The oldest church building in the city of Woonsocket is, oddly, not a church at all. The Quaker Meeting House on Smithfield Road, just at the edge of the city line, facing Union Cemetery in North Smithfield, is intentionally just a meeting house where individual believers gather for prayer, song and Biblical inspiration. The Society of Friends, as the Quakers are officially known, shuns formal worship.
Liturgy, ritual, ceremony, and certainly anything resembling a Mass or even a Communion service would be eschewed by the devout Quaker. Hence the need for a church or house of worship would run counter to Quaker insights. The truly old-time Quaker awaits the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to initiate personal prayer, communal singing and spiritual instruction. For this, an assembly hall or meeting house is perfectly sufficient. A church building with atrium, nave, choir, sanctuary, pulpit and altar would be too structured, too programmed, too hierarchical for souls expecting a direct, individual experience of God. As in dress, so in piety, for Quakers, the simpler is the better.
Roman Catholics, of course, embrace a radically different Christian tradition. The Roman Catholic Church (and ideally all its members) accepts a clearly outlined creed, certain inviolate sacramental rituals, a divinely instituted hierarchical structure, and certain immutable ethical and moral principles. The Spirit indeed breathes where He wills, but, for Catholics, He breathes most powerfully and most effectively within these time-honored apostolic parameters. Hence, Catholics truly form a Church and not just a friendly society.
Nonetheless, the apostolic roots of Roman Catholic life do not rule out the need for Catholics, all Catholics, to meet to celebrate the activity of the Holy Spirit within their own personal and community lives as well as within the Church at large. The Church has always acknowledged a sensus fidei, a feel for the faith, so to speak, by which the persons in the pews have an intuition for truth and error, right and wrong, good and evil. Very recently, a Vatican commission stated, “the faithful have an instinct for the truth of the Gospel, which enables them to recognize and endorse authentic Christian doctrine and practice, and to reject what is false. That supernatural instinct, intrinsically linked to the gift of faith received in the communion of the Church, is called the sensus fidei, and it enables Christians to fulfil their prophetic calling.” So not just popes and bishops, not just clergy and religious, but all Catholics have an obligation to seek the truth and to proclaim the truth to their fellow believers and to the world. Quakers are right to meet on their humble benches and speak the truth to one another. But Catholics too have an obligation to get in touch with the deep roots of our faith and to announce authentic truth to believers and non-believers alike.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus, through the pen of St. Matthew, speaks very forcefully on the obligations of the believing faithful to meet and communicate. Jesus first courageously addresses the challenge of excommunication. Christ’s teaching has the believer first contact the offender individually, then seek the support of some other believers, and then finally approach the Church at large. If none of this works, then the assembly is better off without the offending member. The instinct for truth must prevail over sentiment. More positively, Jesus doubly endorses collegial decisions: “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” and “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.” Finally, Jesus powerfully validates Church community life: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Meeting, whether to reprove the wayward or to affirm the well-behaved, is a vital part of the Christian experience.
The Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council has witnessed a dramatic increase in the opportunity for Catholics at all levels to meet, to deliberate and to support one another as believers. From Catholic bishops’ conferences to diocesan boards to parish councils to study groups, occasions to deepen Catholic community life through prophetic witness and a shared instinct for the truth abound. These chances to meet should not be abused by rashness nor neglected by indifference.