With a wink a smile and a squeeze of the hand, Gilda Rodriguez naturally knows what question to ask, what personal thing to say to each person she greets. That's no small task in a group of 50 or so Spanish-speaking parishioners gathered at St. Cyril of Alexandria Parish in Tucson, Arizona. As they do every Thursday for two hours, the men, women, and even teenagers come together to pray, sing, and share the Word of God with each other.
"We began just the two of us, holding hands and praying together," remembers Gilda, recalling in Spanish the hope shared with her husband of 53 years, Manuel. "We asked God to open doors and to show us what to do for the Hispanic community of the parish. Slowly, one by one, gracias a Dios, people began to join us. The ways of God are often difficult and costly, but blessed be God that he's allowed us to see the fruits of our labor!"
After a few minutes, Manuel gives Gilda the unspoken signal by starting to play "!Alabare!" (I will give praise) on the organ, and the prayer meeting officially begins. As the group proclaims two more hymns, some people stand and raise their hands in praise. Others clap to the beat from their seats. No one seems to need the song books readily available in stacks next to the enthusiastic musicians.
According to the 75-year-old mother of 10, these weekly gatherings always follow a similar format of songs, prayer, teaching, and personal sharing. At the end of the evening, they join hands in a circle to pray and offer petitions for each other's special needs and for members of the community. "We share about our week and about how the scripture that night has moved us," Gilda explains, adding that praying for each other and the personal testimony "brings us together in a special way."
"This is the way we evangelize," Manuel says. "That's why our coming together is important. We always follow the lead of our pastor, but the priest cannot do everything. It's with the help of the laity that the church becomes one and united."
A who's who of small groups
Small faith-sharing prayer communities like the one the Rodriguezes began 10 years ago are a growing and powerful presence in the U.S. Catholic Church. Approximately 75 percent of these communities are directly associated with a particular parish. The membership and leadership are almost entirely lay, even when the group is sponsored by communities of religious sisters and brothers. Many of these small communities meet in people's homes, while others meet at their church or a parish building.
In a recent study, Marianist Father Bernard Lee identified and classified 37,000 small faith communities throughout the United States, though it is now estimated that a more accurate number may be somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000. The communities are found in all parts of the country, and 44 percent of them are three years old or less.
Lee's research, conducted between 1995 and 1998, took place under the auspices of the Loyola Institute for Ministry in New Orleans, with the assistance of a grant from the Lilly Endowment. The data, theological interpretation, and pastoral reflections from the study are published as The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities (Paulist Press).
"SCCs [small Christian communities] are places where Catholics make Catholic meaning together from which they choose to live their lives," Lee writes. "Together is important."
Although these small prayer communities go by many names, Lee's study classified them into four categories: general small communities (24,000, comprising about 65 percent of all small communities); Hispanic communities (7,500 or about 20 percent); charismatic communities (4,800 or about 13 percent); and approximately 100 other small communities, such as eucharistic-centered communities, centering prayer groups, or groups related to an association, such as Call to Action.
And while there is no such thing as a basic profile for participants, the study identified certain characteristics. …