Big gifts come in small prayer groups

WITH A WINK AND A SMILE AND A SQUEEZE OF THE HAND, Gilda Rodriguez naturally knows what question to ask, what personal thing to say to each person she greets. That's no small task in a group of 50 or so Spanish-speaking parishioners gathered at St. Cyril of Alexandria Parish in Tucson, Arizona. As they do every Thursday for two hours, the men, women, and even teenagers come together to pray, sing, and share the Word of God with each other.

"We began just the two of us, holding hands and praying together," remembers Gilda, recalling in Spanish the hope shared with her husband of 53 years, Manuel. "We asked God to open doors and to show us what to do for the Hispanic community of the parish. Slowly, one by one, gracias a Dios, people began to join us. The ways of God are often difficult and costly, but blessed be God that he's allowed us to see the fruits of our labor!"

After a few minutes, Manuel gives Gilda the unspoken signal by starting to play "¡Alabaré!" (I will give praise) on the organ, and the prayer meeting officially begins. As the group proclaims two more hymns, some people stand and raise their hands in praise. Others clap to the beat from their seats. No one seems to need the song books readily available in stacks next to the enthusiastic musicians.

According to the 75-year-old mother of 10, these weekly gatherings always follow a similar format of songs, prayer, teaching, and personal sharing. At the end of the evening, they join hands in a circle to pray and offer petitions for each other's special needs and for members of the community. "We share about our week and about how the scripture that night has moved us," Gilda explains, adding that praying for each other and the personal testimony "brings us together in a special way."

"This is the way we evangelize," Manuel says. "That's why our coming together is important. We always follow the lead of our pastor, but the priest cannot do everything. It's with the help of the laity that the church becomes one and united."

A who's who of small groups
Small faith-sharing prayer communities like the one the Rodriguezes began 10 years ago are a growing and powerful presence in the U.S. Catholic Church. Approximately 75 percent of these communities are directly associated with a particular parish. The membership and leadership are almost entirely lay, even when the group is sponsored by communities of religious sisters and brothers. Many of these small communities meet in people's homes, while others meet at their church or a parish building.

Hispanic Empowerment

As parishes respond to the growing number of Hispanic members in the United States, small prayer groups continue to multiply. Eighty percent of U.S. Hispanics are Catholic, with about one in eight Americans today of Hispanic origin. Data also demonstrate that the Hispanic population in the U.S. is young. Half of American Hispanics are under 26, and more than a third are under 18.

Some involved in Hispanic ministry note that small faith communities for Spanish speakers are a response to aggressive proselytizing by fundamentalist Christian groups. Yet the clear result is not only a more empowered laity, but also a more involved Hispanic population in the parish community.

"When we began, there was not even a Spanish Mass in our parish," recalls Manuel Rodriguez. In addition to the Mass, "we now have scripture classes, First Communion classes, marriage preparation classes, English as a second language, and groups for teens for Spanish speakers. There are now many Hispanics who are eucharistic ministers, lectors, and ministers to the sick serving the parish that have come out directly from this small faith community."

Service to the parish community, his wife, Gilda, adds, "is one of our main points. The people become more and more active. Each day we learn more, we serve the parish, and we grow as community."

In a recent study, Marianist Father Bernard Lee identified and classified 37,000 small faith communities throughout the United States, though it is now estimated that a more accurate number may be somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000. The communities are found in all parts of the country, and 44 percent of them are three years old or less.

Lee's research, conducted between 1995 and 1998, took place under the auspices of the Loyola Institute for Ministry in New Orleans, with the assistance of a grant from the Lilly Endowment. The data, theological interpretation, and pastoral reflections from the study are published as The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities (Paulist Press).

"SCCs [small Christian communities] are places where Catholics make Catholic meaning together from which they choose to live their lives," Lee writes. "Together is important."

Although these small prayer communities go by many names, Lee's study classified them into four categories: general small communities (24,000, comprising about 65 percent of all small communities); Hispanic communities (7,500 or about 20 percent); charismatic communities (4,800 or about 13 percent); and approximately 100 other small communities, such as eucharistic-centered communities, centering prayer groups, or groups related to an association, such as Call to Action.

And while there is no such thing as a basic profile for participants, the study identified certain characteristics.

On the average, SCCs consist of 13 to 17 members. Women outnumber men, with the majority of members middle-aged or older (40-plus). The level of education and income in the Hispanic communities is lower than in any of the other groups, while members of eucharistic and Call to Action small communities are the best educated with the highest income. Across the board, members of all four types of communities pray more and participate more frequently than the average Catholic in traditional practices such as the sacraments, novenas, and the rosary. They are also much more involved in parish ministries.

It is no surprise that the majority of members pray daily or pray often, with more than 90 percent from the three largest groups (general/Hispanic/charismatic) participating in weekly Eucharist. As Lee concludes in his book, "SCC members are churchgoing, praying people, connected with church and loyal. . . I believe that SCCs are an environment where grappling with questions about God in a postmodern culture is much more likely to occur."

A growing presence
It was not until the early 1980s that small group communities surfaced noticeably in the U.S. Catholic Church. Although not intended to spawn faith communities, in many dioceses the completion of Renew—a parish-level Catholic faith renewal program begun in 1978 in Newark, N.J.—became a catalyst as participants looked for ways to continue to come together in small parish groups.

Then, in 1988, Father Art Baranowski, at that time a pastor in Southgate, Michigan, published Creating Small Faith Communities: A Plan for Restructuring the Parish and Renewing Catholic Life (St. Anthony Messenger Press). Baranowski's working plan called for restructuring the parish along two lines: establishing small groups that would grow gradually into small church communities and doing every parish program and activity in a style that mirrors small prayer communities.

Although the "Baranowski approach as such was not the operative vision in those first years," says Brother Robert Moriarty of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, his was the first diocese to establish (in 1986) an office with the specific mission of developing small communities in its parishes. Started as an immediate successor of Renew, the work of the Pastoral Department for Small Christian Communities for the Hartford archdiocese "is not simply focused on the development of small groups to meet individual needs," director Moriarty says. "It is focused rather on an overall effort to strengthen the parish as a whole, on helping priests and people to develop parish as a 'community of communities.' "

More than half of the 220 parishes in Hartford—the 12th largest diocese by population in the United States—now have small faith communities. "What animates me is an approach to strengthening the parish as a whole and looking at small communities as building blocks in terms of a larger vision for parish," explains Moriarty, who also serves on the board of The National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring into Communities (NAPRC), a national effort founded by Baranowski.

Sharing the faith
For the past three and a half years, Mark and Lynn Homan have participated in one of the small groups at St. Patrick's in Collinsville, Connecticut, founded through Moriarty's efforts. The structure of the meetings revolves around prayer—which begins and ends each gathering—with scripture readings, questions, a shared reflection, and a call to action based on the topic of the week all sandwiched in the middle.

"The core of our meetings is the faith sharing," Mark Homan notes, explaining that their 3-year-old group uses Quest, a lectionary-based reflection booklet published three times a year by the archdiocese. "As you answer the questions for reflection, you begin to understand how God is acting in this area, in your life. You make connections that you didn't make before. It has made a major difference for me."

The faith sharing feeds the spiritual hunger in two ways, Homan says. "Hearing how other people react and how they've dealt with similar situations gives me ideas on how I can deal with things better in my own life. For example, how do you fire somebody in a Christian way?" explains the 42-year-old insurance company actuary. "Being a manager, that's something I have to deal with at work. And it helps me recognize that other people struggle with a lot of the same questions that I have, connecting your faith to your everyday life."

While outsiders may criticize this approach as creating small groups that are centered on themselves—little cliques of people within the parish—Homan says it is precisely its connection to the larger parish that makes these small prayer communities unique.

"The overall vision of SCCs is based on a different way of being church, of being a parish, with a structure based on small church communities. We're not just getting together by ourselves, we're connecting with the larger parish," he emphasizes. "It's like the early church, with small communities of people getting together and then connecting with the larger community. SCCs bring an added vitality to the parish, a renewed sense of community."

Receiving the Holy Spirit
Much like the general SCC, charismatic prayer groups are parish-centered, with regular weekly or biweekly meetings. Of the four types of communities, members of charismatic communities have the highest percentage of participation in weekly Eucharist (96 percent) and are the most traditional in beliefs and church allegiance, according to the Lee study. The most important reasons listed by charismatics for joining a group are "prayer, praise, worship," and "spirituality." Unlike most general or broad SCCs, however, charismatic gatherings do not follow a set, orderly form.

Dale Dirkschneider has been involved in the charismatic movement for more than 30 years. He and his wife, Stella, currently gather at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Oklahoma City with their community of about 14 members to give praise with their voices and their bodies. The format of these gatherings is totally spontaneous, allowing the Holy Spirit to dictate every aspect of the meeting, from what songs are proclaimed and what psalms or scripture are read to what topics will be discussed. Participants gathered around the oval table often break into whispers of "praise you, Lord," "thank you, Jesus," and "Alleluia!" as others speak in between the songs.

The meetings begin with several rounds of praise and worship songs and end with a circle of prayer, which may include anointing or praying over a particular member, as needed. In the middle of the table is a crucifix, a bottle of holy water, a vial of oil, and a box of tissues. "Many people are hurting when they come, emotionally, spiritually," Dirkschneider says. "They're looking. They're longing. They're searching. Jesus is the answer. He's the only way to bring peace and joy in a person's life."

The biggest criticism given to charismatic prayer groups is the practice of speaking in tongues and the "enthusiasm that the people project, their raising of hands and different gestures," says Dirkschneider.

To those who object to this type of prayer experience, Dirkschneider responds with typical Oklahoma understatement: "It isn't an absolute necessity that you do these things. But the more freedom in the Lord that one has, the more the gifts of the spirit operate within the person. Everybody can receive the Holy Spirit and everybody can have all these gifts, if they so choose and so desire. If you read the scriptures, these things were happening in the early church."

"We really believe that miracles still happen and healings can take place," Dirkschneider adds. "These gifts are there for the church today. They're gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to build up the church, the Body of Christ, and to fight off the evil in what we see in the world. This is our gift to the parish—manifesting the power that the Lord has for his church."

Learning about God
While charismatic communities are the most ethnically diverse of all groups, Lee's study notes that other small prayer communities are either largely Caucasian (more than 90 percent) or almost entirely Hispanic (98 percent), suggesting how important these groups may be for Hispanics as a cultural tool.

For Hispanics, the small groups also play a significant role in the religious and daily life of its members. Hispanic communities list learning about religion and God as the most important reason for joining a community, and they have the highest number of young adult members out of all the types of communities.

The small communities are important for the parish and the universal church, explains Dinora Cruz, because "they help us to grow in our faith, to discover that each of us as the baptized have a mission within our church. In light of the gospel, we learn about our mission, and we come to the service of others by evangelizing other families so that each family may grow to become a reflection of the Holy Family of Nazareth."

Cruz's group meets weekly at a participant's home in St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in New London, Connecticut to sing, read scripture, and reflect on how scripture applies to their daily life. Like many Hispanic SCCs, the group has a great diversity of ages among its 15 regular members.

"We get together not only for prayer, but also to reflect on the Bible," says Cruz, a mother of six. "Our greatest desire is to live according to this Word we are given. That's why our meeting is called a celebration of the Word."

Quieting the heart
There are approximately 100 other small communities that don't fit into the other categories. These are usually eucharistic-centered, groups related to an association, or centering prayer groups.

Resources Mentioned

Creating Small Faith Communities: A Plan for Restructuring the Parish and Renewing Catholic Life,
by Arthur R. Baranowski (St. Anthony Messenger Press)

Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation,
by Thomas Keating (Continuum)

The Catholic Experience of Small Christian Communities,
by Bernard J. Lee, S.M. (Paulist Press)

Pastoral Department for Small Christian Communities
467 Bloomfield Ave., Bloomfield, CT 06002

Call to Action
2135 W. Roscoe, 1N
Chicago, IL 60618

Centering Prayer/ContemplativeOutreach Ltd.
P.O. Box 737
Butler, NJ 07405

National Alliance of Parishes Restructuring into Communities (NAPRC)
310 Allen St., Dayton, OH 45410

National Service Committee Chariscenter USA
P. O. Box 628
Locust Grove, VA 22508-0628

Getting together as a small group to pray regularly is probably the only thing shared by centering prayer groups with other types of small prayer communities.

Centering prayer uses silent contemplation to lead its practitioners to a more powerful and intimate experience of God's presence and therefore to the transformation of their lives. Unlike all other groups, centering prayer groups are not necessarily parish-centered, nor even Catholic. Although most meet at a member's home, the meetings consist of the ancient monastic practice of silence through contemplative prayer—together—with a limited amount of faith sharing specifically related to what has been going on in each member's prayer life.

Once a month, a centering prayer group gathers in the living room of Pat Stankus' home in Austin, Texas. After a short "weather report" from each member, the six or seven lay men and women sit in silence on sofa chairs, pillows, or on squat benches made just for centering prayer. After 20 to 30 minutes of centering prayer, the group stands up quietly for about 10 minutes of "contemplative walk," slow purposeful walking from living room to kitchen to dining room to hallway and back to the living room, repeating the pattern at least two or three times. After a second 20 to 30 minutes of centering prayer, the group ends the quiet by saying out loud the Our Father.

"When our group centers, it is the heart that is in union," says Pat Stankus, who has been doing centering prayer for about 20 years. "In silence, as each person quiets his or her heart, it helps all of the group to quiet and to be present to God, who is always with us."

For the past 20 years there has been a surge in interest in centering prayer among the laity, due largely to Trappist Father Thomas Keating. Those who practice centering prayer in community are also committed to the practice of personal, daily centering prayer—from 20 to 30 minutes, once or twice a day.

"Centering prayer is for people who are serious about God and their prayer life," says Stankus, "for all who have felt the deep call to contemplation and are willing to let go of the ego's need to be in control."

While critics charge that contemplative prayer takes people away from community or active life, those who practice the ancient prayer form emphasize that, on the contrary, centering prayer opens one's heart fully to compassion, which leads the person to service.

"Prayer is a relationship with God. Centering prayer is a natural outgrowth of that relationship with God," Stankus explains. "I love to use the example of a married couple," she adds. "When first married, there is much talking, much fixating on each other. Through the years, experiences of pain and sorrow, joy and gladness deepen the relationship of the couple. They discover that there is no need to talk all the time. It is good just to be present to each other, like sitting on a porch swing in the early evening."

Perhaps the greatest asset of all small prayer communities is the "together" part.

As Moriarty says, "For lots of people, busy in this crazy, mixed-up world, trying to make ends meet, the small community experience really invites them to slow down, to be a little more reflective, to sift and sort the things that count, to connect with a few more parishioners—and to see how God may be present. It's out of that kind of valuing of life and their story that prayer emerges." 

María Ruiz Scaperlanda, a freelancewriter living in Norman, Oklahoma, is the author of the biography Edith Stein: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

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