Catholics finding support in small faith groups

Members of St. John's say peer discussions bring comfort, friends


July 07, 2000|By Dahlia Naqib | Dahlia Naqib,SUN STAFF

Pat Barbernitz has always been a religious person. She has always turned to God for support during hard times. She has always found comfort in prayer.

But when her sister, Catherine Kashen, fell ill and was dying three years ago, Barbernitz found the most comfort in a small church community group of 10 parishioners within the 7,000-member St. John's Catholic Church in Columbia's Wilde Lake village. Her friends helped her get through the hard time and also strengthen her faith - something she wasn't getting from prayer alone or from one of the seven crowded Masses at her church.

"It was a place where I could go and talk about how bad I felt, where I could go and cry," said Barbernitz of the small group. "And they helped me see how God was with me in my sorrow."

Like Barbernitz, many members of St. John's have come to rely on small groups of peers who meet outside church and guide one another spiritually in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.

They read and discuss passages from the Bible, talk about a TV show on religion or an atheist neighbor who has raised some questions, liken spiritual journeys to popular movies such as "Chariots of Fire," or pray for a member of the group who is going through a difficult time.

They have become increasingly dependent on such groups now that St. John's is has grown so large with the suburban population explosion. The growth, according to Barbernitz, has been especially strong during the last 10 years.

"Our parishes are getting so big that the movement to build smaller communities is growing stronger and more important," said Barbernitz, the associate minister for evangelization at St. John's and coordinator of its continually growing number of small church communities.

Currently, 320 people are involved in the 34 groups, which are organized and encouraged by the church. The weekly sessions of the small church communities are usually held in people's homes and sometimes at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.

Judy Major, the leader of one of the groups, is grateful for them. She finds that the sessions with seven to 12 people help her remain faithful.

"Even though you know you have God there, God is not always as apparent as you would like him to be. The group helps me stay on the right side of the track," said Major, who switched from Catholicism in the 1980s to an interdenominational congregation in 1992 and back to Catholicism last year. She feels stronger now than ever about her faith. "It helps [me] to be around people who have the spirit with them," she said.

The movement to supplement large church sessions with small prayer groups started about 30 years ago in South America and has swept Catholic churches around the world.

The practice, termed "Comunidades de Base" - base communities - was spurred by the church's lack of ordained religious leaders. Catholics met in small groups to affirm their faith. They slowly unified and gained influence that allowed them to make some changes in the local government and the church.

In the United States, where there are 86 million Catholics, members - the most of any religion - have embraced the principle of Comunidades de Base as a way of keeping the faith strong in the face of large numbers.

At St. John's, the small groups began as an introductory program for new members and turned into a support system for Catholics of all needs.

"We found that even those of us already in the church need to be more excited about our faith," said Barbernitz. "It's nice to have more personal contact with other members of the congregation."

Members support one another inside and outside the group meetings. When Barbernitz's sister was ill, for example, group members prayed for her and her sister specifically. This personalized prayer was not something she could have gotten from one of the seven Masses at St. John's.

Barbernitz remembers how much it helped when members sent her a bouquet of flowers at work during her sister's illness and when they took care of her food and other necessities after the funeral.

Now she hopes to return that favor by helping more followers find a place in small groups of their own.

The St. John's Catholic Church will be holding its annual Evangelisitic Tent Revival from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 27 on the plaza of Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia. All are welcome. Information: Pat Barbernitz, 410-964-1430.

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