Community as Communio?

Central to Sacrosanctum concilium‘s mandate for the liturgy’s reform and renewal is the principle (fostered by the Liturgical Movement, Pius X, and others) that active participation by all enables the liturgy to form the church in its members. Indeed, SC asserts that the assembled faithful constitute one of the ways Christ is present in the liturgy. But the (practical-theoogical) interpretation of that notion of the assembly of the faithful — the gathered church — has comprised one of the dividing lines between the “traditionalist” and “progressive” extremes of implementation over these fifty years, with the majority of folks somewhere in between.

Should the gathering take place in silence, with each believer praying on bended knee or in reflective repose until the Mass begins? Or is the gathering a time for people to seek out friends to greet, warmly chat in the pews, wave to toddlers, “welcome strangers,” etc.? I would suppose that differences in understanding “assembling the faithful” or “forming community” are not unrelated to the assertions by some that the Mass of the Roman Rite should begin with its proper Entrance Antiphon, chanted in Latin or the vernacular, as opposed to a robust “gathering song” (that may or may not prove, in actual practice, to have much to do with the proper of seasons or the antiphon of the day). And then there is the custom, at least across US parishes and campus chapels, of the cantor inviting (exhorting? or does it even feel like requiring?) that everybody “stand and greet those around us” — a directive that may or may not come with a short explanation along the lines of “so that we might have no strangers in this community” or “so that all might feel welcomed, especially the visitors among us.”

What does this powerful symbol, “community,” entail or elicit among the faithful? And what might some theological reflection contribute to the question? The question for me was raised yesterday by reading the blog post of Ms. Renee Roden, a young US Catholic woman who had just moved to New York City from what she described as the “hot-bed of communal faith experiences” that is the liturgical life at her alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. She found herself, as well as fellow young alums with whom she’d been in contact, ambivalent about having to seek out a faith community with which to worship on Sunday, leading her to question the value and characteristics of the liturgical assembly. She offers the following insight:

Romano Guardini, in his beautiful Meditations Before Mass, defines a congregation as more than a group of people gathered together, a bunch of disparate parts existing in the same room.

“The true congregation is a gathering of those who belong to Christ, the holy people of God, united faith and love. Essentially, it is of His making, a piece of new creation.”

Community is not formed by fellowship, familiar faces, and coffee and doughnuts after Mass; community is formed when all of the congregation lifts up our hearts and voices in praise of God. That is the deep and timeless fellowship that the Mass offers to each of its participants. Through the action of the Mass, the strangers and saints gathered together at Mass become a community.

What thoughts does Ms. Roden’s comment here elicit for you? Myself, I heartily agree with her theological assertion, one that she develops further in terms of the ecclesial and cosmic dimensions of the liturgical assembly as a gathering with the saints, as well as the anticipatory witness to a new creation. But, introvert that I am, I also appreciate her reflections in a most practical way. I count myself among those — and I’ve met not a few over the years — who bristle at the widespread “stand and greet those around you” at the start of Sunday Mass. It all seems so forced and, really, a rather dishonest (if too strong a word, I apologize) or “failed” symbol. After all, I don’t “know” the strangers near me any more after that greeting or, for that matter, by the end of the entire Mass, than before I was asked to “meet” them through the short handshake or nodding smile. The problem, as I perceive it here, is not unrelated to the way US Catholics (at least) have almost universally come to practice the Sign of Peace during the Communion Rite (further fodder for discussion, no?). But to stay on this point: During my fifteen years in the Boston Archdiocese (helping most weekends at a couple of parishes), I observed so many people, not least the single young adults, arriving shortly or even several minutes after Mass started. I eventually starting asking a few people my age (then in my late 30s [sigh]) and younger about this. To a person, they answered along these lines: “I hate that greet-your-neighbor stuff and, so, time my arrival late.” I do not claim this to represent some majority here, but I did find their straightforward replies enlightening.

Following Ms. Roden’s lead, I would propose that the meet-and-greet sort of gesture inserted at the beginning of the Mass of the Roman Rite seems dissonant with the practical theology of the liturgy. Aidan Kavanagh, inspired by Alexander Schmemann, put it well years ago with his thesis that the liturgy is “the Church doing the world.” The assembly’s work in this regard is to be a symbol of the church and of the new creation, acknowledging God in praise, receiving the word of life, sharing (communio) in the body of Christ, departing in peace to “glorify the Lord by your life.” Yes, one may well know many of the other members assembled and enjoy their company. Yes, one might at times need to recognize in active communio that one needs reconciliation with some other(s) present. And all of this is, of course, to the good. But there is a grave danger in turning communio (crucial to the ecclesiology in the documents of Vatican II) or koinonia into a sort of clubby gathering or a like-minded 0r like-appearing cohort that functionally amounts to the antithesis of how one famous author described the church catholic: “Here comes everybody.”

I have long reflected on this, specifically with regard to my regular experience of not personally knowing many, even any, of the people with whom I’m assembled at the Sunday liturgy. I find that I deeply appreciate finding myself among such a disparate and, most often to me anonymous, group of people sharing the common bond of the faith they enact together as assembly. I recall moments when parents (sometimes single ones) struggling with little children (or calmly abiding their behaviors) have been genuine sacraments to me (embodied symbols of the divine, trinitarian love). I could go on, but my point is that precisely the ritual-character of us all assembled — in contrast to interpersonal, conversational sharing — bears symbolic power we’d be the poorer for losing.

I readily admit I have but sketched the questions and implications of a complex topic here. But I’ve done so for the sake of opening a conversation. You may enjoy reading Renee Roden’s entire essay, “You Are Not Alone in This.”


  1. Great thoughts on a complex question. I have offered wondered about the function of “the Peace” within my Episcopal/Anglican tradition, especially when folks (myself included) turn first to their partner, significant other, etc. and then fail to greet those who they may not know. How much better are we getting to know one another in those exchanges? All of this coming from an introvert…

    I do think different aspects/types of community are being discussed when we talk about these practices, and perhaps at times we talk past one another. The embodied communio of the Church celebrating Eucharist is not the same communing I expect when sharing a cup of coffee (or wine) with a few friends. Maybe it relates to the problems that arise when trying to talk about the experiences that, by their very nature, play with the border between the linguistic and the embodied?

  2. I heard an interesting alternative recently. In the closing announcements, the presider invites, “If you have time after Mass, I invite you to stay for two minutes, find someone you don’t know, and introduce yourself.” This allows more than a quick handshake, and is optional for those who wish to participate.

  3. Reading this, I thought of some practices I’ve seen in Mexico and in France. Where the laity upon entering the church gather for a communal rite of purification in the narthex, or at the baptismal font.

    An acolyte pours water over the hands of parishioners in some French retreat houses while psalm 51 was sung. Everyone chatting and blessing himself with the water. A much more effective way of establishing a gathering rite or a liturgical act expressing community than the rite of Asperges could ever do for a crowd already assembled in the nave.

    There was a point where everyone moved to a commodius side chapel for an office. I think it was Lauds or a penitential rite where the deacon incensed the entire body of worshipers standing throughout the ceremony.

    As the procession from the sacristy wound its way through the church to this side chapel, or a station, the choir sang the Litany of Saints. Everyone who had gathered joined the procession in a solemn movement into the nave using the long way around.

    On a great feast day I could imagine the distribution of candles and the all processing through a darkened church as another liturgical rite drawing everyone into a common action. Each one took a chair and the liturgy continued as usual.
    In one place I recall there was the blessing and distribution of blessed bread (antidoron perhaps once common in the west) with glasses of wine (a mouth rinse in the manner of the Sarum usage?). This gathering of the congregation in the narthex on their way out of church seemed so natural and casual, and without any sign of it being a forced act of fellowship. A forecourt, plaza, a large baptistery, or funerary chapel could have been used for this purpose.

    In the Anglican tradition tea and cakes with sherry in the vicarage or parish hall is still a grand finale to evensong in a lot of places. The Canterbury Club meetings Sunday evenings while anything but formal liturgy are also a part of this tradition of conviviality associated with the prayer life of…

  4. This is a very powerful post, Bruce. You raise very important questions about ecclesiology, participation, inculturation, and liturgical spirituality. I hope not only introverts like me are engaged by it!

    I prefer silence or reflective (or festive at times) music before the liturgy, it best helps me prepare myself for what is about to happen.

    But at the same time, I think the liturgy should stretch our personalities and draw us out of ourselves, so I think it is appropriate that the Kiss of Peace be rather boisterous and friendly and extroverted. (I’m not trying to re-open a fight about an issue that has recently become controversial.) If not at the Kiss of Peace, at another point in the liturgy, or the Kiss of Peace could be moved and that would be fine with me. But I think the liturgy should have both introspective, awe-filled silence, and also friendly interaction between people. That would stretch all people, of all Meyers-Briggs types, and maybe we all could move toward the full stature of Christ.

    1. @Anthony Ruff – comment #4:
      I have no problem with an exuberant and lengthy kiss of peace, so long as it remains the kiss of peace and doesn’t devolve into chatting about whether one is going to watch the game or hit the tennis courts after church. In my experience, once it extends beyond about a minute it’s hard for it not to do so.

      I rather like the idea of including an announcement at the end of Mass inviting people to hang out and introduce themselves to strangers.

  5. A great post. In my experience, I’ve come to see that many of our well-intentioned assumptions about if-we-do-this-then-X-will-happen in the postconciliar praxis are relatively shallow, more of a mirror image of heavily-theologized-but-actually-still-shallow assumptions undergirding some practical aspects of preconciliar praxis that are gaining a second wind in recent years. In other words, the “camps” are sometimes more alike than either would care to think.

  6. I agree with the thrust of the post, but I have some reservations about the essay to which it links.

    Renee’s account of her experiences, although of unquestionable sincerity, skates close to being an apologia for a church culture that is disembodied, theologically abstract, and primarily intellectual.

    I agree that community cannot be fabricated by an outward show of bonhomie or forced and superficial friendliness. But when community is experienced as a felt and not purely intellectual reality, you see unmistakable embodied signs of it when people gather for worship–in touch and speech, bodily attitudes, and personal exchanges.

    Here’s my concern. It’s easy to make light of coffee and donuts. But when you love the people with whom you are sharing those things, and when you’ve helped them in concrete ways and received their gracious help in your own life and faith, even this humble sharing after Mass can take on a sacramental quality. It is not to be despised or dismissed as irrelevant to the holy purposes for which we gather on the Lord’s Day.

    How about if, instead of cultivating a “clubby attitude” the social exchange around Mass enabled you to find out that so-and-so is going into chemotherapy next week or that her son just got home from Iraq or that she’s got a court date ahead of her. Yes, it would matter; maybe it would make all the difference between Christian community that’s abstract and one that’s embodied.

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