There's a lot of talk surrounding the Benedict Option these days. At its most general, the idea of the Benedict Option promotes a concerted effort on the part of Catholics and Christians to form like-minded communities to support each other and keep the faith alive. As the idea of forming intentional and authentic Catholic communities that strive for orthodoxy gains a foothold in Catholic parlance, I've been thinking about how I feel that this has already happened to some degree organically when it comes to where Catholics live.
As someone who has lived the majority of her life in rural areas I want to sometimes shout from the rooftops that the Benedict Option of sorts has already happened; because most of Catholic community is found in enclaves of urban cities.
We all know the reasons why; the increasing urbanization of our populations in general, the lack of priests to serve rural communities and small towns, the shrinking of cultural Catholicism, the complete absence of Generation X and younger at Mass.
If you think you feel the reverberations of these problems in the Church in your city that has a population of more than 10,000 people, imagine how keenly felt this must be in small communities?
Let me give you a peek at what Catholic life in a small town looks like. It looks like sharing one priest with 3 other parishes spread over 100 miles. It looks like no daily Mass or standing confession times. There is ONE option for Mass each weekend. There are no ministries. There is no religious education for children or adults alike. There is no other family with young children who attend weekly at our parish. There is a Catholic school the next town over.
There are no plethoras of religious orders of which to affiliate. There are no small groups for men or women. There are no ministries to moms, divorced people, those struggling with addiction or same sex attraction, or grief. There are no dinners or fundraisers. There are no options when it comes to finding a liturgy you prefer. There are no other Catholics your age in which to build local community.
In other words, I want you to imagine a Catholic life where there is only the Sacraments, a parish that is barely scraping by, and the constant threat that your parish may be shut down by the diocese due to lack of attendance, financial support, or both.
I think most of us believe that in order to live a fully Catholic life we've got to have some form of Catholic community. We all are striving for authentic local connections. We know how difficult it is to remain faithful to the teachings of the Church in our culture when we are without any support from real people in our lives. We've seen on a parish level how hard it is to evangelize and bring people in when there are hardly any faithful in the pews to begin with. All these difficulties come to a head in a small community where there are hardly any Catholics to begin with, with even fewer attending weekly Mass, and where there are in turn little to no outreach and ministries to the community.
Vibrant, vital, and orthodox parishes are out there but finding them in a small town is the exception to the rule, and doesn’t even approach a fraction of the parishes that serve rural areas. Parishes with resources, both in parishioners and cold hard cash, are found in cities. If you're looking for good, life-giving ministries you may have to search your city to find one, you may have to drive across town, but they will exist. There are no ministry options in small towns. As we see orthodox parishes with a focus on beautiful liturgy grow, it is within a city that offers options when it comes to liturgy and the few who know it's value to support it.
We know our families are the domestic church, and that the beauty of family life is a great gift as we lead and guide our children in faith. But it is increasingly difficult in today's world to bring up children in a religious vacuum so to speak, where there is so little evidence of faith in their hometown and home parish. Small towns are not just drained of Catholics, they’re drained of believers of all denominations as increasingly our society of “nones” erodes cultural faith. As it seems to be increasingly difficult to even become friends with our neighbours, it's even more challenging to find friends who share the faith at a local level.
I don't think there are easy answers to the problem of rural Catholic life just as the Benedict Option isn't an easy answer to our troubled Church as a whole. As Catholics we value the land, the connection with the land that we live on, the ability to provide for ourselves, to nurture that connection with creation, but as more and more people move to cities, rural towns are emptied of faith. How can we preserve a connection to the land, agriculture, self-sufficiency, and still be part of authentic Catholic community? Is the answer that the Ben-opters start communes in small rural towns? Are there economic opportunities enough for them? Does everyone become farmers?
I can't help but feel that many rural Catholics are faced with the difficult call to live an almost heroic level of faith based on their isolation from vital Catholic community. Unfortunately in many cases people are in the position between choosing the land and lifestyle they know and love or moving to a more urban environment that provides even a slightly better opportunity for Catholic community.
Whether the Benedict Option takes off or not, there’s no denying that the light of orthodoxy in the North American Church shines from urban enclaves and that rural Catholics are going it alone.
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