Asking Pope Francis to consider a project of lay Christian intentional communities

Principal author:
John L. Clark

I wrote another letter to Pope Francis; in this one, I discuss why I believe that organizing lay intentional communities may lead to a more engaged, meaningful, satisfying, and effective Christianity than is currently operating in the world. It is my goal to carry this conversation as far as I am able, so I begin by sharing the letter here.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam

Dear Pope Francis,

For me, the primal call of faith in Jesus is to glorify the Father, He who Is; that we and all creation should experience with wonder, awe, and joy the perfectly beautiful expression of His will: His glory. This experience invites all of us to enthusiastic full participation: nothing less is sufficient. I am, however, saddened and overwhelmed at how far from that glory is the world in which we live. As Paul the Apostle writes, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”[1] Motivated by this sadness, I wrote to you three years ago to exort you to explore radical alternatives to the dominant economic system that is eating the planet and the people of God alive. As I have watched, I have been very grateful that you have continued to reflect openly on these matters; for example, you gave us your encyclical Laudato Si', which has been encouraging and useful for demonstrating the direction of your thought and leadership. Just today, I noted with interest reports of your comments about how economics is a “war for money” and a “war for natural resources”. Allowing the Holy Spirit to spark a vision of the glory of God in me and hopefully in others is a continuous pressure on my being; I want to share that spark here and continue the thread by inviting you to consider leading the church in founding intentional communities that are fully integrated with lay economic life. This letter provides an introduction to these ideas; I could (and would, gladly) follow up with more detail about much of this. I can easily see how all of this could be overwhelming or triggering of other emotions; perhaps you will be willing to share those reactions (which are really gifts) as a point of departure for further discourse.

Many people in our world live in despair, paralyzed for lack of a response to the barrage of crises that beset us. I have felt this despair, but I have been blessed to have experienced my own despair turned into sorrow: sorrow for those of us who feel life drained away by this despair, and for those of us who suffer more directly under the weight of the crises themselves. Truly, these crises are a continuation and progression of essentially ongoing and interwoven crises that we have faced (and, indeed, that we have brought about) for thousands of years: war, oppression, exploitation, slavery, poverty, alienation, and environmental destruction/corruption.

You teach about the severity of many of these, but in listening to your teaching I have struggled to connect with a vision towards which all of God's children can fully commit our passion and energy. In Laudato si', for example, you implore us “to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature” [215], but you do not direct us towards what that new society might entail. You do provide many discrete suggestions that indicate your yearning for a change to happen, noting (with what seems to me to be understatement), that “[t]he current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty” [204]: “[w]e have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.” [203] It seems that there remains something of a disconnect between the scope of your teaching and the practical aspects of the teachings of Jesus, for which I pray healing, as with all of us.

So I want to reflect (briefly) on the meaning of the way, the truth, and the life that is manifest in our Lord Jesus. I can hardly expect to convey much of his teaching here; instead I expect that I do not need to do so. Jesus taught of freedom from the various forms of bondage that smother us with death, cutting us off from life, from union with the glory of the Father that that same God wholly desires for us. He wants us to be free from fear (as he commands explicitly on many occasions throughout the gospel accounts): to be able to live out the truth that God speaks into all of our hearts with complete freedom. On the cross, Jesus leads the way into the worst that can befall us, and it holds no terror for us, as it held no power over him. His way, his truth, and his life continue to glorify his Father—his Abba, and ours.

What does this freedom imply about how we organize our communities, our church? Each Easter season we are presented with opportunities to study the Acts of the Apostles, where we see an apostolate responding simply and directly to the commands of Jesus: sharing the truth that Jesus taught and encouraging local communities to organize around this truth. I believe that the will of the Father, which Jesus reveals to us, is to trust in Him for what we need, to support one another in that trust, to forgive debts and eschew indebtedness, and to always choose compassion over judgment and violence.

The early followers of the way of Jesus lived in close community with one another, and we have other examples of this style of living throughout history. I am inspired by monasteries and convents; indigenous communities; Catholic Worker communities; Amish and Mennonite communities; the Taizé Community; communes and ecovillages; and other intentional communities. The full power of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus would breathe robust life into the desire that these communities have to serve each other in an intimate, meaningful, and comprehensive way. A fully engaging community of the way of Jesus would involve work, play, and celebration for meeting all of the needs of the people within the community itself in simplicity and humility, and this would be quite different from the way the dominant culture is currently structured. Such a community would require a lot of support in organizing and then maintaining all the aspects of its structure, and the church could help greatly in providing that support.

I recently connected with a person who was needing a safe place to live, and they have since come to be a part of my small house community. They have experienced a lot of trauma, and live with a lot of fear and anxiety, struggling to trust the people and circumstances around them. Another need that they expressed was for a way to contribute and be productive. If I knew of or lived in a fully operational intentional community, we would be able to immediately offer them a wide variety of ways to contribute. I envision a community that comes together to work the land and to nurture plants and animals; to build and maintain structures, infrastructures, and tools; to manage the rhythm of the days and seasons; to contribute to art, celebration, and worship; and to care for children. As it is, they see their options as limited to getting a job and measuring their productivity with money. I feel great sadness that they cannot immediately offer whatever gifts they have to the community, because being able to focus directly on the needs of the community would contribute deeply to healing their and our wounds. This is but one example; there is an enormous need for healing environments in which people can find and be supported in engaging with meaningful work within a loving and interdependent community.

I ask that you discuss the possibility of forming communities around the way of Jesus with your advisors and all church leaders. Please ask them about the possibility of sponsoring such communities, and then work with them to develop and execute plans for establishing these communities. Please discuss the connections between scripture, theology, and how we choose to structure our societies in your sermons and other public forums. I invite you to share with me any obstacles that you forsee or encounter with establishing these communities. Please ask me for any clarification or elaboration that you might need, as well as for any assistance I might offer in organizing such communities.

As I mentioned earlier, I realize how much I thirst for the justice that Jesus offers to be woven into the fabric of our lives, and so I have been actively considering how I and we might live in order that that can happen. Over the last few years I have spent time experimenting with intentional community life, considering joining existing intentional communities, and discussing the creation of new intentional communities with people near me. Those experiments and conversations are ongoing, but many of them are happening with people who avoid the church, and I yearn for assistance in sharing the blessings of Jesus within the context of this work. This letter is part of that effort, an effort that I intend to pursue vigorously. I intend to share these ideas, and these requests, far and wide. Please consider whether an effort like this could be successful in providing meaningful and holy alternatives to the destructiveness of the dominant culture.

Your brother in Jesus Christ,

John L. Clark


Romans 8:22–23

This page was first published on 2016-08-10 18:00:00-04:00.

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