Blessed John Henry Newman described what life in the public space of the parish required. Let me stress that he is not only talking about the Church as a mystical body but of the Church as you meet it in real people. It is the “rich public spaces where anyone can show up.”
“Socrates wished to improve man, but he laid no stress on their acting in concert to secure that improvement,” Newman observed in “An Internal Argument for Christianity.” For Christians, “Fellowship between His followers is made a distinct object and duty, because it is a means, according to the provisions of His system, by which in some special way they are brought near to Him.”
We will be called to judgment on our own, he wrote in the Grammar of Assent, but “among the media by which we are prepared for that judgement are the exertions and pains taken in our behalf by others.” By what he calls the “vicarious principle,” we all “suffer for each other, and gain by each other’s sufferings; for man never stands alone here. . . . Here he [man] is a social being, and goes forward to his long home as one of a large company.”
The parish is the primary place for living the vicarious principle, for gaining from and suffering for others. It is that in great part because it is where the Church gathers, but also in part because you don’t get to choose the people you join and most will fit no mold you’re comfortable with.
They are not only sinners — your best friends are sinners — they are sinners who don’t sin like you and whose sins may particularly annoy you, and yours them. They probably don’t care about the things you care about, and that may annoy both of you. They may be separated from you by class, race, ethnicity, education, taste, history, status in the parish, community, and almost every other possible human distinction. But they are yours to care about and live with anyway.
Let me give a practical example of the benefits. Even your email enemy is like you in caring about the issues you’re arguing about. Bring up one of the issues with the man working beside you at the parish work day and he may well give you a look of blank incomprehension.
He may be wrong not to care, which gives you one kind of challenge, or the issue may be one he is not called to care about, which gives you another, or it may be an issue neither of you is called to care about, which gives you a third. All present you the challenge of being his friend and not a jerk, of exercising real charity. Even if he should care about it, he offers you with the useful challenge of showing him why and you may find your answer from the apologetics books doesn’t work at all. He may see something you don’t or be wiser than you in all sorts of ways you will not be able even to guess until you talk. In all these cases, the attempt to practice charity will change you a little.
The serious Catholic’s main public space should not be the local pro-life group, the homeschool association, or ecumenical Bible study, or even overtly Catholic groups like the specialized fellowships with which the Catholic world abounds — much less a political party, trade association, social club, or other congenial secular enterprise. The serious Catholic would do well to join the guys in the Knights of Columbus and the people organizing the Lenten fish fry or the parish festival, or sing in the choir, or help people to their seats at Mass, or teach RCIA or CCD, and stop being so serious.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. This article was first published in Touchstone and is reprinted with permission of the author.