success stories

A Catholic Moment for Small Christian Communities

Small Christian communities called 'indispensable' to church's future

By Kathleen Muldoon
Catholic News Service

Small Christian communities are "indispensable to the future of Catholicism in the United States," a keynote speaker told a San Antonio convocation of leaders of such communities.

Six hundred people from 43 states and 13 countries convened at St. Mary's University Aug. 1-4 to participate in "Small Christian Communities, Society and Church: From Paul's Corinth to North America."

"Events in recent years, including the present crisis in the institutional church," have made these small communities indispensable, said keynoter Scott Appleby of the University of Notre Dame.

He said the current crisis in the institutional church has provided "an unprecedented opportunity and a 'new justification' for the growth and centrality of small Christian communities."

But the crisis also has "created an unexpected challenge and responsibility" for such communities, he said. It is a challenge and responsibility they "must name accurately, embrace and answer through a critical self-evaluation and internal evolution," Appleby added.

In North America, small Christian communities are usually parish-based groups of about eight to 12 people seeking to make their faith more alive in their daily lives. Generally, their purposes include prayer, mutual support, reflection on Scripture and life, learning and mission and participation in the larger church.

Another keynote speaker, noted sociologist and educator Robert Bellah, challenged participants to "be this church in the only empire there is."

Likening small Christian communities to St. Paul's church during the Roman Empire, he said, "The members of Paul's church in Corinth were in an important sense ruined for life in the Roman Empire. But they and those who followed them managed over time to transform that empire beyond recognition."

Other major presenters included Patricia O'Connell Killen, who is on the faculty at Pacific Lutheran University, Loyola University and the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and Jim and Evelyn Whitehead, pastoral theologian and social psychologist, respectively, who were members of the theological reflection team involved in a Lilly-funded research project on small Christian communities, known by participants as SCCs.

The conference, which was four years in the making, was sponsored by Buena Vista, a Colorado-based, grass-roots organization of members of small Christian communities; the National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring into Communities; and North American Forum for Small Christian Communities.

According to Carolyn Mackenzie, a representative of the national alliance and member of the planning committee, the convocation's goal was to develop an agenda for small Christian communities based on the research of Marianist Father Bernard Lee, assistant chancellor of St. Mary's University, which was funded by the Lilly Endowment. The priest took part in pre-conference sessions.

"We feel that SCCs are the hope of the church today," Mackenzie said. "In this impersonal world and even in large, impersonal churches, people need a place to belong. So that is where small groups such as prayer groups and Bible studies come in."

She noted that "such groups have existed for some 30 years," and added that the aim of the conference was to examine Father Lee's research and consider how to "develop a national agenda to make the most of these groups, to develop and sustain them."

Attendees said they felt energized by the speakers and information they shared in caucus sessions that focused on fashioning an agenda for small Christian communities among Catholics, especially in the United States. They were challenged by speakers to consider how to increase membership in the communities, how to maintain and sustain them and how to encourage younger people to take part in them.

Deborah Salvail and Ann Weeks of Shreveport, La., represented St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church at the convocation.

"We have such SCCs as St. Ann's Circle and Our Lady's Ladies at our church," Salvail told Today's Catholic, newspaper of the San Antonio Archdiocese. "I would like to see us focus on implementing new groups and training more facilitators for existing groups."

Pat Auer attended from Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Cincinnati, where she is part of a small Christian community that meets in members' homes.

"I have learned a lot," she said. "My SCC has helped me deepen my personal faith."

According to Mackenzie, the next joint convocation of small Christian communities probably will be in about four years.