Diversity in Community

Religion 185


Pastoral Direction For Faith Fellowship and Group Formation
Father James Chelich – March 2009

1. Building Authentic Catholic Diversity

God has incredibly blessed our parish by bringing among us many individuals with talents and personal gifts of all sorts – gifts for inspiring, encouraging and helping to form a life of Catholic faith, action and holiness in their fellow parishioners. In some of these individuals God has fostered a devotion for serving children, youth and young adults. In others, God as fostered a devotion for serving their peers in single life, in married life, or in family life. And in yet others, God has fostered a devotion for serving those who contend with illness, pain or confusion.

Often these individuals form groups and circles of fellowship which follow specific programs for building up Catholic faith and life in one another. These groups and programs sometimes take their inspiration from one or another of the untold number of spiritual leaders, writers and saints that fill the history of the Catholic Church from the beginning down to contemporary times. The variety and beauty of these spiritual fellowships with their varied paths to authentic Christian holiness and justice is something to be valued and a source of delight. It is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in a community of Catholic faith.

It is my charge, as a priest and your pastor, under the scrutiny and direction of our bishop, to shepherd this rich diversity in a way that leads each element in it toward a mutual respect and support for one another, and into a collaboration that contributes to the unity and growth of our parish community as a whole. In the largest dimensions of this task and in long range planning, I seek the counsel of the members of our Pastoral Council. I ask six things of any group that wishes to become active in our parish:

  1. Their mission, goals and programs in must in no way foster dissent
    in the Church, but rather promote Catholic faith, unity and life.
  2. If they are affiliated with a larger network of groups outside our parish, their presence and activity in our parish and diocese must be known to our bishop and approved by him.
  3. Their mission, goals and programs need to be in harmony with our parish mission, and they must be communicated to the parish at large.
  4. They must be willing to welcome and include all in our parish who are sincerely interested in being part of them.
  5. They must cooperate with our parish structure of accountability and our parish facility scheduling rules.
  6. They may in no way foster rivalry with other similar groups or ministries

in our parish, but respect and encourage those participating in them.

I believe that these parameters create and sustain an Authentic Catholic Diversity.

2. Sin and Two Dangers it Poses for a Community of Faith

I have found that where a grace begins to grow, a sin often also appears that wants to defeat it. As a pastor, I have learned to keep my eyes open and my ears alert. Saint Paul writes in the Letter to the Galatians:

It is obvious what proceeds from our flesh in bondage to sin…
hostilities, bickering, jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries,
factions, envy…and the like. I warn you, as I have warned you before:
those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21

Not only will those who do such things not inherit the kingdom of God, they will destroy
the unity of the faith community in the process, by fostering resentment and animosity in the hearts of its members. Human nature is broken and fallen in us all. There are no exceptions. Our human nature is redeemed by Jesus, and it is restored to right order in so far as we turn
to Jesus in faith, and walk with him in an open-hearted discipleship. If we don’t, our old and broken human nature will quickly rise and show itself in our attitudes, words and actions.
This happens in all sorts of ways, but perhaps two are most pertinent to the subject of ministries and groups active in our parish.

On the one hand…

…people who belong to a particular group or are engaged in a particular ministry can come
to believe that the group or activity that they are involved in, or the ministry that they are called to exercise, is somehow superior to others. They have a hard time believing that the good things that they are doing are “really good” unless they are somehow “better” than the good things others are doing. Being “better than someone else” gets stuck at the core of their spiritual identity. This leads them to look for and point out the deficiencies in what others are doing so that they can feel good about what they themselves are doing. Saint Paul saw this sin wanting to tear apart the Church in his own time:

I have been informed…that you are quarreling among yourselves.
This is what I mean: One of you will say, “I belong to Paul,”
Another, “I belong to Apollos,” still another, “Cephas has my allegiance,”
and the fourth, “I belong to Christ.” Has then Christ been divided into parts?
Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Was it in Paul’s name that you were baptized?
…Let there be no factions; rather be united in mind and judgment. 1 Corinthians 1:11–13, 10b

The fact is that some people will grow in the knowledge of Christ and be formed in Christian character through participation in a Faith and Friendship Group. Some will do the same through our Social Justice Advocacy Group. Some will do so through Koinonia, some through one of the Regnum Christi fellowships, some through a Bible Study or a Charismatic Prayer Group. Many will do so though a combination of several of these. And some will grow into great holiness and Christian maturity simply by attending Mass, reading the Scriptures, praying daily, and exercising themselves in doing justice and performing acts of charity – without belonging
to any group at all. We are not all made the same. The Catholic Church, throughout its long and ancient history, has understood this. That is why the Church has such an immense wealth of truly Catholic spiritualities, spiritual fellowships, apostolates and ministries. If you are “Catholic,” you need to understand this and respect it. Hopefully you will come to love it. Jesus makes it clear that a sense of superiority toward any individual Catholic, group or fellowship striving for holiness has no place in the mind or heart of his disciples (See Luke 9:46-50). It likewise has no place in a Catholic parish.

On the other hand…

…people who don’t belong to a particular group or fellowship sometimes become
jealous of and resentful toward people who do. They begin saying things like, “they are exclusive” or “they are too conservative.” And, if a group happens to attract a lot of interest, they say: “This is becoming a So and So Parish – if you don’t belong you’re not welcome.” Seeing someone else achieve grow in any talent or skill – virtue and holiness included – makes some personalities very self-conscious and sometimes defensive about their own progress or lack of it in that regard. Sometimes they become actively oppositional toward anyone who is growing and changing in a way they are not. The reasons for this can be found in our psychological development and in our sin-prone human nature. If any group at Saint Thomas Parish were truly becoming exclusive, or were engaging in rivalries based upon a conviction of being superior, this would be an immediate concern to myself and the Pastoral Council. But it should be clear that a group is not “exclusive” just because someone decides to start saying that it is, nor are they fostering rivalry based upon a conviction that they superior just because someone says they are.