How Do You Build a Community of Disciples Who Observe Catholic Liturgical Culture Together?

Earlier, I answered Melanie Bettinelli’s post on the challenge of communal feast day observances with a calendar: Here’s what we do to observe the liturgical year at our house.  If you read through my litany, you’ll see that we enjoy a combination of private celebrations, parish-centered celebrations, and many observances involving a small community of Catholic (and other) friends.  We are, in all, quite blessed.  I didn’t answer her deeper question, which is, “How do we get there?”

She writes:

 It’s just I live in a parish where I have no idea if anyone else does this stuff or not. We go to mass together and then… Go home and do our own thing. I feel atomized and disconnected. . . . Virtual fellowship isn’t the same as a shared meal and the kids playing together while the adults chat.

I do think there is an argument to be made that we have to start with creating these traditions at home before we can have them in our parishes. But I guess I’ve not seen many people talking about how to take that next step, how to get from the reinvented domestic church to the reinvented parish.

. . . Is it fair to assume that if you get a critical mass of intentional families the communal celebrations will follow?  Or, conversely, if you create the parish celebrations, will they help families to become more intentional?

I’m going to respond by first explaining how we got to where we are, enjoying a real-life community of Catholic disciples who get together to observe the feasts.  Then I’ll make some comments on the merits of parish versus smaller-community observances.

How We Became the Party People

One year my husband and I decided we wanted to go Christmas caroling.  We set a date and sent out invitations to everyone we could think of who might agree to come.  I printed out music off the internet and compiled song books.  We cooked a lot of food.  We told people to bring flashlights.

Enough people came. We went around the neighborhood ringing on doorbells and singing songs.  Some of our friends hated it and never came back, some of them loved it and turned out again the following year.  In the time since then, some years we’ve hosted a party, some years we didn’t, and lately we’ve fallen in with a group of friends who will do the leg work for us, and we just turn up and sing.

But this is the way you make things happen: You decide what you are going to do, and then you invite people.  Some people will come, and some people won’t.  Some people will hate it, and some people won’t. It’s not a big deal. There’s no law that every person has to like every party.

How We Found Friends Who Will Host Parties for Us

The best thing is when you can get someone else to do most of the work.  The trick is to fall in with the right crowd.  In our case, a lot of our feast day observances happen in common with some Catholic homeschoolers we know.  But it could be anyone: The Legion of Mary, St. Vincent de Paul, the choir people, the youth group . . . You never know where the hidden pious-partying talent lies.  So you can save yourself a lot of trouble by keeping your ear to the ground and figuring out who’s already celebrating the way you want to celebrate, and then wrangling an invitation for yourself.

(Hint: You can finagle invitations by signing yourself up as an auxillary member, part-time volunteer, or logistical assistant.  I mean, sure, you can’t sing.  But the choir has the best parties.  So you volunteer to help sort sheet music, and happen to always have good homemade baked goods on hand, and voila!, invitation secured.  Lemon bars will get you everywhere.)

There are people, of course, who will think up reasons not to have you in their group. These are not the people with whom you want to spend your holidays.

How to Find Holiday Disciple Friends

You can also create your own set of holiday friends by forming a discipleship group.  Pick a book like Forming Intentional Disciples and invite some likely candidates over to discuss it.  Then see if they bite when you suggest meeting once or twice a month to chat about the faith and help each other become better Christians.  There’ll be some fall off, but keep inviting and eventually you’ll have a core group of people who want to do Catholic stuff together, because they love Jesus and love being Catholic.  Plan some parties to coincide with the feast days.  Get the lady who makes the lemon bars to bring the dessert.

All these are things you can do either within the bounds of a formally-recognized parish organization or all on your own as free-agent laypeople.  Parish-run groups are convenient if there is a known pool of people who will be drawn to your interest-group, however you define it, and who are easily reached via the modes of parish communication.  Informally-organized groups can seem scarier, because you can’t hide behind your official status: You have to walk up to people, perhaps people you barely know, and say, “We’re hosting a little event next week, and I’d love it if you could join us.”

No matter what your format, plan to extend approximately ten invitations for every acceptance. Once you have a group going, plan for about twenty-percent of your group to slip off into other pursuits each year.  You’ll have higher acceptance, but also higher annual attrition, if you serve a more migratory population.

What Roles Should Your Parish Play in Your Pious Catholic Party Culture?

It all just depends.  I think it’s reasonable for the parish to restrict itself to administering the sacraments and performing the works of mercy, doing that job well, and leaving the festivating to the freewheeling laity.  It would be normal for a typical parish to host one or two major social events a year, whether tied to a feast or sacrament, or just there for the sake of getting everyone together.  Certainly the liturgy ought to include processions and hymns and prayers as indicated for the various holy days, so that you don’t feel like a crazy person because you’re the only one in the county who knows that there’s a feast day on.

One hazard is that many parishes are not primarily populated by disciples.  What you end up with are events with good food and drink, and a bunch of upbeat music that everyone knows and loves from listening to the radio, but half the lyrics are about fornication, and people get upset if you point this out to them.  In this context, asking the parish to take a role in organizing festivities is a bad idea.

Another reality is that most parishes are very large.  Some of our favorite events, like caroling door-to-door or having the kids present saints’ lives, don’t lend themselves well to gatherings of five hundred of your favorite pew mates.  Some festal activities work well with, or even require, massive attendance; but just a many are more rewarding, or only possible, if carried out on a more intimate scale.  It’s reasonable, therefore, for the parish to determine that most of the feast days throughout the year should be celebrated by the smaller communities within the parish.

Being the Only Catholic You Know is Lonely

One time I was visiting a parish that for many years had been notoriously heterodox.  But on this unusual day, I was invited to extend my visit by joining a bible study group that was being led by parishioners I’d never met before.  I made a few inquiries and decided to try my luck, since I happened to have time on my hands, and one of the things I do is study study-groups.  After half an hour I said to myself, “So this is where all the Catholics have been hiding!”  It wasn’t that the parish was devoid of disciples, only that they mostly kept a low profile.

The reality is that if your parish isn’t disciple-intensive, it can take a lot of trial and error to find the people who are serious about following Jesus.  It takes yet more work to find the fellow disciples with whom you really hit it off, the kind of people you’d be eager to spend three hours chatting with over lukewarm macaroni and cheese.  It’s worth the work.

Even though it can be hard, it isn’t complicated.  The lovely thing about everyone trying to follow Jesus is that you don’t have to be exactly like each other.  You just have to all be intent on worshiping the same Lord.

File:Brueghel The Wine Of Saint Martins Day Private Collection Madrid.jpg

Artwork: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569), The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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