In last week’s column, I spoke of “spiritual networking” or friendships that can assist those who are facing difficult challenges or transitions in their lives. Nowhere do we see that more obviously these days than online. Our technology-rich culture provides safe havens for conversations about difficult problems as well as the more routine daily problems we all encounter.  

Lay people have no problem building support communities wherever they need them, whether or not they are particularly church-oriented. In fact, one would suspect, church is no longer the first place many of our more engaged fellow parishioners would think of going when dealing with postpartum depression, eldercare, dating or dieting, let alone more serious challenges like a difficult pregnancy, abortion and its aftermath, domestic violence or various addictions. We see these self-directed communities springing up at gym classes, mom groups, sharing TV shows, sporting events, and social media. Why not our local parish? And where parishes do offer some of these connections, why do so few seem to know about it? 

 Which leads me to ask, does anyone really believe that our faith has anything to do with our everyday lives? If not, no wonder so many potential Sunday worshippers would end up “congregating” at some mall, brunch or field event, or even on the internet where the conversation is more likely to open up to the struggles and challenges on their minds. 

The sacramental life of the Church is quite well-grounded in the key events of every human life: birth and death, marriage and other vocational choices, illness and healing, the brokenness caused by sinful patterns and the formation of very deep communal bonds with God and neighbor. It’s all there to be savored by those tuned in.  

Many times, however, routine parish associations take a wrong turn when the leadership does not engage the flock; when pastors forget that they are spiritual fathers who are expected to preach and teach the truth with charity and not focus on their personal gripes or pet hobby horses; where the Sunday “regulars” fail to notice a newcomer — or an absent “regular.” 

 James Joyce once described the Catholic Church as “Here Comes Everybody,” marveling at the incredible cast of characters one finds in any congregation. Every parish has its own character (and characters) to be sure, a factor responsible for much church-hopping as people seek out the schedule or celebrants or worship styles that best suit their taste. Some churches lose potential members on arrival, as first-timers immediately sense they are not welcome in the presence of a very obvious clique of “in” people who seem to have taken personal possession of the altar or sacristy or vestibule or certain pews. 

Gossip was actually invented in or near churches. The term comes from the chatter routinely engaged in by “god sibbs” or godparents who hung around the churches to collect local news. Shakespeare (16th century) was apparently the first to use the term “to be a gossip” in its pejorative sense. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we unleashed an ecclesial “cultural revolution” wherein people who came to church actually found not the bad news about other people’s lives but the good news that could really change their own lives! This is not really a novel idea. It’s what set the early Church on fire. People found in their Christian brothers and sisters a transforming presence, the power of the grace of Christ. But just how did this happen? 

Well, people came looking for the loving and liberating truth. The Church gave them the good news of Jesus Christ. Not “I’m okay, you’re okay,” but the difference between vice and virtue, sin and redemption, loneliness and true communion. The challenge and the opportunity are no less present today as Word and Sacrament, witnessed to and celebrated, can strengthen families and individuals — every traveler who comes to seek and find — to embrace Christ as someone relevant to their lives who can change them and heal them. 

 Jesus was no stranger to rejection. His own parents could not find a suitable place for him even to be born. Like them, many spiritual sojourners are still looking for a room in the inn where they can stay awhile and rest from their weary lives in the presence of welcoming and spiritually nourishing community. 

 To make every parish a haven of love and support for everyone, in all the transitional stages of life, is a natural flowering of our sacramental foundations, of what we do constitutionally as the Body of Christ. We need to build on those sacramental signposts to embrace all of our family members — and those without family — who often face heart-wrenching hardships brought about by marital discord, single parenthood, domestic violence and other forms of abuse, various addictions, challenges of certain disabilities, the aging process and chronic illness. 

This is how we really evangelize and re-evangelize — “re-igniting our faith” — and how our local churches will grow. “See how these Christians love one another!” We do these things already to some extent — soup kitchens, food pantries, visiting the sick and homebound — but we can extend these acts of mercy into deeper networks of relationship and support, strongly rooted in the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For all true love requires sacrifice. 

 A parish is — or should be — a family of families and a family for those without supportive families. The more we can build these spiritual networks of trust and shared experience as well as engage whatever professional resources we can muster in and near our local communities, the more people will feel the power of the presence of Jesus in our personal and community lives. This is precisely the joy the Gospel brings: that we are not alone, He is among us, and we are together on the road to holiness and the promise heaven brings: where every traveler finds a home. 

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