To some, the phrase "Catholic Community" conjures up images of exclusive ghettos — areas of faith-filled Catholics who live close together and are so different from the world outside that they fail to engage it in any meaningful way. At the other extreme is contemporary Catholic life, where churchgoers attend the parish of their choice (which may or may not be their neighborhood parish), rarely see their fellow Catholics outside of the Mass, and do not so much influence the culture as merge into it.
Enter Chris Currie, who seems to have found a third way, one that simultaneously preserves the Catholic laity’s interaction with society at large and helps create the support structures to strengthen the faithful in their daily struggle for holiness.
In America’s early days, when Catholics in many parts of the nation were almost exclusively immigrants and their children, the ghetto "did what the church couldn’t do," Currie says. Families depended not upon the formal structures of the Church or the government for help, but upon their neighbors: barn-raising, cooking meals for post-natal mothers, babysitting, tool sharing, and rosary-praying were all provided by the Catholic community itself, without the involvement of the pastor or the town council.
As Catholics integrated more fully into society, and as anti-Catholic sentiment died down, church members began separating, moving further and further away from their parish center. As this happened, they became increasingly like their Protestant and secular neighbors, until there was little to objectively distinguish a Catholic from anyone else. Because the close-knit communities that had previously passed on the Church’s traditions were now non-existent, formation atrophied. An increasing number of families claimed to be Catholic without truly knowing what the Church taught.
Currie’s solution began several years ago when he and his young family moved to Hyattsville, Maryland — a mid-sized municipality inside the Washington, D.C. beltway. The local parish, St. Jerome’s, was headed by a faithful, kid-friendly, high-energy priest engaged in spreading Eucharistic devotion and authentic Catholic spirituality. Currie soon convinced his sister’s family, also faithful Catholics, to move into another Hyattsville home. That accomplished, the two families began paging through their address books, looking for old friends with new families of their own and asking them to consider moving to Hyattsville. At the same time, they made contacts at the parish and at a local, long-standing Catholic Bible study, and discovered other young families with a similar devotion to living in the fullness of the Faith.
Within a couple of years, a nexus of seven families had formed, and the mothers established the Mary, Cause of Our Joy home school co-op. As this effort was getting off the ground, Currie began familiarizing himself with the local real estate market, networking with agents and touring homes. Researching what houses were available became "a new hobby," he said, and as he matched houses with Catholic acquaintances, agents and landlords began to look to him as a valuable contact.
The Catholics formed a Yahoo! Group, which then split into husbands’ and wives’ listservs; the mothers set a weekly neighborhood walk; two sisters whose father had published an easy-to-use Liturgy of the Hours prayer book began hosting Evening Prayer followed by a potluck supper at their families’ duplex home every Sunday. A mother typed up a directory of Catholic families in Hyattsville, and a father established game night as a response to the moms’ recently begun book club.
With all of this activity came attention — faithful Catholics in other parts of the country began hearing about what was happening in Hyattsville and called Currie to see if other houses were available. As of this writing, he is working with twelve different families who want to move to Hyattsville.
Of course, I’m oversimplifying things a bit. Many of Currie’s initial contacts said no, they’d rather stay where they were, thanks. And most of those who ended up moving were friends-of-friends. In hindsight, Currie thinks he over-planned, trying to determine in advance the configuration and charism of the community that would take shape. He had envisioned a group of tech-savvy suburbanites. But Hyattsville ended up more often attracting families that were into simple and sustainable living, and who are at home in an urban environment. It’s important, he adds, to remain prayerfully open to God’s movement, instead of praying that God be open to yours.
Currie welcomes e-mails from families interested in moving to Hyattsville, but his ultimate goal is to have "other people capture a vision of shared living centered around faith and good works and implement it in their communities."
He insists that having families live in isolation is not the Catholic way. "We’ve accepted the nuclear family model, which is a Protestant idea" tied into the individualism of the Enlightenment. Currie argues that we are made for communion, which implies not only the immediate community of family, but also parish life. If families are the cells of the organism we call "society," then the parishes are the organs, and an organism without healthy organs soon dies.
"What this is really about is the renewal of parish life," he says.
Obviously, not every area can support an endeavor like this. Hyattsville’s suburban location allows for the diversity of careers necessary to attract Catholics from all walks of life, and it has homes for families of different income levels. Also, on the whole, the Archdiocese of Washington is blessed with a remarkably loyal contingent of priests — another necessity. Catholic University’s proximity was also a definite plus, as the group has attracted people "in the academic side of things." Finally, Maryland has relatively benign homeschooling laws, ensuring that families would not face the burdens carried by those in Pennsylvania, for example.
These are all important considerations for anyone interested in replicating Currie’s vision in another part of the country.
Perhaps the most striking part of the enterprise is the non-exclusivity of the communities. Although the Catholic families live in close proximity to each other, they do not live in a ghetto: They still have non-Catholic neighbors and co-workers; children mix with non-Catholic friends on their streets or in their scouting programs; no language barriers obstruct communication between parishioners and those around them. They are fully a part of the local community, even as their Catholicity is not diluted by it. In this way, they are truly the "salt of the earth" — in the world, but not of it.
Eric Pavlat is a board member of Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., and a columnist and blogger for InsideCatholic.com.