Belonging to the Church and being active in the Church is one of the best ways to live and grow in our faith, and can be invaluable in helping us discern God’s call. Our faith community can be as small as a prayer group, as large as a parish, or a midsize group that centers around a form of ministry or nurturing our faith and spirituality in every day life. Virtual faith communities can also support us spiritually and help us to grow, although in more limited ways. We may belong to more than one faith community.
Faith communities that really nurture us can be difficult to find, and they take many shapes. If you do not have a faith community—for example, you go to Sunday Mass but are not more involved in living and sharing your faith in your parish or in other ways—I encourage you to actively seek one. Your own parish is a good place to start. (If you don’t feel that your parish is nurturing your faith deeply enough, there are many other ways to connect with the Church.)
Why is belonging to a faith community so important to our discernment?
1. Because we need to be actively involved in building the Church in order to fully live our faith. Jesus doesn’t call us as isolated individuals, but calls us into community, to serve one another and to live in communion with each other. How can we do that if we aren’t actively involved? An essential part of our baptismal call is to evangelize, to witness, and share our faith with others. And the first place that we can do that is within the Church.
We cannot nurture and grow in our faith alone; we need others to help us, to inspire us, to motivate us, to call us to greater self-giving. Finding a dynamic faith community where we are nurtured spiritually can be challenging, but it’s worth the search. If we cannot find a vibrant parish nearby, we can start looking for other kinds of Catholic faith communities. Retreats, lay movements, or connecting with religious communities of priests, brothers, or sisters, are three ways we can find people who are committed to growing in holiness in ways that we can identify with and share. In a dynamic faith community where we truly share the height and depths of our Faith, we can more easily hear and respond to God’s invitations to us—whether they are to a particular ministry or initiative, or a deeper relationship with Christ. Especially if we are discerning our vocation or ministry, Jesus will call us and affirm our call in and through the Church.
2. We often receive Christ’s call in and through his Church: through receiving the Word of God, through our sacramental life, through the Eucharist, in the homilies, in the calls of our pastors, in the service that we give, in the holy examples of the saints and perhaps in the inspiring lives of someone we know. For those discerning their vocations, the Church has the best understanding of how to receive, respond to, and live the call to marriage, single, priestly and religious life.
3. Usually it is in the Church that we can best learn how to serve with the mind and heart of Christ. Despite the reality that the Church is Christ’s Body, we will find many people in the Church whose humanity and sinfulness irritate, disturb, and perhaps even appall us. But we know that Christ died to redeem us and sanctify us, and that the Church’s holiness comes from Christ. If we look attentively, we will also find people in the Church who are truly holy: who are receptive to the Word of God in the Scripture and in the Eucharist, and who humbly serve—often without being acknowledged. We are called to build up the Church—sometimes the irritating or wounded part of the Church that would normally turn us away—with our faith and service. In turn, certain members of our faith community will invite and/or challenge us to serve. And they will also affirm us in our service.
As Catholic Christians, we are called to listen to the invitations the Church makes–because Christ speaks through his Church. Our last few popes have wisely and unapologetically called the Church to take specific actions. Coming from pastors who most clearly represent Christ on earth, these are calls from God. Today, Pope Francis sometimes startles us with the vividness of his invitations of how we are to called to love the world as Christ did. His wise and pastoral invitations to holiness and service are not just for the bishops and clergy, but for all of us Catholic Christians to bring to prayer and discernment.