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By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 22 March 2013

It was no doubt my failure, a failure of imagination and faith. But I simply could not find anything of substance to talk about with my neighbors.

Until a few weeks ago we lived on a lovely block in Arlington, Virginia not far from the National Cemetery. My commute was simply heaven, 12 minutes without traffic and 25 minutes with.

The block had turned in recent years. There’s a natural rhythm in neighborhoods. Young families give way to older families, who give way to empty nests, who give way to the elderly, and back again. This block began the cycle a decade ago. Now there are seventeen children under twelve, a paradise for children, and lots of screaming play into summer’s dusky hours.

The families on the block are solid citizens, kind, cheerful, and helpful. But something was missing: real community. But how do you find it? We discovered it has a lot to do with children.

We decided years ago, before children arrived, that ours would never attend public schools. Too much harmful ideology, too open window to the culture. Who knew what would climb in through that window and into our children’s souls?

That decision and all that’s packed into it eventually drew us from my heavenly commute, the grocery store so close, and the passel of children racing around the yards. It did not happen all at once. It took years.

Some years ago, we heard about a Catholic Montessori School in Great Falls, Virginia, twenty miles away. I thought Montessori schools were left-wing. In fact, Maria Montessori was a Catholic who discovered a Thomistic way for children to learn, through all the senses; a way that respects the child’s free will and does not strap them to a desk learning lists of things.

When our children were old enough we sent them to the Siena Academy at St. Catherine of Siena Church. My wife took them back and forth every day for four years. And ever so slowly, our world shifted away from the people on our block.

I’m not good at small talk, and the small talk of men bores me the most. The men on our block liked to sit around bonfires, guzzling beer, smoking cigars, and talking about sports or other inconsequential things. They played poker. A few times they went to strip clubs. Nothing wrong with most of this, but none of it was for me.

And after sports, what was there? Politics and religion, two things we couldn’t discuss. We largely hid our politics, but not our faith. Folks knew who we were, though we never pushed it on them.


        St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, VA

My wife was better than I was. She made friends with some moms on the block, talked to one about contraception, and taught another about guardian angels. Our children loved the neighborhood kids – and so did we. But still the larger culture was coming through.  Even today our little girls sing a song they learned from a lovely older girl down the street, “Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young, we’re gonna die young.”

Still, we were not eager to uproot until we noticed something.  At Saturday morning ballet class, our girls didn’t know anyone. They didn’t know anyone at gymnastics or even at Church choir. They were surrounded by kids who knew each other from their local school. But our girls’ friends, their best friends were in Great Falls. We drove them out there for birthday parties and such, but that is not the same as being in the warp and woof of daily life.

And so a month ago we bought a house only a few miles from the church and school. The transformation has been magical, not only for the children but for us as well.  

Up the street live the Burkes who go to our church and school. Not far away are the Abelas, who go there, too. A little further on are the Rylands and the McCabes, part of the first wave of faithful Catholics out this way. And there are more, many more. Our friends the Hales call it a cloud of witnesses raising each other up.

The people we know here – and there are dozens – are mission-oriented Catholics attempting the same things we are; raising our children in a like-minded Catholic community, engaged with the culture, but in a critical way.

Within days of moving, we were welcomed like long lost family: turkey burgers on the grill one night, a potluck in honor of the new pope, and lots of talk about politics and religion. There is real community here not only for our girls, but also for us.

Tonight, you will find us at the Lenten fish fry at church. Afterwards, there are Stations of the Cross. We will know almost everyone there. Those we don’t know, we will meet, too. And our little girls will be off running around with friends they may know all their lives.

Did we fail those people in Arlington? Maybe we didn’t. Mark Ryland, one of our friends out here, tells the story of his days high up at a large and hip corporation. His colleagues never invited him out to carouse because they knew he was a faithful Catholic and a family man.

One of those guys just called Mark and said, “I really hated you in those days because you were such a goody-two-shoes.” And then the guy said he had just joined the Church and he wanted to thank Mark for his example.

I thank God for the community we have found here. And I ask Him to make me brave – or at least, despite my cowardice, always to give a good example.  

 
Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.
 
 
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Comments (21)Add Comment
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written by Graham Combs, March 22, 2013
I have discovered that finding a Catholic parish to call home since my conversion at Easter Vigial 2009 will not be easy. I hesitate to put it this way but I am miserable in the parish where I entered the Church. I have in fact not become a member there. There are many reasons and I feel guilty saying this. There are obviously good and devout Catholics at this parish. It has an 24 hour adoration chapel, a K-12 school and academy. And the pastor's sermons were one of the reasons I continued to attend Mass even when I was not a Catholic. Yet it isn't home. I don't feel comfortable there and on some days feel unwelcome. Fortunately it is just me. If children were involved it would be a far more serious matter. Mr. Ruse is right about the public schools, about the cultural environment, about it all. Unfortunately most children of the working class and working poor -- my world as a boy -- are locked in these hostile, bigoted and ideologically driven schools. How could real learning possibly take place? A 71 yr old retired teacher I met sometimes substitutes and is shocked and saddened by what he sees in his old school. He became a Catholic at 69. And although a Catholic high school education was in my reach even though it meant in my senior year working three eight hour shifts each weekend as an hospital orderly, it is no longer available to working class and working poor Catholic children or non-Catholic families such as mine that wanted their children to have a Catholic education. It is one of the great failings of a declining American Church and a Church that has squandered its patrimony in the worst possible ways through moral blindness, clericalism, and chasing utopian rainbows as the American family, especially among the "underclasses" has fallen apart. I find that this view of things is one of the major sore points between me and the Catholic culture of this archdiocese. But what can one do. As someone who grew up in the Anglican tradition and was an altar boy I sometimes fantisize about what an Anglican use parish in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter would be like. At least the liturgy would not bear the marks of egoism and would be mostly familiar and even comfortable. This shouldn't be the primary focus of any parish as important as the "spirit of the liturgy" as the Pope Emeritus calls it is to living the Teachings of Christ and His Church. It's a journey and not an easy one.
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written by Austin Ruse, March 22, 2013
I have to admit it is the school that is the organizing principle here. The Parish is solid but what drew us out here and what has formed the community is the school. Without children and therefore without the school, we never would have made this move.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, March 22, 2013
I have heard of at least two Catholic families who uprooted their (very large) families from California to the Front Royal area of VA just to be surrounded by a like-minded Catholic community. Funny how people instinctively know what they want and need and then set out to find it (or create it). We have property around Front Royal and are considering re-locating primarily for just this reason - even though we are a near-retirement couple. Nothing like a solid community to support youtr faith.
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written by Manfred, March 22, 2013
@Austin:, @Graham: An accurate column and a great response from Graham. This is exactly what Fr. Joseph Ratzinger foretold in 1969 in his "Faith and the Future"-small Catholic communities in lieu of the large institutional edifices. Unfortunately, not all of us have access to these communities as it is the schools which provide a lot of the "glue". I also agree that a widening chasm looms which separates us from the larger secular community. There is increasing evidence of its rot (s.s. "marriage" is the sine qua non for many Americans) and the rupture is irreparable as long as this neo-paganism persists. Again, my thanks to both of you for your thoughts and your time.
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written by John T, March 22, 2013
Lack of Catholic community exhibits itself in many ways. For families with children, there is one set of problems. For serious Catholics who are single, there is another. One lives in a social desert.
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written by athanasius, March 22, 2013
@Deacon Ed: It is interesting to me that you mention Front Royal, VA. In 2010 we drove from our home in CT to the Smokey Mountains on vacation. It was a two-day drive, so we stayed in Front Royal on the way there and back for the overnight. Both days happened to be Saturday, so we went to the church in Front Royal. I found the parish to be very nice, and the city was beautiful. We took the skyline drive through Shenandoah to enjoy the beauty of the mountains. I am glad to hear that there is a solid Catholic community there.
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written by petebrown, March 22, 2013
Thanks Austin. Your life and mine are very different. But as someone who has pondered the decline in sense of community and what it takes to restore it, you've given me alot to ponder.
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written by Melissa F., March 22, 2013
Welcome to the community Ruse family. We have only just begun...perhaps we will meet tonight at the fish fry.
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written by Karen, March 22, 2013
You have found a HOME! Thank you for your kind words for a man who I assume must be the father of a friend of mine, Maddy. If not you well describe the man who I imagine her father to be. Maddy and I had our first opportunity to meet personally at the Vienna Cafe while lobbying with you at the CSW in 2005. While a student at ND, she initiated the fabulously successful Edith Stein Project, which is an annual event that has become the largest student run conference on campus. Beautiful fruit from great roots!
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written by Jane E. Petry, March 22, 2013
Austin, your thoughts on the harmful ideology that could climb into a window and into your childrens souls truly speaks to who you are as a parent. Parents as the vicars of their children is so hugh. This is why I work to expose whom the G.S. have become. Not a perfect disciple but passionate and willing. Thank you for this look into who you are. God Bless, Jane
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written by beriggs, March 22, 2013
As a convert of 10 years in a Cathedral parish in the Midwest, I have given up on "community" in the Church. I come from a variety of Protestant congregations who made it a priority to show welcome and acceptance to anyone who worshiped with them. I cannot understand how the command to "Love one another" is ignored in my parish, and in other parishes I have heard about from other lonely Catholics.
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written by Jacob, March 22, 2013
There's a vast middle ground between walling one's self off from secularist culture and surrendering to it!

If only more of these communities pop up. There are plenty of us dying to move to them who feel stuck in secularist regions.
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written by Jacob, March 22, 2013
@beriggs

Find a traditional church.

I sympathize though. Traditional Catholic churches don't exist in California so we're out of luck as well and forced to listen to the wonderful stories from the East where there are still enough orthodox Catholics to create authentic Roman Catholic communities.
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written by Tony Esolen, March 22, 2013
The Catholic Church in the United States, particularly in the northeast and the Rust Belt, hasn't yet made the transition from parishes built by tightly-knit groups of families, usually from the same ethnic background, to loose groups of singles and some families, many traveling by car from miles away. The Church didn't have to worry, in my hometown, about social matters -- it was the center of life, and life was everywhere on the streets around it, even before there was a parochial school across the street from the church.

Back then, too, before the Council -- and people forget this or deny it, but it is very easy to discover -- there were all kinds of Catholic groups for the laity, which were partly devotional and partly social, and that included all kinds of groups for youth, to give them something healthy and enjoyable to do, and get 'em married.

At the feet of the apostate nuns may be laid the responsibility for the failing of Catholic grade schools all over the country. The schools could not afford to stay open if they had to pay lay teachers even inadequate salaries. So much for the apostates' love for the poor.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, March 22, 2013
At a recent meeting in Rome, I happened upon a group called Alpha for Catholics that I had never heard of before. Alpha is primarily an approach to evangelization but also has a definite social component which might be just what the doctor ordered.
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written by Brad Miner, March 22, 2013
There is also Theology on Tap, which has a presence in a number of dioceses around the country.
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written by Rosemary, March 22, 2013
Thank you for this heartfelt article! We, too, sent our kids to Catholic parochial school two towns over where they had many friends and playdates that were not so local to our house. My own parish contained families who were deeply embedded in the local public school system, and the women there thought it was odd that I would send my kids to a Catholic school. Was the public system (for which we paid dearly with our taxes) not good enough for our children? Hmm.
What a difference in culture between the public elementary and the Catholic! In our school, children were used to praying - at a birthday for one of my sons (to which I invited some public school acquaintances and their moms), the moms were amazed when the kids obediently and reverently said their grace before the pizza was served. They were Catholic but had never seen such a sight - and at a birthday party!
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written by MC, March 23, 2013
The only community of orthodox Catholics near me is the one made accessible by the Internet. I do my best to fill the gap with reading, but every so often I feel very keenly the lack of edifying conversation and the example of ordinary Catholic lives lived well.
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written by Elise Ehrhard, March 24, 2013
I know what you are talking about Mr. Ruse and I have found that sense of community in a wonderful parish homeschooling group out here in Northern Virginia. It's really given me a sense of Catholic community that I thought no longer existed.
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written by Maria Hidalgo Dolan, March 25, 2013
Dear Austin,
I am so happy for you! I've been searching for community for a long time. Our 4 boys were in public school and we never fit in because we were too Catholic. In the end we started homeschooling, but in our area there are few Catholic homeschoolers and they are not constant so families have come and gone in and out of our lives. We have been parishoners at five different parishes, moving on when the rejection and confusion has escalated. It brings me much sorrow to think about it. I would move but my husband's income is tied to the land. I grew up in Ohio of Cuban parents so friendly is part of my character, while living in NJ has been a culture shock. It is in my nature to gather others to all our events/holidays/etc, especially without family nearby, but I am amazed how rarely anyone else invites us. It is a small cross to bear to feel so isolated and alone. God's peace be with you, Maria
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written by Anon., March 25, 2013
I have lived in Front Royal for 13 years now. I feel terribly alone. There is no parish school. Yes, there are many homeschoolers, but with Dads commuting or working for a poor salary at the couple of Catholic Apostolates here, folks are too busy and/or too poor. Our community suffers from too many scrupulous traditionalists and judgmental types. With very large families, who can you invite over? If I invite my two closest friends over, that's 21 children in my 1000 square foot home.

Our pastor has squashed what community there was, by ceasing to hold coffee and donuts after Masses (it wasn't making money) and denying usage of parish facilities for almost anything. If you have your baby baptized, you can't have a reception there. It has been a major stress for me, and I've had a couple of kind friends host parties for me when my kids receive sacraments as we cannot do that. Father also tells us not to bring our children to Mass and will stop his homily to stare at a parent while they try to climb out of ridiculously wide pews with a crying baby. As a mom, I feel unwelcome at my parish.

As a homeschooling mom I am too busy trying to educate my children and keep on top of the mess (one acquaintance recently got written up by Social Service for toys on the floor and dishes in the sink) for any play dates or social events, and most people I know don't even have birthday parties for their children at all. I used to be able to talk to other moms on the phone and get together, even go over to someone's house to help them out. It is not much help bringing my 6 kids (including 3 under 5) over! So I can go weeks without having a real conversation with another Catholic mom at times.

If I didn't live here, I wouldn't move here.

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