Updated: May 24, 2022
The following story appeared in the May 13 Idaho Catholic Register.
Bible study and prayer are both important components of a women’s Bible study including members of Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Pocatello. Small faith communities are seen as an effective means to keep people connected in parishes that are increasingly larger and served by fewer priests. Many priests in the U.S. Church say a natural outgrowth of small faith groups is increased spirituality in the individual members, which leads to increased involvement and contribution to parish life, thus revitalizing parishes. Members of this Pocatello group are clockwise from lower left, Vicky Jones, Cindy De La Cruz, Anastasia Dumesnil, Rosemary Nett and Kathryn Venable. (Courtesy photo/Kathryn Venable)
By Emily Woodham, Staff Writer
and Gene Fadness, Editor
They dub themselves the “ungodly hour group.” Deacon Jason Batalden of Idaho Falls rouses himself out of bed in order to meet with a small community of other men every Thursday at “the ungodly” hour of 6 a.m.
At that hour, coffee is a must, but this is no ordinary coffee klatch. Along with the coffee, the group reads the Gospel passage for the following Sunday and then discuss its meaning in their lives.
Deacon Batalden, who is the director of religious education at Pope St. John Paul II Parish in Idaho Falls, says his small faith community that has been meeting faithfully for eight years is important for two reasons: faith formation and engagement in the life of the Church.
Above, members of the “Ungodly Hour” small faith community gather every Thursday at 6 a.m. to discuss the readings for the following Sunday. Members, from left, are Dan Ackerman, Art Rood, John Walker, Dean Tracey, Fred Grinnell, Joe Saye and Lyle Roybal. Not pictured is Andrew Slaughter and Deacon Jason Batalden. (Courtesy photo/Deacon Jason Batalden)
Small faith communities are “essential to the life of the church because they allow people to engage with other Catholics in events outside of the Mass. The Mass is the source and summit, and these groups provide other opportunities to build relationships and develop community,” Deacon Batalden said.
Small faith communities (SFCs) are not uncommon in the life of the Church, but most Catholics do not belong to one. As parishes get larger and priests fewer, the importance of the personal connection in small faith groups increases.
The communities help people to live out the benediction at the end of Mass to “announce the Gospel” or “glorifying the Lord by your life,” Deacon Batalden said. “For our men’s group, we try to keep each other accountable, keep each other moving forward in the faith,” he said. “Iron sharpens iron,” quoting Proverbs 27. “That’s our point,” he said. “Small faith groups lead to and are signs of the health of a parish,” he said.
IN HIS APOSTOLIC exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis calls the parish a “com-munity of communities,” a “sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink,” and “a center of constant missionary outreach.” However, Pope Francis also warns that the vitality of a parish is only possible if it avoids becoming “a useless structure out of touch with people” or “a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few.”
Many parishes in the Diocese of Boise have found that small faith communities are the answer to Pope Francis’ challenge for parishes to be more vibrant.
Parishioners who attend small groups tend to be more active in the Church overall, said Father Brad Neely, pastor at All Saints Parish in Lewiston.
“Whether groups focus on praying the Rosary together, Bible study, or are more formal, such as (Cursillo) Fourth Day groups, these are important for people. Even for priests, it’s important to gather with a small group of priests to share ideas,” Father Neely said. It is crucial for Catholics to be involved with the Church in some way other than just going to and from Mass, he said.
“Small groups can be good because they foster a sense of community, and they also foster authenticity, sincerity and accountability of the living the faith,” said Father Francisco Flores, pastor at Pope St. John Paul II Parish in Idaho Falls.
Small faith communities are often the end-product of a spiritual retreat, such as an Evangelization Re-treats, a Marriage Encounter weekend or a Cursillo weekend.
It’s important, Father Flores advises, that people understand that the mountaintop retreat experience not became an end in and of itself, but that people continue to progress from what they gained on the retreat weekend by participating in their small faith communities.
“An intimate community that mutually encourages and aids in Christian living must follow these larger group experiences, and small groups can fit the bill,” Father Flores said.
A challenge to small groups is learning to discern the consensus or “group think” of the group in comparison to the sound teaching and Tradition of the Church, Father Flores said. “An authentic small group should foster living in fidelity to the Church,” he said.
ST. MARK’S PARISH in Boise has been a home to small faith communities for nearly 30 years, beginning when Monsignor John Donoghue introduced the Evangelization Retreat to the parish.
Three years ago, Ed Herrera, a parishioner at St. Mark’s and discerning the diaconate, was asked to help restart a parish Small Faith Group Committee to strengthen the small groups in the parish.
“Small faith communities are an important touch point within the community. It’s another opportunity to practice your faith and to have support in a smaller setting,” Herrera said.
The committee at St. Mark’s meets every two months, opening their meetings with prayer, worship songs and a short talk. Then leaders discuss their experiences and needs. “We are hoping to create stronger small communities of faith,” Herrera said.
Herrera and his wife have belonged to a small faith community at St. Mark’s for four years. “As the years go by, our SFC has become an extension of our family. Together we share in celebrations and help carry the burdens that life brings. Our SFC has truly been a blessing to us,” he said.
“As I’ve grown in my faith, it has been important to have several touch points between Sunday Masses. Whether this means a daily Mass during the week, Adoration or a small faith community, these are all opportunities to grow closer to Christ,” he said. “Especially now, in our fractured society, the small faith community offers another connection to the Body of Christ and an opportunity to learn together, to pray together and to share our faith.”
Ed and Stephany Herrera with Ginger Mortensen, right, during their small faith community group at St. Mark’s Parish in Boise. Herrera is part of a committee at St. Mark’s that is seeking to strengthen small faith communities in his parish. (Courtesy photo/Ed Herrera)
Most of the small faith communities at St. Mark’s are a result of the Evangelization Retreat weekends sponsored at the parish over several years. At the end of the retreat, participants join an established SFC or create a new one.
To allow more parishioners to be involved in a small faith group, the committee has encouraged that groups be open to any who want to participate, not just for those who complete a retreat weekend. In fact, many small faith groups are started by parishioners who have a common interest in Bible study and prayer.
DEACON GEORGE IVORY in Lewiston leads a Bible study that was started before he arrived at All Saints Parish. He joined the group 10 years ago because it was the only Bible study available.
Their Bible study has used different studies from various sources, including Ascension Press and the FORMED.org website. The number fluctuates, but they average about 12 at meetings. A bittersweet dynamic of their group is that most members are near the end of their lives, Deacon Ivory said.
“One member celebrated her 100th birthday with us, but then soon after she was not able to travel. Several members have passed away,” he said. Sharing prayer intentions at the end of the study is an important part of building their relationships with each other, he said.
Kathryn Venable, a parishioner at Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Pocatello, was asked by Deacon Scott Pearhill to facilitate a women’s Bible study. The group started at the end of 2020 and has five members. Being such a small group has allowed deep, personal discussions, she said.
“We are truly supportive of each other,” Venable said. To provide a place of trust, all members are asked to keep conversations and prayer intentions at their meetings confidential. That confidentiality is typical for nearly all small faith communities. In order for members to be able to be truly open and vulnerable, confidentiality is a key to the success of a small faith community.
Venable’s community meets faithfully twice each month. Four of them share a similar journey of having left the Church and then returned, wanting to renew their faith. One member is not Catholic.
“It’s not just open to our Catholic parishioners. It’s open to any woman in the community,” she said. “All women are welcome to come and join us.”
“Watching everybody grow, including myself, is so inspiring to me. I feel like I am doing what God has led me to do. This this is where I am supposed to be, and this is what I am supposed to be doing,” she said.
In the lower photo, Deacon George Ivory, second row on far left, leads a Bible study group at All Saints Parish. They call themselves the “Forever Learning Institute.” (Courtesy photo/Deacon George Ivory)
WHILE MANY small faith communities are self-starting, most still come out of retreats like the Worldwide Marriage Encounter, Cursillo or the Evangelization Retreat.
Pete Hillman, a parishioner at St. Edward’s Parish in Twin Falls, values the accountability he has in his “Fourth Day” group.
Fourth Day groups are part of the Cursillo Movement. Men and women attend a three-day Cursillo (Spanish for “short course”) retreat, but the spiritual fruits of the weekend continue past the three days to the ongoing “Fourth Day” where members meet to help each continue on the Cursillo’s “tripod” method of spiritual growth: piety, study and action. Fourth Day groups meet weekly throughout the Diocese to share what they are doing in their lives to increase their personal piety (devotions), what they are reading or studying, and the apostolic action – service, missionary work – in which they are currently engaged.
Hillman has been a part of his Fourth Day group since October of 1994.
“We share struggles and victories. We pray for each other and give encouragement,” Hillman said. “This helps grow our faith for dealing with the real world,” he said.
Hillman’s group meets during lunch to make it easier for members. Although he is a part of many ministries in his parish, he said that his Fourth Day group is a large part of his personal faith formation.
A deacon in the Diocese of Boise who asked to remain anonymous believes his Fourth Day group was instrumental to his staying in the Church.
Recently divorced and in a new city, the man attended a large parish for several weeks, largely unnoticed, as is, unfortunately, the case for older Catholics who are divorced or widowed.
“I was feeling sorry for myself and told myself that I could quit attending and no one would notice, which was largely the case,” he said. Missing small faith community, he resumed attending his smaller evangelical church on Sunday nights. At about the same, a Catholic friend invited him to a Cursillo weekend.
“That weekend, and especially the small faith community that grew out of it changed my whole outlook on life and gave me a small group of friends who I could pray with, be accountable to and grow in my Catholic faith,” he said. He eventually went on to be ordained a deacon.
A Cursillo “Fourth Day” group meets weekly during which members review each other’s progress in the Cursillo “tripod” of piety (devotional life), study, and action. Cursillo includes both men’s and women’s groups. Members of this Twin Falls Fourth Day group include, from left, Marvin Makay, Dave Ellingsen and Pete Hillman. (Courtesy photo/Peter Hillman)
ARNE STEVENS, a parishioner of St. Mary’s in Boise, has been a part of a small faith community for more than 20 years. His group started after an Evangelization Retreat. The secret to the longevity of his group, he said, is being creative and not dogmatic.
“We have what we call ‘holy conversations,’ ” Arne said. His group has varied in its focus from Bible studies to lectio divina (a method of meditating on scripture) to reading spiritual books. “We have also discussed the latest Idaho Catholic Register,” he said.
His group has varied in size, but there are eight to 12 members who attend on average, he said. They have also met at different times or changed their meeting location, all depending on the needs of the members. Consistency in meeting with flexibility, listening to the Holy Spirit and being open to new ideas for the group are keys to the longevity of the community, Stevens said.
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