St. Paul makes it clear that Christian discipleship demands Christian community.
“Good preaching is like mortal sin: both require grave matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will—neither happens by accident.” It may be unseemly to quote myself (the previous sentence is taken from my book on preaching called, I Have Someone to Tell You), but I do so here to set up an analogy to facilitate our ongoing reflections on Christian community.
Christian community does not happen by accident—many deliberate choices are required to prepare for, initiate, and sustain it. Likewise, it requires “grave matter”—that is, Christian community is not a mere option or accessory, not a “nice-to-have”; it is a “must-have.” Similarly, Christian community requires “sufficient reflection”—by which I mean a clear understanding of what Christian community is and is not. It is not a social club or a self-help group; it is a fellowship of the baptized helping sinners like you and me to become saints.
As I write this, I recall Mark Twain’s quip about the weather: “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it.” Mere lip service in praise of community won’t do. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Catholics welcomed newcomers, sought out the lost and lonely, talked with each other after Mass and didn’t try to run each other over as they stampeded to get out of the parking lot on Sundays?” A conversation about Christian community that includes the words, “wouldn’t it be nice” is doomed to failure.
Let’s talk first about the “why” of Christian community, then about the “how” and finally, let’s talk about “what happens if we don’t.”
Christ told us to go out and make disciples. (Matthew 28:19-20) It’s irrational to think it’s sufficient to baptize disciples and then abandon them. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 speaks of Christians joined together as members of one body; St. Peter in 1 Peter 2 speaks of Christians brought together as “living stones” with Christ as the cap stone. Christian discipleship demands Christian community.
How do we make that happen? Let’s avoid the bureaucratic temptation to start a committee, a program, a task force, or the like. Let’s instead remember the S’s of “Simple, Scriptural and Sunday.” Get together with a small group for once a week, even for just an hour, to pray over the upcoming Sunday Scriptures. (There are many good Catholic scriptural commentaries available; the most recent edition of Benedictus Magazine or Magnificat Magazine can suffice.) Go to Mass together, then meet afterwards to discuss the homily and talk about what God is doing in your life these days. That’s it.
How do I know it can work? Because a group of friends and I met every Thursday night for six years and followed that three-step cycle; I left the group only when I joined the Society of Jesus. Along the way, we deepened our knowledge and love of Christ, the Mass, Scripture, and each other. We walked through the liturgical year—Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and beyond—year after year, and, over time, we could see where we had made progress and where we had lost ground as we struggled together to be disciples of Christ.
What happens if we don’t do this? As the proverb says, “If you only keep on doin’ what you’re doin’, you’ll keep on gettin’ what you’re gettin’.” Even before the COVID Interruption, we knew that the routine of “go to Mass unprepared, leave Mass unconvinced, live the week unconverted” just wasn’t working, even if we couldn’t name the problem, much less offer an alternative. In the past year, we’ve learned that Christian communities are indispensable for worthy worship, for the transmission of faith, and for gathering the natural and supernatural resources for performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. If we don’t do this together, it’s not likely to get done.
But it’s not enough to say just that. If we don’t do this—if we don’t strive honestly to take even simple steps to foster Christian fellowship—then our children will draw the proper conclusion, namely, that Christian discipleship doesn’t mean very much to us. That would be a terrible lesson to communicate to our children, even if unwittingly, and God will take note.
Once you’ve finished reading this, look up the readings for next Sunday’s Mass, make a list of three friends, and then start making phone calls. If you’re unwilling to do that, then I ask you to complete this sentence: “Christian fellowship is unnecessary for me because …”
When I write next, I will continue these reflections on Christian community. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.