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Communities offer hope for church, society

San Antonio

The mega-parishes that are the Catholic experience for thousands of parishioners in urban and suburban North America and Europe are a far cry from the simple “house churches” portrayed in the New Testament. Both the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul describe a model of simplicity: small groups of believers coming together for the breaking of bread, holding all their goods in common and sharing with the needy of the community.

Massive growth has been the boon and bane of the church over the centuries.

Experiments with smaller, more manageable models of faith-based community have been blips all along the screen of church history. Various models developed and bloomed, only to be greeted with disfavor by a suspicious hierarchy; more often than not the grassroots communities were condemned. But the seeds of small, vibrant Christian communities seem deeply planted in the Catholic imagination, and, every so often, they push to the surface with refreshing regularity. Like now.

Based on the experience of those who’ve tried the small Christian community model, it’s apparent that different structures are indispensable to the future of Catholicism in the United States. This is clear not only from the present crisis in the institution, but also from a shift in ecclesiology: A priest-centered church -- and especially, but not only, when priests are in critically short supply -- simply no longer responds to the needs of a highly educated and culturally diverse Catholic community. Fortunately, the past 20 years have witnessed the emergence of nearly 50,000 small Christian communities that have the potential to provide a new model of being Catholic.

St. Mary’s University in San Antonio Aug. 1-4 hosted 600 delegates representing formally established small Christian communities, which among some constituents are dubbed SCCs. The delegates were gathered for a conference that discussed the successes of the movement, offered tips to fledgling groups, and looked at the future of the church, Christian community and society in a post-Christian and post-9/11 world.

In the words of the Franciscan liberation theologian Leonardo Boff of Brazil, the small community is “a new way of being church.” Drawing inspiration from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the landmark Medellín, Colombia, meeting of the Latin American bishops (1968), the small Christian community concept first emerged in Brazil and neighboring countries in the 1970s and has since spread around the world. One reason for the movement’s success is its cultural flexibility: Communities adapt and modify their structures according to the needs of each place. Its success in doing that was evidenced in the San Antonio gathering, where in addition to participants from the United States, representatives came from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, Scotland and Sweden.

The communities reached the United States in the 1980s, thanks largely to the initiative of Rob Mueller, who was a student at Trinity University in San Antonio. Mueller, who is now a Presbyterian pastor serving a heavily Hispanic congregation, teamed up with Fr. Balty Janacek, then the Catholic chaplain at the university. With the support of the archdiocese, they set out to create communities patterned on the Latin American model that would combine “a passion for growth in one’s own personal faith and a commitment … as a group to transforming our community, our world.” Proof of the success of their efforts was the presence of about a hundred delegates from San Antonio at the conference.

As the movement expanded into other parts of the United States, its emphases have changed. The evolution is described in a study of “The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities,” which was prepared by Marianist Fr. Bernard Lee and constituted the main working paper for the conference. Lee, vice chancellor for Marianist Affairs at St. Mary’s University, was the principal planner and organizer of the conference.

The change was singled out for major discussion by Robert Bellah, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who was a keynote speaker. About a fifth of the small Christian communities in the United States, those in the Southwest, continue the Latin American model’s combination of development of personal faith and commitment to transforming the larger community. The other four-fifths, however, are, according to Bellah, “more into gathering than being sent.”

Bellah, following Lee, would not exclude the class difference as explanation. The view from below of the relatively deprived Hispanics, he contends, enables them to see problems in U.S. society that the more affluent overlook. But, Bellah also warned, as he analyzed the drift of American society, that if the small Christian communities continue on their in-focused course, they will fail to perform the service to the church and to religion of which they are capable.

The past half-century in particular has seen the rise of “The American Religion,” which Bellah described as a philosophy of life that “keeps the traditional demands of discipleship from upsetting the equilibrium of the individualized, rationalized, market-driven consumer society.” This culture, he said, with its absolute belief that each person’s religion is the free choice of the consumer rather than a response to God’s call, is inherently in conflict with all that Christianity stands for.

Bellah told participants that the impact of consumer-driven religion is in evidence throughout the whole of U.S. society. It manifests itself in a “progressive decline in engagement, a withdrawal from every form of commitment: political, civic, social, religious, even family.” And according to Bellah, participation is not only declining, but its quality is changing also: “We ask more what we can get out of it, and less what we can give through it.”

Compounding America’s disengagement is the fact that economic considerations now dominate most of life: HMOs make life-and-death decisions for us; schools and jails are run for profit. People work longer hours, but one salary is no longer sufficient to maintain a family. Employees have less loyalty because the employer has no sense of commitment to workers. A major role small Christian communities need to play if they are to be faithful to the “sending” mission of the gospel, according to several conference presenters, is to restore balance and a sense of God-given worth to individuals and society.

Under the influence of U.S.-led globalization, the negative cultural trends that began in the United States are spreading to the rest of the world. If the current mindset lasts, Bellah said, future generations will have to function in a world that considers them individuals first, members of collectives only secondarily, and in which their main purpose on earth is to maximize one’s own self-interest. That’s one arena where small Christian communities will have a pivotal role to play. The other, in which they’ve done so well until now, will be to keep challenging the church to allow room for innovative models of lay-based community to thrive. Both that barnacled institution and the “me first” society in which it lives will need them more than ever.

Gary MacEoin lives and writes in San Antonio.

At a glance

Designed around a model developed in the Latin American church in the 1970s, small Christian communities in the United States today vary widely in their structure. But there are some commonalities:

  • An average community has 13 adults, eight women and five men, with young people. Some eucharistic-centered small communities number as many as 50 or 60 people, but larger groups tend to divide into smaller units for their day-to-day functioning.
  • More than three-fourths of them meet every week or every two weeks, mostly in members’ homes on a rotating basis.
  • Most small Christian communities come together for a Liturgy of the Word, using one of several lectionary-based publications designed specifically for them.
  • Almost none of the communities in the United States has an ordained minister as a member; instead, they attend their local parish for eucharistic celebrations.

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002