Catholic Community: What, Why, and How?

A reader writes:

After converting to Orthodox Judaism, I adopted a very "frum" life in a tight-knit Orthodox (although non-Chassidic) community. After several years, though,(and for various reasons) I drifted away from yiddishkeit and eventually came to know Christ. (This is, of course, a very terse summary of my spiritual journey.) The main difficulty I have encountered with my new faith is the lack of community I feel in the Catholic world. In the Orthodox world, there were relatively easy and concrete ways in which to forge that connection with your community. There were Shabbos and Yom Tov meals to share, everybody attended the same shul, and holidays were very much communal events. I know it's silly to expect the same type of connection in the Catholic community. But I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to build a stronger sense of connection than I do at present.

First of all, let me say:  welcome home, my sister in Christ!  Sorry things are kind of a mess around here.  If we knew you were coming, we'd have . . . well, we'd probably still be a mess.  That's the problem with a Church that welcomes everybody:  it's hard to be universal and tight-knit at the same time.

That being said, I can well believe that the loss of community hurts badly.  Is there a Byzantine Catholic Church in your area? There, many Catholics find the sort of warm, domestic, extended-family feeling that you describe from your Orthodox days.  Byzantine Catholics, unlike Eastern Orthodox Catholics, are under the authority of Rome, but their worship and spirituality look, sound, and feel somewhat different from what you would find in the typical Roman Catholic parish in America; and they do tend to form warm communities of like-minded people.  Here is a good overview of one such church:  the Melkites.   

The  larger question, though--"How can we build a Catholic community?"-- is something that's been making the rounds in, well, the Catholic community lately. 

First, Calah Alexander recently lamented (among other things) the lack of support for young, struggling families, and Elizabeth Scalia responded with a call for a new kind of ministry, to give inexperienced moms a confidential shoulder to cry on.  Elizabeth Duffy responded with some reservations about the specifics of such a ministry, wondering how one ministry could meet all the changing needs of families, and, finally, whether it is actually the Church's job to supply us with anything beyond the sacraments:  

I think we fall into the same trap when we make demands of the Church, holding that wherever I have a vested interest, the Church must meet my needs. I’m being chaste, therefore the Church must be my matchmaker. I’m not using birth control, so the Church must be my nanny. I’m fighting a culture war, so the Church must provide me with beautiful liturgy, better music, and fine art.


The Church is Christ’s body on earth, and as such, it doesn’t really owe any of us anything.

Those were my thoughts (and Duffy goes on to remind us to think more of what we owe to the Church, rather than vice versa).  Even though I remember all too well how it felt to be a young mother, friendless, wanting desperately to feel more established, more a part of something, and more cared-for, I cringe away from demands for the Church to "follow through" on its teachings and to help us to do the things we ought to do.


Please note, I don't think the original reader, who sent me her question, is demanding anything of the kind!  She is simply missing the warmth and support of her religious family, as anyone would -- and her question shows that it's not just  young moms who are looking for more support and sense of connection.  And I'm by no means debating whether there should be such a thing as a community like the one she was graced to experience among the Orthodox. 

I'm just saying, with Elizabeth Duffy, that there's no way that any church-run program, for new moms or for anyone, could supply what so many people need.

But Melanie Bettinelli is not satisfied with Duffy's conclusions, and she has some good company on her side:  she quotes Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood:  


[The celebration of the Eucharist] originally comprised, of course, both the liturgical meal and an ordinary, “physical” meal shared by Christians meeting together in one large unit. The liturgy and ordinary living had not yet become separated. This situation cannot be reconstructed under present circumstances, but Schurmann rightly points out that the need still remains for parishes to develop appropriate forms of community life outside the liturgy in order to supplement the liturgical gathering and make possible direct brotherly contact. The forms will vary according to circumstances, but we may make one general point: inasmuch as brotherhood in the parish is, as it were, divided up among different societies or organizations, it is necessary to keep bringing people together in larger groups in order to emphasize their relationship to the greater unity of the parish. The individual organization is justified only insofar as it serves the brotherhood of the whole community. This aim of making the parish community a true brotherhood ought to be taken very seriously. Today a trade union or a party can exist as a live and fraternal community, and so the actual experience of brotherhood for all the Christian members of a parish community can and, therefore, should become a primary goal.

It's very hard for me to imagine what this would look like.  I am a shy, awkward, reclusive, and above all busy person in real life. I don't even have time to go to the parish events that I want to go to, much less the other 90% of what's available.  But I know that when I do have a true, interpersonal interaction with another Catholic, it's usually a good thing--probably something I need more than I'd like to admit.


So, what do you think?  If your church has a warm, inviting community life, what form does it take?  Did it happen organically, or did a small core of hard workers organize it?  Or, what would it take to get you to start some communal activity yourself? 

And is it really so terrible that, when I read these conversations between thoughtful women like Alexander, Scalia, Duffy, and Bettinelli, I feel like I am part of a community?  Leaving comments in each other's comment boxes is not the same as breaking bread together.  But it is something.