“Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said: ‘Holy Father, I pray not only for these, but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
Have you ever heard of the word “ubuntu”? It is an ancient African word meaning “I am what I am because of who we all are”.
In a way, we become who we are because of the company we keep and the values that we learn.
If we keep in the company of God-loving people, we most likely will become God-loving.
If we hang out with those who bring us away from Christ, we will most likely stay away from Christ and probably bring others away too.
In the Gospel, Jesus’ prayer for us is to be one in Him and our Heavenly Father, the question is; do I desire for that same union? Who do I want to become?
In Matthew’s Gospel (5:20-26), Jesus urges us to seek true resolution and reconciliation in our anger, always maintaining a spirit of brotherhood toward others and not allowing that anger to fester. Sometimes we read this passage and think it means we’re supposed to be completely at peace all the time, never having an ounce of irritation toward anyone. But really, the spirit of brotherhood that Jesus talks about means acknowledging and working through our anger, not bottling it up or pretending it doesn’t exist. We can’t resolve our anger if we don’t allow ourselves to feel it—the only thing we’ll achieve by ignoring it is to let resentment build quietly within us. And we also can’t hold too tightly to our anger and our pride if we are going to be able to forgive someone who has hurt us. We can look to Jesus’s own example in the Gospels of how we are to respond to anger: acknowledging the issue and acting upon it, while never nursing our anger or holding a grudge.
Anger, fear, sorrow, and frustration are natural human emotions, signs not of weakness but of a need for action within our relationships—both our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. Personal connection and reconciliation are what will initiate healing and peace within us. If we truly care about another person, we will desire to truly mend our relationship with them, not just hide the cracks in its foundation. And if we care about our own hearts, we will want to be freed from the burden of our own hostility. We are meant to be in community with one another, just as we are meant to be in communion with God—and if we neglect our human relationships, then our relationship with God will suffer. This is why Jesus urges His disciples:
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Image: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Rage of Achilles / PD-US
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 326/330 – 390), nicknamed since antiquity as ‘The Theologian’, was a fourth-century bishop, born in the rural setting of modern-day central Turkey. He is venerated as a Father of the Church, and is one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with Ss. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa.
Gregory fought strenuously for spiritual orthodoxy, particular in relation to a doctrinal understanding of the Trinity, championing the Nicene perspective, and developing a unique Trinitarian language. He viewed the Nicene stance as a midday between the heretical extremes of Sabellianism and Arianism.[i]
Classically trained in rhetoric and philosophy, he is responsible for transposing Hellenism into the Early Church. In fact, “Gregory’s literary ability was regarded so highly by the learned connoisseurs of Byzantium that they ranked him with the great stylists of classical poetry and prose.” [ii] For example, Psellos (c. 1017 – 1028) describes Gregory’s style in glowing terms as embodying the gifts of figures such as Demosthenes, Pericles, Lysias and Herodotus, whilst outranking them, in wit, persuasive power, beauty and skill.[iii] He was even well regarded by Renaissance humanists for his literary prowess.[iv]
Gregory has left the Church with a large corpus of written works: letters, poems and orations. It is through his orations—speeches delivered in homilies and sermons, and polished and edited in his later life—that he has extended his greatest influence, both theologically and literarily.
Among his 44 orations is Oration 42—a Farewell Address; a kind of apologia directed at his flock at Constantinople upon his resignation. A resignation made for the purpose of quelling the dissensions and controversy surrounding his Canonically awry position in Constantinople. He thus stepped aside, to keep the peace.
The audience included the 150 bishops of the Eastern Church gathered for the First Council of Constantinople (381), and various rivals low and high. It is also addressed to the Nicaean faction in general. He is defending accusations against his style of ministry in Constantinople, whilst raising the banner of his Trinitarian faith. He says his farewells with a mix of sadness, joy, and satire, and leaves by throwing a few preacher-punches at the “great and Christ-loving city!” a descriptive term he calls unenlightened, while at the same time it is expressive of his hope of what could be.[v] Still, the tenderness of his delivery is undeniable—in Gregory is a pastor who loved his people.
The Cult of Numbers
The portion of this Oration I’d like to draw attention to is section 7, where Gregory alludes to a worldly, economic kind of religious way of thinking, that can be described as the cult of numbers. This can simply be understood to be a measuring of spiritual success and fruitfulness in Christian communities, based solely on numbers—on the population of a group in the Church or the Church as a whole. It is an outlook that focuses on the external of quantity, to the exclusion and neglect of the quality of such members. A quality defined by sound spirituality and doctrine, manifesting in holiness and love.
The Context of His Farewell
In the context of his Farewell Oration, he speaks to a church where the Nicene community has recently regained power from the Anti-Nicene’s; finally having the support of imperial policy on its side. It is “a people now grown from small to great, from scattered to well-knit, from a pitiable even to an enviable state”—and Gregory testifies to this increase as the work of God, the rich harvest won through his ministry with the support of his companions.[vi] Yet he does not praise the increase in numbers as the real reason to rejoice, but the increase in this people’s quality: a people who soundly “worship the Trinity”.[vii]
Gregory—God and Numbers
In the following extract Gregory shares what he thought he “heard God saying” (Or 42:8) in those days when the faithful adherents of the Trinity in Constantinople were a mere remnant, “tiny and poor” (Or 42:4), vastly outweighed by those who “wickedly divided” the Godhead in their false doctrines: many of whom, brought from darkness to light, falsehood to truth, now stand before Gregory as he speaks.
“But you build walls around me, and marble slabs and mosaic floors, long colonnades and porticoes; you glitter and shine with gold, spending it like water and gathering it up like sand, forgetting that faith camping in the open is worth more than the richest impiety, and that three-people gathered in the name of the Lord are worth more to God than tens of thousands who deny the divinity. Do you value the Canaanites more than Abraham, all by himself? Or the Sodomites more than Lot on his own? Or the Midianites more than Moses—though all of these were aliens and strangers? What of the three hundred of Gideon, who manfully lapped up the water, while thousands were rejected? What of Abraham’s household slaves, a few more than these in number, who pursued and defeated many kings and their armies of thousands of men, few though they were? And how do you understand this passage: ‘If the number of the children of Israel should become as the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved?’ Or this: ‘I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bent their knees to Baal.’ No this is not the solution—God does not delight in numbers![viii]
The Approach of a Spiritual Man
Gregory understood this Scripturally-derived lesson of God so very clearly. His understanding was applied in the way he went about his ministry. Faced with a tiny remnant Gregory did not conjure up systematic methods to increase his flock, with the mind of an accountant and tact of an administrator. Nor did he subject himself to human standards at the compromise of the Gospel message to gain sympathizers (Or 42:19). Nor did he play politics, to win members to his flock—siding with one faction against another, but he simply delineated between truth and falsehood, paying no regard to human groupings. And nor did he lord his authority over the Anti-Nicene’s in order to crush them, and consolidate the numbers of his Nicene-flock, when the tables turned in his camps’ favor, but rather he acted mercifully, to the point of being blamed for leniency by his very own.
For St. Gregory was a spiritual man, who saw things with a spiritual eye. Seeing success in the quality of his people, not in their numbers; to the point he even lost favor with much of his own due to his steadfastness to the Gospel of mercy. He knew what was at stake — “the salvation of the soul”— and saw his pastoral responsibility with a sharpness of vision: “to guard and protect his flock” but above all “by distributing the word” in teaching, example and the sacraments, which he calls “the first of our tasks” (Or 2:35).[ix]
In one of his poems he defends his Word-focused approach as a Bishop; an approach carried out from the motive of saving souls, not to increasing numbers for the sake of numbers:
You’ve been considering a bishop as you would an accountant, laying stress on mere rubbish, where I’ve been concerned with important issues. A priest should have one function and one only, the sanctification of souls by his life and teaching… Other matters he should relinquish to those skilled in them.[x]
Learning from Gregory
There is so much we can learn from St. Gregory on the cult of numbers. The lesson he understood so well, is perennially relevant to the Church in all its spheres: on the universal scale, the local parish scale, on the level of the religious community, and even to the microcosm of every youth, bible study or prayer group. The value of all of these is not weighed by the numbers of attendants or alleged adherents, but on the quality of the interior fruits of sound spirituality and doctrine, brought forth as the harvest of the Word; nourishing the real spiritual growth of its members, shown to be authentic by a visible and practical love.
It is easy for groups to become ‘accountant-minded’ and focus on numbers as the measure of spiritual success. Acting in ministry from the motive to “increase numbers,” and investing efforts to win “bums in seats.” Yet by focusing on numbers, we lose our focus of love—depersonalising the face of ‘the other’ into a mere number, thus losing sight of the face of Christ in our neighbour; and this is all a consequence of chasing after numbers instead of a deepened relationship with the Word and the lived proclamation of His Truth—a proclamation that reaches out to ‘the other’ as the image of God, not as the means to bump up a statistic.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus shows us that we need not focus on numbers, for “God does not delight in numbers!” but we need only focus on God the Trinity, seeking to increase the quality of the “tiny and poor” remnant in our midst—above all by seeking the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ourselves (in prayer, instruction and the sacraments); and this labour will be blessed by God who in time, will bring forth an increase far greater in quality and quantity, than we could ever achieve by our quest for greater numbers.
God did so in Constantinople in the fourth-century A.D., and He can do so again in our day; so long as we see like Gregory that our strength lies not in numbers, but in our God, and the unconditional Love He has for us (Ps 28:7). That Love of the Father for the Son, the Love who is the Holy Spirit—and increasing in this Love, which always reaches out, and not in numbers, must be our sole and only focus.
[i] Brian E. Daley, S.J., Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2006), Oration 42:16, pp. 147-148.
Since watching Touch, my boyfriend has had a habit of reading number plates and, now that he’s Catholic, relating them to the faith. One day he was riding a bus when he noticed “MAS” on a car, and chuckled to himself, seeing it as a reminder to go to Mass. His seatmate asked what he was chuckling about, and after he explained, a little old lady piped up.
“Are you Catholic?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“This is for you,” she smiled, handing him a laminated cruciform prayer card.
The Orthodox in the Holy Land
While I was on a Lenten pilgrimage in the Holy Land early this year, my parish group stayed at the Saint Gabriel Hotel in Bethlehem. It was my childhood dream to visit the lands where Jesus walked, but now that I was there, I was constantly troubled by a deep regret from the past; I couldn’t put it out of my head, even though it was really stupid and futile.
At breakfast, I was wearing my Annunciation leggings from a hipster store in Melbourne. An Eastern Orthodox priest (probably Serbian) came up and gave me two holy cards: one featured an icon of Christ, and the other, Mary. He couldn’t speak English, but through those holy images, he communicated a world of meaning to me: though things might seem bleak and disordered, Our Lord and Our Lady are with us always, and so are our brothers in Christ, including our separated brethren. It was a warm dose of heavenly joy amidst grotty modern-day Bethlehem.
Some days later, at Jacob’s Well, after venerating all the icons in the Orthodox church, I followed my tour group to the bus. I waved goodbye to the portly Arab gentleman manning the book store, and he beckoned me back.
“This is for you,” he said, handing me a jewelled Jerusalem cross, set with red and white stones.
“Shukran!” I gasped, giving him a bear hug, and sprinted up the courtyard stairs to my waiting group. I didn’t ask his name, but I wear that cross each day, and pray for him and his people.
Sacramentals: Binding us to Christ and one another
Jesus’ existence was a scandal: how could the transcendent, omnipotent God lower himself to become man, bound by the limits of earthly existence? Yes, the Incarnation is a mystery of love, and central to our faith. We are enfleshed souls, not Gnostics who spurn the body for the spirit; Christ has redeemed our flesh, and God touches us through our senses. That is why Catholics, the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox have always expressed our faith through physical objects. God created the world good, and everything can be sanctified and become a means of growing closer to Him.
As secular gifts are tokens of love and reminders of those who love us, so are sacramentals tokens of the heavenly love which binds those who live in Christ. What are some sacramentals which are important to you? And can you find people in your life who may appreciate a spiritual boost through a physical reminder of God’s grace?
When I was young, my siblings and I would often play with a soccer ball in our backyard. Inevitably, someone would powerfully kick the ball and it would go sailing over the privacy fence and into someone else’s yard. While we wanted our ball back, it was a rare occasion that any of us actually wanted to go knock on a neighbor’s door to ask for our ball. While we knew a couple of our neighbors, there were many people whom we didn’t know—and the thought of walking up to the house of a complete stranger was terrifying.
Thinking back on these memories, I realize that our situation was probably not atypical. It seems that, in our current culture, we often scurry from our homes into our cars, preoccupied with our phones or other concerns. If we see our neighbors, we may give them a glance and “hello,” but that’s about it. We don’t really know who lives on our street, except for what kind of car they may drive, how many pets they have, and how much trash they put on the curb each week.
We’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan in the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, and we know that loving our neighbor means treating each person we greet with God’s love and mercy. Yet, while we may do a fantastic job at being kind to the strangers we meet in public—because they are our “neighbors”—we can forget that we need to love and care for our literal, next-door neighbors.
Recently, my husband and I moved into our first house, situated in a rather quiet neighborhood. The first few days after we moved in, I didn’t really know much about our neighbors. I would occasionally see them in passing, but I was preoccupied getting unpacked and settling into our home. However, this quickly began to change. A few people introduced themselves to me, so I at least knew who some of my neighbors were. Then, one woman invited me over to coffee at her house, where I was entertained with stories about the beginnings of television in America. A few days later, another woman invited me to coffee at her house and then took me around her garden, gathering tools to loan me so that I could begin a small garden of my own.
In just a few weeks, I have seen beautiful love and concern from some of my neighbors as they seek to welcome our family. As I’ve told other people about my neighborhood, I’ve realized how, in the experience of many people, the level of kindness and care I’ve been experiencing is rare. I find this very sad, but unsurprising. We can make ourselves so busy that we have little time or desire to create bonds of friendship with others in our neighborhoods.
This summer, I challenge you to change this trend.
You don’t need to cook an elaborate meal or plan a massive neighborhood cook-out; sometimes, having these expectations for ourselves can hold us back from reaching out to others. Spend time outside and introduce yourself to your neighbors. Invite them over for coffee. Ask them for advice on lawn care. If you’re new to the area, ask them for recommendations on places to eat or attractions to visit. Introducing yourself to a near-complete stranger who you’ve been living by for months or years may be awkward, but seeking to love your neighbors and growing in community is well worth any awkwardness. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and we shouldn’t overthink things. Just love your neighbors—those strangers in public places, and the men and women who live next door.
A long time ago in my college dorm room, I was showing a friend the blog Creative Minority Report. It takes its name from Pope Benedict’s exhortation, “Believing Christians should look upon themselves as such a creative minority and … espouse once again the best of its heritage, thereby being at the service of humankind at large.”
My friend commented, “Thinking we’re better than everyone else.”
That troubled me, because I knew that it was not the intention of Christians spreading the Gospel message; the intention, as the Pope said, is to serve others by sharing our inherited riches of the Spirit. However, it is true that zealous Christians are often a pain in the behind, turning people off by their perceived arrogance and know-it-all attitude.
Years later, it came to me: We’re not better than others. We’re better off.
In the Church, we have been given a spiritual family that extends all over the world. It is comprised of sinful, fallible humans; nevertheless, it is a ready-made community, where one feels at home in any country. When I moved from Singapore to Brisbane, it was in the Catholic churches of Australia where I found kindred spirits, all struggling with their own baggage and faults, but still striving to grow ever closer to God, and welcoming fellow travellers on this earthly pilgrimage.
In the Church, we have been given a magnificent treasure trove of sacred art, architecture and music. We have sadly discarded some beautiful masterpieces – I felt robbed of my heritage when I discovered old photos of Brisbane’s St Stephen’s Cathedral, which was rich with murals depicting the first religious men and women who came to serve the fledging colonial community, not to mention a splendid Italian Epiphany altarpiece.
At the same time, I was interviewed by the national paper of Singapore for lodging a police report against a sacrilegious, nun-mocking party slated to be held in the exquisite Gothic chapel of my mother’s old school grounds, which had been turned into a secular venue. The reporter asked why I cared about such a thing when I wasn’t even in the country. It hit me that non-Catholics did not comprehend the feeling of belonging and ownership which we have over our sacred heritage anywhere in the world, even when it has passed into other hands.
We are body and soul united, and our physical Christian heritage is just as important as our spiritual heritage, for both together have been passed down to us as a trust to share with others.
Recently, I befriended an atheist sitting outside St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. He was a materialist and a determinist, but he still felt drawn to admire the soaring gothic building dedicated to God. He put me in mind of another atheist, who was converted by the beauty of York Minster.1 God reaches souls through the senses – Aquinas said, “The senses are a kind of reason. Taste, touch and smell, hearing and seeing, are not merely a means to sensation, enjoyable or otherwise, but they are also a means to knowledge – and are, indeed, your only actual means to knowledge.”
In the Church, we have untold riches of spiritual teachings, from the Church Fathers to the hard-working theologians of today, who strive to display the pearl of great price anew to people of today, distracted and duped by trinkets which the modern world passes off as diamonds. We can never be truly fulfilled by anything on this earth; every earthly joy eventually passes. It is only in the infinite God that we can find our fulfillment and peace, and everlasting love.
With so much goodness to share with others, how can we keep this treasure to ourselves? We are cracked earthen jars holding an indescribable treasure, God Himself! The thing is to help others come to see their own identity as priceless vessels made in the image and likeness of God too. Everyone knows the world is full of suffering and darkness – but here is the Good News, that the suffering can be turned into joy and the darkness into light! We are no better than anyone else – we are all sinners, but the difference is, knowing that you are a sinner is the first step to accepting salvation, just as knowing that you are sick provides the impetus to see a doctor. Knowing our true state prepares us for accepting the gift of God, which is Himself – the ultimate source and fulfilment of all human existence and desire.
Image: Angelo Graf von Courten, Holy Communion (via Joy-Sorrow).
While it is still August, I am beginning to look forward to the Fall. Yes, I am partly anticipating cooler months but this season also contains a number of feast days that warm my heart. Some close to my heart include St. Francis, St. Therese of Lisieux, Guardian Angels, the Archangels, All Souls, and All Saints. Today’s feast is a wonderful soldier of Christ,St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a Cistercian monk andwrote a beautiful prayer to Our Ladythat you are probably familiar with:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that any one who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, and sought thy intercession, was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother, to thee I come, before thee I stand sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate! despise not my petitions, but, in thy mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.
The saints are close friends to us because they are close friends to Jesus. They constantly pray for us as we sojourn on our earthly pilgrimage. By their lives on earth, they provide the comfort that holiness is possible.
In reality, the saints are not just role models or mythological characters. They are personal friends that know us even if we do not recognize them. When we meet them I think their reply will be, “I know so much about you,” instead of, “I have heard so much about you.”
As you live your Catholic Faith, it is common to run into brothers and sisters that have a devotion to a certain saint. It might be his or her feast day saint, a patron of place or vocation, or a namesake, among many other reasons. God willing I make it to heaven, I wonder which saints will approach me and say, “I prayed for you daily because…” Maybe the saint had similar struggles as I did or maybe the saint was just peering down one day and noticed I liked the color red.
The Communion of Saints is such a precious gift. In our life, we can experience trials and one of the hardest battles to fight is loneliness.Father Ed Broom, OMV says,“St. Ignatius of Loyola would call this a state of desolation. One of the most common manifestations of desolation is that of loneliness—you feel alone in the world and nobody really seems to care about who you are and where you are heading in your life.” As Catholics, we have an answer to loneliness because we have true friends that are always by our side and we have Jesus Christ. Quoting Lumen Gentium, the Catechism says, “They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus . . . . So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.” (CCC 956)
The struggle of loneliness is real but so is the faithfulness of the Communion of Saints! If you are struggling with this desolation, please know that I, a member of the faithful still working on getting to Heaven, am praying for you and so are your brothers and sisters before the throne of God. I encourage you to get to know some of the saints and maybe start a devotion to get to know them better. St. Bernard alsoreminds us that, “In dangers, in doubts, in difficulties, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let not her name depart from your lips, never suffer it to leave your heart. And that you may obtain the assistance of her prayer, neglect not to walk in her footsteps. With her for guide, you shall never go astray; while invoking her, you shall never lose heart; so long as she is in your mind, you are safe from deception; while she holds your hand, you cannot fall; under her protection you have nothing to fear; if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favor, you shall reach the goal.” Mary always seeks our happiness and desires us to love Jesus and she will always work on our behalf to take the struggles that come between us and her Son.
The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head…” In the next few weeks, I will continue with some thoughts on the Communion of Saints and in particular the souls in Purgatory and the Church Militant here on earth.
In the “olden days”, the parish was a central part of a community. Parishes were split up based on boundary lines – where you lived determined which parish you would be a part of. Also, a majority of parishes had schools connected to them. Spiritual and social events abounded. Nowadays, Catholics tend to be more disconnected from their parishes. They may drive long distances to go to a certain parish, making it more difficult to be involved regularly. Some may simply consider themselves too busy to be involved. I have met many young adults who, when asked their parish, say they don’t have one. Or, if they do have a parish they attend, they aren’t involved. On Sunday, they worship, then they leave and, a week later, they’re sitting in the same pew.
Yet, a parish is not only meant to be a place where we go on Sunday to worship God for an hour. A parish can and really should be a central part of our lives, just as it was in the 1950s in the United States. You’ve probably heard churches refer to the members of the parish as “the parish family”. Really, that’s what it is. We are called to build relationships with the others in our parish and to strengthen and uplift one another. The persons sitting next to you, behind you, and in front of you: they are your brothers and sisters in Christ! They are in need of your support and prayers and a connection with you. Likewise, you need them! This journey is one on which we need companions, all of us walking together with Christ. A parish can be the “roots” that ground us and enable us to grow upward to Christ. Ideally, it is within the structure of the family that we learn who we are and how we are to live. Our parish family nurtures us in much the same way.
The Eucharistic Jesus is in the Tabernacle at church – many parents teach their children that the Tabernacle is Jesus’ “house”. Walking into the same church day after day, or week after week, is like coming home. The door closes behind us and we lay our burdens down at the feet of Jesus. We can also share those burdens with others and find wisdom and encouragement. We bring praise, too, and thank God for our joys. We share our joys with other parishioners and share in their joys also. Most importantly, we share Communion, the Bread of Life.
A parish is a mini representation of the body of Christ. It is made up of many people with their unique gifts and roles. Each person is necessary for the functioning. There are some parishes that seem to be lacking life. Could it be that there are members of the body that have not stepped up to do their part, and so the whole body is struggling? Maybe everyone else with a similar feeling, and plenty of potential to bring life, also left to attend another parish. With your unique gifts and charisms, you can help to heal and bring renewal to the body. A young man was attending a parish nearby, and realized there was no young adult group for that side of town. He saw the need, spoke to the pastor, and made it happen. That parish happens to be my parish. Just over a year later, the group is strong and growing! Without this group I never would have known how many in my cohort were also attending the parish. Thanks to one person willing to put himself out there, friendships are being built on Christ and people going through the same stage of life are able to connect to one another and share life. Your parish, too, will be blessed when you use your gifts in service.
If you’re feeling adrift and wondering where to find your parish home, pray about it. The Holy Spirit will lead you. If the parish you currently attend seems to lack life, pray about that, too. God will use you in some unique way to enliven the parish. Ask God which gifts He wants you to exercise and how. I pray that you will find your parish home and continue to grow closer to the heart of Jesus! No matter how young or old, each of us has a vital place in the Body of Christ. There is a parish out there that is right for you and needs you as much as you need it!
“The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.” (CCC #2207)
The Catechism here re-states a basic truth which was once widely accepted and is still widely repeated. This basic truth is that it is the family—and not the individual person—which is the basic building block of the community and thus of society as a whole. By saying this, I do not discount the importance of each individual person—for each person is of infinite worth—but rather I assert the primacy of the family for the purposes of the community and of the society which incorporates it. Simply put, without the cohesion of the family, there can be no lasting community, and without a lasting community, there cannot be a greater society, to say nothing of civilization itself.
The Catechism itself then goes on to note that the family is the community in which children learn morality, faith, and ordered freedom, all of which are necessary for a free and flourishing culture . The family is, in other words, the primary educator of the community: the parents are and have the responsibility to be the primary teachers of their children. The Church is tasked with handing on the true faith of the apostles, but it is the parents who do this first, with the Church acting as aide in this regard. The Church defines the doctrines and ought to provide the resources for passing them on, but the parents are the ones who ultimately are tasked with passing on the Faith and inculcating virtue: it is their witness which either especially underscores or undermines the Church’s teachings .
We find, moreover, that without the family, the community cannot perpetuate. It still takes a mother and a father to make children, though the parents’ responsibility to procreation does not end with mere reproduction. As the late Robert Bork once noted , during every generation civilization is invaded by hordes of untamed barbarians—by this he meant that babies are born, and that without the influences of the family and then of the community, these babies might overthrow a civilization, having no will to maintain the moral order necessary for both stable society and individual liberty when they come of age.
Parents’ responsibilities towards their children, and toward society as a whole, is to teach their children proper morals and inculcate what virtues they may, to teach their children how best to live in harmony with others, and how to live in full control of themselves. Suffice it to say that the former is easier with multiple children (love of neighbor to say nothing of friendship needs to be learned not only from authorities but from friends), and the latter does not necessarily become harder in a large family.
I have so far outlined why the family is necessary for the continuation of civilization—via the creation and upbringing of children—but I should add that the family is also necessary for the society in the present. We may learn the basic civic duties, even pick up the right moral values and a few virtues as children, which we then develop as adults. Indeed, we can more easily focus on serving the community as single adults (and even as married couples), and the community benefits greatly from the contributions of such people. And of course, every new family is formed first of two individual persons, the husband and the wife.
However, the family is not merely the sum of its parts: it is not merely more than the sum of its parts, as it is different. A newly married couple experiences the first taste of this in that each partner is called to make sacrifices for the other. I have written about this before in this space, though largely I have done so from the perspective of the laying down of the husbands’ lives for the sakes of their wives in the context of sexual intercourse, and similarly of the sacrifices of moral leadership. But even the couples which for whatever reason do not make these two sacrifices can surely attest to the fact that the husband and the wife make myriad minor and major sacrifices for each other. These sacrifices are often of a different sort than the sacrifices which a man might make for his friends, or his job, or his community: each of which might still nevertheless serve his own self-interest. And this is before the first child comes along, thus requiring a whole new set of sacrifices, and these often differing not in degree but in kind.
Perhaps paradoxically, it is these sacrifices which we learn to make in family life which are needed to make men ready for the community as a whole. With friends, the sacrifices are often fleeting and few—and though the willingness to make these sacrifices might be what separates friends from acquaintances, we can and sometimes should walk away from those friendships which become too demanding. Marriage is different, in that we make a vow not to break off the relationship in the face of great sacrifices (and thus should not break off the relationship), and again with children we cannot separate the blood bonds which unite us no matter how frustrating their demands may be.
Yet, the very willingness to make at least small sacrifices (sometimes called “compromises”)–to say nothing of the rituals and routines of family life–is the glue which cements a community. Just as the cult which is the basis of the culture involves a form of sacrifice, so too does any community require the sacrifice of the complete autonomy of the individual, though not the complete sacrifice of his autonomy. When we enter into a community, we recognize that our rights must be ordered not only to our own individual good, but to the common good, and that we might give up some “freedoms” to enable the community to be more cohesive . We must make some sacrifices to make a community work.
Thus we see that the family is the basic unit of society, rather than the individual. In the family, the children first learn to establish relationships—both reverent of the parents’ authority and respectful the the siblings as peers—the tolerance of differences in taste, the morals which are necessary for the enjoyment of ordered liberty, the virtues which are necessary for morality and freedom to thrive, etc. But in that same family, the parents learn not only how to exercise authority wisely, but also how to sacrifice for others without counting the cost, how to consider the good of others as well as their own good, that is, how to work for the common good.
I cannot help but think that many of the problems of the community which we encounter today are themselves due to the breakdown, not just of the community as a whole but of its basic part the family. This is true not only of the “big” things like the high crime rates  but in the little things like the coarsening of rhetoric and the lack of true dialogue between opposing sides , whether in terms of religion, politics, morals, etc. When a society consists of Randian individuals whose motto is “every man for himself,” no real community is possible; nor are communities possible at the other extreme, the totalitarian destruction of the individual. Rather, communities flourish where the family is strong, because in the family we learn selflessness for the common good, yet at the same time retain our individuality.
 As Christopher Dawson notes, there is no culture without the cult, that even language is ultimately linked to religion. Russell Kirk—a sort of disciple of Dawson’s—explains how cult forms the basis of culture by noting that
“From what source did humankind’s many cultures arise? Why, from cults. A cult is a joining together for worship—that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshippers, that human community grows. This basic truth has been expounded in recent decades by such eminent historians as Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, and Arnold Toynbee.
Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible. Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government—all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie.
Out of little knots of worshippers, in Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, India, or China, there grew up simple cultures; for those joined by religion can dwell together and work together in relative peace.”
 And here I do mean “especially,” because there are after all other members of the church community, in particular the priests but also other parishioners, the school teachers and religious ed instructors and other authorities.
 Found in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah.
 To choose one simple example: if I live alone and far removed from my neighbors, then I might choose be be as loud or quiet as I desire. A man who likes loud music and a man who wants silence need not make any sacrifices or compromises here if they live miles apart. When they become next-door neighbors, some compromise must be reached. To choose another example, consider the difference between many single Catholics and married Catholics in parish attendance: the former often roam from parish to parish, even against their own best intentions, whereas the latter tend to pick a parish and stay there.
 This is worse in areas like Detroit which is itself an excellent example of what happens when a community is first built artificially and then destroyed by mass exodus. Inner Detroit involved “urban planing” on a large scale, along with large immigration into the area when it was a manufacturing boom town. The manufacturing job started to dry up, and so the population moved away.
 To pick one example, consider the coarsening of the rhetoric in the bottom half of the internet. My friend Mr. Colin Gormley takes on this point in his own latest column in this space by asking whether dialogue has become impossible: “As a society we no longer feel an obligation to be fair, honest and charitable to those who have opinions different to ours in alarming numbers. We feel free to misrepresent to the point where the actual opinions of those we disagree with are not even considered. In short, we feel free to lie about our neighbor.” For a people who have never learned to listen, the answer is yes, dialogue (and even simple fairness) will be impossible. Yet the first place we are taught to listen is not the schoolroom nor even the church, but in the family.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to “learn from the way the wildflowers grow” (6:28). They do not “work and spin,” they just sway in the wind of their God, accepting whatever comes their way: rain or sun.
So what can we learn from wildflowers?
Here are some ideas:
1. Embrace Your Uniqueness: Wildflowers have an untamed beauty, they are not cultivated in temperature controlled greenhouses. As Christians we are called to be fiercely unique, nonconformists (to the world), and proud of the one-of-a-kind persons God made us to be. Let’s be respectful of one another’s differences, and encourage uniqueness without fear of unorthodoxy.
2. Love Community but NotGroupthink: Wildflowers are unique and yet they are so much more beautiful in groups. They are meant to be in community, it is not just about each wildflower and God. But a wildflower community is not like a garden-flower community. They do not grow in carefully tended rows on manicured lawns; they each sway to the wind of the Word in their own way. Wildflowers obey the wind of God’s will together, but if one bobs in the wind a little differently because a gust hits her in a different way, the other flowers let her do it! Their obedience to God is not robotic, forced or in lock-step with one another. Wildflowers learn from the way each flower sways uniquely in the one wind of God.
3. Do Not Be Consumed with Consumerism: Wildflowers are low-maintenance. They require no expensive fertilizers, no watering. They grow and they die – beautiful and carefree, completely dependent on God. Wildflowers do not go shopping for the latest power tools or hoard twenty unworn pairs of shoes in their closets. They are beautiful without trying to be, wearing only what they need. They do not build mansions for themselves with ten car garages, they are satisfied to sway in whatever weather God sends them, quietly trusting in God whether they face wind, sunshine or storms.
4. Be Wildflowers, Not Wallflowers: Can you imagine a wildflower not being noticed in a field of tired looking grass? Christians are meant to be wildflowers in the world. We have all heard that we should be salt and light, but how about putting on some wild colors (literally or figuratively) and getting our Christian groove on! Wipe that grim look off your face and smile! We are the children of God, if we don’t have something to smile about, who does? Sure, we face the lawnmowers of secularism and the heavy boots of relativism, but we are looked after by the Master of the Universe. What do we have to fear?
So come on my fellow Christian wildflowers, let’s peel ourselves off the wall and leave behind our wallflower ways.
I recently had dinner with three fabulous girls. One is married, the other two are single. Our conversation turned towards the single life and we discussed how one of the most difficult things for a single girl is attending Sunday Mass. You walk into church and find yourself in a pew surrounded by families on all sides, or worse, you find yourself sitting completely alone. No one talks to you and no one reaches out. One of my friends said, “Sometimes I feel like I smell or something, people don’t even sit by me.”
I know the feeling. There are countless of Sunday Masses that I sat through alone, the only words exchanged between my neighbors and me were “Peace be with you”. Ironic isn’t it? The one place we are meant to be in communion – with Jesus, the church and one another – is the one place where we can feel the most isolated.
My friends and I talked about how some of our Protestant brothers and sisters have got it right on. Have you ever attended one of their services? You instantaneously become their best friend and find yourself at their house the following Tuesday for Bible Study and the next Friday for a cookout. They get it. They reach out. They understand fellowship.
I think more recently priests have tried to reach out into their parishes as well. Some will invite the congregation at the beginning of Mass to stand and greet their neighbor. Others might initiate coffee and donuts after Mass. These are great efforts on the part of the priest and the parish, but they still fall short. What matters is the people.
I understand that I need to take initiative too. I have made efforts. I have volunteered (a great start to get plugged in) and have willingly introduced myself to others. But again, it falls short. We are made not for surface relationships but something greater.
So what is the answer? What is the church to do? There are efforts with young adult groups and the like but I think the answer comes down to family. We are a church family and we belong to one another.
In the past 16 years, I have been welcomed into countless of families all around the country. From Texas to Colorado, Virginia and Minnesota. My friends Margaret and David whom I lived with in Texas back in 2003, and more recently lived near in the past two years, have generously opened their home and hearts to me. At least once a week I would spend time with them, having dinner at their house, attending one of their kids’ swim meets, or just stopping by in the late evening to play a game or to chat. It was being a part of this family that made it much easier for me to live so far away from mine. I am grateful to them and the other countless families that have taken me in over the years like my friend Shawn and her two daughters, the Kings and the Birds out in Aspen and Margaret and David both in Texas and Virginia.
Families are the bedrock of society and are integral to the Church.
“‘The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church.’ It is a community of faith, hope, and charity; it assumes singular importance in the Church, as is evident in the New Testament.” – CCC 2204
I wish the church would offer more programs where we could incorporate families and singles together, and not just for the singles because it works both ways. You become sort of like an adopted aunt. In the past two years Margaret knew she could call me to watch the kids, stay overnight, check on the mail, pick up some groceries etc. But she also knew that I needed them: to help put the Christmas decorations up, to be a part of their Thanksgiving tree and to get the late night ice cream. I am grateful for that.
So what can we do? Reach out to a person who is single in your church. Invite them over for dinner. Invite them to Sunday Mass with you. If you are single, look for a family who might benefit from having some extra hands. Offer to babysit or run an errand. Or just let them know that you are around if they need anything. I can just imagine the moms out there reading this right now. “I would give anything for one Mass with no distractions.” The grass isn’t always greener and we must give ourselves the room to grow where we are planted. However, if we can cultivate a place for true community, perhaps the singles won’t be so alone and those moms might be able to steal some much needed moments of quiet meditation.
What are some other ways for the church to reach out to singles? How can the church create a better sense of community? What are your ideas?
“You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have eyes to see” Mother Teresa profoundly remarks in this video (at about 2:20). She explains that, “Material poverty you can always satisfy with material. The unwanted, the unloved, the uncared, the forgotten, the lonely: this is much greater poverty” (at 4:15).
Lack of community and social interaction is bad for our health, as many studies show. “Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year” — yet trends over the last 25 years have shown a 58% drop in attending club meetings, a 43% drop in family dinners and a 35% drop in having friends over, as Prof. Robert Putnam has written in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
The Stanford News Service’s Kenneth M. Dixon writes, “The world is more connected than ever before, but people spend less time in person with those they care about. With regards to social interactions, quantity has replaced quality.” I wonder, is this disconnectedness also linked to the growing number of single people? Is it not only more difficult to form stable, long-lasting friendships, as it is more difficult to date and get married?
One thing seems clear: singles are at a higher risk for depression and they are one of the groups perhaps most affected by this disconnectedness. Could it be that many singles feel lonely because of not having a primary family unit and, in many cases, a close-knit community? Could it be that many of them feel rejected because they’d like to get married and sometimes fear the problem is theirs? What can we do for this Calcutta in our own country?
Blessed Mother Teresa also said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” The Catholic Church is described as a body, Jesus’ ministry based on meals and an intimate group of friends, and we are explicitly modeled for and called to communion. God is an exchange of love between three Persons and we are called to enter into that communion with Him and with others, starting here on earth and fully in heaven.
How does this look in reality and for singles? I wish some things could be preserved or brought back from the past: more intergenerational mingling, more family and community gatherings, more local and relational and less digital and virtual. Fifty years ago in Portugal, community life revolved around parish events and local dances. Nowadays, your chances of seeing young people are much higher if you go to nightclubs and bars than if you go to a parish event or anything local.
Moreover, “Internet use is replacing face-to-face interactions without replacing the benefits,” writes Dixon. Having a heart-to-heart conversation with another is not the same as an online conversation, and neither is dating, but both are becoming more commonplace in society, especially among teenagers.
With this displacement of affection from person-to-person to persona-to-persona, how can we create a real interpersonal relationships grounded in love? How can we love singles more? How can we as Catholics combat the loneliness that comes with a more disconnected society? I would say singles and non-singles are called to be more connected and to promote “connectivity.”
More local: Jesus’ ministry was a very physical and concrete one, healing through touch and with his family and friends. Catholics should be the first to support local communities, local commerce, local culture and local friendship.
“Do we know who our own poor are? Do we know our neighbor, the poor of our own area? It is so easy for us to talk and talk about the poor of other places. Very often we have the suffering, we have the lonely, we have the people – old, unwanted, feeling miserable – and they are near us and we don’t even know them. We have no time to smile at them.” (Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light)
More personal and relational: What are we really spending our time on? How much do we value the relationships in our life, creating new ones and maintaining the old ones? It helps me to think if I had a near-death accident, and was confined to a hospital bed, who are the people that would spend time with me there and how am I making time for them now?
“As God did not create man for life in isolation, but for the formation of social unity, so also ‘it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without bond or link between them, but by making them into a single people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness.’ So from the beginning of salvation history He has chosen men not just as individuals but as members of a certain community.” (Pope John Paul II, Gaudium et Spes)
More social:Married people, make an effort to maintain your friendships and family relationships. Don’t close in on your spouse and primary family.
“The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1879)
More openness and depth in friendships: Vulnerability is difficult, but according to this researcher, “In order for connection to happen, we have to let ourselves be seen and really be seen.”
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’ – C.S. Lewis
…Any more ideas for promoting connectivity or related quotes/documents?
The Social Network of the New Evangelization Generations