In the year or so before I moved to University, I began making an earnest, systematic effort to find and join a church. I wrote a lot of lists to myself about what I was looking for in a church (I am a maker of lists). And always near the top of the list was community: people in the church with whom I had something in common; people with whom I could have fellowship and share my faith; a vibrant, living, growing community. The primary reason for the church, I reasoned — for having us hang out in groups, and not sit at home doing it sola scriptura — was community: to provide a structure for the support of the fellowship of believers.
The first time I visited the Catholic Church here, I was decidedly unimpressed. Nobody greeted me warmly, introduced themselves, or even spoke to me. I had to track down someone after Mass to even get a visitor’s card. I didn’t feel particularly welcome, and felt more than a little put off. It wasn’t until six months or so later that I visited again with my friend Audrey. At least then I didn’t feel entirely alone and foreign, but I remained unimpressed. Where were the Sunday school classes and fellowship groups? Where, besides Audrey, were the people of my age and situation? Where was the community?
It wasn’t until I had been attending Mass for a month or more that I found it. It’s in the Eucharist, I realized one Sunday with an epiphany. Community is in Communion. Kneeling there during the Eucharistic Prayer, focusing intently on Christ’s sacrifice, I was enveloped by the sensation that I was not alone: that all of us there in that room; all of the faithful throughout the world praying that same prayer; all of the believers through all the ages who had prayed it — were united there in that moment in one Spirit, with Christ himself. It was the feeling of a whole and complete sharing, an absolute universality; I felt I would never have to feel lonely again. It’s a feeling I’ve felt many times since. And I had never even taken the Sacrament, and still haven’t — merely been in its presence. It was a feeling, yes: and I have striven not to build my faith on feelings. But it was a feeling supported by everything that Catholics believe about the Eucharist. Truths that I was only nascently beginning to understand were speaking to me. I had found community: not the kind I had thought I was looking for, but the kind I most desperately needed.
Catholics are often not very good at building the other types of community. I read an interesting piece in the National Catholic Register that underscores everything I’ve experienced in the Catholic Church. Protestants do, as I had been thinking, go to church with fellowship in mind. Salvation itself is assured; Scripture and faith are enough; so the reason for going the extra step and being a part of a faith community is largely social. But for Catholics, participation in the Sacraments is obligatory, a necessary part of salvation. Because it’s an obligation, many people — even those who genuinely and deeply love the Lord — naturally tend to slip into habit or complacency, and do what they have to do, and then leave. Salvation is the prime motive for going to Mass, not fellowship — and so it tends to slip away.
Our parish is much better about community than many others. We are comparatively small, with a large contingent of students, so an active campus ministry and fellowship among the college-aged come easily. We have weekly spaghetti suppers that involve everyone, not just students; Friday fish fries during Lent; the St. Joseph’s Day celebration; and other important community events. There are adult faith formation groups, and a youth ministry, and service groups like the Knights of Columbus, and really much more active a community than I recognized at first. We do seem to be more laid back about it than most Protestants, though.
It wasn’t until I started attending daily Mass last summer that I truly found my community — the kind I initially thought I was looking for, and which I still very much needed. Attending every day, I gradually began meeting, one or two at a time, the others of the much smaller group of faithful that attends every day. And I’ve made some very dear friends, of the kind I’ve always longed to have, fulfilling friendships that are slowly building and growing, built on love and shared faith — the "super friends" of the article above. I’ve met a number of fellow graduate students of my age and situation. I met the dear man who will be my RCIA sponsor, and his lovely wife. I spent a blessed evening a few nights ago having dinner in their home, an authentic Italian dinner and a conversation that went late into the night.
They, cradle Catholics who’d spent their whole lives in the Church, with little contact with the evangelical world, and I, having journeyed far from there but still with so far to go in understanding the Catholic faith, found a common ground in the middle on which to share and learn from each other. The Protestant concepts I take for granted, they knew little about, and I tried to explain; and the Catholic concepts with which I am still struggling, they explained so easily as if they were the most natural ideas in the world. I saw, through their eyes and Catholic understanding, how far-fetched some Protestant ideas seem to be; but also how much Catholics and Protestants really have in common.
And I feel loved. For the first time in my whole life, I truly feel I have a church home, where I am loved and embraced and accepted; where I can have fellowship and community with beloved people of like mind and like faith, and Communion in the Eucharist with all the Church and with my Lord Jesus Christ.