2008-11 ‘Growth Through Belonging’

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2008-11 ‘Growth Through Belonging’ 

It shows when we belong!

 

When I stay at a hotel, I almost always find a note placed on the towels in my bathroom on which is written in large

letters:“If you care, it will show”. A discreet but effective way to remind us that we all belong to the same planet earth and that

by saving water and the detergent necessary to clean the towels that we haven’t even used, we are contributing to the environmental cause.

 

I believe that this sense of responsibility that flows from our feeling of belonging extends to all other spheres of human activity.

When we truly feel like a “concerned party” in our family, in our school, in our city, in a club or on a project, it shows! Even if we are

sometimes bothered by it, we try to bring a little something of ourselves to whatever it may be, aware that the group will never develop without

the contribution of every person. In a word, everything begins with a feeling of belonging. It’s the same for the Church and more

particularly for the parish, the first place where we express our belonging to the Church.

 

Last May, when the members of the Diocesan Pastoral Council chose ‘Growth Through Belonging” as the theme for the

2008-2009 pastoral year, it seems to me that they were right on the mark. They asked a question of prime importance: Can we truly grow in

faith without belonging?.…

 

In all parishes there are definitely people for whom the feeling of belonging is very strong. They form a nucleus for whom adherence

and contribution are constant and sound. For others, this feeling is less obvious. They’ll participate in traditional activities but they will often do

it as consumers. If it’s not to their taste, they’ll find another ‘store’. In a circle beyond these people are those who still consider themselves to be

members of the Church but whose participation is practically nonexistent. Apart from Midnight Mass and other appearances when they

consider it appropriate such as: funerals, weddings and anniversaries, we’ll have trouble to find signs of belonging in them. Other circles can be

added to describe more or less degrees of belonging until they completely disappear off the radar screen. Perhaps they’re saying: “I’m keeping a

connection with the ‘Guy upstairs’, but as for the parish: forget that!

We hope that the reflections that followwill generate many others, as much in formal meetings, as in impromptu conversations or

those around the kitchen table.

 

Three points in particular draw our attention:

1. We do not belong as we did before.

2. Our feeling of belonging has much to do with how aware we are of our identity.

3. Finally, our belonging is an extraordinary means for growth.

 

1.

I no longer belong as I did before. “In our time we are noticing a generalized erosion of the community. Belonging to the family, to the

city, to the parish, to the nation is disintegrating, leaving the individual alone before the choices that he makes according to his tastes and

interests.” (Yves Cailhier,o.p.Communauté chrétienne, no. 14, p. 188)

 

It follows from this statement by a specialist on the subject, as from the observations of many sociologists that the feeling of

belonging has vastly altered over the course of recent decades due to the profound transformations of our society. Belonging is no longer a

‘passively received’ given that in the past structured the individual and defined his being, his identity, his religious beliefs and even his

behaviour. We are certainly marked by our milieu of origin and by our social and religious heritage. But it has been noted that today our

belonging has become much more active in the sense that each person chooses their ties of belonging or creates them from all

kinds of sources. Through the Internet we can become very good friends with a person from New Zealand whom we have never met. People

define themselves according to ‘their’choices rather than by what is already in place. In a word, from something natural that it once was,

belonging today has become much more selective. Without exaggeration we could say that in the past the individual felt at the service of

the common good that was ‘one’ with him and to which he almost automatically brought his collaboration. Today it seems that this

common good is entirely at the service of the individual. We remember the alarm that John F. Kennedy sounded for the American people in the

early sixties when he said: “Ask not what your  country can do for you but what you can do for your country”. How could the sign not

be seen in this challenge that a profound change was beginning to happen?

 

It goes without saying that these sociological givens had repercussions on the perception we developed regarding our belonging to the

Church and to our parish. There as elsewhere, belonging would have the tendency to become much more selective. At the same time we

also notice that the word ‘community’ had never been so much in style. News reports spoke continually about ethnic, artistic, Asian, linguistic,

s p o r t s , a c a d emi c , a b o r i g i n a l communities, of the European or international community, as if talking about it would make it a

reality…

 

Today we decide to belong. And the majority of the time, we decide according to what responds best to our own needs, even if it means

changing our mind when things change. The same reflexes are happening in the religious world.

 

2.A crisis of belonging linked to an identity crisis

 

During a marriage preparation weekend I asked a young couple: “Why do you want to marry in the church?” One

young man answered me without hesitation and with admirable frankness: “I’m not too sure! Besides, he added, I feel the same

way about my religion: I don’t know much anymore…” With simplicity and good humour we began to talk about the

question of ‘sacramental marriage’ and, to the extent that our discussion continued, I felt that a wonderful building was

beginning to take shape after its foundations had been shaken during a lengthy storm of questioning and doubts.

 

Perhaps it’s true that ‘we don’t know much anymore’ about what made Christ ian or iginal i ty and what characterizes us as

Christians. It’s not surprising that everything falls apart or resumes again with a few slogans that certainly express something interesting but

that can also come up short. For example we say: “I’m trying to love my neighbour”, Or “I’m trying to be honest” Or still

 “I say my prayers every night”. It means that the Christian infrastructure stays in place even if the building often seems shaky. Do

these slogans speak in a sufficiently clear way about the Christian originality?In his Encyclical: The Mission of Christ Redeemer, Pope

John Paul II guards us against an exclusively human conception of the Kingdom of God that would be reduced to justice, freedom and

brotherhood. He said:“This conception has some truth to it but it becomes false when it is exclusive. The Kingdom is accomplished in

 the person of the risen Christ, inseparable from his body, which is the Church.. From here comes the distinction we make between the

“seeds” of the Kingdom present in every man and woman of good will and the “accomplishment” of the Kingdom made visible by Christians

when the latter live the values of the Kingdom ‘as Church’, in the name of Christ. (nos.16-18)

 

Building the Kingdom is an undertaking of the Holy Spirit who uses his Church in a very special way to bring it to a successful

conclusion in time and space. Now let’s say this again: the parish with its strengths and limitations remains for people as a whole the place

where they concretely live out this “as Church” that John Paul II talked about. For Christians, the parish is an invaluable gift ‘to choose’

in faith in order to live according to who we are and to accomplish the mission that Christ entrusted to us. The parish is like the main root of

the tree that we are and that we are called to become.

 

Remember how the first communities of Christians discovered their originality:

 

a) First of all they became aware that they were distinguishable from the Jewish community. For this reason they abandoned

the practice of circumcision for those who were not of Jewish origin.

 

b) Then they discovered that they formed a people. Saint Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,

male nor female, for you are all ONE in Christ Jesus.”(Ga.3:28) Outside of the synagogues that they had continued to a

ttend until the start of the 80s, the new Christians did not spread out in all directions but gathered together again to listen to the Word

and to share the Bread right into the catacombs in order to avoid persecution. For them this was a fundamental expression of their identity.

 

c) Gradually, these same new Christians discovered that their faith in Jesus Christ was inseparable from the desire to

witness for Him. For example: through the letters of Saint Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, we realize that the Gospel was no

longer carried simply by the leaders, the leaders of the Church but also by the communities as a whole to the point where the community of

Antioch itself sent Paul to Cyprus and into Asia Minor. It seemed that the missionary task was truly put back into the hands of all the baptized.

They had the desire to be, with others, leaven in the dough of the world.

 

Even the vocabulary that Paul used when speaking of the people of his communities seems very inspiring to me: he uses the word brothers to

designate the baptized. (Rm. 8:16; Ph.4:11) This was a way of saying that from then on, by virtue of Baptism, they recognized

themselves as members of the same family. Paul will even use the very tender expression:‘brothers whom I love and long for’ (1Co 51,58;

Ph.4,11).

 

 To designate the baptized, Paul also uses the word‘saints’ that he finds in Psalm 34:10 where those who seek refuge in the

Lord are spoken of as saints. He will also use the words: ‘elect’ or ‘called’ not so that Christians become proud of themselves

but simply so that they know in all humility who they are and how their baptism radically altered their

identity.

 

d) Finally, through their life experience, the first Christians discovered that without true belonging to their community,

they would not be able to fully welcome the new life that Jesus had come to bring them nor respond to the mission that had been entrusted to

them. For them, faith included a manner of being essentially social. Putting on Christ – allusion to Baptism –meant entering a

community that was the tangible expression of that unity in Christ. The Community would offer space in order to live out the

call of the Gospel.

 

While becoming integrated to it, they were learning behaviours that were those of Christ: “ as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,

clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances

 you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in

perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be

 thankful.” (Col. 3: 12-15)

 

Their belonging to the community was an element of great pride. It fed their courage in difficult times and produced a

joy for living that their compatriots noticed and admired. There is a reason why the author of the letter to the Hebrews said: “ Let us not

give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the

Day approaching.”(Heb. 10:25) The “day” in this context, is the presence of the Lord in the midst of his people whom they encounter in faith

and who comes to transform everything.

 

3. Belong in order to grow

It’s natural for every human being to always seek to grow, to become more. But in the

society we live in, we often tend to measure human growth more through independence than through belonging.

 

It seems that the ideal for a human being is no longer to depend on anyone or any thing, to have sufficient financial reserves to pay

for all the services he or she would need. Certainly we keep good and warm contacts with our loved ones and friends but we take all kinds of

precautions to avoid ‘getting involved’. We end up looking like unlimited small and isolated islands. Making one large island out of all

of these small ones is not only a colossal human and spiritual task but also an extraordinary opportunity for growth for each individual and for

the group as a whole. Others help me to become what I am and to develop potentials that could have stayed hidden under a bush for a

long time. If, without others I am not able to reach my full stature as a human being, then without the faith of others, I will not

be able to reach my full stature as a believer.

 

While journeying through the Bible we quickly perceive that God did not make a covenant with one or more individuals but

with a people. “…out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” (Exodus 19:5) For his part, Jesus did not

begin by naming leaders but by gathering some disciples around him, teaching them to love one another, to welcome one another, to help one another, to

forgive one another and to celebrate. Saint Paul develops this idea of belonging to a people by comparing us to a body, each member of which is important.“So

 in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”(Rom. 12: 5-6) Then he continues in his first letter to

the Corinthians: “ If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part

of the body.” (1 Cor. 12: 12-31)

 

Briefly, others in the Bible make up part of my identity by the fact that we are all members of the same family so that

believing without belonging becomes meaningless. On the contrary, I will grow to the extent that in openness and simplicity I bring to

others the talents that I have received and I welcome the talents of others, especially their faith. This wellknown complementarity, received and

celebrated, especially when it is attached to a common mission, the one of building a Kingdom, becomes the source of growth and development for each

person.

 

What remains is to manage the various forms of involvement with all the other commitments that are sometimes badly positioned

with those of the community and making reasonable accommodations that will facilitate the identification and attachment of each person to a

community.

 

Conclusion:

It may be that our decision to belong demands a conversion. My first reflex might perhaps be to say: “It won’t hurt

me to belong on condition that it doesn’t bother me too much.” But belonging will always bother us, just as love does. We might also tend to

say: “I’ll belong when others decide to change.” Have we forgotten that love must always take precedence and express itself in terms of

welcome, forgiveness, collaboration, service, joy, hope etc.

 

More than one year will be needed to rediscover or strengthen our feeling of belonging. There are so many obstacles to

overcome! But I think that with a theme such as this one, we are touching on an element that goes to the very heart of our Christian and

ecclesial life. If there’s a small ‘conversion’ to be done, let’s not be frightened by this word. It forms an integral part of our faith journey. If I

belong to my parish, it should show.

______________________________________

+Paul Marchand, S.M.M. / Bishop of Timmins

 

Questions for continuing the reflection:

1. What words come to mind when I try to express belonging to my parish?

2. For what reasons do you choose to remain catholic?

3. Was there ever a time in your life when you felt you did not belong?

4. What made you come back?

5.What made you stay?