I had an odd thought at mass last Sunday: I don’t know the name of a single person in this room.
Now, most of us have probably realized something along those lines, when scraping into the last mass of the week. The odd thing is that this is my current parish. When I converted to Catholicism, the universal aspect of the liturgy was highly appealing (universal at least in terms of rite). I have attended mass in such distant lands as Italy, Ireland, Spain, and the Dominican Republic. I had the pleasure of attending mass and being able to follow the order in a language other than my native tongue, with the realization that all of us were doing what the Church does, saying what the Church says, and intending what the Church intends—from St. Peter’s Basilica to a church built out of mud bricks. But I was about as close to the faithful I met there as I am to my home parish. That struck me as anomalous.
My friend once quipped, “I like humanity well enough taken abstractly. It’s the individuals I have a problem with. There are plenty of individuals I don’t like. But in general, humanity isn’t so bad.” We were studying the difference between abstractions and particular instances in St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, which served as context for the brilliant irony. As the philosophers are so fond of reminding us, Socrates is not his humanity. Humanity is that abstract notion of what it is to be man in general. There is, of course, no one who is man in general. Man only exists in the specific, particular instantation of the individual. It’s quite easy to love the concept of man—and much harder to love any particular man.
The problem of universality and particularity arises when we consider the parish. Not the liturgy itself, as that is a ordination towards contemplation, to speak properly, but the parish as it is the intersection of material and spiritual life. The supernatural unity we find in the mystical Body of Christ, while retaining our own identity, is the ultimate solution to this conflict between the individual and society. However, man in this life is conflicted, experiencing a tension between his ability to know in universals and his experience in the particulars. To speak plainly: I am united to the Body when I receive communion, but on the practical parish level, I have no idea who any of these folks are that I’m awkwardly exchanging handshakes with each sign of peace.
This disjunction is hardly inconsequential. Part of the reason for the sacraments is, to paraphrase Aquinas, man’s mind tends to get distracted by pure abstraction—he needs something concrete, highlighting the importance of the sacraments in our faith and analogy and metaphor in philosophy. A man is certainly dead without his soul, but he is just as clearly dead without his body. The practical effect of the mystical Body of Christ is a community in the particular members who interact in their earthly life.
Now, I would like to pause a moment to respond to an objection that might be raised: the focus on the community has given us a mass that is focused so much on the Body we have lost our heads, and thus our Head. This is true. Too often we forget that our Faith is not merely a moral code for societal interaction—or as some might claim, regulation—but rather that it is a relationship with God through union with His Son. We focus so much on loving our neighbor that we forget the “for God’s sake” qualification. Pastorally, this has been a damaging teaching. But in fear of losing our heads for interactions based upon sentimentalism and muzak, we should not overshoot the mean by falling into the opposite extreme of holding community in the abstract.
Part of the fault lies in the common societal tendency towards individual autonomy. Now, being an individual is good—there isn’t really any other way to exist except in the individual. Largely, this comes from a lack of ties that bind. One of the detrimental effects of how our our school and work days are organized is that many young people have grown up for the past 20-some years interacting primarily with their contemporary peers. Without debating whether that reality is wholly good or wholly bad, we must acknowledge that the fact of employing an educational model that siphons students off from the larger society means that they lack a certain commitment to that community. Add on that many people work in locations far from their point of origin and family, and we have a greater freedom to build our own communities. In this way, we choose those with whom we interact, rather than engage those whom immediately surround us.
I have noticed this tendency in parishes as well: I may have nothing in common with anyone here except having God in common. Yet, one of the beautiful aspects of the parish is that it is designed to provide us a mini-society, in which we can love and be loved. In order for that to happen, the individuals must begin to show up. I would encourage you, if you are reading this piece, to introduce yourself to someone you have never spoken to after mass this week. Learn a bit about them. Community isn’t forced, and it isn’t abstract. Rather, it is a freely chosen interaction, one that requires such movement to originate in individuals' choosing to come together.
Perhaps God is the only reason any of us are in the same room. But then, as we are all wayfarers on our way to Him, we probably have a lot more in common than first glance might suggest.