Last week, Rod Dreher had a post up asking people why they decided to leave a church, instead of staying and fighting.
Mark Shea, on the other hand, has been pondering issues of friendship, particularly as they pertain to the Church, and has also been pointing to the experiences of some converts who particularly miss the warm social atmosphere of their former churches.
Why do I think these two discussions are connected?
Well, no one on Rod's site left any sort of comment indicating that they left the Catholic Church (or any other church, for that matter) because the people were just too d*** unfriendly. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that about their former church, whether they were converts to Catholicism or former Catholics. It's possible that Protestants who switch denominations may have this sort of criteria in mind, or at least in the back of their minds. For Catholics a truly unfriendly parish might be a reason for parish-hopping, but hardly a reason to sever one's ties with Rome.
That said, though, Mark's larger point about Christian friendship and Christian fellowship are quite relevant to the conversation which took place on the Crunchy Con blog. Perhaps no one leaves the Catholic Church over the parking-lot grand prix which takes place five-tenths of a second before Father's final blessing, but it can't be an encouraging sign to someone who is struggling with his Catholic faith, enduring an inner trial which in the end may be far less about doctrine and far more about emotion. A soul suffering from a darkness in his interior faith life will be particularly sensitive to the lack of ordinary Christian cheerfulness and the absence of a spirit of camaraderie in his own church; indeed, for a Catholic, this heightened sense that the other Catholics at Mass with him don't care about him, his struggles, the issues with which he's dealing, or indeed, any serious considerations regarding the faith at all, may be one of the devil's weapons turned against him to encourage him to fall away.
Unfortunately, there's not an easy solution to the problem of the disconnected Catholic, or the distant-seeming parish. Efforts have been made, many of them in recent times, to force a kind of fellowship on the Catholic parish which is not organic, which is not natural, and which in many circumstances is simply out of place. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not the time or place to have people stand up and introduce themselves, and say where they're from. Nor should the Catholic faithful have to run past a gauntlet of "greeters" on their way into the church for Mass; don't we do enough hand-shaking at the Sign of Peace? Other well-meaning programs have been tried, but aside from the tried-and-true coffee and donut gathering there hasn't been much success with efforts to create Catholic fellowship at the parish level.
Some of those who commented on Mark's post pointed to the notion that Catholics who get involved in things outside of Sunday Mass rarely feel the isolation of those who don't. Something as simple as daily Mass attendance can 'break the ice' and lead to the fostering of friendship among some Catholics. Others join the choir, become lectors, volunteer to help train altar servers or to wash altar linens, sign up for a telephone or e-mail prayer list; some go out under parish auspices into the wider community to help at crisis pregnancy centers, nursing homes, schools, and even prisons. While not everyone can do each of these things, most people can do at least one of them, and doing even one of these things can connect you to your parish in a way that simply wasn't a reality before.
But these ideas, good as they might be, still don't address the question of the disaffected Catholic. Such a person may have reached a point where they really don't want to be--to use a dreadful corporate term--proactive; they may not want to sign up for something which already exists or to meet with the pastor to suggest a new group, perhaps for the elderly or for young singles or for families with very small children, who may not be able to do the sort of volunteering I mentioned above. Moreover, if they are anything at all like some of the ex-Catholics who posted comments on the Crunchy Con blog, they may have reached a point spiritually where doing anything under the auspices of the Catholic Church seems distasteful to them; this may be regrettable, but it is nonetheless true.
This is why Catholic fellowship is as important as it is. The pastor of a large parish may, if he is a good, dedicated, hardworking priest, know the "spiritual pulse" of his parish and take quiet steps to help those struggling in the faith. But even such a pastor will not find it possible to know what each and every one of his parishioners' spiritual battles are, and in many cases those who are in the process of losing their faith don't even approach the pastor, or indeed any priest, with their spiritual darkness until it is already quite advanced, at which point even good, sound advice can seem like meaningless platitudes. For such a person, the benefits of having good Catholic friends who genuinely care about his spiritual well-being can hardly be overstated. At the very least, they will be able to direct him to seek appropriate spiritual guidance while such guidance may still prove helpful; at the most, they may have endured similar trials, and be able to offer insights culled from their own experiences which may be extremely helpful to the person who was beginning to be tempted to believe that no one had ever been asked to endure what he is enduring.
So how do we create, and foster, true Catholic fellowship, at the parish level and beyond?
When I talk to older Catholics, I'm always amazed by the number of Catholic associations of the lay faithful which were part of their lives. Some of these associations, like the Knights of Columbus, are still very visible, but others, like the Sodality of Our Lady, have all but disappeared. Still, the impression I get from many older Catholics is that Catholics in former days had a plethora of opportunities of service which, though operating with parish approval and guidance, extended beyond the parish level; many were members of these lay organizations and cheerfully devoted their time and prayers to the service of others. And by joining and associating with one or more of these organizations, lay Catholics were able to form smaller communities of friendship, fellowship and solidarity, which they then "carried with them," so to speak, when they gathered to worship at Sunday Mass.
It isn't necessary to reinvent the idea of the lay Catholic association. It is only necessary to resurrect it.