Small Christian Communities: A Way to 'Make Church real.'(Catholic Church Communities; Includes Related Article on Community Research Project)

Article excerpt

MARIOTTSVILLE, Md. - What began as a rumble of new understanding of "church" a generation ago has now reached booming proportions, according to experts investigating the growth of small Christian communities among Catholics in the United States.

The gathering of people into small Christian communities spread rapidly throughout the United States when, in the popular interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, the people in the pews were told, "You are the people of God, you are responsible for the Good News, you are the church."

That responsibility brought more than 150 representatives of the small communities from as near as Washington and as far away as San Jose, Calif., to a Jan. 25-29 convocation, "Small Christian Communities: Called to Justice," to reflect on how they can be both "gathered and sent."

The conference was organized by a group called Buena Vista, headquartered in Arvada, Colo., which was founded in 1987 to provide opportunities such as this ninth convocation. It was a place for representatives of small Christian communities to meet and talk about their experiences in breaking down the anonymity of large parish congregations to make "community and church really said Nora Petersen, national coordinator for Buena Vista.

"As gathered, each community must be strong in the dynamics of its own private life as a community," said Marianist Fr. Bernard Lee, a professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, and coauthor of Dangerous Memories: House Churches and Our American Story. If a community has not settled issues around belonging, how power functions within the group, prayer, support and care, he said, the community cannot have an effective public life. "It cannot be a true ecclesial community if faith does not exercise its public character," Lee said.

Small Christian communities gather people near the places and events of living, Lee said. "They are the contact zones for much of the church's presence to the world and the world to the church," said Lee. "SCCs rub the church's nose in the needs of the world," pressuring the institutional church to work for social, economic, political and cultural change.

"Perhaps the most difficult and complex challenge for SCCs is the call to justice," Petersen said. The majority of the SCCs associated with Buena Vista have pastoral facilitators and maintain ties to parish-diocesan authority.

Petersen said an essential part of the weekend convocation was to provide site visits to local justice-seeking groups. Ann Dean, who works with faith communities providing direct service to the poor and homeless at the ecumenical Church of the Savior, Washington, coordinated the visits and reflection process.

The struggle to live the faith that does justice is a tension in many SCCs. "We have 12 SCCs that meet weekly and pray the Sunday scripture," said Nancy Farrant, pastoral associate at the 1,200-family St. Julie Parish, San Jose, Calif., "but they're not yet seeing the connection with local injustice. …