I spent a very rewarding hour on the phone this morning with Robert Louis Wilken, the patristics scholar, talking about the Benedict Option. One of the things he said:
The Christian church must become much more conscious that it is a unique kind of community. When people talk about Christianity today, it’s in the sense that it’s an opinion that certain people hold. Christianity is not an opinion. There may be beliefs and teachings, but first and foremost, it’s a community. Christianity came into the world as an ordered community, not as a message. Look at the New Testament and see how much attention there is to how the community is formed, how it is ordered.
To that end, I’m telling you, watch the Catholic convert Leah Libresco; she has a special practical genius for this kind of thing, I’m convinced. In First Things today, she has an essay up called, “How To Strengthen Catholic Community.” She begins by saying that the talk at the Synod on the Family is about inclusion of gays and lesbians and remarried divorced people in the communion rite, but Leah says this misses something important about community:
In many parishes, it’s easy to attend church anonymously, without speaking to anyone else except for a quick “Have a nice day, Father” and without any contact with fellow parishioners beyond a quick handshake at the sign of peace. A “Hi” from a greeter at the door can be nice, but it doesn’t really give people a sense of being known in the “Jesus looked at him and loved him” sense. Communion is asked to do all the work of inclusion.
Instead of trying to drop barriers to the Eucharistic feast, it’s worth thinking about what to do to address the community famine. There isn’t any single fix to help all people who are, at present, prohibited from participating in communion, be known and loved, but here are a few small suggestions.
Parishes can make it easier to ask for any form of help (and for people besides the priest to provide it!) When I had a group of Christian friends over to discuss ways of providing Benedict Option-like support for each other, one part of our evening was spent just naming things people wished others would do for them. “I’d like to spend more, well, any, time around children.” “I wish I had someone who would go to adoration with me after work.” “I want to get to sing with other people.”
There wasn’t an obvious way for most of us to express these wishes at our parishes. In America, priests are stretched painfully thin, so it didn’t make much sense for us to just ask our parish priests to solve these problems for us. But there must be some ways to make it easier to ask things of each other, whether by parishes forming online groups as this Italian street did, or by having a physical bulletin board, or anything else that makes it easier to make the kind of small asks that become strong ties.
Read the whole thing. It’s great. One thing I love about the essay is that it energizes Catholics to get up and do these things for themselves. One of the great regrets I have from my time as a Catholic is that I spent lots of time (as did my friends) griping about the failures of the Church. We didn’t often think about what responsibility we had, as part of the Church, to remedy that. One of the things we complained about was clericalism, but we were guilty of it too.
Here’s an idea: start websites or blogs in particular locales that function as a kind of bulletin board for Catholic (or general Christian) meet-ups for prayer, singing, meals, and so forth. Anything else that makes it easier to make the kind of small asks that become strong ties. I met Leah in DC a couple of weeks ago, and sat next to her at dinner. The amazing thing about her is her restless energy. She wants to absorb the big ideas, then go out and do something about them. Me, I’m willing to theorize until the wee hours of the morning, but Leah is ready to act. The thing is, we need both the contemplative and the active modes within the Church. As we figure out what the Benedict Option is and what it means for Christians in post-Christian America, I’ll be watching and learning from Leah Libresco: she’s all over it.