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Small church communities wax.

Parishes may be on their way out of U.S. church scene

WASHINGTON - Fifty years from now, parishes may be defunct, according to at least one sociologist. Pseudo-Gothic church buildings with people participating passively from the pews may no longer be the norm.

In many dioceses throughout the country, the church is being reborn with small grassroots communities as the centerpiece of the movement, a movement currently focused around three groups. These are the Joliet, Ill.-based North American Forum for Small Christian Communities, the Troy, Mich.-based National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring Into Communities and the Arvada, Colo.-based Buena Vista.

The rise of the small communities comes about because "too many of us feel unseen, unheard or anonymous within the parish to experience any sense of belonging or community," said Rosemary Bleuher, NAFSCC chairperson.

The United States has at least 15,000 SCCs and yet, said Marianist Fr. Edward J. Lee, author of Dangerous Memories: House Churches and Our American Story (Sheed & Ward, 1986), American Catholics are not doing Anything unique. "When we regather in small groups, we are doing what a lot of people across the globe are doing," said Lee.

During the past two decades, at least 100,000 basic Christian communities have developed in the Brazilian church, where the influence of liberation theology has been widespread. The small community movement has reached thousands throughout Africa, the Philippines and Europe.

St. Ursula Sr. Maureen Healy said that within the global BCC movement, "the U.S. is the new kid on the block." When she returned in 1985 from 15 years of ministry in Zaire, she was "amazed to find so few small faith communities in the United States. Parishes were still the old parish structures I had grown up in."

Healy had gone to Zaire in the late 1960s to do faith education and discovered that the entire church there is made up of small Christian communities, a movement begun with independence in 1960.

Independence brought turmoil, but part of the African genius is the ability to form community, Healy said, and Catholics formed them on their own. "The isolation of huge church buildings was broken down into small groups led by the laity - men and women," she said.

Healy is now pastoral minister for the Washington-based Communitas group, which originated as a George Washington University Newman Center liturgy group 20 years ago.

In 1985, when Healy joined them, Communitas members chose to be an autonomous, lay-directed church community. They moved from the university setting to find space of their own - ranging from a YMCA to a hotel lobby to a youth hostel. What makes Communitas different from many of the small parish-connected communities in the United States, Healy said, is its bonding as an intentional eucharistic community.

Lee identifies four characteristics as essential to any group gathering as church: koinonia (community); diakonia (service or mission); kerygma (gospel rooted); and leitourgia (Eucharist).

Healy said the central ritual act at each weekly gathering of Communitas is the breaking of bread in Eucharist.

It is difficult to put a number on these intentional eucharistic communities because they are found in many places - women church groups, peace and justice centers, migrant worker camps, college campuses. Healy networks with more than 20 groups nationwide. Many units choose to be autonomous and some prefer anonymity, she said, to avoid attracting the attention of bishops and pastors who want to maintain control of the liturgy.

Groups such as Communitas usually invite an ordained celebrant - a friend or member of the community who is also a link to the universal church - to preside at Eucharist. Others find a celebrant celibacy and gender is not necessarily a concern) within the circle of the small community.

Lee said this relates to the experience of the early church, when instead of ordaining someone and sending that person to lead a community, local communities ordained one of their own.

Many small groups are deliberately structured by dioceses, although celebration of Eucharist most often is centered in the parish church. These differ from intentional eucharistic groups, because each SCC is connected to the larger parish by a pastoral facilitator and maintains ties to parish/diocesan authority.

Bleuher said she became involved in NAFSCC because she was seeking a "roundtable church where power, authority and leadership are shared, where people had a sense of belonging. The large structure of church/parish is not set up for helping people become aware of individual gifts or receiving personal affirmation, she said.

NAFSCC began in October 1985, when nine diocesan people met to decentralize parishes into smaller units. Today it includes personnel from 50 dioceses in the United States and Canada charged with the promotion, support and resourcing of SCCs in their dioceses.

A similar model was developed by Fr. Art Baranowski when, as a parish priest at Troy, Mich., he saw how impersonal large church structures can be. His workshops in more than 70 dioceses led to the formation of the National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring into Communities.

National coordinator Carrie Piro said NAPRC staff and board are now conducting workshops to support and teach parishes that are deliberately seeking to become small church communities.

Buena Vista is a grassroots organization connecting SCCs within the United States and beyond. A group of 33 small-community enthusiasts came together from across the country in January 1987 to talk about the future of the movement. They met near Buena Vista, Colo., which accounts for the group's name. Membership expanded after subsequent meetings and geographic regions of Buena Vista were formed throughout the United States.

The goal shared by the three groups - NAFCC, NAPRC, and Buena Vista - is to encourage the growth of small communities as a way of being church. They are bringing together people from throughout North America to participate at a joint convocation, "Creating Church for the 21st Century," Aug. 5-8, at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.
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Author:Vidulich, Dorothy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jul 16, 1993
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