How do you participate in a Christian community when you cannot attend church due to health issues? This was the painful predicament I found myself in several years ago, when a shift in my mental stability meant that attending church became challenging and, at times, even dangerous. I do not want to dwell too much on what made attending church so painful and near-impossible; rather, I wish to discuss my attempts to find and build Christian community and fellowship through alternate means.
I had never realised how much my own Roman Catholic identity had depended upon my ability to attend church until this was taken away from me. Catholics have an obligation to attend Mass at least once a week and my childhood had been built upon a foundation of regular church attendance from infancy to leaving home for university. I had grown up attending the same parish church and although some of the older parishioners passed away and the young children inevitably grew into adults, there was a rhythm and familiarity being part of that community. This church felt like a home outside of home and it was unnerving to realise that I could not partake in this community that I had been part of from birth.
There are a lot of things I miss about being able to go to church when I want to: the beautiful ritualistic nature of the Mass, singing hymns with my church’s congregation, marvelling at the sunlight pouring through the beautiful stained-glass windows. Of course, advances in modern technology mean that some of the things I miss can be replenished in other ways. One can watch Mass or Adoration of the Eucharist via the Internet, for example, whilst iTunes and Google images mean that singing hymns or looking up beautiful stained-glass windows can be done at home.
Something less easily replaceable, though, is receiving sacraments. One of the most painful things about not feeling part of a church community was the lack of opportunity to partake in communal Communion through receiving the Eucharist. “Communion” is a word with different meanings in different settings. In Christianity, it relates to commemorating Jesus’ instructions from the Last Supper. However, the Oxford English Dictionary online cites that communion also means “[t]he sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially on a mental or spiritual level”. In other words communion can be a sense of sharing deep community, and it is this type of communion that I have sought to carve out through sharing my faith, feelings and thought processes with fellow Christians outside of the traditional church setting.
I joined a few online communities that were specifically faith-based (either ecumenical, or specifically Roman Catholic). None of them were a permanent solution, but through them I met some wonderful people who have been instrumental in my faith journey. I remember one Good Friday when I was too ill to attend the service and was distraught by this, a group from one particular community helped me mark Good Friday by having our own mini-reflective “service” via Facebook Messenger. Other Christian friends have posted prayer card from across the world, and one friend even posted me a very precious personal possession of hers – a medal of St Michael the archangel – because she felt I needed it more than her. Even my atheist BFF prayed for me when visiting the Vatican on holiday in Rome!
Another avenue of Christian community for me is SCM. In 2015, a friend from that aforementioned online group invited me to write a short piece for SCM, and the rest is history as they say! Even though I have only met two people from SCM in person, the support, encouragement and example set by the SCM community has been inspiring for me. The fact that so many people who I’ve never met – and may never meet – are willing to pray for, advise and guide me, is very humbling. The regular newsletters and social media posts give me a chance to interact with fellow young people who are trying their best to live out their faith in an authentic manner. I love SCM and the fact that it is a space in which I feel I belong and have a contribution to make, but equally a place that challenges me to try and be a better Catholic. For these things, I am eternally grateful.
Written by Shanika Ranasinghe. Shanika is Roman Catholic and a part-time music PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London.