Reach the smallest unit: parish small groups and families.
When the bishops say to reach out to small groups and families, they’re talking about people like you and me: readers of Catholic publications and blogs who are more likely than not involved in a Catholic community. They’re not only reaching out to us though. They’re also relying on us to reach out to others.
Parish small groups and families are often where a person’s faith is born and sustained. Before the age of multimedia, the religious customs of the family, parish missions and similar engagements helped build a culture where faith was a natural part of life. This is practical. Sometimes it seems we’ve become so caught up in trying to find innovative ways to evangelize that we often look past the tried and true way that has worked for centuries: interactions within natural relationships in our families and those we meet at our church
Customs and traditions that we hardly think twice about – like saying grace before meals and renewing our baptism in the holy water font – can be points of connection that foster familiarity among those who share those customs and traditions. Catholics haven’t just done these things for ages to help them remember what they believe, and sustain the graces of the sacraments. Our customs and traditions are also social icebreakers.
If you can’t think of how to bring up the Faith in a family setting, take out a sacramental that a friend or relative gave you for your First Communion or Confirmation, or some other special occasion. Many of us have a rosary, a miraculous medal, a scapular, or something similar that brings back fond memories. These can be used not only to strengthen our own spiritual life, but to connect and share the Faith with those in our family as well.
Sacramentals are effective ways to start meaningful spiritual conversations with loved ones. The Catholic religion is familiar, tangible, relatable and human. Our traditions are the most natural expression of man’s (and woman’s) religiosity and spirituality. If we practice our traditions, God’s grace will make His kingdom a reality.
When it comes to living out the faith in family life, Pope St. John Paul II said:
“As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
If Catholics effectively teach the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist at the family level by implementing our traditions into our family life and conversations, the belief will spread throughout the nation and world like yeast spreads in bread.
Parish Small Groups
There are plenty of faith formation programs produced by devoted Catholic companies, and the goal of these programs is to spark discussion about the Faith in a parish setting. During the pandemic, small group meetings were discouraged not just in parishes but in all areas of society. Now is the time to get back to our parish small groups, or form new ones, and rebuild our parish communities stronger than they ever were. Coupled with spreading the belief in our families, sharing faith in the Real Presence in parish small groups will help spread the belief in an organic, grassroots way–just as the bishops mentioned in the Third Pillar, which is to:
Empower grassroots creativity by partnering with movements, apostolates, parishes, and educational institutions.
They may not be seen as such, but parishes can be bastions of Catholic education if they have a comprehensive faith formation curriculum. A parish’s primary mission is to offer the sacraments, but it is also the ideal place to nurture faith in the Real Presence through good teaching, help Catholics build up their own personal faith, and build strong communities in the process.
There are about 17,000 Catholic parishes in the U.S. Imagine what an impact we can have on the culture at large if each one of those parishes had small groups encouraging faith in not only the Real Presence, but in all Catholic teachings. The grassroots infrastructure is already in place. We just have to make use of it.
While we’re talking about parish small groups, let’s not forget about other small groups in the Catholic Church, such as the 34 Franciscan Houses in the U.S. The Independent Franciscan Communities, also known as the Third Order Regular (or “TORs”) usually consist of no more than 40 members, and are superlative examples of how to thrive as a small Christian community. One of these communities, the Knights of the Holy Eucharist, serve at Masses, healing services, Eucharistic Processions, and Benediction. The Knights also provide talks to groups and parishes and generously serve religious communities. By doing so, they help lead the way for parish small groups that are striving to be witnesses for Christ as well.
From Personal Experience
When I was involved in young adult ministry, we intentionally evangelized. By that I mean we formed groups that went out to public places to proclaim the gospel message in unique, authentic ways. We hosted theological talks in bars and taverns. We set up tables with Catholic literature in malls and transportation centers. It may sound like this approach deviates from the Fourth Pillar, because we were reaching out to the wider public and not specifically parishes and small groups. But the public places are where evangelization starts. We have to cast our nets wide in order to find the families and those interested in starting and joining our small groups. The bishops want to reach out to the smallest units, but we have to cast into the deep in order to find the people to join these small groups.
When my friends and I went to public places to evangelize, we often met Catholics who went to a local parish, and were encouraged by the fact that we were stepping into deeper waters to spread our faith. They were looking for their parish community to do something like that, and seeing Catholics take that leap of faith was just the nudge they needed to get more involved.
About 20 percent of the U.S. is Catholic, but only about 20 percent of Catholics attend Mass regularly. That means most of our Church is out there in the deep. Of the 20 percent who do attend church regularly, even fewer are actively involved in their parish. So when the bishops talk about reaching out to small groups, I hope their main message is to reach out to tell the small groups to cast wider nets. The healthy don’t need a doctor. Don’t hide your light under a bushel. These sayings of Christ should motivate us to use parish small groups as vessels to evangelize beyond our parish walls.
Also, we don’t need to be in a small group setting to reach out to other Catholics in the pews. We can just talk to people after Mass. Common customs like genuflecting before the altar can be excellent conversation starters, just like sacramentals. Try saying something like, “I saw how you reverently genuflected before the tabernacle. What sustains your faith in the Eucharist?” This could spark a conversation about prayer, or maybe their struggle to believe. Both are great ways to start a conversation about how you can help each other in your spiritual journeys.
When we see the faith being lived out by those who are already in our lives, it’s easier for us to follow them by example. We may enjoy watching videos about the Faith by our favorite presenters, or reading our favorite writers, but if we are not part of small communities where the faith is implemented into everyone’s lifestyle, it’s going to be very difficult to sustain our beliefs in this secular culture – and even more difficult to live the life that those beliefs suggest.
Let’s acknowledge this incentive from the bishops and accept their challenge. They’re reaching out to us to be the beacons of light they need to spread faith in the Real Presence. Let’s not let them down.
This article series is sponsored by the Knights of the Holy Eucharist, an order of Franciscan Brothers in Lincoln, Nebraska. Learn more about the order at knights.org.