Returning to the Shire: The Importance of Catholic Community

News: Commentary
by Jesse Russell  •  •  December 14, 2019   

Why we yearn for it and how we create it

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When the first installment of Peter Jackson's cinematic adaption of Lord of the Rings trilogy first arrived in theaters in December of 2001, just four months after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, viewers were, to put it mildly, overwhelmed.

While some trilogy purists complain about Jackson's on-screen adaptation of the books, in the minds and hearts of millions across the globe, it captured the essence of J.R.R. Tolkien's mid-20th century literary masterpiece.

However, as much as audiences were enthralled by Jackson's computer-generated imagery, the spot-on acting of the cast, especially Sir Ian McKellen's masterful depiction of Gandalf, as well as the thrill of the battles against goblins in the Mines of Moria, people across the globe, but especially in the West, were so enchanted by The Fellowship of the Ring precisely because they felt so at home there.

Beginning with the happy narrative introduction to the Shire, which culminates with Bilbo's 111th birthday, itself replete with homebrew, magic fireworks and an enormous, scrumptious-looking cake, continuing with the spooking (and dirty) but, one must admit, homely Prancing Pony in Bree, and culminating in the majestic Rivendale, The Fellowship of Ring was replete with cozy, comfy and all-around friendly places where people from all walks of life, worn down by the bitter and jaded pessimism of postmodernity, could rest.

Small communities, these little shires, are needed for Catholics as much as the return of the heroic and martial spirit.

As the second and third installments of the film series either equaled or improved on the first film, it was clear that Peter Jackson had created an incredible series of movies that, as box office sales testified, touched something very deep in the hearts and minds of a West that had grown weary of the 20th century and its simmering after-effects in the 21st.

While the epic tenor and presence of Catholic imagery and symbolism of the films have been treated throughout the Catholic press — perhaps even ad nauseam — the films' celebration of the little or small things of life — especially the importance of small communities — has often been overlooked. Nonetheless, these small communities, these little shires, are needed for Catholics as much as the return of the heroic and martial spirit among our people.

Why We Need the 'Shire'

It is no shocking revelation that people throughout the West (and in some Far Eastern countries like Japan) are demoralized and depressed. There is a (both legal and illegal) drug epidemic in the United States that has killed more people than the Vietnam War. The life expectancy of White Americans is declining for the first time in 100 years. Suicide is increasing at an alarming rate.

There are many causes for these disturbing trends — the first and foremost being the loss of faith in the civilization that was once called Christendom. However, one of the principal causes of this demoralization and decline of the men and women of the West is the disintegration of community life and what could be called the "loss of the Shire."

As Susan Pinker writes in The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier (this is not an endorsement of her book!), the greatest single determining factor outside of income (and, one might add, a strong faith) in determining a person's happiness is being a member of a strong community.

This community, Pinker further argues, has two layers threaded through it. The first is a close network of those people on whom one can really rely. These are people who will help take care of someone if he or she is sick, or who will loan money to someone if he or she is in a pinch. These people usually include close family members as well as one's dearest friends.

The second layer in a close-knit community includes those who recognize and acknowledge one as a person. These people are the lady at the coffee shop who knows your name, as well as the mailman who went to school with your father. They also include the priest who stops and chats with your family after Mass, or the barber who chats with a man about his kids while cutting his hair. Without these close bonds, Pinker argues, humans begin to fall apart physically and mentally and eventually lose their will to live.

Certainly, there are exceptions to Pinker's observations. The philosopher Aristotle famously wrote that a man who lived outside of community could only be a beast or a god, and as Catholics, we know of saintly hermits, who, after many years, lived alone in great holiness. For the overwhelming majority of us, however, we need others to recognize and love us as well as those who acknowledge us as part of their community or their 'Shire.'

Without these close bonds, humans begin to fall apart physically and mentally and eventually lose their will to live.

Unfortunately, we live in a time of incredible flux, change and instability, in which many of us are surrounded by strangers who are either indifferent or hostile to us. Moreover, we know that, with a few exceptions, almost every attempt to build an authentic Catholic community from scratch has ended in failure.

What, then, is to be done? Perhaps the best way of answering this question is not to provide a blueprint for a new Catholic community but rather to provide some encouraging yet sobering realities.

Building a Uniquely Catholic 'Shire'

First of all, no matter how evil the world seems, there are good people out there who want to live and work with other good people. Many people go along with the unbearably toxic agenda of the mass culture that has been superimposed on the world simply because they think that is what they are supposed to do. As strange as it may sound, most people are disgusted by transgender surgery and child drag queens.

Second, a real community takes time, generations even, to build. There are parishes, neighborhoods and even a few small towns in the United States full of faithful Catholics. However, these communities, many of which are only a few decades old, are still taking time to settle and form their own culture.

Thirdly, with the ubiquity of cell phones, it is nearly impossible to escape the world. An entire book could be written about scores of faithful Catholic parents who lost their children to the world via Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. Even if one lives in a strong Catholic family in a vibrant Catholic community, he can still find himself getting sucked away into an empty fantasy world of Disney Plus, Twitter and internet pornography.

Finally and most importantly, a Catholic community cannot exist unless it is authentically Catholic. This Catholicity is manifested, of course, in orthodoxy and fidelity to the Church's traditional Magisterium. But it is manifested in sincere holiness and a virtuous life. How many Catholics have been "burned" by other Catholics in their personal life, in the hierarchy and in Catholic media and education, who, waving the banner of orthodoxy and tradition, turned out to be greedy grifters, sex perverts or, to put it bluntly, completely insane?

A true Catholic civilization will be rebuilt from small Catholic communities that themselves must be built from Catholics of good character and humility open to working of God's grace in their lives. This true Catholic civilization will sprout from the ruins of the old and we will help to build it as we await the final return of our Heavenly King.

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