Community—communion—is the fundamental building block of the Catholic faith. Christ draws us into himself to create the community of believers, a cloud of witnesses. Even more foundational is that God does this radically by offering the whole of himself to us in the Eucharist, becoming one flesh with us and, thus, making us one flesh with each other.
To receive Christ and each other, though, we must be open to each other. In our highly individualistic society, this can seem foolish or even dangerous. Our culture teaches us to value ourselves above all others, sometimes at the expense of others. In our polarized world, we are conditioned to make everyone else the “other,” and everyone consequently becomes a potential threat to our supposed freedom and autonomy. But it was not intended to be this way. From the beginning, God knew that it was not good for man to be alone and he gave us to each other. Pope Francis notes in Fratelli Tutti that “an individual and a people are only fruitful and productive if they are able to develop a creative openness to others” (41). We are meant for each other.
Dorothy Day often quoted a spiritual director who told her, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” This idea can be very difficult to accept, let alone practice! But Jesus himself said that to love others as we love ourselves is the second greatest commandment, after loving God with all our being (cf. Mark 12: 29-31). Christ is teaching us that to love God, we must love our neighbor. The roots of this teaching were already present in the days of Moses. In the Book of Leviticus, the Lord commanded, “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19: 33-34). Not only is loving our neighbor good, but it is how we put our love for God into practice.
As Pope Francis taught in Fratelli Tutti, Jesus “asks us not to decide who is close enough to be our neighbor, but rather that we ourselves become neighbors to all” (FT 80). This echoes what St. Paul wrote: “I have become all things to all, to save at least some” (1 Cor 9:22). We are to become who others need us to be. This is how we become neighbors. We go out to meet others, we don’t wait for them to come to us.
That said, we must remember, however, the risk of “losing oneself”—one’s identity—in the process. Mothers know this especially well! A mother puts her health, body, dreams, desires, and even basic needs on the back burner to provide for the health and safety of her child. It is easy to lose your sense of self in such circumstances. But a loss of identity can be a valid concern for anyone, depending on the circumstances.
Fratelli Tutti reminds us, “A healthy openness never threatens one’s own identity” (FT 148). As St. Paul understood, giving of ourselves does not diminish the self, but adds to it. Likewise, Pope Francis teaches the importance of having a healthy sense of identity. While he’s writing here about a society’s sense of cultural identity, this applies to individuals, as well:
“A living culture, enriched by elements from other places, does not import a mere carbon copy of those new elements, but integrates them in its own unique way. The result is a new synthesis that is ultimately beneficial to all, since the original culture itself ends up being nourished…The world grows and is filled with new beauty, thanks to the successive syntheses produced between cultures that are open and free of any form of cultural imposition” (FT 148)
Experiencing a “loss of identity” when we try to love our neighbors as ourselves is often an indication that there is a breakdown in fruitful and creative openness. This can happen on a small, personal scale, or on a larger, structural scale. But all can be mended! However, we must be willing to break down the old, non-functioning approach and build anew. “This requires us to place at the center of all political, social, and economic activity the human person, who enjoys the height of dignity, and respect for the common good” (FT 232).
During his 1995 visit to Baltimore, Pope St. John Paul II famously said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” What we ought to do as Christians is to take care of each other. We must work towards ensuring that all have access to basic necessities and the ability to grow and flourish. Pope Francis agrees:
“A truly human and fraternal society will be capable of ensuring in an efficient and stable way that each of its members is accompanied at every stage of life. Not only by providing for their basic needs, but by enabling them to give the best of themselves… [Solidarity] means thinking and acting in terms of community. It means that the lives of all are prior to the appropriation of goods by a few. It also means combatting structural causes of poverty, inequality, lack of work, land and housing, the denial of social and labor rights” (FT 110, 116).
What does such a society ensure? In the context of the United States, some basic examples include fair paid maternity and paternity leave; affordable healthcare for every person; a living wage and safe work conditions; comprehensive immigration reform; safe, affordable housing for all; debt forgiveness; an end to systemic racism and misogyny. And that’s just the beginning. The United States of America can only truly be the “land of the free” if our freedom is used to advance the good of all individuals to promote the common good. “Nowadays we are either all saved together or no one is saved” (FT 137).
When we celebrate Mass, we do so as a community of believers. We receive the Eucharist to be in communion with Christ and each other. We worship one God in three Persons, a communion of Persons. Everything about our faith is communal. The focus of our daily lives should be no different. As Catholics, we know that the kingdom of God surrounds us always:
“The parable [of the Good Samaritan] shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbors, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good…The parable clearly does not indulge in abstract moralizing, nor is its message merely social and ethical. It speaks to us of an essential and often forgotten aspect of our common humanity: we were created for a fulfillment that can only be found in love” (FT 67, 68).
As Catholics and Christians, let us follow the example of the early Church: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common…There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (Acts 4: 32, 34-35).
Love knows no bounds, colors, country, or constitution. Love is limitless, and we were created in and for love. Let us then open our hearts to our brothers and sisters. Let us unite with the lowliest and most vulnerable. Let us all work together, at every level of society, for the betterment of all. We were given to each other by God to care for one another. We are meant for each other.
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Theresa Zoe Williams is a writer with credits all over the Catholic inter-webs. She received her BA in Theology, Catechetics/Youth Ministry, and English Writing from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She has contributed to the books Catholic Hipster Handbook: The Next Level and Epic Saints: Wild, Wonderful, and Weird Stories of God's Heroes. And has written her own book, A Catholic Field Guide to Fairy Tale Princesses. She is Pennsylvanian by birth, Californian by heart, and in Ohio for the time being. She writes at The Future Patron Saint of Liars and Fakes at www.theresazoewilliams.substack.com. Yinz can find her on Twitter @TheresaZoe.