Parishioners find renewed faith As Lent begins, program is bringing Catholics together

February 21, 1996|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, Richard Daniels, a 60-year-old engineer, was ready to leave St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia, a parish of more than 2,700 families.

"It was so big that I felt disconnected from the people," said Mr. Daniels, a man with a full head of white hair and a quick smile. "I felt disconnected from the church."

But Mr. Daniel's commitment to St. John's was restored through a program that encourages members of large congregations to meet in small groups where they can read Scriptures and discuss how their faith has helped them through good times and crises. The program, called Renew, was started two years ago in the Baltimore Archdiocese, and more than 20,000 Catholics participate in groups of eight to 10.

The Rev. Joseph L. Luca, director of Renew for the archdiocese, said, "Making friendships is not the only goal of Renew. Its main objective is to bring people together to give witness of their faith and therefore strengthen the faith of others."

That mission has special significance today, Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, during which Christians reassess and renew their faith. The Catholic Church asks believers to make sacrifices -- a re-enactment of the 40 days TC Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert -- to demonstrate their commitment to God.

They give up bad habits and start good ones. For example, some stop smoking or drinking. Others read the Bible each night, visit nursing homes or spend more time with their children.

"One of the important points of Lent is charitable sharing," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of the Baltimore Archdiocese. "And one of the ways people can give time to serving others is through Renew."

At the end of Lent, Holy Thursday, Christians begin a reinvigorated relationship with God. And they celebrate the relationship on Easter Sunday.

It is the kind of relationship that Mr. Daniels said he has gained through Renew. He meets every Monday night with eight other St. John's parishioners at the Columbia home of Terry and Tom Buhl to read Scriptures and to talk about how the Bible applies to his life.

Monday, Mr. Daniels and the other members of his Renew group munched on apple pie Mrs. Buhl had made for the gathering. They said Renew not only has brought them closer to God, but has made them close to one another.

The meetings begin with members sharing the good and bad things that have happened to them over the previous week. At the end, they pray for help to overcome hardships.

"I feel close again to the church because I feel close to people in this group," Mr. Daniels said. "This kind of closeness is something we had lost in the church because it had become so big."

Serving coffee, Mrs. Buhl said, "We are truly friends, and I know that if one of us had a crisis, we'd all be there to help."

At St. John's, about 40 different Renew groups meet weekly. The program lasts 12 weeks a year, divided into two six-week "Renew seasons." For each season, participants are assigned to study a different theme of the Bible.

"This is such a secular world, and there are very few people who talk about the things we talk about at Renew," said Theresa E. Leager. "Most people want to talk about things like 'Melrose Place.' But here we can talk about our faith."

The theme of this season is "Discipleship," and Renew participants are being challenged to act more like God. Guided by a workbook that has been prepared by the archdiocese, Renew coordinators lead groups in reading lessons of the Bible, then ask participants to share stories of how those lessons apply to their daily lives.

For example, one of the lessons discussed at Monday's meeting in the Buhl home came from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It emphasizes the importance of sharing faith to help support others through trying times.

Evelyn Schroder, 70, recalled a time several years ago when the faith of a friend motivated her to return to early-morning Mass.

"I would just stay in bed, but she would go to church every morning," Mrs. Schroder said. "After watching her day after day, I decided to get up and go to church. If it had not been for her, I would still be lazy."

Many Renew participants have been motivated to extend themselves and help others. For example, the eight people who meet in the Buhl home provided food and gifts to needy families at Christmas.

It's those kinds of activities that have made Mr. Daniels excited again about church. Previously, he said, he felt isolated at St. John's. That anonymity was compounded by the fact that he goes alone to church. His wife, a Lutheran, attends a smaller church with a congregation of 400.

"She knows at least 50 percent of the members," he said. "They work as a group to develop the church."

Gesturing at the Renew participants gathered in the living room, he said, "I walked into church last Sunday and said hello to four people sitting in this room. It was a good feeling."

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