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By Philip Shano

The Acts of the Apostles relates that the whole group of believers was united, heart and soul. Luke is writing about the beginnings of the Christian community. He tells us that the faithful all lived together and owned everything in common. We get the impression of the early community as idyllic. Other sections of the book of Scripture paint a different picture. We read of skirmishes, tensions, political divisions and conflicting egos. The believers disagree about who is in and who is out, who can exercise which kinds of ministry, how holy a minister must be, and cultural distinctions. 

The same tension is found in the New Testament epistles. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians expresses it well. Paul sums up the dissensions among the faithful: I am for Paul, I am for Apollos, I am for Cephas, I am for Christ. Has Christ been parcelled out?  

The tensions of the early Christians continue in this millennium, with our disagreements about inclusion and exclusion, gender, the nature of leadership, and splits within a culture. Despite the realities, there are moments when things seem to work out and there is a semblance of harmony. The whole group was united. It is possible, even today! 

The whole group was united. It is possible, even today! 

Most of us are looking for an experience of community, to feel that we belong and are included, not marginalized or outside the circle. We see the desire for connection expressed in a diversity of ways, whether in parishes and congregations, in educational settings, or among individuals who share a common way of life. We have always sought out the companionship of like-minded people.  

Fr. John English, SJ, was a Canadian Jesuit who recognized the desire for community, particularly among believers. He developed that insight as he worked with individuals and small groups. I was privileged to work in the 1990s with John and other gifted men and women who were involved with the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. John used a line very often: Jesus died as an individual, but rose as a community. The lonely experience of the cross was followed in the resurrection by community and connection. The Risen Lord would appear and encourage those who experienced him to go tell others, to spread the word. That is how the Christian community has spread over the centuries.  

 Jesus died as an individual, but rose as a community. 

John English explored his interest in community dynamics in “Spiritual Intimacy and Community: An Ignatian View of the Small Faith Community.” His history of guiding people through the Spiritual Exercises convinced him that Ignatian dynamics could assist those who were looking for community. The fruit of John’s focus on communal discernment and the building of faith communities is found in the continuing work of the Canadian Jesuits and our partners. It’s in evidence in Christian Life Communities. It’s seen whenever we start a gathering — whether in a community or an apostolic setting — with the check-in question, “How do you come to this meeting?”  

When St. Ignatius has us pray with the resurrection of the Lord, he invites us to “consider the office of consoler which Christ our Lord carries out, and compare it with the way friends console one another.” It is that consolation that facilitates community itself, and it is one of the fruits of a healthy community of women and men. In a way similar to the early Christians, people speak to others of the consoling community they have found and invite others to come and see. What they find may not be perfection, but it offers support in a world and Church that can make us feel alienated and marginalized.  

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