Christian Identity and Communities of Memory: Renewing the Public Life at the Parish Level (Part 5)

Christian Identity and Communities of Memory: Renewing the Public Life at the Parish Level (Part 5) May 12, 2009

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: The Challenges of Individualism

Part 3: The Person, the Other, and the Community in communio Ecclesiology

Part 4: Affinity and Lifestyle Enclaves

Communities of Memory

Bellah directly contrasts lifestyle enclaves with communities of memory, which he defines as those communities that do not forget their past. A community of memory is involved in “retelling its story, its constitutive narrative, and in so doing, it offers examples of the men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of the community.”[1] As a community of memory, the Church retells the story of our faith when we celebrate the memorial of the Lord’s sacrifice: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). Throughout the liturgical year, the Church also remembers the examples of the saints who throughout the centuries have unwaveringly chosen to follow Christ. Thus, it is through the liturgy (literally meaning “the people’s work”) that the Church remains a community of memory. In the liturgy, the People of God participate in the work of God.[2] It is not as individuals that we come to participate in the work of God, but as a people gathered together in communion. While lifestyle enclaves rely mainly on affinity to preserve their existence, communities of memory are held together by much stronger bonds. Members of genuine communities share much more than interests: they have in common their history as a people that constitutes their identity. Therefore, they are not afraid of possible differences in qualities or dissimilarities in views as long as they do not diametrically oppose the core bonds that hold them together. Diversity does not pose a problem for these communities either, because the common goal and foundational principles that bind the members together give them meaning and clarity of purpose. Similarly, a diversity of languages was not a problem for the nascent Christian church. After receiving the Holy Spirit, the apostles started speaking in different tongues and all who heard them were able to distinguish their own native language (Acts 2:3-11). The apostles were speaking many different languages, but they were still able to preach the good news because of the one Holy Spirit that bound them together.

Communities of memory are constituted by a wide array of stories of men and women that provide us with a window to the world that is much wider and much richer than the narrow and impoverished window lifestyle enclaves offers us. In a community that knows, remembers, and relives its history, our sense of awareness and relatedness expands. Our life also acquires more meaning, because we begin to understand how we fit into the whole community. In this context, the Church as a genuine community of memory can help us in forming and renewing our Christian identity, because we can understand ourselves as part of a centuries-long story of a people that holds a common belief and goal. In establishing our identity within the Church we also discover the truth about God, about ourselves, and about the world. To know these truths is of utmost importance, because as the late Pope John Paul II wrote, God has

assigned us a particular mission: to accomplish the truth about ourselves and about the world. We must be guided by the truth about ourselves, so as to be able to structure the visible world according to truth, correctly using it to serve our purposes, without abusing it. In other words, this twofold truth about the world and about ourselves provides the basis for every intervention by us upon creation.[3]

In unveiling these truths, we understand how they differ from the parallel “truths” that govern American culture, which then allows us to directly address their limitations and shortcomings and supplement them with the principles of the Gospel.


[1] Bellah, Habits of the Heart, 153.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1069

[3] Pope John Paul II, Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millenium (New York: Rizzoli, 2005), 81.

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