Monday, October 10, 2016

The Church and the Lost Art of Belonging

Students Apple Picking Together
This past Sunday morning, a group of college men gathered for breakfast at the BU Catholic Center and began our semester long discussion based on the HBO series, "Band of Brothers." The basic idea for the semester is to watch segments of a great series and to draw lessons from it to help us in our own Catholic life.  One thing immediately strikes me about that series.  While the men who fought in the Second World War certainly had noble ideals, what probably inspired such heroic acts from them were not the result of the politics of the day or the inspirational speeches of their leaders. What gave them the courage to fight and to risk their lives was their love for their fellow soldiers.

Since arriving at the Newman Center at Boston University a few years ago, I've been consistently impressed by the Catholic formation of our students. Devotion to the Sacraments, a prayerful spirit, hunger for understanding the Faith, and a zeal to share that Faith with others are all part of our life together.  But recently, something else has struck me as being one of the most important aspects of our community.

We live at at time when we are relentlessly bombarded by images, tweets, posts, updates, and are virtually connected to everything and everyone. Although our virtual connections seem limitless, our real connections are disappearing. We all know what Donald Trump said ten years ago on a bus, but we don't know the person next to us. We know every off the cuff comment that the pope makes, but we don't know about the lives of the people sitting next to us at Mass. We know what Hollywood stars are having marital difficulties, what factions are fighting in the Vatican, and every "breaking news" story all over the world.  We are "connected" to things far away, but we are increasingly disconnected from the reality right in front of us.

At the Catholic Center, students learn how to live friendship. Once a week, we have a pasta dinner where scores of students enjoy a
meal together. During the nice weather, we set up tables on the sidewalk in front of our building. It is a great sight seeing dozens of college students eating and engaging in long, joyful conversations together.  They meet in small group bible studies, a weekly women's group, and a men's group. They feed the homeless together, go on mission trips together, and worship together. They meet up to play sports together, go to the movies together, hang out, and have coffee together and today, about forty of them went apple picking together.

It seems that increasingly people don't have a sense of belonging. For most of history, people learned how to belong by being part of small communities.  People belonged to their families, their parishes, and their towns. People's experience of "the Church" was usually related to their local parish, and their experience of government was mostly local. Today, instant news and communication gives us the illusion of being connected, but it doesn't teach us the art of belonging. Nothing is required of us. We hit "like" or "share," or we watch a clip of a news story, but then we move on. The sense of belonging is slipping away from us. The Church, the government, and now even our friends are more like entertainment (and not always even good entertainment) that we tune into when we feel like it rather than communities to which we truly belong. 

Belonging requires commitment and work. It requires feeling an obligation to the others. It involves doing things together, spending time together, and true communication. It means working together and relaxing together. It involves serious conversations and not merely banter or complaining. Belonging builds up the individual and, in turn, builds up the community. Today, even those in the Church are losing that sense of belonging. Too much focus on ecclesiastical politics turns the Church into another distant news category that people can tune in and out of as they see fit. Instead, we have the opportunity to provide something that is desperately missing from people's lives. We have the opportunity to provide a way for people to belong, and there is nothing better than belonging to the Body of Christ.

At a moment in time when the world is more virtually connected than ever, people are starving for real connections. So many people feel alone and isolated. They hunger to belong. One of the things that has so impressed me about the men and women at the BU Catholic Center is that they help one another to belong to our community. They belong well together and they welcome others into this belonging. I'm more committed than ever to my conviction that the way to build up the Church is to live a friendship together. If we want to build up the Church, we cannot underestimate the importance of particularity. People are hungering not for "community" in some vague way. They need a particular community. They need particular faces to whom they belong, people who love and care for them, who visit them when they are ill, who know them, and live life with them. People who have ever shared this joyful and grace-filled experience of living the friendship of the Church together would look around and gratefully say, "We belong together."

1 comment:

  1. God bless you, Father Barnes! This is so very, very — manifestly — true. Know you are prayed for by many, not least by those to whom you once gave a first home in the Catholic Church.