Starting a House Church: A Faith-Inspired Response to Trumpism (First in a series of four)

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Recently, I surprised friends and readers of this blog by announcing plans to “re-appropriate my priesthood” and start a house church. It would be a faith-based response, I said, to Trumpism and its planetary threat. The community, I hoped, would mobilize the spiritual power that in fact dwarfs the U.S. presidency and the president’s capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the mightiest military in the history of the world.

Some of my former priest-colleagues wondered, “Why on earth would you want to do that?”

After all, the church is for all practical purposes dead and the priesthood along with it.

And good riddance. By and large, the church remains sexist, religiously fundamentalist, and arguably the most conservative force on the face of the earth.

“And there’s more,” they said.  “Virtually no one believes in priestly powers any more. According to Catholic faith, it all hangs on two quasi-magical endowments that priests alone allegedly have to: (1) transform bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ, and (2) forgive mortal sins that would otherwise send their perpetrators to hell. Few who think about it take such beliefs seriously any more. The others are just coasting along in thoughtless denial. Their children however perceive the nonsense and are jumping the sinking ship in droves. That’s why if ‘former Catholics’ were an actual denomination, they would constitute the third largest church in the United States.

“Moreover, Catholics are virtually indistinguishable from Protestants (or non-believers for that matter) in their life-styles and political positions. They even practice birth control in exactly the same percentages as other Americans. It’s a similar case with divorce and same-sex relationships. And many Catholics vote Republican, despite papal social teachings on social justice, the environment, and war.

“So what’s the point of the Catholic Church with its anachronistic priesthood? It has become a mere social club – good for keeping old friendships alive, but little more. Most of its committees, sodalities, youth and men’s groups are self-serving. Do-gooders could easily find other organizations elsewhere to satisfy their passion for social change – without having to fight resistant Catholic fundamentalists in the process.”

To be frank, I find such objections persuasive.  Despite the best efforts of Pope Francis, the church seems more dead than alive. For all practical purposes, it whistles past the crises that characterize our age. The Sunday Masses I attend completely ignore the unprecedented contemporary context of threats from nuclear war, climate change, racism and sexism.

And yet, I remain firm in my intention to proceed with the house church. That’s because despite the institutional church’s having lost its way, I still find in my faith a source of spiritual strength and political resistance that for me is irreplaceable.

I intend to start a house church also because the objections just mentioned overlook the fact that Catholic Church pews also seat resisters like me. There are people whose faith has been shaped by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In the spirit of the conciliar document, “The Church in the Modern World,” their faith engages them not only with world events, but with one another.

For instance, in my own community, a group of more than 20 has met regularly over the past two or three decades as our church’s Peace and Social Justice Committee. Our gatherings often find us reflecting on liturgical readings. Discussions connect them with political organizing, welcoming refugees, war-resistance, the environmental crisis, and with the needs of local unemployed and impoverished families. Work with Habitat for Humanity has been a constant commitment.

I’m loathe to let such relationships and commitments go. At the same time, I’m convinced there has to be a better, more focused, more regular and consistent way of harnessing the deep faith the 20 or so of us share, especially in the face of Trumpism. To repeat: we’re in an unprecedented situation that calls for an unprecedented response.

I’m convinced that the best response is to experiment with house church Sunday liturgies that would bring our sub-community and others together on a weekly basis to reflect, pray, break bread, and plan creative acts of resistance. The liturgies will take place on Saturday evenings (i.e. on the Sabbath) and thus allow those wishing to attend Mass in our church the next morning, to do so.

In the end, my reasons for starting a house church are rooted in history and theology – in post-Vatican II understandings of church, of Eucharist, and of priesthood. A changed understanding of each – more in accord with the leadership of Pope Francis gives hope and direction.

I will try to explain what I mean in subsequent postings over the next three weeks.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

8 thoughts on “Starting a House Church: A Faith-Inspired Response to Trumpism (First in a series of four)”

  1. Thanks for the clarification Mike. Although I agree that the Catholic church is moribund, there nevertheless remains much in it’s contents that was valid – if properly understood and thoughtfully interpreted. One need not call oneself a priest to become a leading voice in a group dedicated to truth and justice.
    There are too many bogus pretensions to authority attached to that word.

    On the other hand, so many social change efforts fall into the materialist thinking of this age in their efforts, neglecting the reality and power of the Spirit to inspire and direct our efforts toward a better world through individual and collective practices designed to make us the effective agents to realize that dream. A more open and expanded idea of what constitutes Spirit and spirituality will be necessary to create the more beautiful world that we know in our hearts is possible.

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    1. As always, Mike, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. You’re especially right about “calling oneself a priest.” That’s given me pause from the beginning of this little project. Using the term can be counter-productive for many of us. I’ll be interested in what you’ll have to say in response to my next three postings on this topic. They’ll try to reinterpret church, eucharist, and priesthood.

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  2. As a “fallen away” Catholic, and an aging senior citizen, I am very much interested in your House Church. However, “liturgy” doesn’t speak to my deep spiritual hunger. Most of the Church’s rituals leave me glassy eyed.
    Could the new House Church welcome “unprecedented” spiritual expressions such as newly written and individual prayers, maybe poetry, music and art that encompass the truths of Catholicism and the teachings of Jesus without resorting to prayers and readings that others have deemed important and timeless?
    thanks!

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  3. Hi Mike,

    Spiritual community size is a big factor in determining the spiritual life of the community, from my experience being in 2 small Meetings (no more than 50 adults and kids; adult attendance hovering around 20-25) and having visited larger meetings (100+ adults). The small Meetings seem to have a lively spiritual life; the big Meetings seem to have a lively social justice life.

    The House Church model fits well on the spiritual side. Most houses can’t handle more than 20 comfortably.

    I can imagine the House Churches in a community combining to form a Spirit-led social justice community, thus getting the best of both models that I’ve experienced.

    Good luck. Your big challenge, it seems to me, will be to find a way for other House Churches to form and develop their own liturgy, without priestly (i.e., formally trained) intervention.

    Good luck: we need to have an organized Spirit-led social justice community, and that begins with the vitality of the Spiritual Communities in which Spirit rises and is discerned.

    thanks,

    Hank

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