I recently heard within a 48-hour period, multiple people refer to their brothers and sisters in Christ as “strangers”. Based on the context, they meant this in a defensive manner when speaking of others within their parish. In fact, both parties were hostile to the idea of spending time with these “strangers” in a setting away from Mass or the parish. I have to admit that I was disappointed both times when I heard it and it furthered my conviction that the Catholic Church in much of the Western world suffers from a deep misunderstanding on the nature of communion.
A lot of this confusion is the result of a culture that focuses on the individual and prides itself on self-reliance. This understanding has seeped into the Church in the West in a manner that is not found in cultures that are considerably more communal, such as those in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
The clarion call to rugged individualism has created great division within the Church and is partly to blame for the loneliness epidemic that can be found both within the culture and in our own parishes. This form of individualism is counter to how we understand the Mystical Body and is opposed to our progressing in holiness.
By virtue of our baptism in Christ, we have entered into a new life with Him and become members of the Church. We are no longer “strangers”, we are brothers and sisters in Christ at the deepest levels of reality. St. Paul articulates this truth in his Letter to the Ephesians:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple of the Lord, in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
The Fall has created division between human beings. We are no longer able to dwell in full communion with God or one another without the grace offered to us in baptism. Christ has reconciled us to God and with one another so that we no longer live for ourselves opposed to one another, but as one body in Christ. St. Paul tells us that we are not meant to live separated and divided from one another as we did before baptism, but rather, we are called to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Divisions between peoples was a significant problem for the nascent Church just as it is today. Helping people to overcome their differences, personalities, sins, character flaws, interests, and understanding in order to find unity within our parishes requires concerted effort on all of our parts. It is easy to stay in our comfort zone with our family and friends without venturing too far from the people who are easy to love. This isn’t what we are called to, however.
As we grow in our love for God, we will also grow in love of our neighbor. This is why the divisions we create between ourselves and others cannot be maintained if we want to progress in holiness. In order for us to become the saints we are called to be, God will smash to pieces the walls we like to erect between the people around us and ourselves. He will use the people around us to accomplish this work within us. The process can be difficult, but is absolutely necessary if we are serious about growing in holiness. We cannot truly love others from a distance, which means the first step to growing in communion is to stop seeing our brothers and sisters in Christ as strangers.
Part of the reason the statements made by my sisters in Christ struck me is because this is a lesson God taught me in a tangible way a little over a week ago. I tend towards introversion, although, most people who know me would describe me as someone who hugs the introversion-extroversion line. Even so, until two Saturdays ago, I wouldn’t have expected that I would jump in the car with two people from my parish that I had never met or seen before, but that’s exactly what I ended up doing.
A group of us from my parish had chartered a bus to go to Washington, DC in order to participate in a diocesan wide pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Everyone arrived at 5:00 am expecting a bus to be waiting to take us on the 4-hour drive. Instead, after nearly two hours of waiting, it became clear that the bus was not coming and we were going to have to decide to carpool or head home.
I was originally leaning towards driving home. One of my good friends who was there had already left and I didn’t want to make the drive myself. As we were deciding who would carpool and who would leave, a woman I didn’t know said that she was going and she would be happy to have company, but she didn’t know her way around the city. Without even thinking about it I said: “I used to live in DC.” I attribute this impulsive reaction on my part to Our Lady’s desire for me to make the pilgrimage for a very specific reason and the fact that I had two people waiting to meet me in DC; a friend I hadn’t seen in 7 years and my cousin who is in seminary across the street from the Basilica.
As I got in the car with this woman and another gentleman who decided to join us, I immediately realized that while we didn’t know each other personally, we are all committed Catholics who wanted to go on a pilgrimage. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. All we needed to do was navigate the awkward formalities of first meeting someone and then try to get through small talk as quickly as possible in order to enter into more comfortable terrain. This is required of us in all of our new relationships, so there is no reason why we should not put in the effort to get to know those around us who share in a love of Christ. We are united to one another through the bonds of baptism and in the Eucharistic meal we share at each Mass.
This adventure also revealed to me how much we need one another. These two people who were in the car with me carry very heavy Crosses in their lives. I spent much of the drive up sitting in the backseat listening to the two of them talk, and unbeknownst to them, praying for them in all that they carry. Each one of us had our specific reasons for wanting to go on pilgrimage. Mine was primarily a pilgrimage of thanksgiving, while the other two sought Our Lady’s aid for their own needs. Together the three of us were two sisters and a brother in Christ who were brought together by God’s designs so that we could grow in deeper charity. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know each other at 5:00 am. We certainly knew each other by the time we arrived in DC. The reality is, we were never really strangers to begin with.
It is true that we learn how to love within our families, but then we are meant to move outwards towards others in order to deepen our understanding of love. The saints are witnesses to this reality in that the vast majority of them sought to love as many people as possible because of their deep love for God. This is true of St. Teresa of Calcutta who sought to serve the poorest of the poor and it is true of St. Therese who loved others as a spiritual mother through prayer. Even monks seek to serve and love others through their intercessory prayers.
Our love for God should never cause us to withdraw completely from others or to build walls around ourselves. God does not place barriers between us. Our own egos and the devil place walls up between peoples. Our own fear, insecurity, doubt, pride, and selfishness are the main causes of barriers between ourselves and others. The fact of the matter is, if there is division, you can be sure the devil is present. He is the one who tells us that our brothers and sisters in Christ are strangers and we need to maintain a defensive posturing around people we do not know within our parishes.
Seeking greater communion with others requires a willingness on our part to see as Christ sees. In so doing, we will come to understand who our brothers and sisters in Christ are in relation to ourselves and who we are in relation to them. We will begin to allow God’s divine love to transfigure us so that the desire within us to reach out towards others grows. We will no longer fear the other in our midst, but desire greater communion with one another. This will mean moving outside of our own comfort zones, but this is what Christ calls us to as the Mystical Body.
We cannot become saints if we do not allow the communion of the Trinitarian Persons to dwell within us and in our relationships with others. Saints are people who are fully alive in God and who seek to love as He loves, to forgive as He forgives, and to see as He sees. A saint does not see strangers. They see brothers and sisters to walk alongside on the path to our eternal home.