Every successful community relies on the member who is its heart. This is true for communities that live together and for those that live apart but gather regularly. If they are to survive and flourish, all need that person who is the unifier, the glue, the center.
He or she may not exercise authority in the community, at least in the way it is usually understood. They may sometimes be less than visible, especially when the community goes about one of its special activities like the celebration of an important event or the carrying out of a public action. When the community has to discuss a serious question, this core person quite possibly will not figure prominently in the decision. Rarely will he or she serve the community as its prophet—calling the group to places as yet uncharted.
Yet day in and day out the collective counts on the heart person in its midst for those connective gestures that make life in common livable and attractive. He or she has an eye for detail, for the person or situation that needs attention. Perhaps it's just a word to the community member who is feeling overwhelmed; it might be the act of straightening up the living room; it's the thought of baking a cake for the upcoming gathering; or it's simply reminding everyone that there is a meeting coming up. Consistently this person at the center of the community's life provides the lubricant that makes it all run more smoothly.
In one community we know about this heart person was a man, in another a woman. Each was indispensable for the life of the group. Theirs was never a nagging presence, rather one of immense and selfless service born out of a conviction that the common life had enormous value for all and was worth the daily trouble of making it happen.
IN REFLECTING on this unobtrusive yet vital role that each community must have fulfilled, one wonders who played it in Jesus' group. Running down the list of the 12 who formed the inner circle, the only one who comes close is Philip. He never took on a leadership role, nor was he given one. Still, he seemed to occupy himself with the practical dimensions of certain situations, considering where food could be obtained for those following Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 6) or asking Christ, "Just show us the Father and that will be enough for us" (John 14).
My guess, however, runs more to the women who formed part of the group. Not because they were women, but because for the most part (until Jesus' time of danger) they remained in the background. In addition, they are cited as accompanying Jesus and "attending to his needs" (Mark 15:41). On reflection we see the absolute necessity for such heart persons in Jesus' troupe as they moved helter-skelter through Judea and Galilee. They must have made sure that food, lodging, announcements of Jesus' impending visits—all the nitty-gritty details of such a mission—were taken care of.
A final and most important consideration is that of gratitude. These central persons often go unnoticed and unthanked. Their work tends toward the undramatic and the mundane, and others in the community can easily take it for granted. It's only when they are absent or leave the group that their value finally gets acknowledged. Unfortunately for the community it's then too late. In this regard the plight of the much-criticized elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son comes to mind: "For years now I have slaved for you...yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends." May our heart persons know well before that point that "you are with [us] always, and everything [we] have is yours" (Luke 15:29-31).
Joe Nangle, OFM, was executive director of Franciscan Mission Service in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.