Church and The Communal Christian

This past Saturday on the Catholic Weekend show, we had an engaging discussion with “Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious” author Pat Gohn, who in a recent blog post over on Patheos gave some of her own reflections on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Lumen Fidei.  As Pat writes, “To assist me in not failing, Jesus has given me brothers and sisters in the church, along with the graces of the sacraments, to insure it.” I was similarly struck by the cooperative, community effort which Pope Francis was pointing to, which stands in stark contrast to many aspects of contemporary American experience.

One of the threads running through “The Light of Faith” is the embrace of the idea of the Church being a living, vibrant community. It is through this active practice of one’s faith, and not simply through the development of individual personal relationships with Christ, whereby one comes to truly be a part of the Church.  In order to do so however, there needs to be a bit of death of the old self, a putting away of things which we like but which in many cases cannot be turned to good ends.  And for contemporary Americans in particular, one of the most difficult aspects of this is the idea that physical objects are not actually going to help us build up the kind of Church which Christ is calling us to.

Sublimation of the self in order to be more fully a part of the whole is something which may seem at odds with the American experience, or rather, what Americans believe their experience to be.  We like to think of ourselves as people who could go it alone if need be, in the spirit of explorers and pioneers seeking new frontiers.  However more often than not we are glad to give over control of our lives to businesses and organizations whose ultimate goals are not salvation, but profit, where the ends of profitability justify the means of parting the fool from his money.  Like in all wealthy civilizations everywhere, Americans tend to enslave themselves to whatever their personal object of lust or gluttony happens to be.  And being Americans, we do so on a simply massive scale.  For surely there has never been so acquisitive a nation in the history of the world as this one, not just among elites but across all levels of society.  

In building our communities around things, rather than around people, we measure ourselves so cheaply as to link our personal value to products made out of molded petroleum products or pressed earth.  In truth, by doing so all we have done in creating communities centered around materialism is to provide further evidence that Madison Avenue has a greater hold on the American psyche than we care to admit.  And we revel in the self-perpetuating ignorance we have created, without even realizing we have done so.  I am reminded of a television news presenter who, shortly after Pope Francis was elected, held an online poll asking, essentially, whether Christians ought to proselytize.  It betrayed a stunningly embarrassing ignorance of basic Christianity which, unfortunately, has seeped into the culture.

In contrast to this, Pope Francis puts the community of believers squarely out in front, in defiance of those who say that Christians ought to keep their Christianity to themselves.  “Faith,” he writes, “is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed.”  Much of America and indeed the world today would say otherwise, putting comfort ahead of sacrifice and damning the consequences, without realizing that those consequences may very well damn us, in return.  

The community to which the Christian belongs must be something more than a cultural institution, if the word “Church” is to have some meaning beyond a place where Christians assemble.  If “Church” is nothing more than a building where a group of people like to get together and sing the same songs and listen to motivational speakers telling them what nice people they are, one can hardly call that a “Church”.  It is more like a social club, where a rather flat and blurry facsimile of the Jesus from the Gospels is the topic, instead of football, or politics, or comic books.

The challenge of being part of the Church, in a truly Christian community, is the challenge of losing the self in order to gain the other.  It does not mean that we never argue, for even the Apostles did that, both when Jesus was with them and even after His Death and Resurrection.  However they learned over time to work together to build their community and keep it together, without compromising the truth.  A community based solely on material gains and the enthronement of personal pleasures is little more than a mutual admiration society, and one which is destined to fail us all.

Detail of “Christ’s Charge to St. Peter” by Raphael (1515)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

4 thoughts on “Church and The Communal Christian

  1. This is such a great post. I can’t really decide which line is my favorite but this is very true: ” If “Church” is nothing more than a building where a group of people like to get together and sing the same songs and listen to motivational speakers telling them what nice people they are, one can hardly call that a “Church”. It is more like a social club,” On a few occasions when I’ve gone to churches with non-Catholic friends I have often felt like we were at a social club, not church. I want to be told I’m a sinner but that if I choose to repent & live as Christ calls me to live, with the guidance of the Church He founded on Earth, I can be reunited with Him. Singing some cheerful songs & being told God loves me so I just need to love people doesn’t cut it. I’m afraid some of that has seeped into some Catholic Churches & schools, as well. So many of my Catholic students think that to love someone means to accept anything & everything someone does, regardless of whether behavior is immoral. They don’t understand that it is more important to love someone’s immortal soul rather than encourage earthly pleasures which are not of God. I’m so very glad to see Pope Francis speaking plainly & making us all uncomfortably aware of where we are all falling short.


  2. I have been a part of a lay Catholic Community for nearly 35 years. It has not always been easy as you don’t get to pick and choose who you are in community with. I will say through community I have grown in my appreciatation for the importance of cultivating holy relationships based on a common purpose of prayer and a shared life together.


  3. I greatly appreciated every point you made in this post. Many of the issues you speak of are problems in the Protestant church, as well (I’m Presbyterian). I think as Christians we cocoon ourselves out of fear, and sadly sometimes sheer fatigue, not realizing how wrong it is to refrain from proclaiming the gift of Christ’s sacrifice and the great mercy, love, and grace of God. So often, I am quick to show off a frivolous gift given to me because I view it as beautiful and precious, and I am proud of it. Yet, I am hesitant to share the gift of the Gospel. But I know it is the truth, and therefore the most precious and beautiful thing I have to share.

    Sadly, our culture perpetuates and reveres autonomy—something absolutely counterproductive in the Christian life. Somehow, though, I still allow myself to get sucked into the idea that it is best to leave others alone, and it’s such a foolish idea. Augustine’s mother clearly didn’t think it was best to just leave him alone!

    Thank you for sharing the very wise words of Pope Francis. Hopefully, they will serve to convict and inspire Catholics and Protestants, alike.


  4. Pingback: First Links — 9.12.13 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

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