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How Christ makes us friends (and it’s not by being all friendly at Mass)

GROUP OF VOLUNTEERS
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You can't force fellowship. No one feels welcomed or included because people had to shake his hand.

Before he began the Mass, the priest said something about fellowship I didn’t catch. He had white-hair, and told us he was 75 and retired and just filling in for the pastor. We were away last weekend and visiting a church not our own. He told us to welcome the people around us and (I’m quoting from memory) “Ask them to tell you something about themselves!”

What followed, of course, was simply a bad imitation of the Peace. No one started a conversation, because you’re not at Mass to talk and you know you don’t have time, whatever the priest said. Everyone around me smiled, but some looked sheepish and some made the exchange as perfunctory as possible. No one asked me to tell them something about myself.

The whole thing was pointless. No one feels welcomed or included because people had to shake his hand. No one is going to introduce himself to someone after Mass because he had to be nice to him at the beginning of Mass.

Awkward, contrived displays

I bring this up not to rant about it, but because it illustrates something about the way church communities really work. And to be fair to the visiting priest, he celebrated the rest of the Mass reverently. He gave us a very good homily that looked into the readings more deeply than I’ve heard a priest do in a long time. After that burst of forced extroversion at the beginning, the Mass went on in a way that would satisfy almost everyone.

I told the story on Facebook. One friend complained about these “awkward, contrived displays of public sentiment” in church. It felt like that to me too. It’s not real. It feels fake. The priest meant well, but you can’t force fellowship. You can’t invent a committed community by contriving chances for people to act all warm and friendly. You can only create the conditions under which it develops.

Many priests don’t seem to understand that. They try to force people to be friendly at Mass. They try to make Mass more like a rally. They try to whip up enthusiasm for “community” and push special events to “bring people together.”

Real fellowship begins in a communal action. Friendship and care grow naturally as you do something together. You learn to look at each other after you join together to look at something else — and because you joined together to look at something else. Friendship and care grow naturally, especially if you work at the Christian virtues like turning the other cheek and going the second mile, because people are people. (See Matthew 5:39-42, part of Jesus’s follow-up instructions to the Beatitudes.)

You can’t aim at fellowship. You have to aim at something else and get fellowship in the bargain. The people who had to be all friendly at the beginning of Mass? They leave the church strangers. The guys who joined the Knights of Columbus and raised money for the crisis pregnancy center after Mass one Sunday? They became friends. Maybe not close friends (yet), but friends.

If a priest wants to encourage his people to form a more intentional community in his parish, he ought to tell the men to join the Knights, push the different ministries in the parish, get more people to come to midweek Mass. He also ought to urge them into the confessional, because people who have to face their sins can learn to love other sinners they wouldn’t speak to without it.

The shared actions

Real fellowship starts at Mass. It shouldn’t end there, but it must start there. The Mass creates any other fellowship we have in the Church. That’s true theologically, but here I mean practically.

At Mass, you set yourself off from the world and throw in your lot with people you wouldn’t know otherwise. You throw in your lot with people you wouldn’t want to know if you had a choice. There you all are, week after week, or even day after day, doing something odd yet miraculous. You’ve all oriented your life to this act.

It’s not magic. You’re all still sinners. You may not like each other, you may actively dislike each other — and, let’s be honest, sometimes for good reasons. But you know you’re tied together in a way you’re not tied to those outside the Church. Going to Mass makes you part of a club.

Because you’re doing something the world thinks very odd. You and the people with you Mass believe that wafer the priest’s holding created the universe and saves you from Hell. You all believe one transformative truth, and that radical belief distinguishes you all from everyone else. When you all come to meet Jesus himself, you begin to see each other as brothers and sisters, as part of a family separate, though with a mission to, the family of the world.

One implication

This idea of the source of real fellowship has one implication for many of us. We need to throw ourselves into the lives of our parishes in a way we don’t, or haven’t. I plead guilty to this. I tell myself I have a work of my own, writing, editing, and speaking. That’s what I do for the Church. That’s true.

Sort of. I’d be a better Catholic and a better man if I did more for the local church to which I belong. At St. Joseph’s are people I need to meet, and friends I should make.

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