by Michele Faihnle
Eleven years ago I took my son to a Protestant church for vacation Bible school. The second I walked in the door, people introduced themselves, welcomed me, asked my name, and directed me where to go.
Every morning that week was more of the same: It began with warm hospitality and ended with an invitation to attend their weekend services and ice-cream socials. As a cradle Catholic who had rarely stepped foot inside a Protestant church, I was more than a little uncomfortable at this open display of fellowship. I couldn’t wait to go back to my parish where I could slip into my pew unnoticed, have my time with God, and leave with only having to murmur “Peace be with you” to a few people before heading home.
For me, church was a place to pray — the only relationship was between God and me. Sure, it was nice when I ran into my friends at church and we chatted or enjoyed the occasional Sunday donuts, but as a Catholic I wasn’t accustomed to or even felt the need to have a lot of fellowship. Going to church wasn’t about making friends.
As I matured in my faith life, I have come to realize the importance of fellowship and having faith-filled friendships. Shortly after the vacation Bible school experience, I was asked to join a women’s Bible study group at my parish. I didn’t really feel like I was “in the market” for any new friends at that time. I was satisfied with my current friendships, busy with my job, and happily married.
In hindsight my job, and happily married. In hindsight I am now able to see how fellowship with other Catholic women was essential to growing in my faith in a world that does not embrace our Christian lifestyle. Not only did we read and study Scripture together, but we also developed companionship and learned how to support one another.
We celebrated good times together — new babies, Baptisms, first Communions, graduations, and new jobs. We were also there to support each other in the difficulties of life — the loss of parents, troubled marriages, unemployment, serious illnesses, miscarriage, and even the heartbreaking sudden death of an infant. Through fellowship with these women, I realized that with the right support system and faith-filled friendships, I could be stronger in my daily walk as a daughter of God.
A ROAD TO HEAVEN
Having community is important to our spiritual growth. In the book In Conversation with God: Daily Meditations Volume 2: Lent and Eastertide (Scepter, 1989), Fr. Francis Fernandez writes, “Down through the centuries, friendship has been (and still is) a pathway along which many men and women have come close to God and gone to heaven.”
Being part of this group also helped me battle the loneliness I didn’t even realize I was experiencing. Having recently moved to a new city, I didn’t have the luxury of having many friends. As a mom with very young children, I didn’t have the time or energy to seek them out. Being involved in Christian fellowship allowed me to become united with others through my Catholic faith and create deep and meaningful friendships.
Recent studies show that loneliness is becoming more prevalent in our society. One in four Americans say that they have no one to confide in, and social isolation is on the rise, according to the article “The Loneliness of American Society” (The American Spectator, May 18, 2014). Not only is loneliness a mental health issue, it also carries significant physical health risks, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and the progression of Alzheimer’s.
We read in Genesis that we were not created to be alone (see Genesis 2:18). God created us to need others and live in community. Through these relationships we can come to know, love, and serve God. Jesus himself exemplified this in his life on earth. He had many friends such as Mary, Martha, Lazarus, the apostles, and disciples, who we were by his side in public life. In John 15:15 he tells his disciples, “I have called you friends.”
BEYOND THE SIGN OF PEACE
If we are created for community, then why are we as Catholics sometimes the opposite of welcoming — and even downright cold? We preach the “welcome the stranger” work of mercy, yet we fall short of this teaching during Mass. We sometimes treat others as an inconvenience. Recently I felt this acutely when my family visited an unfamiliar parish for their vigil Mass.
Arriving at 4:25 p.m., I walked into a half-filled church. Not knowing anyone, we scanned the circular-shaped church for an empty pew. While the middle of each row was empty, one or two people sat on the edge of the rows, making it awkward to fill in. As we tried to slide in past people on the edge, we were greeted with glaring eyes. To me they seemed annoyed that we were breaking their seating routine. I watched others go through the same scenario as the church filled and Mass began.
I thought to myself, What is wrong with us? Why do we divorce spirituality and community? In a world plagued by loneliness, shouldn’t our parishes be a place of connecting with our brothers and sisters in Christ as we journey toward heaven? We may go to church for the Eucharist, but it must extend beyond merely receiving Jesus, as we become the body of Christ on earth and act as his hands and feet to others.
The question remains: In our parishes, how can we ensure that people feel welcome and able to form real relationships with others? Here are some simple suggestions that have impacted my life greatly and created fellowship in faith:
INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO SOMEONE AT MASS.
When my teenage son was just a baby, an unfamiliar woman introduced herself at Mass and invited me to a playgroup. This invitation led to a true friendship that continues to this day.
Now belonging to a large parish, I oftentimes look up and find myself sitting among people who are unfamiliar to me. I have made it a point to introduce myself (usually in the cry room) after Mass and then make it a point to say hello at future Masses. It may not develop into a deep and lasting friendship, but a friendly hello and introduction can go a long way in making someone feel part of our parish community.
How can we ensure that people feel welcome?
PARTICIPATE IN A MEN’S OR WOMEN’S GROUP IN YOUR PARISH.
If you don’t have one in your parish, look at neighboring parishes — or start your own. A few years ago, a Catholic friend of mine ran a mom’s group for a Protestant church. She joined for the fellowship since she couldn’t find a nearby Catholic counterpart.
However, she longed for such a group in our parish. She invited me and a few other women to start a new mom’s group combining three local parishes. We meet monthly to socialize, hear a local Catholic speaker, and discuss a faith-based topic and Scripture. The faith formation has been wonderful, but the fellowship and friendship have brought true joy into my life.
ATTEND A CATHOLIC RETREAT OR CONFERENCE AND VOLUNTEER TO BE A PART OF THE TEAM.
With Catholic conferences and retreats on the rise, these daylong events offer the opportunity to renew our faith, meet new friends, and deepen relationships with our acquaintances in a powerful and uplifting way.
Twelve years ago I was asked to help with the Columbus Catholic Women’s Conference in Ohio. Initially I thought I was taking on a simple task, such as serving bagels for breakfast, but I soon found myself on the board of directors. I currently serve as the co-director of the conference. Not only have I made countless friends with the women who plan this event, but I also hear testimonies of diocesan women who attend. This fellowship sparks small-group faith formation and new friendships among the attendees.
While it might be tempting to forego fellowship, the saints and the Church say something else. St. Augustine wrote, “In this world two things are essential: life and friendship. Both should be highly prized, and we must not undervalue them. Life and friendship are nature’s gifts.”