I spent five years in Alaska as a missionary prior to becoming Catholic. Four years of that was in a little town south of Anchorage with a strong bohemian population. As the town pastor, I got to know many of those good people. More than a few were devotees of The Grateful Dead, a band I paid little attention to in my younger days but grew to love as a result of my encounters with the folks in my small Alaskan community.
Those who know little about their music likely know more about their followers, known affectionately as ‘Deadheads’. There is a strong sense of community among the fans, who are inclined to be anti-institutional in ethos but peaceful in demeanor.
When I would invite my Alaskan friends to come to my church, the refrain I often heard was, “I don’t need to go to church to worship God, I can worship alone in nature.’ This was one of the most challenging obstacles in trying to get those good people into the doors of our church on Sunday morning.
Two weekends ago, the band played three nights at Chicago’s Soldier Field called “Fare Thee Well” (billed as their last ever) and I was fortunate, at the invitation of my brother, to attend all three.
My brother, like many of my Alaskan friends, has grown cynical about institutional religion over the years and does not practice any faith. But on the last night of the three night run – while looking out over the excited crowd – he turns to me and says, “This is kind of like church, huh?” I nodded in tacit agreement. Then he said, “I guess you can’t worship alone, can you?”
How I wish I had thought of this analogy while trying to get those Deadheads to join me in church!
Of course, this sentiment is woven into the fabric of what it means to be Catholic. We are a people who gather.
Every Catholic knows this, but do we all truly practice it? We may gather once a week for Mass, but what is the level of our engagement with the community of faith?
I come with Christians far and near
to find, as all are fed,
the new community of love
in Christ’s communion bread.
As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.
Engagement with the people of God at Mass and in ministry is a big part of our stewardship of time. If we only pop in and out of church on Sunday to fulfill our Mass obligation, are we not in essence worshiping alone?