Finding faith and support in Advent gatherings

At St. Thomas More Parish in Cherry Hill, worshippers are gathering together in small prayer groups, remembering Jesus’ words, “Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20)

These Small Christian Communities, as they are called, meet during the Advent and Lent seasons, once a week, connecting with the Word of God and each other. Led by a trained facilitator, they meet Monday-Thursday, morning, noon and night, and discuss the upcoming Sunday readings. Afterward, there is fellowship.

“Sharing about out life experiences is critical to our spiritual life,” said Sister Anne Byrnes, pastoral associate at St. Thomas More.

These communities are where parishioners young and old “connect with others, and connect their faith with everyday living… learn about (their) faith, God’s word in the Scriptures, ourselves… search for God.”

She noted that currently in the parish, there are about 14 small communities, with close to 150 participants.

Small Christian Communities are not unique to St. Thomas More, and they are not new.

Msgr. Thomas Morgan, pastor at St. Thomas More, said that these communities at the parish are not unlike groups of early Christians.

“It was in Small Christian Communities that the early church found its vitality, aliveness and strength,” he said. These believers, sometimes gathering together amidst the threat of persecution, interacted with “fellow human beings whom they could depend to help them through the dark times.”

Small Christian Communities are also similar to groups in Latin America which became a major force in church life. There they often arose out of a need to address social or econonic problems, and they are usually called base communities or base eccelesal communities.

In North America such communities more often arise from a desire of members to know Scripture better to find support in their spiritual life. Many such communities were sparked by participation in parish renewal programs such as RENEW.

A 1999 study found that Small Christian Communities are active in about half of U.S. parishes.

Marianne Wilkins has been in a small Christian community at St. Thomas More for the past six years, meeting together with 13 others at the facilitator’s house during the seasons of Advent and Lent, on Thursday evenings. With participants’ ages ranging from 40s-80s, their life experiences are different, but still, “we establish really close relationships,” she said.

In sharing their common religious background, whether it be through the upcoming Sunday readings or supporting one another through a difficult time, these communities “become a family.”

“You form a bond,” she said.

Wilkins’ bond with her own individual group is such that, when asked if she wanted to facilitate her own Small Christian Community, she declined because it would mean leaving her original community.

Parishioner Beth Markiewicz, as well, has formed a strong bond with other faithful in Small Christian Communities she’s been a part of. Currently, she’s facilitating one during Advent.

“We share how the ‘Word of God” comes alive in our minds, hearts, words, and actions,” she said. “I discovered Christ’s light within others. SCC’s give me a glimpse into the paths others are journeying in their faith. We share our ‘little things’ that bring us closer to God. This offers me hope and encouragement.”

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