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On the Necessity of Friendship and the Loss of It In Our Times

July 18, 2017

One of the many troublesome aspects of the modern age is the demise of friendship. While the terms “friend” and “friendship” might be bandied about rather easily today, they do not usually mean friendship in its deeper and original sense. Rather, we use the terms to refer to acquaintances rather than friends. True friendship has a depth, history, and stability. It involves some sort of commonality of life and a deeper knowledge of the other.

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, drawing on the Thomistic tradition, has this to say about friendship:

Every true friendship, St Thomas tells us, implies three qualities: it is first of all the love of benevolence. By which a man wishes good to another as to himself … [Further] Every true friendship presupposes the love of mutual benevolence, for it is not sufficient that it exist on the part of one person only …. Lastly … friendship requires a community of life (convivere). It implies that people know each other, love each other, live together, spiritually at least, by the exchange of most secret thoughts and feelings. Friendship thus conceived tends to a very close union of thought, feeling, willing, prayer, and action (Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, Vol II, pp. 188-189 Tan Publications).

Notice the emphasis on sharing private thoughts and feelings, as well as the close union of thoughts, feelings, actions, prayers, and wills. True friendship involves more than the knowledge of acquaintances.

A director of a clinic for the treatment of psychological matters once recounted that as he conducted entrance interviews for those beginning an inpatient treatment program, he would ask them how many friends they had. He would often receive expressive answers such as “Oh, I have lots of friends!” Their answers indicated that they did not really understand what he meant. So he would rephrase the question: “How many people do you share deeply with? How many people on this planet know almost everything about you? How many know that you’re here at this treatment program and why? Did any of them help to get you here?” Questions like these tended to generate blank stares.

Fewer and fewer people have relationships of this deeper nature. True friendships, with all the qualities described above, are increasingly rare in our culture today.

There are many reasons for this.

  1. People today are quite mobile. It is not unusual for people to move several times during their lifetime. Fewer and fewer people grow up, live, and die in the same town, and even those who do have long roots in a certain community will tell you how dramatically it has changed over the years.
  2. Our daily activity takes us far and wide. Because of the automobile, trains, and especially planes, many people no longer limit their activities to their home town or places nearby. They may commute a couple of hours each day and be involved in activities far away from their neighborhood churches, schools, doctors, and hospitals. They may not even frequent the neighborhood shopping centers. It seems there is little opportunity or need to interact with people who live close by.
  3. The pace of life today is rapid. We all seem to be in a big hurry to get somewhere else. The idea of lingering over a cup of coffee seems rare. The few times we do take our time to converse and such things, it is usually in loud bars where communication is actually quite difficult. And if perchance we are in a setting where we are in the presence of others for a lengthy period (e.g., a subway, train, or plane) most people are focused on their cell phones. We seem more interested in information about people far away, many of whom we have never even met.

None of these factors helps in the development of deep, lasting friendships. Most people in our lives are merely acquaintances. We know very little about most of the people we interact with, even those we encounter on a daily basis. Even family relationships are often shallow. Long dinners or extended conversations are rare as family members run off to practices, meetings, shopping, and work.

The lack of deep friendships in the true sense of the word causes many issues. True friends help form our personalities, completing what we lack. True friends rebuke sins and other troublesome quirks we can develop. True friends encourage and enrich us. Without true friends we remain incomplete. Without the necessary rebuke that friends can give, we can suffer from pride and other egotistical character defects.

Scripture both commends friendship and warns against regarding mere acquaintances as friends.

  1. Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:11).
  2. Let your acquaintances be many, but your advisers one in a thousand (Sirach 6:5-6).
  3. A faithful friend is a sure shelter, whoever finds one has found a rare treasure. A faithful friend is something beyond price, there is no measuring his worth. A faithful friend is the elixir of life, and those who fear the Lord will find one. Whoever fears the Lord makes true friends, for as a man is, so is his friend (Sirach 6:14-17).
  4. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (Prov 27:6)
  5. A true friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity (Prov 17:17).
  6. A man of too many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov 18:24).
  7. Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away (Prov 27:10).

Therefore, our friends should not necessarily be numerous. We ought to be selective in what we share and with whom. All the more reason, then, that we should have close friends with whom we share almost everything.

Do you have close friends? 

  1. Are there people who know almost everything about you?
  2. Are there people who can rebuke you, correct you, or summon you to humility?
  3. Are there people about whom you know almost everything and whom you can rebuke with love for their own good?
  4. Is there anyone who looks to you for advice, and who can turn to you for necessary encouragement?
  5. Is there anyone whom you love and esteem for his or her own sake, not merely for what you can get?
  6. Is there anyone whom you are not anxious to impress, to whom you can speak the truth, and who will speak to you truthfully?
  7. Is there anyone who would care enough about you to be present with you in great adversity?
  8. Is there anyone whom you would gladly assist in his or her time of need?

If so, who? Please consider naming your true friends in your heart.

I pray that you do have true friends, but true friendship is rare in this changing, hurried, and polemic culture. Consider well the need for true friends, for deep friendships that are stable and lasting. We all need true friends.

What has happened to friendship in our culture? How do you see it?

This song is a rather good description of true friendship.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Nick says:

    If you can be friends with penpals, you can be friends with people online.

    • Robertlifelongcatholic says:

      Unless you have shared in life experiences and have skin in the game with someone, you are not friends just by being penpals. Penpals are people who are in need of friendship but instead all you are having is a correspondence. You can communicate with a friend online but you cannot develope a friendship communicating with someone strickly by email or twitter. True friendships share deeper personal familial experiences and beliefs. When people communicate by internet,phone or written letters, you are not sharing in the experiences of life between you and another person. That is only sharing information. I can’t pray to God or have a relationship with Him via email or penpal correspondence. It involves sharing true feelings, emotions and beliefs, and life experiences where you develope a history and mutual admiration.

  2. Thank you Msgr. Pope for your thoughtful reflection. As usual, your insights are pure gold. At this point in my life, I don’t think I’ll ever have the kind of friendship that you so eloquently described and prescribed. I think young people certainly can, although in these times, I don’t think it would be as easily accomplished as it was when I was a young person.

    Whatever the quality of friendships available to us, we do yearn for friendship. Unfortunately, other than our friendship with our spouses or potential spouses, a void persists. Our relationship with Christ Jesus all the more makes us want to have human friendships that share our closeness or desire of closeness with Him. What more pure and important “kinship” can one have with another? And what more frustration can one experience than lacking such comradeship as that?

    Such relationships are hard to find even among our local Church parishioners and even our pastors, considering the sate of the Church as it is today. One longs for, at least, family members (spouse, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins…) who are like-minded with us. Most of us probably have few, if any at all, that we can include in that category. So many of our relatives won’t even communicate with us outside of Facebook. I once subscribed to Facebook just so I could know what was going on the lives of my relatives. It didn’t take me long to discover that the less I knew, the better, so I escaped. Just four days ago I wrote the following:

    Would people, even our relatives, love and communicate with us more if we told them this?

    Just a friendly email to inform you that I no longer believe in – at least not all of – the teachings of the Catholic Church. I’m now pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia, pro-cohabitation of unmarried couples, pro-contraception, pro-same-sex marriage, pro-homosexual acts, pro-transgenderism. Okay, I’m not “all there” yet, I’m a work in progress, but now that I’m no longer an Independent and have finally become a Democrat, I’m sure I’ll soon be perfect. What’s really cool is that just like Nancy Pelosi, I’m still a devout Catholic.

    I’m sure most of you are happy with my transformation and will probably keep in touch with me now, so let’s chat. Oh wait, I have to join Facebook first. Sorry, I’m still learning how to have friends.

    Love to you all and be happy by whatever means; what else is life for?

  3. Dan says:

    Msgr. Pope,
    Thank you for another great article. So much of it rings true in so many ways. I was wondering, what would be your take on friendship that leads away from Christ, or what Francis de Sales would call evil or frivolous friendships?
    For a long time I felt that I had many friendships like you described in the article. However, many of them were friends from growing up, and sadly, I feel many of them eventually became not even close to being Christian. Eventually I also felt many of these friends definitely led me away from Christ, even friends who would define friendship similarly to how you talked about it in the article.
    Unfortunately, I felt like for a while I almost had to conclude that friendship wasn’t that important as I tried to restructure things, but I don’t think that’s right. Breaking close friendships for Christ can also be tough. What would be your thoughts on some of these issues? Thanks for any thoughts, if you have time! God bless!
    Dan

    • Regarding fidelity to persons, Dietrich Von Hilderbrand states the following in ‘Transformation in Christ’:
      :::
      A person may grow and unfold, he may reform and perfect himself along lines essentially unlimited in their design. Every human being incarnates a divine thought, and it is to this that my love for him in its decisive spiritual aspect is directed. Hence, I may keep in communion with him even though there be revealed to me an entirely new and higher world: for the latter may make a more basic objective appeal to him also, and that appeal may yet be carried to him actually.
      :::
      Nevertheless, true fidelity towards a person may on occasion impose on us the duty to withdraw altogether from contact with him. In the case where he would constitute a threat to our fidelity to God, and when we on the other hand feel powerless to help him, our breaking off relations with him is still consistent with our true fidelity towards him: it is destined to promote his spiritual good as well as our own, and is therefore involved in our very love for him so far as love in a higher and ultimate sense implies, above all, responsibility.
      :::
      In reality, there is only one fidelity which is a strict duty: fidelity to truth, fidelity towards Christ.

  4. Jill says:

    Thank you Monsignor Pope. As a 51 year old single woman who has been friendless for about 10 years after a job change and subsequent move, it is quite heartbreaking. I vacillate between this being God’s will or my shortcomings. I think people who know I go to church assume I have many friends there. I’ve not met anyone at my church for 5 years. Work does not permit me to volunteer for CCD and bible studies are held during the day for stay at home moms and senior citizens. Your article inspires me to make more of an effort to find at least one true friend.

    • Joyfully says:

      Hi Jill. You will indeed need to make an effort but it will be worth it. I moved to a new town years ago. I had left sisters and very closed acquaintances. I was lonely for female friends (am married with children).

      My efforts began with prayer. God wants us to desire good things and will work to help us get them. I prayed for a friend to help me grow closer to him. I knew I would need a person that I could speak frankly to about all things and this included God stuff. So for me it helped to find someone through my parish. Secular friendships stop short because it becomes necessary to hold back on God talk but he’s everything so friendships without him are boring.

      I am going to make a suggestion. Find an excellent catholic book you want to read. A book that you think others might want to read also. Find one night a week that you can meet. You may want to ask one other person specifically, perhaps you’ve noticed someone in a nearby pew week after week. Most people like to be singled out and asked. Ask more if you have the courage, and, sadly, it does take courage to put yourself out there. But courage is a virtue and we need to be virtuous if we are going to become saints. Call you parish and ask to put a notice in the bulletin encouraging others to join you in discussing the book. You may want to break down the book into 4 or 6 week sections. This will generate more opportunities for personalities to unfold.

      In time one or more of the readers may become more than just bookclub friends. If not you will still have read a good book.

      Making friends at our age is (I’m 51 too) not easy. You may feel rejection. It may happen a lot. But it is worth the effort. Try to be open to the different possibilities such as age (she could be 12 years older or a 40 y.o. with preschooler) or class, marital status. Expect that she could be someone very different then you imagined.

      I have one very close friend that I made through a Catholic book reading and nearly a dozen I would claim as dear friends I sojourn with back to the companion of all our hearts.

      You can do this. I did it and God rewarded my good hope. It will take time, like all good things.

      • Jill says:

        Joyfully – Thank you for such encouraging words. I had had a similar thought to what you proposed regarding a book club of sorts a few months ago. I also just learned yesterday that my church will be offering a Bible Study in the evenings this fall! This is encouraging news. God bless you.

    • Larry says:

      After graduating college, I moved cross-country into what the Catholic media always describes as a young and vibrant diocese. I’ve attended the same handful of parishes every weekend for almost 30 years.

      I don’t lack for friends. What I lack is _Catholic_ friends! The parishes in my area have NO community life, no ways for parishioners to even get acquainted. We shuffle into church every weekend and we shuffle out afterward. As Jill notes, the few activities that exist, are held during the day.

      The marriage rate in my local parishes is now all but zero (as it is everywhere), the congregations are dying off, and no one seems to care.

  5. Alan Gerlach says:

    In answer to the eight questions about close friends, I would have to answer “no” to the first seven, but “anyone” to the eighth. At the age of 63, I’ve been married (second time) for 29 years, but it’s more of a job description than a way of life. I don’t have any idea what it means to have a close friend, never had one in all my life.

  6. Jack Tollers says:

    Time, high time, to read (or read again) C.S. Lewis’ “The four loves” (one of which, is, of course, friendship).

  7. Aabuna says:

    Msgr Pope,
    Thank you for your most insightful and spot-on article. My whole adult-life has been shaped by searching out; having and enjoying; and/or losing friends. In fact having been diagnosed, over 25 years ago, with clinical depression, and being on one medication or another all that time, I find that my brain/mood/feelings/outlook-whatever you want to call it, is so much better when I am in a good, Christ-centered friendship.
    I have had several “breakdowns” during that time, but they’ve always been only when I was without a real friend.
    I’ve been blessed for several years now, with a good, really good, priest-friend. There’s nothing we can’t share or talk about, and prayer is a regular part of what we do together. It is truly a gift from God.
    I hope never to have to be without such a friend.