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Excellent parishes, small communities work out future


The two women sat across the table in a big cafeteria at the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Md. It was a strange place to be talking about church, but most of the people attending the conference in mid-May are used to setting up church in strange places.

In the case of the two women, church moves from home to home. They once had been part of a conventional Catholic parish in California, but a new pastor came in, dismantled programs and the parish council. It was his parish now, the pastor said. That, at least, is how they remembered it. So they and a lot of others left. For more than a decade, they’ve been doing church on their own.

The two women were among participants at the second national meeting of “Intentional Eucharistic Communities.” The unwieldy designation applies to a loose federation of groups that often serve as an alternative to the local parish. Rooted in the Catholic tradition, according to the group’s literature, they gather to celebrate Eucharist on a regular basis.

Less than two weeks later, in New Orleans, parishioners, lay parish leaders and their pastors sang one another’s praises at another gathering, the Pastoral Summit. The three-day session brought together members and leaders of model Catholic parishes and Protestant congregations that were highlighted in the study done by writer Paul Wilkes and funded by the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis (NCR, Jan. 26).

The two gatherings, though they had different emphases and motivation, had at their core a discussion of how local church communities are changing shape.

The Pastoral Summit was a showcase of the possibilities when healthy leadership and people eager to live the gospel and spread it are in tune with one another. Though priests (mostly pastors of exemplary parishes) showed up at workshops and general sessions, it was clear that the parishes cited would not have been considered excellent without laypeople serious about their commitment to living the gospel.

The same was true at the gathering in Maryland. Without that commitment, the independent communities would not have been organized or sustained, sometimes more than 20 years.

The gathering at the 4-H center was too often, though, a showcase of what can happen when trust between pastor and people breaks down. It must be said that some eucharistic communities were begun years ago as experiments within parishes, and some communities retain those ties. However, the more common story is like that of the women in the cafeteria: A new priest arrives and dismantles ministries in the making for years. People either accept the new arrangement or move on.

Ironically, many of the talks at the 4-H center were given by priests, even though many of the communities rarely see priests. Some conduct lay-led liturgies and don’t see priests at all.

It was apparent at both meetings that those attending have a desire for more church, not less. They commit to daunting ministries and take great responsibility for their own spirituality and for changing the world around them. These are not seekers of “cheap grace,” but people deeply in love with Catholic tradition, if not with every pronouncement from Rome. Amazing things have happened in the small communities and parishes represented here, including social outreach efforts that defy the often-small numbers of people behind them.

In the background at each meeting, like a rhythmic drone, was discussion of the new mood in Rome, the layering on of new rules, the rollback of liturgical innovation, the campaign against inclusive language and the new vigilance to ensure that women don’t get too near the altar.

Wilkes, looking out over an eclectic audience in New Orleans, said: “Our focus is on church excellence, not on church doctrine or dogma, but on what brings us together.” He said he learned during his study that people in excellent parishes were interested not so much in change but “in conversion.” In his conversations and travels, he said, he witnessed the “transforming power of local churches.”

If a central question in New Orleans was how to produce more excellent parishes and congregations, a key question in Maryland was how communities relate to the larger church.

“I was here 10 years ago,” recalled Fr. James Coriden, a canon lawyer, and “I was anxious to assure you of your legitimacy, of your lawfulness.” That need no longer exists, he said. Today his concern is cooperation between the intentional eucharistic communities and the institutional church. He told the community members that they represented “the creative margin of the church where new things are born.”

That first national gathering 10 years ago was also held in the Washington area, drawing 155 participants from 15 communities. At this year’s conference, more than 240 participants showed up, representing 41 communities. A few participants came from Canada and Australia.

By most accounts, Intentional Eucharistic Communities began in the late 1960s. In the early days, it such communities often received the blessings of pastors who saw them as a development of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

With changes in local and diocesan authorities, however, the relationship of the communities the larger church often changed. Many exist in a kind of don’t-ask-don’t-tell limbo. What characterizes them all, according to a conference release, is “shared responsibility for the governance and life of the community.”

One of the organizers of the Maryland gathering was Catholic University researcher William D’Antonio who, with Marianist Fr. Bernard J. Lee of Loyola University, New Orleans, has charted the growth of small faith communities. They are co-authors of The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities (Paulist Press). Intentional Eucharistic Communities now total about 80 in the United States, according to D’Antonio. They are distinct from hundreds of other groups, known as Small Christian Communities, which generally exist within the confines of parishes.

If Intentional Eucharistic Communities constitute the writing in the margin, one of the unanswered but evident questions at the Maryland gathering was just how radically altered the future drafts of the local Catholic community will be.

The priest shortage, the hierarchy’s seeming inability to realistically face that challenge, the growing role of laity, especially women, in essential church ministries, and the continuing hunger of Catholics for Eucharist-centered communities all will play a role in the future shape of the church.

The people at these gatherings represent many others across the country who are working out that future.

Tom Roberts is NCR editor. His e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001