By Father Casey
The theme of belonging has been much on my mind in recent months, and it feels more important than ever in my lifetime. We are living in a time of increasing isolation and loneliness, something that preceded the pandemic but has certainly been exacerbated by it. Surveys show that we feel less connected to others than ever before, which is ironic, given all the channels for connection available to us today that weren’t around a generation ago. It would seem that true belonging requires more than the ability to quickly share thoughts and ideas with each other. We do that all day long, sometimes obsessively, yet we overwhelmingly report feeling more alone than ever.
True belonging comes from being a part of something bigger than yourself. It happens when you are appreciated for who you are, rather than what you can produce, and you can feel that you have dignity and worth in the eyes of others. This is why healthy Christian communities foster a sense of belonging. The Holy Spirit binds us together into something more permanent than a sports team, more transcendent than a Facebook group, and far holier than a political party. We become part of something that is not defined by a common interest, nor are we valued for what we have to offer. When we choose the way of Christ, we immediately belong to him. We are “sheep of his own fold, lambs of his own flock, sinners of his own redeeming,” to quote The Book of Common Prayer, and in him, we find our identity and our people. We belong: we belong to Christ and we belong to each other.
In this era when so many around us seem unmoored and adrift, I believe this sense of belonging is every bit as great a blessing as our health, for we can only truly enjoy our health when we have people with whom we can share the precious gift of life.
I’ve recently been reading some spiritual classics about belonging. Last week I wrote about the great 20th century saint Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. In the past few weeks I’ve also been reading Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which was published just last October. Given the timing of its release, the pope opens with a reflection on the pandemic, namely the lack of basic cooperation that resulted in a dysfunctional early response. What humanity needs is to embrace a spirit of true solidarity and fraternity. We need to remember that we belong to each other.
The title of the encyclical comes from the words of the pope’s namesake saint, Francis of Assisi, whose feast day just so happens to be coming up. We commonly think of Saint Francis as the “animal saint,” but the wisdom of Saint Francis far exceeds his love of nature, so the pope draws attention to the saint’s teaching on community and friendship (what he refers to as “fraternity”). “Francis felt himself a brother to the sun, the sea and the wind, yet he knew he was even closer to those of his own flesh…Francis’ fidelity to his Lord was commensurate with his love for his brothers and sisters.”
In an age when political leaders were turning inward, suspicions and divisions were deepening, militarization was growing, and poverty was spreading, Saint Francis preached that all forms of hostility be avoided and followers of Christ demonstrate a humble subjection to others, including those of different lands and faiths. The pope writes about his namesake as inspiring the “rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity”:
“Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure. No one can face life in isolation. We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another and keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together…By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together. [So] let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her own beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.”
What a stunningly beautiful idea: seeing life as a wonderful adventure with others, dreaming together as a single human family, transforming the world through a spirit of friendship. And it’s precisely what we aspire to be in our church: serving and being served, knowing and being known, loving and being loved.
In a word, belonging.
And together, not only will we resist the epidemic of loneliness around us, but we will, as Pope Francis says, thrive in the “ineluctable and blessed awareness that we are part of one another, brothers and sisters of one another.”
 Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2020), 1. There are several copies for sale in the Kay Andrews’ Bookstore.
 Francis, 4.
 Francis, 16.