were very much not like me. Yet we were all united in our Catholic faith. Each of us wanted to live in the world but not of the world and we knew that we could not clear this great hurdle alone. We needed support.
Even though you would never find us at the same social functions, the members of this group banded together, trudging together through both mundane and shattering life events, even when the lessons of the study group were completed.
And I too soon learned why the Holy Spirit’s urging was relentless in placing me in the paths of these women at that time.
On a brilliant October morning, I was dropping my kids off at my mom’s as I always did. But that morning, I discovered Mom unresponsive in her bed. It was I who now benefited from the Bible-study fellowship. Even that very day, as I kept vigil at my mother’s bedside, a prayer chain started. And it didn’t end there. Paper plates and Pampers were delivered. Meals for weeks. And, knowing that I would return to a full time job within the week with no childcare, a friend stepped forward and offered to babysit my children. And she still does, three years later. Every fear I had was taken care of. And this community, this fellowship of Catholic women, carried me through one of the darkest moments of my life.
Perhaps the biggest mistake that we Catholics make, and one we will be judged for, no doubt, is our lack of reaching out to people in the pews on Sunday. The Church is a body of believers, and what kind of body are we if we are not mindful of our obligation and mission to ease each other’s sufferings and lead our brothers and sisters to experience Jesus Christ? In fact the Mass is more beautiful and exponentially more powerful when experienced in its full purpose: drawing spiritual strength from the Eucharist and temporal strength from the experience of standing united with others in our belief that Christ is present with us.
[Editor’s Note: Read More – Are you any good at fellowship?]