Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Encountering the Risen Christ in Community

Nowadays our idea of community has something to do with neighborhoods, online chat rooms or discussion forums, or perhaps a school. These communities are communities of convenience though, groups of people who happen to have something in common for the time being, and not really what the word “community” means. Community, in its Latin roots, means a strong or complete unity. I have heard that many parishes are cold and uncaring places of pew potatoes that just happen to live near each other and happen to be Catholic rather than Unitarian. That experience has not been my experience of parish life, however. My parish has affluent white folks; Latino, Asian, and African immigrants who come from halfway across the county by bus; young adults and grandmas; workers, professionals, and retirees. With thousands of different stories, interests, and aspirations we all gather around Jesus, the Christ. He is what holds us together. Some people do walk off in a huff when their feathers get ruffled – that’s always a temptation and happens in any group, even families. But what amazes me is that with all the feather ruffling in a parish, in my good parish, so few actually do walk off in a huff. Most folks there forgive, or try to, and then keep coming back. When I am absent for a while for whatever reason, I am asked about. The pastor uses our common resources and anonymous coparishioners use their own money to support those in need. When someone is evicted, others among us help to move them into their new home. There – it is perhaps the one place outside of my family’s home - I am not a number; I am a person who is known and loved. We help each other in a thousand ways. It was there that I first saw people serving those who could make no return, just because. But it wasn’t really just because – no Christian will say that. They do it because Jesus served us first.

Christian families are meant to be like little parish churches, and are the building blocks of parish churches – they are even the units that people register in. An oddity arises from this understanding of parish life: I cannot register as an individual, but only as a family of one. So are parishes are meant to be, and sometimes really obviously are, families of families. My family was basically a decent home to grow up in, but like most in my generation, not a particularly devout one. I have friends now who are raising their children, and maintaining their family, in a specifically Christian way of life. It is amazing: fifteen year olds that are still innocent and pure (mostly), five year olds who are (fairly) obedient, husbands that bend over backwards to help their wives with their chores, families with good boundaries and respect that welcome virtually all comers to join them around their table and share in their happiness. Their lives are not Norman Rockwell paintings. Mostly, they have their share of sufferings: chronic health conditions, untimely deaths, job insecurity. But still, their hearts and homes seem to expand rather than contract in the face of what are usually show-stoppers for family happiness. These people all swear that Christ is the source of their joy, and in their homes and hearts, as in my parish, I have found my own measure of joy, of gentle and eager love.

The largest such example is the Church herself. Founded by Jesus to continue His presence and work in bodily, animate form, the Church comes before and “plants” all the local churches but is also made up of them. The analogy of a body with its cells and parts really works well. The Church is too big and vast to experience immediately, except at certain powerful moments. The World Youth Days have, for my generation and this new, younger group of people, offered just such an opportunity. While leading a group of teenagers to the World Youth Day (WYD) in 2002 in Toronto, I remember a poignant incident. Two of the boys had bought an atlas with maps, and were marking off the different countries as they identified their flags. At one point, one of the boys spotted a group of pilgrims sitting together under two different flags. As the group sat, they were praying before a meal. One of the flags the boy identified as being India’s. The other was Pakistan’s. The boy said to his friend, “Hey, aren’t India and Pakistan supposed to hate each other?” The other boy said, “No, idiot, they’re supposed to love each other, and these ones are getting it right.” The Indians and Pakistanis finished their blessing with the Sign of the Cross and then ate their meal together. The WYD experiences offer a similar experience on a broader scale. This most recent one was in Sydney, where teenage binge drinking is an immense problem. With nearly a quarter million foreign young people descending upon the city, authorities were sure that the problem would amplify tremendously. Even rock concerts with merely 30,000 or so in attendance can cause emergency rooms to start hopping. Contrary to expectations, the number of alcohol-poisoning incidents plunged well below normal, according to one police officer on the street. No reported murders or rapes by unknown assailants that week: not with all those singing Christians on the streets at all hours, not with all those wholesome, enjoyable events going on day and night. In Toronto, I asked one local resident if she and other local citizens minded the longer lines, the delays on public transport, etc., occasioned by the locust swarm of teenagers on a biblical scale. She said, “At first I think we were all annoyed, but now, I think you are making us happier. People are kind of talking to strangers, even. You know?”

This encounter with a love that sacrifices rather than consumes, with joy that does not falter because of hardship – that is just the reason that Jesus instituted the Church: to get us to heaven, and to help encourage us until we arrive. It is what the Church establishes local parishes and dioceses for: to see that the Church is present all over the world, in every nook and cranny, so everyone has a chance at the Life of Christ. It is the reason that Jesus reconstituted family life on a new model: so that families, instead of being microcosms of the broader social chaos, can be little incubators of love.

In Christ, rooted in Him in other specific means, it actually works. Communion is possible in Christ. The following four posts on Encountering the Risen Christ will delve into how the various manifestations of Christian community actually work.

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