On the Question of Intentional Communities

On the Question of Intentional Communities November 17, 2021


You’ve surely heard by now of the humiliating downfall of the leader of Regina Caeli Academy and the planned “Veritatis Splendor” intentional community, which anyone could have predicted. You can read all about the project here. It was a terrible idea from the beginning. I’m sorry for everyone who was hurt in this situation.

Intentional communities always sound so nice in the abstract. The notion that you can get away from the bad old world and just hunker down with other believers is a tempting one. It would feel comfortable to only be around people who thought as you did. It would feel safe if you could turn your children out to play every day and not worry that they’d run into somebody objectionable. It would be convenient if you could live in a cottage right next to your parish church, with a school right there and everything laid out for you. It’s comforting to be in a place you feel like you belong, with other believers you know, where you can depend on one another.

Of course it never really works out that way. Like-minded people are never as like-minded as we’d wish, and fights break out over small differences. Rivalries get sillier and sillier as everyone tries to wear a scapular bigger than the next person’s or kneel in thanksgiving after Mass just a second longer than anybody else. Somebody’s personal crotchets turn into scruples which turn into full blown neurosis, and the mental health of the whole group can end up suffering. And, of course, there’s no guarantee that you really can turn your children out to play, or send them to the nice Catholic school and church, without them running into somebody objectionable. Abusers are everywhere. They groom communities. They know exactly what to say to make you feel that you’re safe, until it’s too late. Those are a few of the things that can go wrong in an intentional community, just in the abstract. The situation with Veritatis Splendor gives us a more concrete cautionary tale. I wrote a piece on cults and cultlike thinking awhile ago; it really does sound like Regina Caeli Academy was becoming a cult.

Still, I can fully understand the impulse to flee the world and barricade yourself in an intentional community. It sounds like, if we could only figure out a way to make it work, it would be a great way to be Christian.

But what if, just hear me out for a minute… what if Christians are not supposed to flee the world?

A handful of us are. Saint Mary of Egypt and Saint Anthony the Great did something that seemed to work for them. I don’t grudge them that. But what if that’s not what God wants for most of us?

What if most people are supposed to stay right here in the world and do what good we can in it?

What if it’s not actually good to isolate ourselves in intentional communities where we only see people we consider our peers? Places where it inevitably breaks down into a rivalry between families about who’s the most pious and rigid? Places where the skirts and the prayers and the lists of “don’ts” keep getting longer and longer while our patience and charity get thinner? Places that end, if they don’t begin, with getting taken advantage of by con artists and eventually collapse into spiritual and other forms of abuse? What if we’re supposed to be doing good where we already are? Right here, where we’re standing, and not in another place? With the tools you have now, and not some other tools?

Silly people try to blame Saint Benedict for the notion that Christianity is about escaping the bad old secular world and living in a bunker, but that flies in the face of what Saint Benedict actually did. When I was a Catholic homeschooled girl, I read the Tan book on Saint Benedict and loved it. My favorite story was when a hungry man came to the monastery to ask for something to eat. Saint Benedict immediately gave the man an armload of loaves of bread, enough for each of his children to have a loaf. The man protested that that might leave the monks with not enough to eat, but Saint Benedict insisted. The man walked away, but about halfway home he felt guilty. He went back to Saint Benedict and tried to return the bread, but Benedict showed him the pile of bread that a stranger hand come and donated to the monks just after he left, and sent the man on his way. Apparently things like that were always happening at the monastery.

This means that the Benedictines were not going to great lengths to shut the world out of their monastery. They didn’t barricade the door and tell the poor man to go away. They let him in and helped him. They let in the person who was bringing bread. They let in the man again to see what he wanted this time.

They weren’t hiding from the world, they were feeding the world. They were letting the world right in and taking care of them.

And if you look at the history of monasteries throughout the ages, that’s usually what they ended up doing. And that’s what saintly queens like Elizabeth of Hungary ended up doing, and pastors like Don Bosco, and misfit younger siblings like Catherine of Sienna. They lived where they happened to live, and they found ways to help the people around them who were in need.

I have come to the conclusion that that’s what we should be doing.

We should be living right where we find ourselves, here in the bad old world where nothing is quite as it should be. We should have some kind of a prayer life here and get our children to Mass.  We should be attentive to the people around us. And we should help them however we can. Wherever that takes us, that’s where we’re supposed to be.

We need to give up trying to flee the world, and find a way to be Christians here in the world.

That’s not nearly as pretty or convenient-sounding as getting away from it all and joining an intentional community. But on the bright side, it just might lead to Heaven.



Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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