It was in an undergrad course on Shakespeare that I first began thinking of Catholicism as an inherently communal religion. Our professor, an ABD who later left academia for construction, was having doubts about Christianity and mentioned that of all options, Catholicism and its strong sense of community appealed to him most. I had no idea what he was talking about: I’d never thought of Catholicism, knew little more of it than Marian devotion, and had no clue how community might play an important part in a religion.
It wasn’t until I attended Mass for the first time in Poland and read Milosz’s The Captive Mind that I understood. Milosz wrote of the wisdom of the Catholic church in its community prayer, pointing out that kneeling and crossing oneself often preceded faith and in fact led to faith. I, in my unbelief, understood this to mean that religious belief is a question of collective suggestion. Reading Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology only further strengthened this belief. Yet Berger himself, in A Rumor of Angels, goes to great lengths to point out that something that seems to explain faith naturally does not preclude the supernatural. In other words, faith might very well be a product, to some degree, of a physically encouraged collective consciousness, but that fact alone doesn’t disprove its legitimacy.
Attending Mass put it all in perspective. Seeing everyone moving together, gesturing together, speaking together, had a profound impact on me. The sense of unity and community was literally palpable.
I thought of the vast difference between this voluntary sense of community and the forced May Day parades that everyone behind the Iron Curtain were expected to revel in. I could explain the Catholic community’s success and the wishful Communist community’s failure in secular terms: after all, I could reason, the why’s and where’s of the gestures and motions of Catholicism are long since forgotten in the mists of antiquity whereas the germination of the Communist community lingers in the historical memory. There seemed to be something more, though, something ineffable.
Perhaps something divine?