A priest assigned to a city related once an experience he had while teaching what a community is among high school kids. He picked out a girl from the class and asked her if something important should happen to her who would be deeply affected by her action? The girl said, “You mean if I committed suicide or something?” The priest said yes, and without thinking for long, she pointed to a friend, and said, “Mary here and my mother at home.”
That was all. She could not think of any other person in that crowded room nor in the crowded neighborhood in which she lived. Not even one in the class raised his or her hand voluntarily to state that they too would be affected by the decision. Just two, “Mary and my mother.”
This is partly too our situation today here in our parish. Maybe it is not this small, “just two”. But everyday we experience that our sphere of affection and influence in our neighborhood is getting smaller as old families leave for places unknown and are replaced by new families coming from nowhere. Everyday life in the parish is slowly becoming “you’re there, I’m here existence”, nothing in between, no ties that bind, no affection beyond what is considered civil, just a plain old neighborhood - but not community.
In one of the faith-sharing we conducted in the barangays, an old woman in her 70’s expressed gladness that for the first time in her life, after living in that particular spot which she called home, she finally came “to know” her neighbors in a more intimate manner. Yes, she saw them everyday, but she never came to know their lives beyond their familiar faces. She is well-to-do with several cars in her porch and her neighbors who come to her house for their weekly sharing are mostly squatters. She would listen to their stories very intently so but during her turn to share she would just repeatedly tell everybody how glad she was to know them. That was all she could share and she would say that in different ways so many times. She may not have yet reached the stage where she could share her life more freely. But one could already sense the joy of the moment when one comes to realize what one has missed through all the years - living not just in a neighborhood or in a parish but in a community; worshipping not just in church or a cathedral but worshipping as a community.
The Need for a Community
A story was once told to us of a king wanting to know what would happen to a person who could not experience a “we” in life, of belonging to a human community. He started the experiment by segregating infants from their parents and from any human contact as soon as they were born. They were just left on their own except when they are given the basic care for their survival like being fed and cleaned. No one is supposed to touch them, cuddle them or baby talk them. A month or two later the babies deprived of any human contact, died.
I never had the time to check whether this story is fact or not. Regardless of this however the point of the story is true. A human being is born from the womb of society, into a community. It is the community that gives him life. It is the community that forms and nourishes him. It is the community that in a way develops how he thinks and relates. It is the community that develops him by forming expectations for him to follow. Even his individualism by which he asserts later on his independence from the community, is developed and is in a way granted by the community. And still later it is he who would develop in turn the future. We are the child of our society, and collectively we give birth to the child. And as we grow we need to interact the more. There is the constant need in us to assert that “we belong” and have to be with someone. An author expresses this truth by saying “ no man is an island, no man stands alone, every man is a continent, a part of the main.”
The Believing Community
In the church too every person is a child of the believing community. When we were baptized as infants we could not think on our own, speak on our own, act on our own, much less believe on our own. But when the priest ask the child “What do you ask from the church of God?” It is our parents, our godparents and the believing community which answers for us, “Faith.” From then on it is in the hands of the community that our spiritual growth is handed on.
Our baptism is not merely a call for personal salvation or self fulfillment but it is primarily an incorporation into the community called to salvation. In the Eucharist we come to Church not to relate individually with God as in “me and my God alone”. Rather we come to celebrate with our community, to celebrate our bond and unity as a people redeemed.
In the Church, in my community I don’t grow to do as I like, to believe what I want, to live as I like with the morality I want to live. I know I could not do that for I live in a believing community, nourished and formed by the same community. Even the bible which I read is handed down to me by the community, interpreted by the community, which I too must learn as I grow in my life of faith to believe and accept as my own. Later I will have to do my share to build the community by passing the same faith which I now call my own.
I come to a priest, the head of our community to ask forgiveness from my sins because I believe for a fact that since we are a community every sin which I commit does not only break my relationship with God but also with my community. And there in that little box the priest will accept me and forgive me not just in the name of God but in the name of the community whom I have wronged.
Finally, when I die I rest with my community who has gone before me and await with them the resurrection of the dead. However, my death does not mean that I break off from my community. When I die I am still within the ambit of the love of my community in the communion of the saints and those whom I left behind will pray for me. And when I come face to face with God in heaven, I will become even more fully and intimately entwined in the love and passion of the Blessed Trinity, the perfect community. And in there my bond with the earthly community continues as I participate in building up the pilgrim community through my intercession with God.
To be a Christian then, one has to live, to act, and to be in community. Thus, in the New Testament writings the followers of Jesus are called the new people of God, the mystical body of Christ, the koinonia (fraternity), a community of individuals guided by the Paraclete and a community of disciples personally attached to Jesus. We are called individually to form a community. Thus Joseph Bracken would write that “. . . salvation is to be achieved not simply through a person’s individual relationship with God but also and more significantly through an intensified life in community with other believers as members of Christ’s body.” “Communion is the highest point and the main aim of the divine plan of salvation” for salvation means to become like God who is not an individual person but a community of persons.
Thus, as in society, we are all products of the believing community, the church. We are as Fr. Tagle calls “an ecclesial being”formed by the community and who in turn as individuals are given the responsibility and are empowered to help and participate in giving birth to the church of the future.
Situation of Individualism
In our time there has been a rise in individualism. The causes are varied some coming from growing population, migration and other demographic changes. Others come from values which in the past have never been considered important. Nevertheless its presence is felt and has repercussions on the way we look at the church and act in it. And so today we see neighbors who are only familiar with each others faces. People who come to church whom we have not met and know before. Because of individualism people are no longer conscious that they are part of the believing community with its traditions and “culture.” So people come and believe whatever they want to, do whatever they want, create their own morality or follow one which is not of the community’s making, and sadly, still feel that they are part of the believing community.
In the spiritual life people are drawing back to the “I - Thou” relationship with God. Religious practices are becoming a private matter. Block rosaries are gone, the family devotions are gone. Even the public character of the sacraments were not spared. Private masses in offices are on the rise, invitation-only weddings (what makes it so private is the thought that every time we gather people we have to feed them, so we hush about it and hold it in a private but elegant chapel!), private baptisms, etc. Our masses today are so impersonal that it could hardly be called “a sign of unity and charity of the community”. You may not even know the person sitting next to you. Even religious organizations compete. We lose all sense of being community and doing things as a communal endeavor. It’s all pa-iyaiya, masig-masig and pabakas-bakas. So the church becomes a “sila” and no longer “kami.” But can we who are called to become a community and whose salvation is in the community, be saved if we separate ourselves from the community?
Today more than ever we are made aware that we are a community, called as individuals to be one and called as individuals to help and participate in the building up of this community. This is the main task of the congress. It will help us once more appreciate our common bond as a community, restore the ideals and make it work. Next week we continue with how to make this work.