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BYO faith: eat, drink, and explore deep spiritual matters with a small faith-sharing group.


When I moved to Madison, Wisconsin from Washington, D.C., I knew that I wanted to find a group like the one I had connected with in D.C.--a motley crew of 20- and 30-somethings that gathered every other week to share a meal and pray together. Sometimes we reflected on the week's gospel reading, at other times we shared a particular style of prayer or devotion with the group.

We were quite a mix--single, married, and seminarians; church workers, students, artists, and staffers from a wide swath of the D.C.-area advocacy world; regular churchgoers and folks who hadn't attended Mass in months or years. But the common thread that drew us together was a deep desire for spirituality, community, and a place to explore our questions about the Catholic tradition.


We didn't always agree, whether it was on a point of theological contention or appropriate worship styles, but we always made sure there was space for everyone to be heard with compassion.

Until Gwen answered our Craigslist ad seeking other young adult Catholics who didn't quite feel like they fit in their local parish, Mike and I were just two new kids in town who liked talking religion over a few beers. When Gwen replied to us, we officially became a group. Next, we added Steve, a grad student seeking a Catholic community that reminded him of his days at a Jesuit university.

Over time we developed a pattern of traveling Crock-Pot dinners, six packs of local beers, and tattered copies of our favorite spiritual readings. We talked local church politics and swapped tips on local parishes.

I ALWAYS HAVE YEARNED TO HAVE OTHERS TO TALK GOD WITH, but I tended to befriend secular humanists, so there wasn't a lot of interest. I tried attending a few Masses where along with a homily the floor was open to parishioners to break open the word. Being an introvert, I got nervous and shy.

I instinctively knew that I needed a place, beyond and in addition to a local parish, to explore my theological questions and spiritual struggles. I needed to know that there were others like me, with tattoos and religious medals, who were serious about their faith but open to challenge. I needed a community that was intentional and more personal than the churches I hopped to each Sunday.

Being Catholic in the space between confirmation and baptizing your first child can be a lonely place. Beyond the communities at Catholic colleges and Newman Centers, it can be difficult to find a critical mass of contemporaries. While some parishes have been exemplary in outreach to and inclusion of young adults, most don't know what to do with us. For me, this is where small, intentional faith sharing groups with other young adults come in.

The reason the concept of a group of laypeople gathering in their homes for prayer outside of Sunday Mass wasn't so foreign to me may have something to do with the fact that when I was growing up, my mother was a member of a local Confraternity of Christian Mothers. While a bit of a pre-Vatican II throwback in style and content, I can vividly recall my mother's circle of friends, most of whom were stay-at-home morns, gathered around the kitchen table intently debating Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ.

PERHAPS THIS IS WHY MY SMALL faith-sharing groups have so readily become a spiritual home for me. The style of gathering and prayer was familiar. As groups have expanded and come into their own, we have experimented with different styles of group prayer, reflections on the weekly gospel readings, sharing our individual "spiritual memoirs," and reading books such as Joan Chittister's In Search of Belief and reflecting on the meaning of the Apostles' Creed in our daily lives.

Being young and far from family during the holidays, my little community has helped me to mark the holy days in intimate seders and impromptu Advent parties. In times of change and confusion when I have needed the wisdom of community to help me discern the next step, my faith-sharing groups have been there to pray with and for me. We have comforted each other and celebrated our milestones together.

The reason small faith groups like this continue is that the needs they meet haven't gone away. Small, intentional community allows for deeper exploration of big questions of faith. They require commitment to each other to keep the group engaged. Such groups respond to deep spiritual and intellectual needs, and do theology (which really means faith seeking understanding) in a very real way. Not least of all, the need for meaningful human connection and community is universal.

Even for our intensely networked generation--these groups are organized through e-mail, Facebook, and yes, even Craigslist--real human connection is essential and life-giving.

WHILE VERY DIFFERENT IN STYLE and form from the sodalities and confraternities of the Middle Ages, modern faith-sharing groups have very similar results--increasing devotion and inspiring commitment to community. But even more than that, my faith-sharing communities have given me a spiritual home unlike any I have experienced before, one where I know I am fully welcomed as I am.

Spiritual by association

Sodalities and confraternities are pious associations that had their beginnings in the early Middle Ages. The main purpose of these associations was the practice of piety and works of charity in the community. These associations declined at the end of the Middle Ages, but rose again in popularity in the 16th century and were revitalized by the zeal of the Counter-Reformation. This led to the development of many new sodalities and confraternities, many of which are active in some form today. Sodalities and confraternities can typically be divided into three classes, although many overlap with each other: those that seek to increase piety and devotion by special veneration of God, the Virgin Mary, angels, or saints; those that promote spiritual and corporal works of mercy; and those that focus on the well-being and improvement of a certain group of people. Sodalities and confraternities tend to be very task-oriented and focused on relationship, defining themselves by high levels of commitment.--Johanna Hatch

By JOHANNA HATCH, whose writing has appeared in From the Pews in the Back (Liturgical Press),, and Spirit.
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Title Annotation:practicing catholic
Author:Hatch, Johanna
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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