September 13, 2013

Religious Education Supplement

Books lay out guiding principles for small groups in parishes

By Sean Gallagher

Sherry A. Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) and Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost and Making Church Matter (Ave Maria Press, 2013), by Father Michael White and Tom Corcoran.A full 10 percent of the population of adult Americans are former Catholics. One third of adults raised as Catholics no longer practice the faith.

Those sobering statistics are part of the 2008 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

As these and similar statistics have come to light in recent years, several Catholic authors have studied how parishes across the country can nurture the faith of their members so that they remain in the Church throughout their lives and, by their word and example, bring others into its full communion.

According to parish and archdiocesan leaders across central and southern Indiana, two of these books provide guiding principles to help small groups in parishes be the seedbed in which ordinary pew-filling Catholics become disciples whose vision of faith consciously informs their entire lives.

Both published in Indiana, these books are Sherry A. Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012) and Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost and Making Church Matter (Ave Maria Press, 2013), by Father Michael White and Tom Corcoran.

Father White is pastor of Church of the Nativity Parish in Timonium, Md. Corcoran serves as a pastoral associate at the parish. Weddell is the co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute, a Dominican-operated ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Other books that have grabbed the attention of Catholics across central and southern Indiana as they consider how to strengthen the local Church include Matthew Kelly’s The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic: How Engaging 1% of Catholics Could Change the World (Beacon, 2012), Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012) by Ralph Martin, and George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books, 2013).

Peg McEvoy, associate director for evangelization and family catechesis in the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education, appreciates how Weddell warns against what the author describes as a “spiral of silence” in parishes in which members are often implicitly and even sometimes explicitly discouraged from talking about their relationship with Jesus Christ or how that relationship shapes their daily lives.

McEvoy thinks that small groups of parishioners meeting regularly to discuss the practice of the faith and encourage each other in it can break that spiral.

“The [spiral of silence] is a negative peer pressure, to keep silent, to not share what we believe and not share our experience of faith, whereas a small group can create a positive peer pressure to really share,” McEvoy said.

Father Eric Augenstein, archdiocesan vocations director and former pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, thinks Forming Intentional Disciples encourages readers to “take ownership of their relationship with Jesus Christ,” and be accountable about that relationship to other people.

Small groups in parishes, Father Augenstein added, is a setting in which these goals can be achieved.

“Small groups can help with that, whether they are a small church community, a Bible study or a committee,” said Father Augenstein, who also currently serves as sacramental minister at St. Agnes Parish in Nashville. “They can be groups that hold you accountable for taking your relationship with Jesus Christ seriously and growing in that relationship. It can also provide you with the resources for doing that.”

When small groups have helped make its members’ faith a conscious part of their daily lives, they can then help put that faith into action.

Rebuilt, Father Augenstein said, lays out a plan that forms small groups in parishes to become a “locus of pastoral care in a parish.

“They’re not just a support group or people to provide meals or transportation [to people in need],” Father Augenstein said. “[They] can provide real pastoral care—if there is also a connection to the larger parish community and to the pastoral leadership and some training on how to provide pastoral care.”

Father Clement Davis, pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus, is reading Rebuilt and affirms the value its authors place on small groups in parish life.

Just last year, he witnessed how small groups can play a vital role in pastoral care when three members of one small group at St. Bartholomew died of cancer. Two were husband and wife. The third was a spouse of another member.

“The group that they belonged to was a major prayer support to the cancer patients themselves,” Father Davis said. “And they helped focus all of them on their faith in God, their belief in life after death, their belief that it is worth the struggle to do what one can to fight the illness, but then also to recognize that there are some illnesses that we can’t fight off.

“They were there with the person who was dying and with the surviving partner. And they grieved together with the partner.”

Father Thomas Clegg, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Clark County and St. Paul Parish in Sellersburg, has read Rebuilt twice.

Although he only became pastor of the two New Albany Deanery faith communities in July, he has already spoken from the pulpit about small groups, encouraging his parishioners to form them. That is how much of a priority small groups is for him in his pastoral ministry.

“It is a hope and a priority,” Father Clegg said. “I’ve always thought small groups were important. But after reading Rebuilt, I’ve thought even more so that they’re the only way we’re going to form disciples and, in turn, make new disciples.”

He sees a bright future for his parishes if such groups take root.

“I think we would find parishioners coming alive with their own faith and wanting to make their faith matter, as the book talks about so much,” Father Clegg said. “And when you have that, you have people knocking down your doors trying to become part of the community.” †

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