Catholic Community: The Widest Canvas

Oct 3, 2020 | 4 comments

In commenting on an earlier feature – Why Parish? – Neil Bray asked ‘what do we mean by Catholic Community?’ Asked to consider giving us a new feature on that subject, Neil sent us what follows: a summary of, and reflection on the celestial as well as the earthly ‘people of God’.

In reality, the most complete concept of Catholic Community is The Communion of Saints – the blessed in Heaven, the faithful on earth and the souls in Purgatory.  The overall responsibility of this community is to satisfy God’s requirement to give glory and praise to his name.  The Sacrifice of the Mass is the event at which this community comes together in the most all-embracing fashion to realise this divine requirement.

These three constituent parts of the Catholic community differ from each other.  The “faithful on earth” dimension is the only one where giving praise and glory to God is an exercise laden with living in an internal battle between good and evil in a corruptible body with a fickle soul, in a world which despite all its obvious instances of goodness is still a corrupt world, also struggling with the battle between good and evil.  The balancing item of course is God’s providence and his absolute concern for the wellbeing of every aspect of every person’s life, including those whose existence is regarded as an affront to respectability.

So the Catholic community already exists.  It is a reality superseding cosmic dimensions.  On the level of the cosmic, the baptised Catholic is a member of an integrated, universal and divinely designed brotherhood/sisterhood and not just of a local, congregationalist community.  Catholic life has to be lived locally but the universal reality is a necessary concept for a more complete understanding of how the living is to be done.

Just as Abraham did not create the “great nation” neither can human beings invent and create the Catholic community.  Today believers are where they find themselves.  As far as life on this side of the grave is concerned the question is one of how to participate in the Catholic community, how to be a branch on the divine vine, in a manner that gives praise and glory to the name of God.  And in the current time, Catholics are told that this involves becoming missionaries.  But on what basis do they give witness?

Martin Buber writes about an adherent of the Enlightenment, a Jewish man who resisted the faith, visiting the Rabbi of Berditchev to shatter the latter’s proof of the truths of his faith.  After an initial utterance which startled the visitor (more of which below) the rabbi told him that the “great scholars of the Torah … were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and neither can I.”

No one can lay God and his kingdom on the table before another person; even the believer cannot do it for him/herself.  But does this rule out all plannability as part of the task of religion?  A brief reflection on the history of philosophy can be added here in terms of three phases thereof.

In medieval and more ancient times the dominant philosophy tended to consider all being as the product of the thought of God.  Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and human reason derives from the thought of God which is truth and therefore has meaning.  Consequently, individuals can think through the meaning of being and find truth.  Philosophy made room for the metaphysical, for the eternal.

But philosophy later rejected the idea that the task of the human mind is to think about being, judging the human mind incapable of doing so.  It was claimed that all that can be known and understood is what human beings themselves have made.  Only questions related to matter, motion and time were deemed knowable.  The focus was not on eternity but on the past, on history.  Consequently, human beings were no longer in a position to look beyond themselves. But with the onset of Darwinism, they had to learn to accept themselves as merely a chance occurrence.

This could not suffice and needed to be allied to a second principle based on the future and on what human beings could create therein.  The idea was to be able to make themselves into whatever they wished themselves to be.  A newly created person was plannable.  There was no need to consider God as outside the range of plannability.

This is what modern philosophy attempts to “lay … on the table.”  It is reminiscent of an idea once put to Adam and Eve.

In effect, Catholicism unites the three phases into one.  The catalyst for this harmony is the gift of faith.  Catholics can benefit from the advances in knowledge in the areas of matter, motion and time and indeed to contribute to such.  Faith confers a  far more comprehensive enablement – to develop knowledge of God and contribute to its dissemination.  Furthermore Catholicism has always entertained the responsibility to change the world, but in a manner in accord with the thought of God.  Those who convert to Catholicism from within Catholicism itself and from without do so in the belief that Christ founded the Church to continue his work in earth of representing the thought of God to humanity.

The varied translations of Isaiah 7:9 (ESV – “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all”) indicate that faith in God appears as a holding on to God through which an individual gains a firm foothold for his/her life.  Faith means taking a stand trustfully on the ground of the word of God.  Essentially it is entrusting oneself to that which has not been made by oneself and never could be made and which precisely in this way supports and makes possible all human making.

In this context the following paraphrased from Fr James Schall is relevant.  The Catholic distinction, in short, is that it is a truth addressed to human reason.  It is a truth we did not give to ourselves, but one given to us as a gift, a gift of light.  Kingdoms rise and fall.  But the narrative of the importance of each individual remains the same in all regimes.  We are not mere mortals.  No lasting city is found among us.  All men die no matter how long they live.  And all are promised resurrection according to God’s graces and their choices of how they lived their lives.  All have been offered mercy and forgiveness, but not a free ride in which they will be all right no matter what they do.  The Catholic difference is that, in the end, no other difference counts.

If one considers how one should contribute to the Catholic community, one can think of umpteen different options along with prayer, the sacraments and the option for the poor.  Here just four will be considered.

  1. St Paul exhorted the Philippians to be persuaded by love to “be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind” (Phil 2:2). Arising from this and all the above is the need to have one’s conscience in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church. While Amoris Laetitia stresses the importance of personal conscience it promotes strongly the need to conform conscience to God’s word and commandments.  (Paragraphs 222, 265, 300, 312, among others, together with Familiaris Consortio 32).
  2. Since the Sacrifice of the Mass is among other things the meeting place of the Communion of Saints it has to have a special place in any individual’s thinking on faith and belief. It has to be a constant focus of enquiry for everyone in the Catholic community. The most important aspect is that of Sacrifice.  But countless other considerations arise.  For instance Catholic living for most is done between Sabbaths.  This is where the personal syndromes of “transfiguration”, “gethsemane”, “calvary” and “seven times a day” occur.  Peace is what one is bid at the end of the liturgy.  This is what people desire most in the interval until the next Penitential Rite.  The text of the Communion Rite in the Roman Missal serves as an enriched source of reflection on peace both as a chore and as a gift.
  3. The Amazonian Synod provided the opportunity to make every argument for a change in the Church’s stance on celibacy. I’m not sure if the media synod corresponded with the real thing, but a change seemed a foregone conclusion. It is possible that the Pope having provided the said opportunity, looked over the brink and withdrew.  This in light of a press conference in January 27, 2019 where he stated “I would rather give my life than change the law on celibacy…. Personally I think that celibacy is a gift for the Church.  Second I don’t agree with allowing optional celibacy, no.”  The gift the Pope cites is twofold.  It pertains to the transcendence of the ministry of the ordained priesthood which has been dumbed down in recent decades.  It also reveals the basis of a richness of life the laity can aspire to, particularly in married life.  It is a necessary focus of study for the “faithful on earth.”

Lastly when the Rabbi of Berditchev’s visitor entered the room, the rabbi delayed acknowledging his presence, then looked at him fleetingly and said “perhaps it is true after all.”  This simple utterance unsettled the visitor, and indeed, for that matter, perturbs all a-theists.  Fr Paddy Byrne has expressed the view on national radio that a-theism tends to lose its vigour at the approach of the hour of death.  Is it within the gift of the Catholic community to speed up the process?  Perhaps yes, depending on the responses of the individual Catholic when the proverbial “knock on the door” serves him/her with a discernible invitation to conversion or renewal or penance or action.

Neil Bray
September 2020


  1. soconaill

    Is there no evangelical downside to presenting Our Father as first of all ‘requiring’ that he be glorified – rather than that we realise first of all that we are lovable and were never unloved?

    Aidan Hart’s feature article on this site – ‘First Comes the Experience of God’s Unconditional Love’ – expresses this idea perfectly for me. So does St Thomas Aquinas’s contention that God is not offended unless we harm ourselves, the poem ‘The Hound of Heaven’ – and Jesus’s love for the lost sheep.

    There is for me too much of the Trump rally in the insistence that God’s first thought as creator was that he himself be glorified by us – rather than that he created us to delight in us, sees us always ‘far off’, and somehow also sees to it that we find our way back when we stray.

    The greatest ever theological mistake, for me, was St Augustine of Hippo’s exegesis of the parable of the wedding feast and the reluctant guests, in the Gospel of Luke (14:23). Augustine’s ‘Letter to Donatus’ – to justify coercion of the Donatists – argued that here Jesus was justifying the ‘compelling’ of someone into the Christian sheepfold – and that remained the justification for the entire history of theological oppression and inquisition throughout the centuries of Christendom. Its continuing power as a font of atheism is also obvious – for example in the fiction of Philip Pullman, especially ‘His Dark Materials’ – ongoing on the BBC and extraordinarily popular with children.

    For me Jesus suffered crucifixion because he could NOT compel anyone to come in, in the sense understood by Augustine. He had turned down that option at the very beginning of his ministry, in his rejection of the kingdoms of this world – those built by military conquest. Only from that perspective can I find myself freely glorifying Our Father God among the company of Heaven.

    • AIDAN

      Neil, sociologically the term ‘community’ has several levels of meaning, each with its own aims and objectives.

      When you say, “the Catholic community already exists” you are obviously correct at the lowest level of it being a world-wide and eternal community. However, at the much higher level of community in my previous article ‘Why Parish?’, community has to mean a lot more than parishioners knowing that they belong to a universal Church and gathering together as a worshipping crowd for Sunday Mass. Eucharist has a strong community, interpersonal dimension as well as personal dimension, the former often poorly realised.

      Is the level of parish a vibrant, life-giving community? Does it go beyond being a group of Catholics belonging and practicing the same faith, vitally important as that is, being the foundation of the Church.

      The parish as community needs to be closer to the highest level community exemplified in the best of families, moving from the head (theology) to the heart (relationships), from a belief system to a vibrant, mutually loving and mutually supportive community where parishioners relate to and support each other in a variety of ways and feel a strong sense of belonging and desire to participate. A parish with a vibrant sense of community will organise and encourage active participation in a wide variety of activities, which seek to enhance parishioners’ varying spiritual, liturgical, scriptural, catechetical, evangelical and social needs. These activities, along with organising the parish’s finances, employment of staff, building maintenance and repairs etc., should be organised by an appropriately commissioned and trained Parish Pastoral Council and will help parishioners connect with one another and to support each other and the parish in many and various ways. They will help the parish community to be a truly biblical community, where each reaches out in Christ’s love to the other.

      A spiritual, life-giving and vibrant parish community needs to build a strong sense of belonging – to the universal Church and to the local parish church. It needs to look outwards as well as inwards. It will create a strong awareness that God is lovingly present in us and in all others, both inside and outside the parish community.

  2. Cornelius Bray

    My thanks to Sean and Aidan for granting me a response.

    In the relation to the centrality of praising and glorifying the name of God it’s not an either/or situation between my article and Sean’s reply. The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes a section to what it terms “THE WORLD WAS CREATED FOR THE GLORY OF GOD” and includes the following:

    293 Scripture and Tradition never cease to teach and celebrate this fundamental truth: “The world was made for the glory of God.” St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things “not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it”, for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: “Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand.”

    My own attention to God’s desire to be glorified was sparked years back of by three verses in Exodus 14 represented by “I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD.” In a previous age he was none too pleased when the first human beings sought to glorify themselves rather than him.

    Subsequently I found that The Bible is awash with references to the glorification of God. Some internet sites facilitate listings of such including: Leviticus 10:3; Isaiah 26:15; Isaiah 44:23; Isaiah 49:3; Isaiah 60:21; Isaiah 61:3; Isaiah 66:5; Ezekiel 28:22; Ezekiel 39:13; Daniel 5:23; Haggai 1:8; Matthew 9:8; Matthew 15:31; Mark 2:12; Luke 4:15; Luke 5:26; Luke 7:16; Luke 13:13; Luke 17:15; Luke 23:47; John 7:39; John 11:4; John 12:23; John 12:28; John 13:31;

    John 14:13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. John 15:8 Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. John 17:4 I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do. John 17:10 And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them; Acts 4:21; Acts 11:18; Acts 13:48; Acts 21:20; Galatians 1:24; Thessalonians-2 3:1; Hebrews 5:5.

    One reference is quite categorical: “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). I list all these by way of suggesting that giving praise and glory to the name of God is absolutely central to God’s wishes.

    The text of the Missal teems with similar references, not to speak of the first verse of the Magnificat. The motto of St. Ignatius Loyola was Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam “For the Greater Glory of God”. The phrase appears countless times in his writings.

    As Aidan states I highlighted the sociological reality of the Catholic community, albeit without reference to the reception of the sacrament of baptism. But my article includes references to change in “accord with the thought of God” and the importance of conversion, renewal, penance and action, on foot of attending “to the proverbial knock on the door.” Similarly the last four bulleted points indicate the importance of the formation of conscience for creating unity of mind and heart, of the Sacrifice of the Mass for sustenance of community, of understanding celibacy as one source of enlightenment for living the spiritual life, and of the benefit of the Church being a source of truth for those within and without her membership. Aidan adds further important considerations.

    I think there is merit in a previous Pope’s observation of a historical tendency for the Church faithful to be comprised of a “great mass of nominal believers and a relatively small number of people who had entered into the inner movement of belief … For many the adventure of the word Credo is as least as much concealed as disclosed.” How to evaluate one’s own reality in this context? (“Look not on our sins but on the faith of the Church” – of the Communion of Saints – rather than focussing on the misdeeds of the faithful on earth).

    Thus as a neophyte in terms of parish structure, my own attempted practice insofar as it is has any impact at all is to “pray, pay and obey”, to attempt contribution to any Catholic parish project that occurs, be it organisational, financial or religious – all as aids to the ministry of the priest and to enabling parishioners to avail of the sacramental life of the Church.

    Aidan’s sentence “The parish as community needs to be closer to the highest level community exemplified in the best of families” catches the attention. It is important to note the differences in internal relationship that characterise community and family. The family has three types of love – eros, agape and affection. Catholic community relies primarily on agape – self-giving.

    By its very nature the Church, while set in the human element, provides scope to look beyond the human and engage in a transcendent look at any form of community within the Church. This is the unity as outlined by Christ in John 17, a message “to lift up your hearts” to the interaction within the Blessed Trinity and seek guidance and vigour therein to drive the formation of community. These latter two points are inherent in a lot of what Aidan writes.

    Some people participate in more than one form of community within the Church. After the World Youth Day in Australia, I remember a young twenty-something female recall the sheer joy of uninhibited interaction within groups sharing the positive joys of Catholicism while travelling on different modes of public transport over the week in question. Similarly I once attended a Sacrifice of the Mass in a church packed with twenty-somethings in Bordeaux. They attended there each Sunday evening. The intensity of the prayer and reverence was palpable. So was the sight of the large human gathering outside the Church afterwards. Not that it was perfect. But these instances were Trinitarian-type outcomes of grace invigorating human attempts in the difficult task of forming community.

    In terms of structures within Catholic community I have to say that I am wary of any form of such that creates the equivalent of genetic change within the hierarchical reality of the Church. Nor does Aidan seem to advocate such in his comment.

  3. soconaill

    You are quite right to see that our need to give glory to God is paramount, Neil – given our tendency instead to seek glory from one another!

    But just now the Lord is showing us how community rests in the present on personal sacrifice, on the ‘cathedrals’ of hospitals – and even on the cathedral of the family home where we give to one another the care we need to stay well and hopeful. Pope Francis’s latest ally for the New Evangelisation catches the moment.


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