The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities
Many of the most active and committed Catholics are, in addition to serving their parishes, members of smaller gatherings that meet together on a regular basis to study scripture, pray, and offer one another friendship. Contemporary mega-parishes in a highly mobile, disconnected society make smaller "Christian communities," as they're sometimes called, warm and attractive places. "These people are like my family," says one member. "We've been through so much together."
Small Christian Communities (SCC) have become something of a phenomenon. But are they a good thing? Groups that wanted to create a "new way of being church" were their first champions, thinking to pull Catholics away from a "mindless loyalty" to Church teachings. In Latin America, the SCC became Marxist "cells," distorting scripture to support revolutionary action.
As liberation theology spread northward, the hope was that SCCs in the United States would similarly become vehicles of "conscientization" and "social action." The original 1976 Call to Action Conference demanded, along with ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood, a lifting of the priestly discipline of celibacy, the "democratic" or "popular" selection of bishops and priests, acceptance of active, homosexual behavior as "normal," change of the moral law to permit artificial birth control and intentional abortions, a new understanding that the Kingdom of God is a temporal achievement accomplished by human beings, and "freedom of speech" for Catholic educators and theologians, the creation of "small communities in worship, prayer, study, evangelization and apostolic service." [Origins, November 4, 1976].
The Call to Action demands were rejected by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, though ambivalence about the SCCs remained. To take one example, the original RENEW program, itself a product of Call to Action enthusiasm for a "new church" was scrutinized by the NCCB in 1986, found problematic, and revamped, though many of its liberationist aspects remained. Evangelization and social action were confused with one another. Typical of liberationism, "truth" was understood as a product of a conscientized people. Judgments were derived "from the collective wisdom of the group as consensus emerges from their sharing. This wisdom obviously involves the wisdom of the Spirit, alive in the community members." [Description of the IMPACT Series on the back cover of Mary C. McGuinness, Thomas A. Kleissler, "Beginnings: Human and World Issues," IMPACT Series, RENEW International, 1996]
Nevertheless, SCCs have demonstrated a certain resiliency to outside manipulation. A recent study of SCCs was written up in a book called "The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities" by Bernard Lee S.M. and William V. D'Antonio, (NY, Paulist Press: 2000). The study is interesting because its researchers were all Call to Action supporters. Lee, grant director and principal author of the study, and D'Antonio, its principal researcher and research coordinator, are both members of Call to Action's speakers' bureau. Theologian team members of the study included Rev. Virgilio Elizondo, founder of the liberationist Mexican American Cultural Center, Dr. Patricia O'Connell Killen, Dr. Jeannette Rodriquez, and Evelyn and James Whitehead, all of whom speak at CTA functions.
They found that participants in SCCs tend to be far more connected to their parishes (75%-85% attending weekly Eucharist) than the general Catholic population (of which only 32% go to Mass once a week). They also tend to accept Church teaching more readily than the general Catholic population. Against the odds, despite a plethora of materials designed to politicize these groups and make them independent of the Church, SCCs seem to be doing a great job of fostering the Faith - assuming the authors "The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities" has correctly interpreted its data.
Lee and D'Antonio certainly take it seriously and do not find the data comforting. They conclude that Catholic SCCs must develop their "public life" - addressing "systemic issues of justice" - just as they have their "inner life" of prayer, study and fellowship. Rather than turning to their pastors for guidance and direction, Lee and D'Antonio believe that SCCs must also work at producing an independent, "adult" leadership.
To address these "pastoral concerns" for SCC development, the third National Convocation of (Catholic) SCCs in the USA, held August 1-4, 2002, was convened in San Antonio. Its mission was to develop a national "agenda" for SCCs, namely to establish a national coordinating organization, to obtain greater support for SCCs from priests and bishops, to help SCCs' develop their "public life," and to foster leadership development, shifting control of the SCC from the parish pastor to the SCC itself.
One of the most revealing aspects of the conference was its understanding of how SCCs might best participate in "public life." A pre-conference workshops, Michael Cowan's "Belonging is Not Enough: The Public Life of SCCs," suggested that SCCs should consider joining community organizations like the Alinskyian Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Cowan and Bernard Lee are themselves members of a Marianist SCC that helped to found an IAF local named the Jeremiah Group in New Orleans. ["Madeleine House Revisits History and Mission, Desires new Members," New Moments, Winter 2000]
The themes of "communities gathered" and "communities sent" were repeated again and again by various speakers. To be called together for the "inner life" of worship and fellowship required the "other arm" of going forth - not to evangelize but to "create networks" of social solidarity. More than once, speakers suggested the IAF as a solution for ingrown, self-centered, pietistic SCCs.
Lee and D'Antonio write: "Our judgment…is that SCCs in this country will be a blip on the screen of ecclesial history rather than an engaging, strong narrative, if communities do not have a proactive conversation with the world..."
One's prayer is that SCCs will be less concerned with making ecclesial history than in continuing the authentic faith-filled work they have been doing. It seems a pity to mess with success.
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