Saturday, October 19, 2013

How Parishes Can Alienate the Faithful

This week I was involved in a conversation in a closed discussion group among Catholic women (across the country) that I found so enlightening. The conversation began with a simple question: Am I the only one who cringes at the terms "fellowship" and "church community"?

Many women chimed in, assuring the commenter she was by no means alone. Fellowship as a verb, church family, church community, building community -- many were agreeing these terms were the source of great irritation.

This was fascinating to me. As I thought about it, these used to bother me, too. Even the word "our" used in some parish contexts did not seem right to me, as when I first started attending Mass and a priest made a comment that such and such a fundraiser would "benefit our school." "Faith community" was one that I used to not be able to stand.

I knew this, and yet I realize that now I hear, read, and even use terms like this frequently, and I don't even bat an eye.

The important thing in this conversation was why these terms elicited so much irritation among this group.

"It all feels so fake and forced."

"Our local Catholic school requires parents to put in 20 hours of community service to the school to 'build fellowship and a sense of community.'"

"It is like putting the cart before the horse. Those things naturally flow when you live a Christian life. Backwards, it doesn't last, and is just another club."

"It all sounds warm and lovely, but there's no skeleton, no structure. Completely rudderless. Holding hands doesn't 'make us community.'"

I realized that these women truly resented having their own relationships with God and others, and the fruits and blossoms of their own spiritual quests minimalized, disrespected, and set aside for someone else's vision or agenda for making Christians live together as Christians. I was seeing alienation in the very process of happening.

It reminded me of a friendship I once had with someone who was quite adamant about imposing her terms on others. Because her terms had to do with being "giving" and "loving," it was easy to feel confused and guilty about sensing something wrong with her "kindness." But because there was a clear element of force involved, what should have fostered closeness repelled instead.

I inquired among these women: what is it that you need to see instead of this kind of forced, programmatic, "let's build community" emphasis. The answer was not surprising:  authenticity.

First of all, only persons can be authentic. Programs, work committees, a pastoral persona, these things can't be authentic.

Secondly, persons must authentically relate to other persons. Forum members related experiences of the sting of judgmentalism aimed at them and at others. As one woman pointed out, what is needed is hospitality. This is not merely having pals over for tea. Hospitality includes the ability to look at someone who is completely not you, and to communicate "I accept you." I accept you, regardless of your political views, I accept you regardless of your age or marital status, your history. I accept you, regardless of how or whether you express any faith in Christ, and despite any obvious sins you may be in the midst of. I accept you.

Because deep down, we all have insecurities. We all have things we find questionable about ourselves, and especially when acceptance is not explicitly communicated, it is easy to paint ourselves into a corner and see Holier than Thou attitudes even where they aren't present. And we all hunger for the love of God that we know the Church hides away somewhere! We don't want it hidden any more. We want to see it. We want to experience it. We want to see Catholics accepting each other and everyone, not communicating silently that only those meeting the unwritten standard will be accepted.

We also desire our parishes to welcome of the gifts and talents God has given us that we have already developed apart from some parish program to orchestrate us into community. We want the community we are already experiencing to be acknowledged and nurtured. When parishes act like we have nothing brewing based on God's work already present in us, we feel a deep disconnect. We feel un-known. Oh, we know God knows us, but somewhere between God and the parish, it is clear that something fell apart. And all those "community formation" efforts ring hollow and fake. Eventually they become a mockery of all that is holy.

The two-day discussion was topped off by a lovely homily from Pope Francis, touching on the very same theme.

The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh? Already the Apostle John, in his first Letter, spoke of this. Christians who lose the faith and prefer the ideologies. His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness. This can be the question, no? But why is it that a Christian can become like this? Just one thing: this Christian does not pray...

We can make an ideology out of forming community, out of "fellowship," but it will not satisfy, and it will not bear any fruit. There is one thing that draws all people, and that is the cross of Jesus Christ. The true experience of the Savior is the only means for true Christian fellowship. And when we stand at the cross, either we authentically confess our sins and look with mercy on every single other sinner who is called to stand with us, or we make a terrible mockery of that holy place, and leave unjustified. The key? Open your heart. Pray. Look at Jesus' suffering on the cross, and know it is for you. Receive that love pouring down. Pray.


Christian LeBlanc said...

This is interesting. I'm thinking of my Catholic parish, we have community, fellowship, however you like to call it. But those terms are rarely used. Typically the tone is "the KofC will be serving breakfast next Sunday in the Parish Hall, come and relax with the parish family after Mass." That sort of thing. Or "Please join us today at 5 pm at St. Mary's in downtown Greenville for the singing of Evensong -- the evening sacrifice of praise from the Anglican Use liturgy. There's no preaching and no collection! Just 30 minutes of beautiful music and peaceful prayer. Y'all come on down." We build community- but indirectly.

George @ Convert Journal said...

I bristle quietly at these terms too. Quietly because I don't think the effect of their long term usage is usually the intention of the speaker / writer.

It seems to me that the effect is to separate Christ from His Church. This reduces the Church from His Bride to a club, organization, NGO, non-profit, like-minded harmless believers, whatever.

Christian has some good comments too. Somehow "parish family" feels different to me than the other generic terms.

The Church does build community but ours is the Communion of Saints. That is a big difference from any earthly civic function.