At the very heart of parish life:
How would you answer these questions:
- Do most Catholics expect to be loved in their parish? Do you?
- Am I known in my parish?
- Is anybody praying for me?
- Is anybody responsible for me?
American Catholics today move more often than a generation ago, have less stable relationships, experience less control over their lives and their families’ lives and, in the midst of it all, have “the good life” and “the real thing” preached to them daily by a consumer society. The individual often counts for little and feels isolated and alone. In a technological world, it is very easy to live day by day, staying on the surface of experience, never questioning the basic assumptions of society.
This transience of modern people has an enormous effect on the parish because a large part of the parish’s population will change in just a few years. The fact is, today’s suburban parish no longer has 50 years of stable neighborhood life as a base on which to build a sense of community and a value system centered on Jesus Christ.
In the midst of this change and instability, we at St. Lawrence believe Small Christian Communities can make an important difference, and we invite you to join one.
The Why Of A Parish
Underneath all the activities and mission statements, the parish is meant to foster two basic realities: an experience of love and an experience of faith. And the very first of these should be love.
Love has to be specific. I have to be known as a person. Love is much more than the warm feeling at the Sunday liturgy where everyone may feel close for a while, or the friendliness at coffee and donuts afterwards. The liturgy may be moving and participatory, yet, does a Catholic feel loved and cared for simply by belonging to the church?
An ordinary sense of care and responsibility for each other should pervade a parish. The bottom line that keeps a family together through many crises and disagreements is that members understand they are loved and they, in turn, love the others in the family. That is the bottom line for Church, too. Whatever else a Catholic knows, he or she must absolutely know that he or she is loved by the people of the Church. Christ himself cites love as a top priority for the church community: “This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another” (John 13:35).
The second basic a parish should provide is an experience of faith. God or Jesus becomes more real for us when we share our faith—or lack of faith—with one another, because sharing helps us notice God and take the Lord seriously. Somehow God has to be found in our everyday life. We all have faith, but often we don’t trust the faith that is in us, or don’t know how to recognize and describe our experience of faith. Most Catholics need help from others who care about them and know a little about their journey of faith before they learn to trust their own experiences.
The way we come together as Church is key. That is what teaches us—not simply our programs. Faith and love are experiences. The more these experiences are shared—and this can happen only in a small group—the more people notice God and God’s call to be church for one another.
Being Who We Are Better
In many ways the Second Vatican Council got us back to basics by underscoring who we are as Church: The Church is the whole people of God. Baptism and Confirmation really do give each one of us the calling and the power to be holy, to be responsible for the Church’s inner life and to take responsibility for the mission of the Church in the world. The greatest unfinished task of the Council, however, is to translate this vision into the ordinary Catholic parishioner’s daily consciousness, to make the Church “we” instead of “they”—and every day, not only on Sunday.
The plan developed at St. Lawrence for restructuring into Small Christian Communities (SCCs) allows us to affirm this sense of our identity as church. In the process we discover that what we are really doing is dusting off and polishing up the treasure we always had as the Catholic Christian community. SCCs have helped all of us to “be who we are better.”
Looking To Our Past
This emphasis on the importance of small-groups for living a Catholic way of life is really nothing new. In fact, until the last few centuries, most Catholics did live in relatively small parish communities. Large metropolitan centers where huge numbers of people gather in corresponding large, impersonal parishes are a relatively recent phenomenon.
Our typical experience of parish today reflects the changing living patterns of modern people. We adapted to large cities and sprawling suburbs. We accommodated the influx of Catholics immigrants that doubled and finally multiplied many times over the number of Catholics in the United States. Still, the usual pattern—the way we did it most of the time over our long history as church—was to relate in small familial parishes. Therefore the large institutional parish of today is the exception rather than the historical rule.
So wanting to restructure the present parish into smaller units is not really a departure from our tradition but a return to it. Our goal is the same “old” Catholic Church where the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit will continue to operate—but in a way most effective in our time and place.
All kinds of longstanding small-group associations make a big difference for the parish. It’s hard to imagine any parish without parishioners relating at some smaller group level. What’s different in our vision? We imagine all parishioners relating that way as the normal course of parish life.
New Groups Forming
This fall, we will again be utilizing the Arise Together in Christ process, entering in to Season Three: Following in the Footsteps of Christ.