In the midst of the creation myth in Genesis, God says “it is not right that man should be alone”. We don’t flourish as people by being isolated and living by ourselves, but by engaging as full members of our community. We have an obligation to help and support those around us while at the same time allowing ourselves to be supported. The place most of us first experience a community in our lives is in the family, and so it is here that the Catholic Social Teaching themes of Community and Participation have their roots and in the context of the family that these principles have developed.
Beyond the family we are called to participate fully in the life of wider society. For most of us, this means an obligation to participate fully in civil society and the life of the local community beyond our parish. This could include involvement in movements for justice, volunteering with local community groups, or active membership of work associations or trade unions.
The call to Community and Participation is perhaps easiest to understand, for many, in the experience of Church. When people profess their faith during the celebration of the Eucharist, it is done in community, together. The symbolism of our common faith is powerfully represented at Easter, when baptismal promises are renewed. It is no less true, however, of life in society. As the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, one of the major documents of Vatican II, put it:
“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts… That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.” (Gaudium et Spes, 1)
But community does not just happen – it is something that we must work together to develop, and each of us is called to do this in a way and at a level that is appropriate for our life circumstances. Everyone must take part in the building up of community, as far as possible. This is not an easy thing to do, and it is understandable that people sometimes become disillusioned with the social, economic, and political structures that impact participation in society and the Church. However, participating in the building up of community is one of the ways that Catholics live their lives at the service of the dignity of the human person. The authentic development of the human person is fostered by the pursuit of the social values of truth, freedom, justice, peace, and love. Putting these into practice is the sure and necessary way of obtaining personal perfection and a more human social existence (Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine, 197).
Perhaps one of the best-known practices of participation is the pursuit of the common good. Vatican II defines it as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” (Gaudium et Spes, 26). Pursuit of the common good is one of the ways in which Catholics practice solidarity with our neighbor: the common good is not just shared with those nearest to us, or even with all those in our own society; it is a universal principle, which fosters the unity of the whole human family. (Catechism, 1911). In our pursuit of the common good, we are called to have particular care for the weak and vulnerable, because they are our neighbors in a pre-eminent way (Luke 10: 25-37).
Consider these words from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians (12:12-22, 24-27): “Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit because all these parts, though many, make one body, so it is with Christ. In the one Spirit, we were all baptized, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens, and one Spirit was given to us all to drink. Nor is the body to be identified with any one of its many parts… If one part is hurt, all parts are hurt with it. If one part is given special honor, all parts enjoy it. Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it.”
In this spirit of pursuing the common good through the call to community and participation, I ask you to prayerfully consider how you, as an individual and in the context of your family, might recommit to living out the mandate that Jesus gave at the Last Supper when he washed the disciples’ feet, and challenged us to do the same.