What do we mean by community? What do candidates dream about?

What do we mean by community? What do candidates dream about?

By Gaston Lessard SM

Talk about religious life and it won’t be long before you talk about community. Community is at the heart of the actual life of most religious. People who are thinking of becoming religious have expectations about it as part of their future. For those who assess candidates, the ability to live in community ranks high among the topics they want to explore. In dealing with religious life, you cannot escape talking about community.

The problem arises when you try to pin down what you mean by community. The word calls up a great variety of images, accompanied by a wide gamut of feelings. The experience of male religious (to keep to what I am more familiar with) could often be summed up in the reflection of Father Urban, the man on the road in J. F. Powers’ 1963 novel, Morte d’Urban, “Father Urban felt that a little bit of community life could go a long way with him.” More recent statistics confirm that many still share Father Urban’s assessment. A Canadian teaching brother was telling me last December that in his province, whereas 26 percent of those who left in the past did so because of chastity, in the last 10 years 27 percent left because of community life.

What community life has been for the people who have experienced it has a lot to do with what candidates expect from it. Disillusionment may not be inevitable, but it obviously lurks as a possibility. Religious have had their experiences and have drawn their own conclusions. Can we help candidates avoid the pitfall of misplaced hopes? How can vocation directors better assess the potential ability of candidates to live community life? How can formation directors help young religious focus on skills for community life? I suggest that how we talk about community now is crucial to how we will feel about it later. A clear understanding will favor realistic expectations.

To help me discipline my own talk about community life, I find it useful to decree for myself that there exist three worlds within the realm of “community”; they are overlapping but distinct from each other. Community talk may refer to any of the three, but I need to know which. These are community, common life, and communion. Community is a very broad concept that belongs to the realms of sociology and psychology; common life is a much more precise requirement of Church law regarding religious life; communion is a faith reality.

Community as a psychosocial reality

Among religious, the word community may be used loosely to refer to groups ranging from three to several thousand persons: from a local community or a house to the membership of an entire congregation. When religious use the word community, however, they rarely think only of numbers. Community life, community prayer, community spirit, refer to deeper and more elusive realities, and these, in turn, evoke strong feelings. But then religious are far from being the only ones who dream of community. The word is used constantly in sociology, anthropology, and psychology. There, too, it carries heavy emotional baggage. It could hardly be otherwise, since it touches the very heart of the human person.

In common parlance, as distinct from the language used by religious, community is best described in contrast to society. A society is a group of people who choose to work together for a common purpose: it is voluntary, it is limited to a certain set of activities, it is oriented to an end. The American Medical Association and the local bridge club fit that description. The Germans call it Gesellschaft. A community (Gemeinschaft in German) is spontaneous, it embraces the person as a whole, and it does not seek any particular purpose. A society is not open to everyone: you need to meet conditions, you pay dues, you are valued according to what you contribute to the group’s pursuits. In a community like a village, it is enough to exist in order to belong, you are accepted as a person, whether you are a doctor or the village idiot.

“Community is a vague term, loaded with history, moral connotations, nostalgia, and romanticism” (Blakely and Snyder, 1997, p. 32). Twenty-five years earlier, Charles Abrams made a similar statement when he concluded his definition of community as follows: “Community, finally, is that mythical state of social wholeness in which each member has his place and in which life is regulated by cooperation rather than by competition and conflict. It has had brief and intermittent flowerings through history but always seems to be in decline at any given historical present. Thus community is that which each generation feels it must rediscover and re-create.”

The need to belong is a key component of the human person. Community exists to fulfill that need. Does this mean that religious life exists to fulfill that same need? It is important to raise the question, as it is important to check how candidates to the religious life would answer it. Before going into those questions, let me introduce the second concept I mentioned at the beginning, namely common life as a requirement of church law for religious.

Common life

“Religious are to reside in their own religious house and observe the common life.” Thus reads Canon 665 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law in its Canadian translation. The American translation reads: “Observing a common life, religious are to live in their own religious house.” The 1917 Code defined common life more explicitly: “In every congregation common life shall be observed exactly even with regard to food, clothing, and furniture” (canon 594 §1).

Two things can be said about the difference between the 1917 and the 1983 laws. In abandoning the explicit mention of food, clothing, and furniture as part of common life, the 1983 law was taking into account an irresistible trend that simply makes it unthinkable for religious, women or men, not to have their personal wardrobe. Today many religious have the exclusive use of a car and a computer, let alone their own socks. Nor is it rare for them to take along pieces of furniture as they move from house to house. Where one black suitcase once held the complete personal belongings of a religious, it now takes a U-Haul truck.

The second thing to be said is that the 1983 law maintains common life as an essential requirement of religious life. Canon 607, §2, defines a religious institute as “a society in which members ... pronounce public vows ... and live a life in common as brothers or sisters.” A 1994 document of the Holy See on “Fraternal Life in Community” even states that institutes, the majority of whose members no longer live in community, can no longer be considered religious institutes (n. 65, e). This means that they could lose their status as institutes recognized by Rome. In this context, living in community means living under the same roof. Canon law is willing to leave to each institute how it will define common life “with regard to food, clothing, and furniture,” but it draws the line at the dwelling. If you don’t dwell together, you can’t be said to live as religious.

Common life, then, is torn between two characteristics: a) it is of the essence of religious life, and b) it is most difficult to regulate in the concrete.

a) Why common life is of the essence of religious life is easy to understand once you remember that throughout the ages most religious congregations took Acts 4:32 as their reference point: “The community of believers were of one heart and one mind. None of them ever claimed anything as his own; rather, everything was held in common.” What is not so clear is what is the essence of religious life. People’s attempts to live according to the teaching of Jesus as the apostles did took such widely divergent forms over the centuries that one could be excused for questioning whether there is an essence of religious life. Whatever an historical investigation might show, the matter has been settled in practice by the 1983 Roman document entitled: “Essential Elements in the Church’s Teaching on Religious Life as applied to Institutes dedicated to Works of the Apostolate.” One can read there: “So important is community living to religious consecration that every religious, whatever his or her apostolic work, is bound to it by the fact of profession and must normally live under the authority of a local superior in a community of the institute to which he or she belongs” (n. 19). No doubt, then, in the mind of the Roman legislator, religious life entails common life, and that common life means living under one roof.

b) Law, however, can never completely embrace the complexity of life. The attempts at legislating common life are an egregious example. No matter how generously people have embarked upon the enterprise of living out the ideal of Acts 4:32, they have always had to accommodate not only individuals, but also differences in time and place. What Spanish friars accepted as a matter of course in 1560 is no longer feasible now either in Senegal or in Oregon. When the 1983 code abandoned “food, clothing, and furniture” as part of common life, it simply acknowledged that fact. Does this mean that common life is reduced to living under one roof? Canon law may accept this minimal requirement, but few candidates to religious life would settle for it. At the very least, they see themselves seated at a common table and sharing meals. But then table fellowship will not take place unless people agree upon meal time. It depends upon some sort of legislation. Why it matters for religious life, however, takes us into the theological realm of communion.

Communion as a faith reality

Communion is a translation of the Greek word koinonía, which means sharing and fellowship. There is no stronger image of communion than sharing a meal. Saying “this is my body, this is my blood,” Jesus Christ shared bread and wine with his table companions. His gesture lies at the heart of communion. For centuries, communion meant receiving a consecrated wafer on the tongue. You went to communion, you received communion. Vatican II, and the renewal in theological thinking that prepared it and that flowed from it, has retrieved the rich layers of meaning linked to communion since the New Testament.

Paul reminds us that the cup we bless is communion (sharing) of the blood of Christ and the bread we break is communion (sharing) of his body (1 Corinthians 10:16). Communion with Christ’s suffering is linked to communion in his glory: “We suffer with him so as to be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). The word communion refers to our sharing of the Spirit in Paul’s final greeting that we use at the beginning of Mass: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:13).

Communion also describes how we relate to each other in Christ. The church can be said to be a communion, and the universal church a communion of local churches. The late theologian Jean-Marie Tillard was a well-known exponent of the ecclesiology of communion (Church of Churches: The Ecclesiology of Communion, 1992). The whole Christian enterprise can indeed be described as building communion: through communion in the death and resurrection of Christ, women and men are brought into communion with God and with each other.

It comes as no surprise, then, to see Tillard describe the enterprise of religious life in terms of communion. Religious are “Christians who try together to live the Gospel, not as a burden but as a liberation.” The enterprise of religious “is an enterprise of communion, of koinonía, until death” (Tillard, 2000, p. 7-8). Indeed, the language of communion is now used routinely in most official documents about religious life, among them Pope John Paul II’s 1996 apostolic exhortation on the consecrated life, which mentions “spreading the spirituality of communion” as the particular task that “the Church entrusts to communities of consecrated life” (n. 51). Keep the three types of community distinct

Community, common life, communion. Obviously, the three realities are related to each other. I suggest that keeping them distinct from each other in our speech may clarify our understanding of how they relate to each other. When I restrict my use of the word community to the psychosocial reality described above, I make sure that the religious enterprise is not mistaken for the El Dorado of identity, acceptance, and affection. Such longings are lodged within religious as deeply as in any human being. Just like sexual feelings, they come with the individual and need to be dealt with. But anyone who looks to religious life as the haven of community is in for a letdown.”

Common life is a necessary ingredient of religious life. Unless people agree to be together at some point, there will be no common life. Whether such agreement takes the form of a rule that applies to a whole congregation or of a timetable for a particular house, it pertains to the realm of regulation or legislation. Centuries of thorough regulation have been followed by decades of deregulation. How much regulation is necessary and helpful is open to debate. The debate will be more productive if people are clear about its object. The concrete demands of common life are one thing; my quest for identity and acceptance is another, and communion in Christ is yet another.

The affective dimensions of community underlie the life of any group. Commitment to living together is proper to religious and inevitably entails dealing with the particulars of food, dress, and lodging. Communion in Christ is the gift and the task of every believer, and therefore also of religious. Communion in Christ means communion in his death and resurrection. It brings us into communion with the Father and the Spirit, and with all our sisters and brothers, before all else with the sisters or brothers with whom we have committed ourselves to live until death. Working for communion is not the same as seeking fulfillment in community. It can take place under a wide assortment of lifestyles. Our talk can help make it clear that religious life is about communion in Christ.

Author’s note: I wish to thank Rev. Raymond P. Carey, with whom I discussed these ideas and who encouraged me to put them into writing; and François Lévesque, a student of anthropology at Laval University, who provided the reference to Blakely and Snyder. Abrams, Charles. The Language of Cities: A Glossary of Terms. Viking. The passage is quoted in a review of the book by Dwight Macdonald, in The New Yorker, May 6, 1972, p. 136-137.

Blakely, Edward J., and Snyder, Mary Gail. Fortress America, Gated Communities in the United States. Washington, Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

Tillard, Jean-Marie-Roger, “Les religieuses et les religieux sont-ils et seront-ils encore parmi les forces prophétiques de l'Église?” [Are and will religious still be among the prophetic strengths of the Church?], La vie des communautés religieuses, 58 (January- February 2000), p. 3-19.

Gaston Lessard, SM is a Canadian Marist priest. He has studied the history and spirituality of his congregation, and lectured on these topics where Marists work, including the United States, Brazil, Australia, Italy and Ireland. He has also worked in formation.

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