April 21, 2006

Go and Make Disciples / John Valenti

Small Church communities help nurture the faith

There are more than a half million Catholics in the United States involved in small Church communities (SCC).

In a sense, SCC’s are a retro-model of organizing Church, which is being rediscovered as a way to remain strong and growing Catholic members, even in the presence of a clergy shortage.

Back in the days of the Servant of God Simon Bruté—and long before there was a systematic parish school and catechetical process—the Catholic family met in small groups who gathered to nurture one another in their faith. If a visiting bishop or priest should ride into town, candidates were ready for the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist.

George Moon, former business manager of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, said in small Church communities several people gather each week to pray, affirm and support each other, and to encourage one another to live out their profession of faith. Scripture is read, usually in accordance with the Sunday lectionary, and Church teachings are discussed.

“The groups focus on the lifelong process of ongoing faith formation for adults,” said Dede Swinehart, a member of the National Alliance for Parishes Restructuring into Communities.

SCC member Lynne Brennan, a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis, said, “It’s like having a sponsor that goes with you through confirmation; it’s a mentoring process.”

Unfortunately, for all the good they’ve done, small Church communities became associated with a negative connotation in the 1970s and 1980s because of the brand of liberation theology used in Central and South American based-communities. The old “Dragnet” series advised, “Change the name to protect the innocent.” Thus, SCC’s are also called “Disciple Groups” or “Covenant Groups.”

Vocations are nurtured in the context of small Church communities. Many of our priests belong to their own brand of SCC’s to both support and enliven their ministries.

Many parishes use a SCC “zone ministry” concept to organize their outreach and evangelization programs.

Jean Galanti, pastoral associate at St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis, shared, “Being nurtured myself in an SCC helps me in the discernment process. ... The group also supports me prayerfully in my ministry.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, “Prayer groups, indeed ‘schools of prayer,’ are today one of the signs and one of the driving forces of renewal of prayer in the Church, provided they drink from authentic wellsprings of Christian prayer. Concern for ecclesial communion is a sign of true prayer in the Church” (#2689).

“Organizing a parish utilizing SCC’s is a pastor’s dream,” said Father Clem Davis, pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus. “SCC’s are places where faith is nurtured and stewardship gifts are affirmed.”

So, what’s in a name? Small Church communities are not always that “small,” but the “community” (the same name given to religious orders) is always part of the larger parish.

“Change the name to protect the innocent?” asked Alice Steppe, pastoral associate and director of religious education at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis.

“We simply call it being Church.”

(John Valenti is associate director of evangelization and faith formation for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.) †


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