In the story of the first Pentecost, Luke makes a point of insisting that everything happened in the small upper room in Jerusalem, just barely large enough to hold 120 people (Acts 1:15).
He also lists the wide range of nations and ethnic groups present for that magnificent turning point in human history (2:5-11). Peter quickly opened the windows to address the crowd. Unfolding waves of witness immediately spread thereafter … like rings of water on the surface of a pond when a stone is tossed into its midst.
As Luke described the initial missionary impulse, the witness of the early Christians quickly went from Jerusalem northward to Samaria and eastward to Caesarea on the sea coast, then on to Antioch in Syria and eventually to Rome at the heart of the Roman Empire. In each place, an initially small Christian community was formed.
Scholars surmise that the original community at Colossae, for example, may have numbered as few as two dozen people. What might comprise a parish today, at least numerically, may well have been an entire “diocese” in the early church with its own bishop, but it didn’t stay that way.
In some profound fashion, the entire Catholic Church is always present in each smaller entity because Christ’s universal love is present. For that same reason the eucharistic heart of each group must remain open to embrace the hopes and fears of the whole world. No one is excluded, even if everyone can’t be present due to the distance of geography or the lapse of time.
Small groups of priests may gather in any given place to form what we sometimes call an “intentional community” … individuals committed to mutual support, common exploration of the demands of the Gospel and shared pastoral concern for the people committed to their care. In any given group of the Jesus Caritas movement, for example, the entire presbyterate of a diocese is present and somehow represented.
Each of these examples is indeed very local; limited in number and time, but at the same time, truly universal and “catholic” in vision and embrace. Deliberate exclusivity is always sinful at some level.
In recent years, it has become customary to encourage folks to think globally as they act locally. That is usually applied to issues of ecology or questions of justice. The fact of the matter, however, is that the same principle should be involved in questions of spirituality and in our experience of Christian community. A truly global dimension must be present in everything local.
So called “tea party” groups in contemporary American society dishonor their historical patriots and namesakes whenever they simply ignore and disregard the common good. Ultra comfortable wealth, which selfishly hides behind gates to eschew any concern for less fortunate neighbors, is profoundly un-American. Both extremes are decidedly un-Catholic as well.
Prominent theologians like the then Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper have recently argued about the theory, and at times disagreed, whether the universal precedes the local or vice versa. The fact of the matter is the universal is always present in anything legitimately local. One is “catholic/universal” from the get-go, or one is not Catholic at all.
We are entering the final phase of the Archdiocesan Synod experience. Every small group has a spark of the entire archdiocese in its midst. Concern for the common good, local and global, should permeate our prayers, conversations as well as our decisions if they are Catholic. The grace of the Holy Spirit initiates each genuine expression of Christian faith and action and makes them universal.
A person without a community is not catholic; a congregation without a diocese is not catholic, a church without a world is not catholic. Therefore, if there isn’t some seed of universality (catholicity), it is not of the Spirit we name “Holy!”