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Communities: new 'way of life.' (small Christian communities)

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Small Christian communities are a way of life, not just a program, according to participants at a national convocation here. Many said these groups of approximately a dozen adults are "church" just as dioceses or parishes are, and that they fill many people's need for more personal faith-sharing than large parishes can provide.

"This is an answer to people's basic need to belong, to be in a relationship where they can be themselves, to articulate and own their own faith, to be loved and accepted by other people," said Bev Quintavalle, director of the Office of Evangelization in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. In these communities, people "serve the community and pray together," she said.

Marianist Fr. Bernard Lee, who with colleague Michael Cowan of Loyola University, New Orleans, wrote the book Dangerous Memories about small Christian communities, cautioned that from the outset they "have to be in mission," or they can remain support groups, not church communities. "I fear that because we are so middle class, we might not take the social agenda seriously," he said.

Nobody knows how many small church communities exist in the United States, Lee said.

Almost all the 425 convocation participants, from 33 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia, were white and middle class. Notably absent, Lee said, was any significant representation from the 400 Hispanic small Christian communities, from communities connected with religious orders rather than parishes and from "free-floating" communities.

Nevertheless, the gathering at the University of St. Thomas was a landmark: The three groups representing small, U.S. Christian communities at the diocesan, parish and group level were meeting together for the first time at their own initiative. These groups are Buena Vista, the association of community members; the National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring into Communities, an association of parishes; and the North American Forum for Small Christian Communities, an organization of diocesan personnel.

The earliest of these organizations -- Buena Vista and the forum -- independently began to take form about 1986. Some convocation participants have been members of small Christian communities for decades (NCR, July 16). Lee traced his participation to 1969 in Berkeley, Calif. Barbara Howard of Arvada, Colo., a cofounder with her husband, Michael, of Buena Vista, said the couple has belonged to their community 22 years. Others said they are novice members or potential members learning what distinguishes communities and how to create them.

Some say this U.S. phenomenon grew out of such predecessors as the Christian Family Movement or flow naturally from involvement in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

They definitely constitute an indigenous development, an outgrowth of Renew, the three-year, five-part spiritual renewal program for dioceses, said Marianist Bro. Robert Moriarty, director of the pastoral department for small Christian communities in the Hartford, Conn., archdiocese, where 500 small communities exist. Others said the communities are imported from or strongly influenced by the Latin American experience of base communities.

Holy Cross Fr. Robert Pelton, faculty fellow at Notre Dame's Kellogg Institute for International Studies, has long studied small communities in the United States and other countries. In 1990, he hosted a meeting about small communities, with Buena Vista, the alliance and the forum represented. A subsequent international meeting at Notre Dame gathered 50 people from small faith communities on six continents. Pelton writes a quarterly column on small communities.

He told NCR that, despite intercultural influences, the U.S. movement is developing distinctly. In many Third World areas, small communities are composed of poor people whose faith group is "the only game in town," Pelton said, whereas small-community members in the United States and Canada far more typically are middle-class people whose faith community is not their only social outlet. Yet even in this country, he said, many "core Catholics want a community experience" because they feel alienated in the larger church and in their culture.

Another North American characteristic is "the greater emphasis on the role of parish," said Pelton. "The major movement is in parishes," agreed Barbara Howard.

Fr. Art Baranowski of Detroit, a cofounder of the alliance, has become a guru for parish-based small communities. He has developed models and written books used by parishes throughout the nation to launch small communities.

The small church units rooted in parishes do not all look alike. Some are affinity groups that grew out of Renew, RCIA, Cursillo, Marriage Encounter or other affiliations. Some are geographically based, others formed out of common interest, as among mothers of small children.

Tom Rinkoski, director of voluntary services at St. Edward Parish, Bloomington, Minn., said his 20 years of experience in parish work tells him small communities "will always be their best when people form them themselves."

In the United States, more than elsewhere, these groups tend to be composed of adults more typically than of families, Pelton said.

Some communities' members belong to assorted parishes. Rinkoski belongs to such a group and finds "that's a positive point, because we get fed from a lot of different sources." Lack of affiliation to a single parish "can be an asset or negative, depending on how people use it," he said.

The definition of small Christian community remains fluid because ecumenical communities also claim the title, as do groups such as Communitas in Washington, D.C., which considers itself an intentional, eucharistic community that is not part of the church structure.

In Moriarty's view, the parish connection is vital. "If the energy for small communities in the 1960s and 1970s came out of some sense of a need for alternatives to the parish, that is not where the energy is today. The energy in the small Christian community movement in the United States today is in rooting the community in parish for the sake of building up and empowering parish."

Similarly, Fr. Richard Rohr, founder and animator for the Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, N.M., warned small groups not merely to react against what they find wrong with church. Too much emphasis on death, "on what you don't believe," has given "almost nothing to those under 35," he said. Reaction and more liberal changes will not transform souls, he said. "We can only build on life."

Peter Eichten, pastoral administrator at St. Joan of Arc Parish, Minneapolis, observed that organizations such as CFM epitomized pre-Vatican theology, understanding themselves as extensions of the clergy's ministry. Small communities, in contrast, "take the Second Vatican Council seriously," seeing their ministry based in baptism.

Quite a few conference participants viewed membership in a small Christian community as a way of life some, but not all, parishioners choose. Eichten, although agreeing that such is the case now, argued that in 20 to 40 years, "if the laity don't own the church, it won't exist." Because the young "couldn't care less about the clergy," he said, "the baptized have to be the church."

Moriarty said consumerism, individualism and other U.S. phenomena have led to so many fractured families and lives that "the recovery of community is one of the major challenges that faces this culture and our church in this culture." Like Lee, he insisted that community must be formed not for its own sake but for mission.

The joint meeting of Buena Vista, the alliance and the forum was one measure of small communities' strengthening viability and visibility. Other indices are a concentration on base Christian community formation at the Institute for Ministry, Loyola University, New Orleans, and the creation, by St. Louis province Marianists, of a Marianist center for lay communities.

As the joint conference wound down, plans began emerging for yet more development, including another joint conference at some unspecified date, as well as continued collaboration among the three groups and possibly between them and other organizations, such as Call to Action and religious education groups.

Plans began jelling for a workshop Nov. 14 to familiarize bishops with small Christian communities. Already, 40 bishops have signed up.

At the convocation, Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul-Minneapolis told listeners that 152 of 224 parishes in his archdiocese have small Christian communities, yet he is not certain what they are supposed to do. He does see them as a healthy new stage of church, he said, geared to implementing the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Others attending the convocation seemed eager to carry out that vision.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Lucy Arimond does not object to "packaged, prefabricated" recipes for building small Christian communities from scratch. She thinks they can be useful. But her preference is to identify nascent communities and encourage their evolution into a way of life.

She recognizes community, she said, among people who pray together, eat together and look out for the details of one another's lives.

Arimond is pastoral minister at the 12,000-member Pax Christi Parish in Eden Prairie, Minn. She is not responsible for the parish's handful of small communities. Her views, however, have been honed during about 20 years of observing and belonging to them.

A big chunk of her learning to recognize community came during her college days at the University of Chicago during the turbulent, antiwar, late 1960s. The political organizing that then consumed "a zillion hours a day" led to failure after failure. "A fair number of people took the position that it didn't matter if you stomped all over somebody's feelings, personality, morale or anything else as long as your ideology stayed pure. That repulsed me," she said.

She and some others who "cared deeply about achieving the goals we were working for" saw most of them going down the tubes. Yet they "came to understand that there was a full and unsullied victory simply in being for each other in the context of that work. The manner in which we gave ourselves to each other and to the task at hand was all God asked of us."

That experience and others, such as her four-year, full-time job at a Catholic Worker community and her reading about Latin American base communities, sensitized her. Today she is "attentive to the possibilities of nascent community in the local church."

For instance, she encouraged an older group of singles at Pax Christi to pay more attention to their relationship to one another than to their programs. She suggested they eat together, and they did, starting with coffee and doughnuts after Mass. She suggested they might enjoy sitting together at Mass, which eventually they did. Now they attend Mass together every weekend and go to brunch afterward.

That group has developed "a reasonably vibrant commitment to each other," Arimond said, and discovered they "like doing community service activities together in some ways more than they enjoy |fun' things, because it can be hard work to plan to have fun," but with service projects, "fun just kind of happens. That, to me is real, core community building."

She sees as a second model a core group that generates programs for a much larger group, "some of whom may be attracted to community and join the core group."

Communities must be careful not to become cliques, Arimond advised, as can too easily happen with a group of friends. To avoid elitism, "it's useful to have some gathering mechanism other than friendship," she said. One test of a legitimate, functioning community "is that it is open and welcoming to new people."

Communities, moreover, can and should be places of reconciliation for warring members, she said. "I've seen it happen; I know it can happen."

Better than bringing in an outside mediator, she said, is for the community to deal with conflict "by being very explicit about the distinction between the issues involved and the personalities involved -- by saying to those in conflict, |We love both of you, and we are not going to let go on this thing until you two can enjoy each other again.'"

Although a community should not feel it has to take sides between two personalities, "it's cowardly and unproductive not to take a stance on an issue," Arimond said. "But in my experience, it's very rare for there to be a conflict within community that is purely issue-oriented."

The kind of community-building Arimond prefers "is very slow, very small and idiosyncratic. You do it group by group, space by space, situation by situation. It doesn't lend itself to blueprinting."

That may be too luxurious, she said, and predesigned programs of developing community may be necessary. But, she quickly added, "I don't want to concede that we can't afford to do the imaginative work of nurturing indigenous communities in parishes."
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Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Aug 27, 1993
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