How to build a community with soul | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

In his 1950s speech, “Religion and the Free Community,” Fr. Horacio de la Costa, SJ, presents an interesting view of community. He writes that a free community is one that maintains a balance between two “outstanding characteristics”—namely, the order created by law, and the freedom of its members “compatible with public order.” Putting it succinctly, a free community is “a regime of freedom under law.”

Today’s Gospel gives us some prescriptions for and descriptions of a Christian community. As most scripture commentaries would point out, this is a very difficult passage to interpret. But allow me to reflect on it from the perspective of community.

There seems to be two prescriptions or descriptions we can glean from the passage. The first part talks about how to set order in the community when an infraction is committed. The second, and much shorter part, refers to the source of the community or the basis of its founding or formation—“where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Allow me to reflect first on the second part, how a community is founded. Jesus puts it simply as “gathering in my name,” people embracing Jesus and making him the center of the community.


Part of the work I have done the past two decades is community renewal. I always start the process by bringing the community back to its founding inspiration. As a pre-note to this process, I would interview the different members or stakeholders of the community using a variation of appreciative inquiry: What do you do best as a community? What gives life or inspiration to your community, to you in your work in the community? What gives your community distinction? Where do you want to see your community 5/10 years from now?

From the initial interviews, you get a good sense of the stakeholders’ perceptions of the community and its founding inspiration. I then link this perception to the founding inspiration, the vision and mission of the community. This is the process of updating or recontextualizing the founding inspiration. It is only after a renewal of the sense of the founding inspiration in the present context that reforms are discussed.

I did the full process in a Jesuit high school in the US (Jesuit High School, Portland, Oregon) and in Ateneo de Manila High School, and variations of the process in several companies, schools and communities here in Manila.

I think it is important that we constantly go back to the founding inspiration of our communities or organizations—in fact, even our own personal “founding inspiration” or sense of mission and life dream. It is this founding inspiration that defines our existence, our coming to life as a community or organization, and even as individuals. Community is formed when people come together embracing a common vision and mission, thus defining the identity and mission of the community—who it is and why it is.

Great clarity

Strengthening a sense of the identity and mission of the community among its members, I believe, takes care of the first part of the Gospel for today, which is how to set order in the community when an infraction is committed. When there is great clarity of who one is and why one is, one lives with integrity rooted in great fidelity to one’s identity and mission.

Such a situation does not require too many rules and regulations, which quite often are created to address and prevent infractions. If there is a strong sense of identity and mission, there is a strong culture that creates an environment where the members of the community know how to conduct themselves and why they do so in such a way. A strong culture has clear values that guide the conduct and choices of people. This is the “regime of freedom under law” that Father De la Costa talks about.

Let me invite you to reflect on our identity and mission as a people and as a nation.

Two experiences

Over a year ago, I was offered the job to head a special school for the arts, a government institution. I initially did not want to accept because I had my plate full with previous commitments. But what made me consider and eventually accept were two experiences.

First was what one of my history teachers, Fr. Bart Lahiff, SJ, in college used to say. I took three or four history courses under him, and every time he came to a discussion of the arts and culture of a country, he would introduce it as “the window to the soul of a people.”

Second was the Intramuros tour with Carlos Celdran, which I took in 2005. At the end of the tour inside the crypt of San Agustin, Celdran was describing the destruction of Manila during World War II. He said that when Intramuros was destroyed, we lost 80-90 percent (I could not remember now the exact percentage) of our cultural heritage, and with the destruction of Intramuros we lost our spiritual center as a people and as a country. His final line was what struck me: “And we have not recovered since.”

Great challenge

These made me accept the job on an interim basis and, hopefully, as a transition period. In my own small way, I pray I will be able to contribute to an effort to help our people and our country reanimate our soul, our identity and mission as a people. I am convinced that part of our dysfunction as a people and as a country is our lack of a clear identity as a people and as a nation.

Perhaps this is one great challenge of leadership not just for the nation, but in the many communities we belong to—our workplaces, our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods and our families. We need to build communities that are life-giving and that nurture excellence. Such communities are those with soul, that come from a deep sense of identity and mission.

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