By JORDAN MCMORROUGH and NANCY SCHWERIN
MYRTLE BEACH — Living out the Gospel on a daily basis is theme that runs through many church programs. Bishops and cardinals worldwide, the pope and a group of 75 people gathered in Myrtle Beach know a good way to help parishioners do just that.
Last week the Diocese of Charleston hosted a national conference in Myrtle Beach. The North American Forum for Small Christian Communities’ 15th annual gathering was held at Kingston Plantation Oct. 18-20. Seventy-five people from 19 states and five Canadian provinces gathered to share and to cultivate small Christian communities as a vehicle for adult faith formation.
Joanne Chafe, the keynote speaker and facilitator, is director of the National Office of Religious Education for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa, Canada. She travels internationally and in 1997 was invited by the Vatican to participate in the International Congress in Rome, from which the revised General Directory of Catechesis was created.
The NAFSCC is a group of diocesan representatives who work to help dioceses in their efforts to establish small Christian communities (SCC). They offer resources and knowledge based on experience from successful faith-sharing communities. They work to promote the church’s vision of evangelization through SCCs, which can be traced throughout the Catholic tradition as a means to living the faith.
Paul Schroeder, director for the Office of Evangelization, Initiation and Catechesis in the Diocese of Charleston and local contact for the national meeting, is working in the diocese toward the creation of SCCs in parishes.
The link between small groups, adult formation and living the Gospel is this: Through meeting in small groups, parishioners continue their faith formation and are encouraged to live out Gospel values in their lives.
In Pope John Paul II’s statement Redemptoris Missio he says, “We are called to create small communities of faith which will become a means of evangelization of the Gospel and a source of new ministries.”
Schroeder said, “People have not come to understand evangelization is a Catholic notion.” He said that other religions have been more diligent about incorporating evangelization, and Catholics could benefit from a better understanding of evangelization.
“We’re called to be on fire with our faith and be freely willing to share it with others,” said the director. “We’re baptized as disciples.”
Small Christian communities offer a more comfortable zone, explained Schroeder, for parishioners to explore their faith.
“Because they can faith share in small Christian communities, it gives them the confidence to talk to others,” he said. And by talking to others about their faith, parishioners are taking part in evangelization.
Small Christian communities are small groups of about eight to 10 parishioners who use resources to learn about their faith and apply Gospel values to living out a Christian way of life.
Groups are made up of many different faces, but ideally they are all on the same page of their faith formation. Chafe said it makes it easier to move the conversation along, but members should always be open to visitors or new and changing members.
“Groups want to avoid becoming static,” she said.
Groups vary in how they share, their structure and resources, time spent together, openness, and member make-up. They can be intergenerational, men and women, widows, widowers, young adults, moms, dads; there is no set agenda for their make-up.
“Different models tend to be localized,” said Chafe, “A particular model usually dominates within a city or diocese.”
“Small Christian communities are growing steam; it’s a recurring theme among bishops,” she said.
She quoted Bernard Lee who wrote The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities. In the book, he relays information from research completed by a grant from the Lilly Endowment: “Minimally there are 37,000 small Christian communities in the continental United States with more than 1 million adults and children.”
“This is an astronomically positive sign,” said Chafe. “Lee says everyone he talked to says they (SCCs) are a tremendous force for the revitalization of faith.
“This is a wonderful sign. In a culture of individualism, it gives a great sense of hope that people don’t want to go it alone; they’re embracing small Christian communities.”
In building SCCs, there are many issues, which include incorporating multicultural aspects and communities fizzling out due to lack of groundwork, of ecclesial and clergy support, and of resources.
Chafe used the General Directory of Catechesis as proof of the church’s support and offered it as a resource. She used paragraphs 263 and 264 as specific references.
“Small Christian communities are groups of Christians that rise because people desire to live in the faith, develop faith with more fervor.
“Our parishes are so big we pass like ships in the night,” she said. “The church is giving you your agenda for truly authentic Christian communities.”
In paragraphs 158 and 159 of the General Directory, Chafe said, are “major hints as to why in terms of formation and faith the church looks so positively on SCCs.
“In community we are witnesses to one another; by being in community we persuade one another to be good Christians.”
In this way SCCs support the evangelization efforts of the church.
There are three primary stages of evangelization: missionary activity, initial catechetical activity, and pastoral activity and ongoing catechesis. The third group is made of committed believers seeking to understand their faith more fully on a day-to-day basis; they want to learn from Scripture and other theological resources how to fully live within their faith.
These are the people, according to Chafe, that should be involved with small Christian communities.
In order to get people together, working in a productive small group, good facilitator training is needed. In communities where faith-sharing groups are doing well, the parishes generally have a strong core team of leaders that are sources of encouragement for groups. But the core team also needs support from their pastors to maintain their ministry.
Participants at the Myrtle Beach meeting thought engaging priests or seminarians in the small group dynamic would help them understand the process and its needs. Their personal involvement in small Christian communities would enable them to better explain to parishioners what SCCs are all about.
“They are not counseling groups or self-help groups. While there is a spirituality component, it’s more than self-help, it’s a chance to pray, learn, read and reflect (using Scripture or other resources), and ask, how has this impacted me over the past week,” said Schroeder.
Chafe said that while SCCs are important, don’t make them the basis for all adult formation in the parish. Some people, due to things like time constraints and family, can’t be involved in regular weekly meetings. Chafe, for example, travels so much she is not a part of a SCC. She has been in the past, but due to her own evangelizing work, a regular weekly meeting does fit into her schedule.
The participants at the NAFSCC meeting all stressed one very important component to SCCs: The process of small Christian communities is not just another parish program — it’s the basis of the Catholic faith.
Sharing their knowledge
On Saturday, participants attended three workshops, which they picked from a choice of six. Presenters shared their experiences in the work of small Christian communities.
“SCCs and Youth Formation” was presented by Kathy Wolf, director of Religious Education and Faith Formation for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and Barbara Garvin, director of Youth Ministry in Atlanta. They began by asking participants what the importance of small faith communities is in their lives.
Thereasa Crabb, director of religious education at St. Michael Church in Garden City, joined her current parish in 1985. She explained how an invitation to become a catechist led to eventually getting a master’s degree and later to her position as director of religious education at the Pee Dee church.
Garvin listed various ways to form small groups. These include seasonal groups, which use RENEW or Lectionary-based materials; ministerial, such as youth councils or peer leaders; and just coming together in worship, “or meeting the kids where they’re at,” said the archdiocesan youth minister.
“Forcing youth into groups doesn’t work,” she elaborated. “Allow them to form their own groups.”
Garvin suggested ways to seek out prayer opportunities. She discussed some groups in which they incorporate prayer: Wednesday night pizza; a breakfast group; service teams, which often start out as confirmation teams; sports teams; and prayer partners who make commitments to pray for each other.
She called retreats “short three-day ways of building small Christian communities. They have the most impact of anything that we do.”
Wolf said that adults who work with teens are a by-product of SCCs and that the most successful adult groups come together as a family.
“Meet the young people emotionally, spiritually, educationally, and socially,” she said. “Not just coming and sharing prayers, but sharing lives together.”
Dominican Sister Donna L. Ciangio of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City led the workshop on “Elements of SCCs and Adult Formation.”
She began by citing six essential elements of small Christian communities: prayer, support, reflection, learning, participation, and mission.
She focused especially on that final phase, saying, “We are called to be disciples of Jesus. We have to make these miracles happen. We need to be heard. We need to be good citizens.”
In SCCs, said Sister Ciangio, prayer, support, and reflection are fantastic, and have been so for the past 20 years. “That’s fine for groups less than five years old,” she explained, “but we must lift out of that feeling level to learning, participation, and mission.”
Sister Ciangio said that small communities are similar to the catechumenate in their process, calling them “the RCIA for the already baptized,” and that two other elements — evaluation and discernment — make participation intentional.
She called on facilitators to hand out evaluations after each session and use simple questions to help the group reflect on the session and dynamics that took place and make the group responsible for itself.
The Dominican nun also emphasized the use of a yearly review process that includes discernment and direction setting. “Small communities, as all other groups, can grow stagnant or tired without periodic reflection. A good reflection tool can lead a group through the process.”
In addition, Sister Ciangio stressed that SCCs are not just another parish activity, but are foundational and a building block for other programs. “SCCs are places of learning where seeds are planted and brought to fruition in the way people live their faith and act on it in the public arena.”
She called on members of parish pastoral staffs and councils to put dollars aside for formation through conferences, speakers, diocesan trainings, workshops, and to hold a ministry fair that lets people know what is available
“The parish that puts a high priority on communion and mission is attractive to people,” she said.
The NPLC staff member encouraged invitations to those who have come through the catechumenate to form or join existing SCCs, saying, “This gives continued support to the newly received person and builds up the small communities.”
The parish pastoral council should continue to develop the understanding of small communities as foundational to adult formation, she said, through the parish mission statement, as part of their meeting style, and in the way they develop a parish participative structure.
Sister Ciangio appealed to participants to build up their parish libraries by housing videos, books, audio tapes, periodicals, current small community materials; designing a sign-out system; and starting a “new book” club, discussing the latest theological or spiritual books, or those on parenting or leadership, or novels with an emphasis on faith and life.
A Saturday evening vigil Mass was celebrated by Bishop Robert J. Baker. In his homily, the bishop said, “To us ‘small’ is beautiful. ‘Small’ is holy. ‘Small’ is the avenue of goodness and greatness. The Lord preferred to work with a small faith community called the Twelve Apostles. Our church is built on the likes of those.”
Bishop Baker described how he has seen the fruits of small faith communities such as RENEW for parish renewal, Emmaus support groups for priests, Cursillo, Charismatic faith communities, Jesu Caritas fraternity for priests, and many more such small communities throughout his days as a priest.
“I have seen these groups of people working in tandem with the evangelization efforts of their pastors and bishops, and by doing so bring great benefits to the spiritual life of the parish,” he said. “I see more faith communities growing up today centering around devotion to the holy Eucharist, and this too is good. Once again the tie to the parish and diocese is so very important.”
The bishop then reflected on the Gospel reading for the day, which commends the person who prays, not sporadically, but persistently.
In addition to performing at the evening Mass, the adult handbell choir from St. Joseph Church in Columbia held a concert for the participants featuring songs they performed at this year’s Piccolo Spoleto festival.
Diocesan experience with SCCs
The tri-parish community of St. Andrew’s in Clemson, St. Paul the Apostle in Seneca, and St. Francis in Walhalla has been in the forefront of the small Christian community movement in the diocese. Seventeen SCCs started in the three parishes last fall.
“Several members of small groups have begun to spawn new SCCs, and that is very exciting,” said Jane Myers, director of religious education for the tri-parish community. “They understand discipleship and are willing to stretch themselves to initiate and facilitate a new small group.”
The SCCs focus on the Sunday Scriptures with a “Breaking Open the Word” model, then the facilitator offers commentary on the Sunday Scriptures from a variety of sources and the conversation continues with each person making application to his/her own faith life. “Certainly the prayer and personal support are essential components,” she said.
Myers added that having the appropriate vision and ecclesiology of SCCs is essential. “They are not a way of breaking down the parish into smaller units — they are rather a way of being church with one another and a way of building up the church community with people who have a sense of the integrity of their membership.”
Last year the tri-parish community attempted to integrate the RCIA process with the SCCs. Myers admitted that they made a few mistakes, learned a few things, and will do it a bit differently this year. “We will begin to introduce catechumens and candidates to SCCs during Lent, the time of purification and enlightenment, when all of us in the parish are focused on the ways we need conversion. Then, after Easter, the neophytes and newly received will continue in those SCCs as a way to ensure their full integration into the community,” she said.