Small communities

DPC LogoSmallFor the Pastoral Council: Lessons from Small Communities

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Lessons from Small Communities,” Today’s Parish (November/December 1992): 19-23.

Pastoral council members can get defensive when people enthuse about Small Christian Communities. As SCC converts proclaim a new way of being Church, the council member may well ask what is wrong with the old way. The enthusiasts announce that base communities are evangelizing the Church, and the parish councilor feels like a primitive who needs to be freed from ancestor worship and head hunting. The small communitarians insist that faith-sharing in small groups (“faithing”) is essential to being a Catholic Christian, and the council member wonders how he or she has overlooked this essential for so long. In short, SCC members can make the parish council feel old-fashioned, ignorant, and unspiritual.

At the same time, however, a host of publications aimed at parish councils emphasizes that the council is a community and a spiritual force. Diocesan guidelines for parish councils state that they should be model communities. The guidelines even give councils Scripture passages and prayer programs as a departure point for the sharing of faith.

Are parish councils small Christian communities? What is the relation between the two? What should councils be doing about SCCs? This article will answer these questions. In addition, it will suggest how SCCs can broaden an understanding of the central role of councils, which is pastoral planning.

Is the Council an SCC?

No one would say that parish pastoral councils as such are small Christian communities. Indeed, some would sharply distinguish between the two. Councils are consultative bodies to pastors, and so part of the “official” Church. SCCs, on the other hand, are unofficial gatherings of Christians. Call them communidades de base, basic ecclesial communities, intentional communities, or small basic Christian communities–they are not institutional. They manifest what the Latin American bishops who met in Puebla, Mexico in 1979 called the “people’s Church” or iglesia popular.

Perhaps the concept of selection gives us a better way to get at the difference. The pastoral council members have been selected because they have the gifts for a specialized ministry. The small Christian community, on the other hand, is envisioned not as a specialized ministry but as the Church in microcosm. José Marins, the Brazilian priest who has promoted SCCs since the 1960s, states that the basic ecclesial community is a “slice of the cake” which is the Church, a slice which includes all the ingredients. It is “basic” in that all the elements of the Church are present. From this point of view, the pastoral council, as a select group called to a special ministry, is not a slice but a separate part–perhaps even the icing!

So councils are official and selective, and SCCs are unofficial and basic. But there is an even more fundamental distinction between the two. Pastoral councils are primarily ministerial. They have a specific task in the parish community, the task of identifying pastoral problems, investigating them, and proposing solutions. The needs of and relationships between members are secondary.

But in the small community, needs and relationships take first place. This was emphasized in an early bi-lingual publication about small communities by the U.S. Hispanic National Secretariat, entitled Basic Ecclesial Communities: An Experience in the United States (Ligouri, 1980). The very name “basic” is applied to the small community, the authors write, “because of the primary relationship among its members” (p. 135). The small community, and not this or that parish ministry, is the members’ reason for gathering together. Ministries arise at a second stage.

Ministry may come first in the pastoral council, but does that mean that the council cannot be a small Christian community? About this question there are two schools of thought. One would say that, because the council is official, selective, and primarily ministerial, it cannot be an SCC. But others are less doctrinaire. The first part of Patrick J. Brennan’s Re-Imagining the Parish (Crossroad, 1991), for example, is about base communities. The Chicago priest states that small communities may gather around any healthy self-interest (p. 18). He does not believe that selectivity in membership makes a small community less ecclesial. And indeed, some diocesan guidelines for parish councils, such as Albany’s From Vision to Reality (1984), express the hope that parish council members will form “a model community of what the entire parish might be” (p. 9). Even though the pastoral council is “official,” at least some believe that it can become an SCC.

Relations between the Two

Although SCCs are unofficial, the official Church has had much to do with their emergence, which has not been purely spontaneous. Wherever small communities have blossomed in large number, they have been promoted by the Church as a pastoral response to particular problems.

This is directly acknowledged by the Brazilian Jesuit, Marcello deC. Azevedo, in his heavily-documented Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil (Georgetown University Press, 1987). Azevedo does not go so far as to say that the rise of base communities in Brazil was a deliberate strategy of the bishops to offset the shortage of clergy, the ineffectiveness of parishes, and the lack of social justice. But he does say that the base communities “arose by the official will of the church hierarchy, flourishing when they had its support and failing when they did not” ( p. 39). Without the official Church, unofficial SCCs would not have emerged.

This suggests what role pastoral councils should play in relation to SCCs. All would agree that an important purpose of the pastoral council (if not the most important) is planning. This means assessing the parish’s situation, identifying problems, and proposing solutions to those problems. If SCCs are an answer to parish problems, then they are the business of the pastoral council.

But are they the answer? Those who propose the establishment of small communities in the parish certainly say yes. For Chicago’s Brennan, SCCs are a response to the problem of inadequate pastoring. There are too many Catholics, he says, and too few priests. Small communities, he says (p. 22), each with its own unordained pastor, can help solve this problem. They help share the burden of pastoring presently carried by a shrinking clergy.

Arthur R. Baranowski, a Michigan priest who has published three books on SCCs, also regards the communities as an answer to a pastoral problem. In his Creating Small Faith Communities (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1988), he states that the American parish is less effective because people are transient and because parish activities fail to give people the opportunity to reflect with and support one another. Baranowski claims that SCCs provide that opportunity. They enable life-long Catholics to express and experience their faith in an intimate setting, and prevent new Catholics from getting lost in the big parish after the RCIA.

Brennan and Baranowski make a strong case for SCCs. But should every parish follow their lead and establish them? I believe that this is what pastoral councils should deliberate. Councilors are in a position to identify their parish’s problems because they live with them and have a stake in their solution. Only after the council has examined parish life and assessed its needs is it ready to explore solutions, solutions such as the establishment of SCCs.

Baranowski himself envisions such a role for pastoral councils. If SCCs are to flourish in the parish, he says (p. 38), they will do so because the pastor and his councilors believe that establishing small communities is a parish goal. There are many ways to accomplish this goal, such as a parish-wide renewal experience or the division of the parish into neighborhood-size communities. Deliberating this is a matter for the parish council.

Lessons to Be Learned

The greatest obstacle to this vision is the limited experience of council members. If they have not experienced the intimacy of small community life, how can they identify the absence of it as a pastoral problem? And how can they see the establishment of SCCs as a solution?

Good leadership and experience are the answers. Good leadership means that the council receives clear direction from the pastor whom it advises. He can direct the council to explore matters which are not part of the everyday experience of council members. Clear direction enables even those councils which lack experience with small Christian communities to explore them as a possible answer to pastoral problems.

This dawned on me when I was director of Oakland’s Diocesan Pastoral Council office. Bishop John Cummins asked the DPC, at the 1988 diocesan convention during which the council was elected, to study small communities as one of several “essential features” of healthy parish life. One year later, the council established a committee to study SCCs and recommend how they could be strengthened in the diocese. The committee was in many ways a model, I believe, of pastoral council practice.

DPC member Richard Thuillier headed the committee from 1989 until the completion of its work in 1990. Dick is a scientist with a keenly analytic mind, a man of reserve and dignity. He began the committee with a real interest in small communities, for he had lived several years in Latin America. But although he had long been active with pastoral councils, he had had not experience of small communities. By temperament, Dick is not gregarious, and one can hardly imagine that it is easy for him to share his experiences of faith, especially with strangers.

Despite that, Dick approached the committee with his usual thoroughness. He developed a roster that included members of Oakland’s Portuguese Pastoral Center, who had experienced basic ecclesial communities in Brazil. He also persuaded a woman to join the committee who is a member of “Buena Vista,” the organization devoted to SCC formation and support. He subscribed to Gathering Place, the short-lived magazine for SCCs, and bought books on the subject for the committee members.

Above all, Dick made a deliberate effort to begin the meetings with prayers that included opportunities for people to share their faith. This is what I mean by saying that councils can be given an experience akin to that of the SCC. The Portuguese-speaking committee members, for whom English is a second language, felt more at ease talking about what they believed than trying to conceptualize about SCCs. Other committee members, who were quite adept at abstracting about pastoral needs, found it difficult to express how God is working in their lives. But they tried.

The members’ expressions of faith were sometimes awkward and not always successful. But faith-sharing gave them a taste of what small communities are about. The committee’s final meeting was a festive dinner at the Portuguese pastoral center, which included prayer and hymns.

After Oakland’s DPC had digested the work of Dick’s committee, it presented a final report to Bishop Cummins, a report which the bishop published throughout the diocese last May. Entitled The Ten Essentials of Parish Life, it recommends the adoption of a diocesan wide-community renewal experience, such as Renew, in order to give parishioners “a direct experience of the intimacy of small groups” (p. 13).

My point is that the Oakland DPC’s committee, without a great deal of experience with SCCs, was able to evaluate them as a possible solution to a pastoral problem. The committee was able to do this because it had been given a clear task and a capable leader. Although not every member had participated in an SCC, they experienced something of the SCC’s intimacy, shared prayer, and commitment to a ministerial task. Parish pastoral councils, I believe, can have this same experience.

I was amazed to see Dick Thuillier, whom I had known for several years in diocesan committees, become an advocate for parish renewal and SCCs. Dick visited me recently, and his comments are revealing. He said that, although he would still find it hard to join a small community (given his shyness and the personal challenge of committing oneself to a group), nevertheless he now believes in them. He sounded like a man ripe for an invitation.

A Final Reflection

One problem of councils has to do with the technical nature of pastoral planning. In an effort to state the mission of the parish, identify the obstacles to that mission, and recommend ways to overcome those obstacles, the council can sound like professionals from a Madison Avenue consulting firm. Goals, objectives, time-lines, and action plans–this is the jargon of a technical elite, and it leaves many council members cold. The problem is intensified when council members are not native English speakers. Then they may be unfamiliar not only with the professional planning approach, but with the technical vocabulary as well.

With an extremely technical approach, the council risks losing its particular genius, the genius of practical wisdom. It can forget that its main task is not to match the abilities of professionals, but to help the parish see what is needed by the particular community it is. Professional consultants can create beautiful plans, but they do not know the community for whom the plans are created.

Small Christian communities, with their emphasis on prayer, reflection on life, and sharing of faith, can teach pastoral councils another dimension of pastoral planning. This is the dimension that flows from love. To be sure, the essence of planning remains: councilors reflect on the parish’s situation, compare that situation with the ideal present in God’s word, and deliberate how they can bring about change for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But this pastoral planning does not begin with elaborate goals and objectives. Rather, it begins with a loving vision of what people want for their parish. Such a vision can emerge from a sharing of faith which is the hallmark of the SCC. And in faith-sharing, even those who speak in a second language can participate.