Building and Nourishing Community
There is nothing like the Real Presence to experience being part of a faith community
A few months ago, I was speaking to someone affiliated with a school. They were rejoicing in the good news of their annual auction. Because of COVID-19, this one-day event was transformed into a four-day online auction. The financial outcome was so profitable that the school official suggested that the online auction become the norm.
I think we all value “the bottom line.” It is always helpful in any fundraising event to make money for the good of the institution. But, excuse the pun: At what cost? So many of our church fundraising efforts are really, more than anything else, community builders. Auctions, festivals, bake sales, fish fries and themed dinners can all be financially lucrative. Beyond the financial benefits, however, these events help to build and nourish the community. They bring people together and allow us to be Church. The real “bottom line” is that we are a community of believers all seeking to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
It is hard to imagine the Church without community. Sadly, in a myriad of ways the pandemic has threatened our sense of community as many of our events have been reduced to online encounters. That very phrase, “online encounter,” seems like an oxymoron, for an encounter suggests something real and personal.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in this regard centers on livestreaming the holy Mass. I know the sick and shut-in rely upon TV Masses inasmuch as they are unable to be in physical attendance. No doubt, we all, as priests, have taken our turn celebrating these electronic Masses for the sick. The capability to transmit the Mass into people’s homes through the magic of technology was a godsend, especially when we all found ourselves in a time when we were unable to have public Masses. While this venue was not the same, nonetheless, for those weeks, livestreaming the Mass brought peace to many homes and hearts.
Much like the online auction mentioned above, there are a number of people who find participating in a livestreamed Mass more convenient, comfortable and more beneficial to their lifestyle. But this experience of praying the Mass is clearly not the same as being there and receiving Our Lord in the holy Eucharist in person. In addition, there is nothing like seeing the presence of others who come to be led and fed in the Faith. I don’t know about you, but the presence of the assembly boosts my faith.
During the first wave of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in 2002, what gave me great solace was the presence of people at Mass. I found great strength from them as they professed their faith in the one God and the Church. Every Sunday Mass became a great means of support and encouragement for me, thanks not only to the Eucharist, but to the experience of being with the faith community. It is the same for me at daily Mass, too.
When I was a little boy, I remember attending Mass with my family. We always sat in the front pew. I wondered who my parents knew that we always had the best seats in the house. I vividly remember asking my mom, “Where is God?” Mom would always point to the priest, the altar and the ambo. Years later, when studying theology, most especially the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), I came to see that Christ is also present in the assembly.
As a pastor, and even now as a bishop, I enjoy speaking to the faithful as they enter and exit church. As long as people’s experience of the Mass remains online, there is no possibility for receiving Jesus or encountering the community. There is nothing like being there.
In recent months I know some priests have been wondering if and when “to pull the plug” on livestreaming Masses. Granted, these online Masses served a temporary purpose at what was a very difficult time. Some may argue that the online Masses are “better than nothing.” But it is not the same as being there. There is nothing like the Real Presence of Jesus and the experience of being part of a faith community worshipping God.
Thank God for the gift of community! In other words, thank God for the Church!
BISHOP DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown.