Distinguishing communities

By Julian Butler SJ,16 April 2022
Port Fairy Folk Festival volunteers. Image: David Harris / Port Fairy Folk Festival.


As I opened the car door on Friday night, the sound of crashing waves rushed in, the smell of the sea with the smell of damp grass. Intermittent light from car headlights switching on and off, or under streetlamps, illuminating patches. Sitting over it all, the heightened murmuring of a campsite and the sound of music at various volumes and in various styles cutting through the air.

I have spent many Labour Day long weekends, falling in Victoria on the second Monday in March, at the Port Fairy Folk Festival. Camping with family and friends between the festival and the beach, it’s a place and time filled with memories and associations from childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood. These are memories carried within the context of a community, ‘the festival’, even as its participants change. That wider community has held within it smaller communities I have had connection to or found connection with. But that wider community needs to maintain some constancy and clarity of purpose, even as it changes, if it will continue to be a community as such.

The music is always good, and often better than that. It’s eclectic in style and quality. New artists are given a go, established musicians share their tunes with long-standing as well as new fans. With six stages on the festival site, and a couple more in town, everyone is discovering something. The music is good, as I say, but it’s made better by that sense of a community discovering, being open to, warmly willing to be buoyed along by the music. This year, especially, the looks of amazement and humility on the faces of musicians was itself amazing and humbling. To have an audience again at last.

To have a community of people for and with whom they can engage their craft. I started attending the Port Fairy Folk Festival as a primary school kid, our family invited by other families from our local Catholic primary school. Over the years it’s been a place of family and friends, from those initial groups from Our Holy Redeemer Primary School to invitations to other family friends, and as I got older, friends of my own from school and university. What keeps me desiring to return is that sense of community, both amongst those I camp with, and the wider community of people along for the festival ride.

It is telling that connections from various schools have played a part in my experience of the festival. It might be in solidarity with these origins that my ‘go to’ place for a bite at the festival is the local Catholic primary school’s stall. It helps that the hamburgers are good! Again, though, there is that sense of community, people pulling together for a common purpose, and having a good time along the way.

The connection between schools and community has been on my mind during various public debates this year. I have written before about the way in which Catholic schools are places where communities are built. It seems to me that this was an element that was not paid much attention to in the public debate about the proposed Religious Discrimination Act. Of course, this is not only the case for Catholic, Christian, or even religious schools. All schools are spaces where community can be built, each different for a range of reasons.

‘A society that does not allow spaces where different world views can be embedded and lived out, is one that ends up without any communities of substance at all.’


Part of what makes community is what distinguishes community, what sets it apart. It might be an interest in music, or sport, a neighbourhood or a set of values or practices. Initially, at least, the extent to which we identify with the community will depend upon the extent to which those things that define or characterise it are important to us. In time, as we spend time with people, the personal connections we form will become equally if not more significant. The relationships come to be what holds us, what makes the community ours.

The relationships will be predicated on that shared starting point but will go beyond this. In time they will take in much of what makes us human. A tension, creative and positive, lies in building a community around shared values or practices that allows people to flourish. What is shared needs to be discriminating, in being one thing and not another, but not discriminatory, in defining rigid lines that do not allow for growth.

Getting that right is not easy, particularly when the defining features of a community touch so closely on the deeper meaning of being human. Especially so when the defining characteristics include a welcoming disposition and a desire to affirm all that is authentically human; when there is also a sense of the mystery of God, tied to a global community with a history and set of rules and regulations as to ways of relating.

In faith communities the desire to be welcoming is contextualised by a desire to share the deep meaning that the community draws on and lives out of. Those in such communities cannot be sustained as individuals in their commitments, let alone as a group, if they are not given space to live out their way of understanding and entering the world, space to engage the beliefs and practices that give and make meaning of life.

In the broader society and culture, and even from within, these ways should not and do not go unchallenged. But a society that does not allow spaces where every commitment is not up for grabs all the time, spaces where different world views can be embedded and lived out, is one that ends up without any communities of substance at all, ends with bland conformity or noncommittal cynicism.

I have so much affection for the folk festival at which I have spent so many weekends of my life. I adore it for the memories, its subtle rules, and practices, for the way it has held me in a community of communities. As ‘the festival’ it’s an easy community to step into because, as important as it is to me, the broader community gathered does not provide a space where I find myself practicing the fullness of my deeper commitments. Importantly it allows me to be human, to relate humanly, but it is not the kind of primary space where I refine my understanding of what that means.

I find that space in faith communities, not least in the Catholic school in which I work. Too much of the discussion about religious discrimination laws passed over what goes on, for many of us, in religious communities. The acute meaning making through, and the meaning comprehending in, community.


Julian Butler SJ is a Jesuit undertaking formation for Catholic priesthood. He previously practiced law, and also has degrees in commerce and philosophy. Julian is a contributor at Jesuit Communications, a chaplain at Xavier College, and a board member at Jesuit Social Services.

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