Small Christian Communities – What Church Leaders are saying
Pope John Paul II expressed repeated and strong support for the development of Small Christian Communities over the more than twenty years of his pontificate. Here is a sampling of his statements:
“One way of renewing parishes, especially urgent for parishes in large cities, might be to consider the parish as a community of communities and movements. It seems timely therefore to form ecclesial communities and groups of a size that allows for true human relationships. This will make it possible to live communion more intensely, ensuring that it is fostered not only ad intra, but also with the parish communities to which such groups belong and with the entire diocesan and universal church. In such a human context it will be easier to gather to hear the word of God, to reflect on the range of human problems in the light of this word and gradually to make responsible decisions inspired by the all-embracing love of Christ.” – Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, “The Church in America,” 1999
“The Church as Family cannot reach all her possibilities as Church unless she is divided into communities small enough to foster close human relationships. The characteristics of such communities are:they should be places engaged in evangelizing themselves, so that subsequently they can bring the Good News to others; they should be communities which pray and listen to God’s Word; they must encourage the members themselves to take on responsibility and to learn to live as Church; they reflect on different human problems in light of the Gospel; these communities are to be committed to living Christ’s love for everybody, a love which transcends the limits of the natural solidarity of clans, tribes or other interest groups.” – John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, “ Ecclesia in Africa” 1995
“So that all parishes of this kind may be truly communities of Christians, local ecclesial authorities ought to foster … small basic or so-called ‘living’ communities where the faithful can communicate the Word of God and express it in service and love to one another; these communities are true expressions of ecclesial communion and centers of evangelization in communion with their pastors.” – John Paul II, 1988, Christifideles Laici – The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World
Statements from other leaders:
“These communities will be a place of evangelization, for the benefit of the bigger communities, especially the individual Churches. And, as we said at the end of the last Synod, they will be a hope for the universal Church to the extent: that they seek their nourishment in the Word of God .” – Paul VI — 1975, Evangelii Nuntiandi, On Evangelization in the Modern World
“Many Catholic adults already meet regularly in a variety of small groups for encouragement to better life their faith in the world and to build community. In their various forms these groups provide genuine support to people in living their faith in daily life… Small communities are powerful vehicles for adult faith formation, providing opportunities for learning, prayer, mutual support, and the shared experience of Christian living and service to Church and society. Ecclesial movements and association that are part of the vibrant life of the Church make great contributions here. We welcome this phenomenon as “a sign of the Church’s vitality, and have offered guidelines for authentic small faith community development in Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium and in Communion and Mission.” – US Bishops – 1999 “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us, A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation in the United States
“Small church communities not only foster the faith of individuals, they are living cells which build up the body of Christ. They are to be signs and instruments of unity. As basic units of the parish, they serve to increase the corporate life and mission of the parish by sharing in its life generously with their talents and support… In all cases, authentic small Christian communities are characterized by obedience to the word of God, common prayer; a commitment of time to one another for building personal relationships, meaningful participation in the life of their local parish, some form of apostolic mission to the wider society, an adherence to the Catholic faith, and an explicit relationship of communion with the Church.” – US Bishops – 1995, Called and Gifted for the Third Millennium
“We note with great satisfaction that the parish is becoming a dynamic community of communities, a center where movements, basic ecclesial communities, and other apostolic groups energize and are in turn nourished.” – World Synod of Bishops on the Laity, 1987, The Laity, The Parish Message to the People of God
“It is evident that the small communities, above all the Basic Christian Communities, encourage stronger interpersonal relationships, acceptance of the Word of God, review of life and reflection upon reality in light of the Gospel. They accentuate one’s commitment to family, work, neighborhood and local community …” – Statement of the Latin American Bishops Conference, 1979
Group Rules for Faith Sharing Groups
This is a safe place. People are respected, accepted and appreciated for who they are. We are committed to building trust which is a basic human need.
We honour confidentiality, which is different from secrecy. Secrecy is motivated by power and manipulation; confidentiality is motivated by a deep respect for the sacredness of people’s stories and experiences.
We understand that the presence of each individual is greatly valued and necessary for successful development of the group. As a valued group member we strive to attend each meeting unless unforeseen circumstances prevent us from doing so. In that case, we will try hard to notify the contact person of our absence.
Everyone is invited to share and contribute, but no one is forced to speak. We give ourselves and others permission to “pass.”
We are responsible for giving one another space, both in the time allotted for group sharing as in an individual’s need for private space within the group. We watch that no one or two people dominate the group sharing time.
This is a sharing group, not a discussion group. The purpose is to deepen the connection between our faith in Jesus, the sacred Scriptures, and the ups and downs of our daily lives. Discussing church doctrines or contentious political issues both in and outside the church are kept at a minimum so as to preserve the objective of faith sharing.
If our sharing changes into discussing, if one person dominates or sets themselves up as an “expert,” the facilitator or other group members may gently remind the group of its primary purpose and redirect the conversation.
Since the Gospel invites us to grow, change and deepen our insights and our ability to love, we give ourselves permission to change our minds, to not always having answers to life’s challenges, to learn the value of silence and reflection, even in the group.
We believe in the dignity of each person, and in her/his responsibility to make life-giving and love-giving decisions and choices in his/her life. We refrain from giving one another advice unless specifically asked.
“In my Father’s house there are many rooms,” Jesus said (Jn. 14:2). We welcome the diversity of paths, personalities, life experiences, and perspectives which each person brings to the group. We admit that no one of us has the complete window on the truth, but that together we grow into reflecting God’s image and likeness.
We appreciate and respect that introvert and extrovert personalities have different needs when it comes to balancing reflection/silent group time and sharing time. Also, there are times when even great talkers may not feel like talking. We are responsible to communicate these needs in the group and we honour and try to accommodate this diversity as much as possible.
Tips For Group Facilitation
Many small groups are meeting regularly in parishes across our diocese and beyond. Whether these are Small Christian Communities, parish committees, parish pastoral councils, Knights of Columbus, such gatherings require some leadership and group facilitation. Below is a list of tips, designed especially for faith sharing based on the Scriptures. Many people are new in such a group setting and need time to become comfortable with this kind of group reflection. The following list can be helpful to both group leaders/facilitators and group members, as it will clarify the group process and helps define roles.
1. Creating an atmosphere of welcome and hospitality is crucial. Showing a genuine interest and appreciation of people’s presence will go a long way in achieving this.
2. Pay attention to your surroundings by the use of symbols. An open Bible or Lectionary with a lit candle, for example, draws participants into a tone of reverence and reflection.
3. Be clear in communicating the amount of time allotted to the faith sharing part of your meeting. Ask the group members’ contribution in respecting this time limit.
4. Take some time before the meeting to review the resource and the Scriptures you will use for your faith sharing time. If possible, pray and reflect on its content ahead of time. Familiarizing yourself with both the resource and the Scriptures themselves will increase your comfort level and ease of facilitation.
5. Explain the format for this portion of your meeting, ensure that materials are available and invite questions for clarification.
6. Allow a few minutes of silence after reading the Scripture.
7. At the appropriate time, invite participants to share experiences, insights, opinions while also encouraging a reverent listening to one another. If the group is too large to make sharing possible, invite people to share in two or threes only.
8. Encourage sharing on personal experiences rather than discussion on specific topics. Help participants to talk about their faith and how they live it. Invite everyone, but force no one.
9. Remind the group of their covenant to one another in respecting confidentiality. If needed, remind the group of the purpose of this portion of the meeting, i.e. deepen one’s faith, offer support, strengthen bonds of community etc.).
10. At the end of this portion of your meeting, thank everyone for their particip-ation, expressing your hope to be together in this way again in the future.