Christian Identity and Communities of Memory: Renewing the Public Life at the Parish Level

Christian Identity and Communities of Memory: Renewing the Public Life at the Parish Level May 5, 2009

(This is a paper I wrote for my Faith and Dominant American Culture class)

Introduction

The current state of our American society with its contradictions and pluralism can be a tremendous source of anxiety and apprehension for Christians. We see some patterns of behavior that run almost diametrically opposed to the dignity of human person have become widely accepted such as abortion, assisted suicide, torture, same-sex marriages, premarital sexual relations, just to name a few. That same society in which Christians are supposed to bring the good news of the Gospel often seems to be ambivalent to Christianity and religion altogether. Thus, in the midst of such conditions, we ask ourselves many questions: How do we engage the world as Catholics? How can we confidently enter the public square? How do we make Christianity relevant to society and to its problems and concerns? Christians should find solace in that these questions are not new. The age-old tension between Christianity and the world has occupied the minds of countless generations of Christians. The problem dates back to the earliest Christian communities of biblical times. The Epistle to Diognetus, possibly written during the middle to the late second century, attests to the behavior of Christians during Roman persecution: “They show love to all men—and all men persecute them. They are poor, yet making many rich; lacking all things, yet having all things in abundance.”[1] Such “passive” response to direct hostility may be difficult to understand for Christians in the modern world, but  given the infant Church’s proximity to the events of the Paschal Mystery, its communities believed that the parousia was imminent. They came to know of these events through the Gospel stories that were transmitted to them by their ancestors. These stories gave rise to and shaped their identity as Christians and subsequently formed their behavior and expectations. It was through the remembrance of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection that these early Christians renewed and strengthened their Christian identity, which gave them a deep understanding of the meaning that the Incarnation and the Easter event had for human history. These stories gave them hope beyond the confines of their earthly lives, which gave them the strength to live as Christ taught us to live—to love, to heal, to forgive—even in the midst of conflict and chaos.

Two thousand years later, we find ourselves in different circumstances within a world that is not as openly hostile to Christianity as it was during the Roman persecution. Nonetheless, the challenges that we are faced with in trying to engage the world remain somewhat similar. We are centuries removed from the events of the Paschal Mystery, which is why it is more pressing than ever for us to go back to our Christian roots: to recover and remember our Christian identity. But how do we do this? We do it by recalling our Christian memory. By constantly retelling, remembering, and reliving the good news of the Gospel—the story of how God entered human history by revealing himself in His only Son, Jesus Christ, in order to deliver us from sin and death and to reconcile us to Himself for all eternity.

In this paper, I will highlight the important role of the parish in forming its members in the principles of the public—civic—life. For Catholics to enter the public sphere and become effective communicators and leaders in society, they need to be properly trained to listen, dialogue, and resolve conflicts if they are to make a lasting impact in society. The space needed for this formation can be provided more adequately by the parish, because it is there where we remember and renew our identity as Christians in a community by retelling the Gospel stories through the celebration of sacraments, the proclamation of the Word, and the performing of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The community life of the parish, coupled with the strong spiritual and ascetic life of each parishioner, is essential for lay Catholics to fulfill their mission in the world. In this paper, I will focus specifically on community and what can be done at the parish level to foster the public life and its values among parishioners.

Part 2: The Challenges of Individualism


[1] Epistle to Diognetus, 5, in Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth (London: Penguin, 1987), 145.

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