|| Small communities bear big gifts, study
By ARTHUR JONES
The big, old house on Carrollton Street in New Orleans is home on the one side to three religious Marianists -- a priest and two brothers -- and to a family of lay Marianists on the other.
For Fr. Bernard J. Lee, who directs The Institute for Ministry at Loyola University, New Orleans, the home is special because he has long had an interest in small Christian communities.
In the case of this community, Lee received what he called an extraordinary gift when Marianists Kevin and Brenda Fitzpatrick, and their children Mairin and Dane, invited Lee to be with them when the familys third child, Joseph, was born.
The gifts of community -- small Christian communities -- are an extraordinary Catholic phenomenon that Lee and others have been studying. The result is Small Christian Communities in the U.S. Catholic Church, a study funded by the Lilly Endowment. William V. DAntonio of the Catholic University of America headed the research.
Between 750,000 and 1 million Catholics are involved weekly in 37,000-plus small Christian communities nationwide, according to the recently concluded study. Along the way, the researchers learned -- too late to be included -- that there are at least a further 14,500 small Christian communities associated with religious orders.
With regular Sunday Mass attendance by Americas 61 million Catholics down from 75 percent in 1958 to about 32 percent today, the Institute for Ministry set out to learn what motivated Catholics to become members of small Christian communities, to continue membership, to discover members attitudes concerning church and U.S. culture.
In his research into the small Christian community movement, Lee learned the attractions are multiple:
The phrase small Christian community covers a variety of formulations. The Institute for Ministry team created four categories: general small Christian communities, minimally parish connected, at least 24,000 in number, and the focus of 65 percent of the research; Hispanic-Latino communities, again mainly parish connected, 7,500 of them, the focus for 20 percent of the research; and charismatics. The study reports that most charismatic community members are part of parish life even though the communities themselves tend not to be. There are at least 4,500 charismatic groups, the focus of 12 percent of the research.
The final grouping, Call to Action/Eucharist-centered communities, is the smallest. It is also the best educated and most affluent. Call to Action communities are those listed in the Call to Action small Christian community directory. Eucharist-centered communities are groups that have Eucharist as a normal part of their regular gathering, whereas small Christian communities in general tend to have a liturgy of the Word.
In general, small Christian communities attract more women than men (65 percent to 35 percent), and the majority of participants are over 50; 56 percent have college and/or postgraduate degrees (compared to 29 percent of parish-based Catholics); most small Christian communities are not ethnically diverse, and Hispanic-Latino small Christian communities are the least educated and affluent (20 percent with college and/or postgraduate degrees).
In an aside, Lee notes that while members of small Christian communities in Latin American countries are generally from among the poorer people (Latin America has a smaller middle class than the United States), there is a similarity with the U.S. middle class members of small Christian communities: Both groups can be a power base for social change when they become aware of social justice concerns and are organized.
Lee remarks in the study that there is a tension between church teaching and personal conscience/experience in the U.S. Catholic church, and that the small Christian community study wanted to know -- using the metaphors pope and conscience -- which way small Christian community Catholics tilted.
Education tends to tilt Catholics more toward relying on their conscience, and, Lee states, Catholics generally are becoming better and better educated. Even so, small Christian community members say by significant percentages (well over 80 percent) that church is either the most important factor or among the most important factors in their lives.
These small Christian community Catholics, the research indicates, want a voice in the churchs decisions.
When small Christian community members list their reasons for joining a community, for some it is to learn more about religion; for others it is to learn more about spirituality.
As to what they find most satisfying about small Christian community membership, friendship clearly takes the lead.
More than three-quarters of the groups meet weekly or biweekly, most often in a members home; most groups have been in existence between one and 10 years. Nearly half of the leaders are discerned or volunteer.
When asked what difference small Christian community membership means in their lives, a strong majority said they had become more involved in parish activities. More than three-quarters of the Hispanic respondents said membership had strengthened their attitude toward the pope and Vatican.
Lee, reflecting on the study, said he was encouraged by the fact that the existence of these communities depends largely on initiative of lay people. It never occurs to them that theyre not being church when they do it.
He said he considered the laitys appropriation of ownership of church extraordinary.
Noting that neither the small Christian communities nor the broader Catholic church is attracting younger Catholics in great numbers, Lee said he suspected that the U.S. church overall is going to be smaller but with a more committed membership.
And, perhaps, more house churches like the one on Carrollton Street.
National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999