One Sunday morning after Mass, I was having a conversation with the priest, and somehow the subject turned to community. “You do not have community here,” he stated.
I asked him why he felt that way and he replied, “People are here for Mass and they put on their “Mass” face. After Mass, they leave quickly and go back to their own lives. You do not see folks invite a new person to coffee. It is worship and leave. There is no real connection that extends after Mass.”
What? I have had many people over the years comment about how warm and welcoming we are as a parish. Indeed, I feel that the people of this parish are in many ways extended family. They have held me up when I was unable to stand on my own, providing meals and support when Don’s mother passed away. And I will never forget one day, early in my years as a parishioner, when I was very distraught over personal troubles. The women of this parish physically surrounded me. They, when I couldn’t, brought me to a group of women, sat me in the middle and surrounded me. Just their presence all around me gave me a sense of security when my world was feeling like it was falling apart. There was no talk, no advice, no generalities offered to make me feel better. We simply sat in Mass, I surrounded by women whom I knew cared about me. It was hard for me to hear this priest say we did not have community. This was a troubling thought to me.
A few months later, I found myself sitting at a dinner party with a different priest, Father Bona, visiting from Nigeria. Father Bona mentioned that Americans do not understand community, that we do not have community. Again!
So I challenged him. “Father Bona, do you think this is a cultural difference – your idea of community and an American idea of community? Because I feel very connected to the people of St Gabriel’s. I feel like they are extended family. “ Yes,” he responded, “there are circles of people who share a joint interest. But when was the last time you came to Mass on Sunday and met someone new? When was the last time that you invited someone who is not Catholic or practicing their faith to come to Mass with you on Sunday? Community extends beyond Mass,” he said. “To have community means to participate in the Catholic community. Have you participated in any Catholic events outside of St Gabriel’s? “
Truth was, as he asked these questions, I could honestly answer yes to each question. I had met new folks at church, invited folks to Mass, and attended events outside our own parish. Maybe this is why I was having a hard time understanding. I pressed him further.
And he replied, “Let me tell you a story.” (This is one of the things I adore about Father Bona; he can always break it down to a simple story.)
“I was a visiting priest in a parish in Mesa, and while there I celebrated a funeral Mass. After the Mass ended, a young man came up to me and engaged me in conversation. He asked me where I was from and how long I would be staying, and we chatted. As we spoke, I learned that he was not Catholic, he was of the LDS faith. He was a Mormon. We continued to visit and, before he left, he asked me if there was anything he could do to make my stay more comfortable. He took my phone number, and the next day he called to ask if I needed anything. He continued to call. Sometimes we would just go to lunch and visit. He continued to ask how he could help me, if there was anything I needed. In a parish full of Catholics, he, the non-parishioner, the Mormon, was the only person reaching out to me. Now, I ask you, who practiced community?“
“The Samaritan,” I shouted in reply.
We know this is true. It isn’t easy to love your neighbor, even when we desire to do so. Our lives are busy. Coffee after Mass? I only have two days off from my work week. I have groceries and laundry and errands to run. We work 10 hour days and barely have time for our families. When do we have time to love our neighbor? Then you throw in all the time spent volunteering. I don’t have time to “chat.” Maybe something needs to change.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10 29:37), the story concludes with Jesus asking which of the three was neighbor to the victim? And his questioners respond, ”The one who offered love.” Jesus said to them, “Go and do likewise.”
How will you extend community to your neighbor this week?
What changes do you need to make so you have time to love your neighbor?