For those of us old enough to remember, there was a time when local communities were real and vibrant. Neighbours knew each other’s names; children played all over the neighborhood and could be found in each other’s homes.
Teachers, magistrates and police officers, and of course the parish priest, were persons who were respected and had real influence. The church and the primary school were places where the community congregated.
Over the last 50 years, much of this has changed. First, there was television which shifted a lot of entertainment to inside the home. Then as secondary school opportunities expanded, children from one area would travel sometimes great distances to different secondary schools which were constructed from the 1970s, losing contact with their primary school classmates.
Later on, there was the Internet and cable television. And now we have social media—Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, etc—which have further fractured family life and changed the ways in which many young persons interact.
Concomitant with these changes, secularisation brought about declining attendance at Sunday Mass, the virtual disappearance of Sunday school and the Catholic Youth Organisation (CYO), and a decline in the influence of the parish priest.
The challenge that we now face is: how do we go about re-creating real communities and rekindling community spirit? How do we revitalise parish life so that church and school can once more be central to the lives of parishioners?
Trying to re-create what obtained 50 years ago will certainly not work. The world has moved on and our young people especially are in a different place. Whatever we do, we must engage our youth meaningfully and on a sustained basis.
John’s gospel today may offer some clues. First, people are drawn in where they can get real help and hope—“a large crowd followed him, impressed by the signs he gave by curing the sick” (John 6:2).
Technological improvements do not alleviate the travails and the hurts that people experience in life, nor do they produce the joy of authentic human fellowship. It is only real human contact and love which help us to cope with and to overcome our struggles, and allow us to celebrate and share our joys fully. It is interesting to note that in the feedback from the parishes on the pastoral priorities, a commonly expressed desire was that our church communities should be more welcoming!
Second, the crowd which was drawn to Jesus remained in fellowship through the sharing of a meal together. Mealtimes within families or workplaces provide an opportunity through the ‘breaking of bread’ to discuss, to share thoughts and ideas, and to promote reconciliation where there may be conflict. The sharing is all the more meaningful when people bring whatever they have to be shared with the rest of the family or the community.
In addition, we should not reject social media but instead seek to embrace the benefits that those technologies can bring. Social media is ideal for getting the word around on parish events, and also for getting the Word around!
It can be used to advertise resources that parishioners can turn to for help and facilitate access to those resources. Why not talk to the parish office via Skype? Why not have parishioners sign up to receive the homily, get notifications on times of Mass and other parish events, and let others know who is sick and ailing within the community?
Our parish communities need to become real 21st century communities; the physical church or parish hall should be an oasis for prayer, sharing, and fellowship, and we can use social media to help us communicate and congregate.