Baptism and Community
by Monsignor Thomas Wells (Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Bethesda, Maryland)
used with permission
For a variety of reasons, we often receive calls from out of the parish from parents who desire Baptism for a child. Generally, we are happy to oblige once we receive a letter from their pastor giving them permission to have their baby baptised outside their own parish. This we require for a couple of reasons: first, to make sure the family is actually practicing the faith and that they actually are registered in a parish. A recent call made me think about this requirement. This particular couple showed every sign of going to mass each week. However, despite having lived in their up-county home for over five years, they do not belong to a parish and go to mass at several different churches - not including Lourdes. The call made me ask myself why belonging to a parish really does matter. Is a parish a filling station where we go each week to receive spiritual gas for another week, or should the phrase, "community of faith," mean something?
I remember so well a seminary theology professor saying that the image of gift and response was central to describing the Christian mystery; and it is an image that touches every dimension of life. So, a woman loves a man; unless he responds to that love the relationship goes nowhere. Children naturally love their parents, if the parents do not maturely and generously respond to that love the children will pay an awful price through life. God's love is freely given; it cannot change me unless I respond to it by the way I live my life.
And so, in a subtle but real way, is it in the church. In Baptism, God gives me His life; but He does so through the Church - His people - and through this particular parish community. Likewise with the Eucharist: He feeds me with the Body and Blood of His Son, but this happens in this particular local church community. (Did you know, for example, that a private mass at the beach with a priest friend on Sunday does not, strictly speaking, satisfy the Sunday obligation? We are supposed to celebrate with a parish community.)
The point is that, as with any family, individuals in a parish not only receive, but they respond to what they have received. Granted, the most important response takes place outside what is, strictly speaking, parish life. But the sign of peace at Mass (which I used to so dislike) does point to an important reality: before I can receive the Lord in Communion worthily, I must recognize my bond with those who will also receive. Now, obviously, going to a different church each week to get the shortest sermon or the most convenient time does in some sense fulfill the Sunday obligation, but how about that deeper human need to be a part of a spiritual family where members who have received God's love and mercy and have listened to His Word respond to what they have received? Are there concrete ramifications to belonging to a parish? Come back next Sunday to find out!