Editor's note: This is the last in a series of columns by the Dominican Sisters Conference that hopes to open Global Sisters Report's readership to a conversation on truth.
For many years, I have had the privilege of working with people all over the world to form and sustain small Christian communities. Small Christian communities are groups of eight to 12 people who gather to pray, reflect on the Scripture or church teaching, support each other, and engage in action flowing from their sharing. The main purpose of being together is to grow in the understanding and practice of what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus.
I often hear that people have a hunger to know Scripture. Those who are part of small Christian communities not only feel they learn and interact with the Scripture but that it forms and shapes their lives. They understand what being a disciple of Jesus is and how to live that out in their parish, neighborhood and world communities.
The aim of small Christian communities is to provide an environment in which members read and wrestle with the meaning of Scripture, church teaching and faith in order to find the truth of what God speaks to them. The wrestling is important, because Catholics don't generally question enough to make Scripture or church teaching their own. Being in a small community provides a safe place in which to question and explore concepts more deeply.
In my work with parishes, I find that parishioners do not keenly understand that Jesus asks us each of us to be his disciples, that we are to actually carry on his mission. Those who participate in small groups grow in the understanding of their call and speak about how being in a community strengthens them.
Recently, I made a promo video for the North American Forum for Small Christian Communities. The young videographer, Zach, suggested that I get two women from my small group to chat about their experience. They were great, sharing about how much the group means to them — how it gives them the opportunity to pray and learn together, and the wonderful gift of friendship. It was truly inspiring to listen to them and know that our small Christian community and the other such communities in the parish are so meaningful to each person.
There is an old story, maybe an urban legend, but it makes the point. A beautiful church was part of a bombing raid in Europe and fell completely to the ground. Everything was destroyed except for a statue of the Sacred Heart. The only problem was that the hands were broken off. Someone hung a sign around the statue's neck with a quote from Teresa of Avila's poem, "I have no hands but yours."
I told this story to our community members, who sat there stunned by the meaning. Of course, I was very dramatic in the telling! This became their "truth": We are the church, the hands of Christ, a group of disciples who take up their crosses daily and head off into the world to continue Christ's mission.
Small Christian communities, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), and other forms of adult faith formation in parishes that follow a small-group style encourage people to reflect, study, pray, and make the words and actions of Jesus their own. If you ask the people in our parish groups, they are challenged and changed. With others, they reflect and learn on the truth of God in their lives. They find that they are more aware of each other, of the parish community, the needs of their families and neighborhood, and that they participate better in prayer and worship and listen better to the homilies at Mass.
A key part of small Christian communities, RCIA, or any adult faith formation program is to form people in truth, to make them aware of the power of God at work in each of their lives. If they allow God to touch them in profound ways, they will discover truth.
As Pope Francis writes in "The Joy of the Gospel":
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since "no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord." The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.
In our parish, St. Rose of Lima in Short Hills New Jersey, we reflect on Scripture, generally the coming Sunday's Gospel. When members are at Mass, they are engaged with both the Gospel reading and the homily. One of the priests told me that he can always tell members of small Christian communities because they are right with him, listening to his thoughts along with what was discussed in their groups.
Not only have we used Scripture, but we have prayed with and reflected on Francis' "The Joy of the Gospel" and "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," and on Bill Heubsch's book on the Year of Mercy and the beatitudes. Using these teaching resources in the small-group environment provided both an opportunity to learn and a way to understand church teaching with which group members would not normally engage.
The small group provides the environment for the encounter with Christ. Group members will often say how they have heard God speaking through others, how in the group they have been touched by shared experiences. They have heard others express deep trust in God and steadfast faith in times of struggle and doubt, and admit to times of not seeing or feeling the presence of God. And together they celebrate joyous events.
A great truth is that, through small Christian communities, members understand what it means to be community, when it seems that the common good is not a priority today. As in the early church, and in religious communities, we gather, pray, reflect, listen and go out into the world as the hands of Christ. This is the truth — we are needed today!
[Sr. Donna L. Ciangio, a Dominican Sister of Caldwell, New Jersey, is chairperson of the North American Forum for Small Christian Communities (NAFSCC). She is also the director of Church Leadership Consultation and serves as director of adult faith formation at St. Rose of Lima Church in Short Hills, New Jersey.]