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What's the difference between a house of worship and a house of horrors? Can it be something as simple and capricious as blind luck?

If so, I guess I'm one of countless lucky ones - a veteran of an area Catholic elementary school who is watching the church's still-roiling clergy sex abuse scandal with an insoluble mix of despair and gratitude. Despair for all the victims, and all their years of suffering amid callous denials and cover-ups, and gratitude for having been kept safe by whim or fate.

Just in the last week, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced he's referred 12 former clergy members for possible prosecution, and the Diocese of Cheyenne in Wyoming substantiated three new cases against a former Kansas City priest. A week ago, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph released names of 24 priests who'd been credibly accused. In July, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation announced 74 investigations in 33 counties.

It's all mind-blowing, heartbreaking and enraging.

So with all that in mind and heart, and granting that it's facile for me to say it, perhaps it needs saying: However ghastly the headlines and well-earned the church's reputation - and for all the jokes even we nonvictimized Catholic school grads have made about pugilistic nuns - there's a much more uplifting side to the Catholic experience. One I'm sure is shared by close-knit communities of any faith.

Reconnecting with childhood friends after returning to your hometown, as I have, will help you see that. But I was further reminded of the solid foundation that was poured for me when I went last week to a visitation at my childhood church and school, St. Ann in Prairie Village, Kan., for a classmate's father who died.

The depth of the love and the length of the line of well-wishers were stunning. We should all receive such a send-off. This was a life well-lived, and one shrouded in the caring community of a church that had once cradled me in its arms as well.

How could a guileless elementary-school student appreciate the profoundness of community, or the absolute marvel of it in an increasingly menacing world? It takes a traveled, nicked-up adult to see such unadorned majesty for what it is.

I'm not the first to look around and see that we're losing that sense of community in modern American life. Harvard professor Robert Putnam warned of it in his groundbreaking 2000 book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." In his book "Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging," Sebastian Junger wrote ominously, "A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day - or an entire life - mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone."

Even building designs can add to the isolation. As Adrienne Gaffney wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, "There is perhaps no architectural feature that conveys a sense of home, warmth and community like the front porch. And yet, what was once a staple of American life is often skipped in modern homes. What happened to the porch?"

Air-conditioning, for one thing. Television, for another. And now we have video games, computers and smartphones to separate us.

Then there's the waning communal influence of houses of worship. Gallup says membership has dropped from 70% of Americans as recently as the mid-1970s to about 50% in 2018.

The impact of the loss of communal living on loneliness, depression and even PTSD, not to mention on society as a whole, is surely disquieting. Affluence, ironically, may exacerbate it rather than help; emotional distress, mental illness, suicide and substance abuse have risen right along with our wealth. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote of having the means to a good life, but not the meaning.

It looked so familiar when I drove up to St. Ann. But I hardly knew my way around that church. So much had changed since I'd left. One thing I did recognize was the ground beneath me. I'd gone off and built a life that took me to so many other places and faces. But I'd never really stepped off the foundation my parents and my church community laid for me.

So many years and so many roads later, I felt a renewed sense of belonging walking into my childhood church to comfort an elementary school classmate.

I didn't recognize anyone else there. Remarkably, I didn't need to. I felt right at home.

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Michael Ryan is a Kansas City native and wrote this for the Kansas City Star. He is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter.

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