Catholics focus on reviving beliefs

Small groups to meet at informal venues

October 09, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,sun reporter

In an upper room at Clayton's Tavern in Federal Hill, a small group of young people gathered in the dim light to talk about God.

The assembly represents one element of a four-year effort by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to invigorate Roman Catholic parishes and to revive the faith of people who might be years removed from formal religious education.

Starting this week, small gatherings from about a third of the archdiocese's 151 parishes will use a program called "Why Catholic?" to discuss Catholic beliefs, guided by the catechism and Scripture.

Archdiocese officials hope the smaller groups "create a community of faith within the larger community," said Sharon A. Bogusz, coordinator for evangelization and adult catechesis.

The archdiocese wants to reach those curious about Catholicism, as well as active Catholics and those who have fallen away from the church, Bogusz said.

The mission grew out of a national evangelization plan, Go and Make Disciples, released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1990s. The document detailed ways for parishes to grow to be a culture of mature adult faith communities, Bogusz said.

Parishes in about 30 dioceses nationwide use the program, and about 25 more are preparing to do so, said Sister Kathleen Collins, former president of Seton Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore and associate director of Renew International, which developed the program.

The program is similar to an archdiocese program several years ago that helped people understand the Sunday readings, Bogusz said.

Small groups of Christians have met to discuss the word of God since the time of the apostles, said Thomas Groome, director of Boston College's Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, and author of What Makes Us Catholic: Eight Gifts for Life.

Early Christians met primarily in their homes to study Scripture and support each other in living as disciples of Jesus. The idea re-emerged about 40 years ago when small groups of Catholics, primarily in Central and South America, began to meet as "base Christian communities." Often these people, mostly in poor communities, met because they lacked access to clergy, Groome said.

Small Christian communities can be a source of renewal for churches; for years, many Protestant "megachurches" have divided congregations of thousands into small groups to share their faith, Groome said.

Some of the parishes in the archdiocese have many members - 3,400 families at St. John's in Severna Park and 2,300 families at Our Lady of the Fields in Millersville - which can create a sense of anonymity.

That's why Catholic groups will meet for two six-week sessions a year in coffeehouses or individuals' homes, with a group meeting and a final retreat after each block. Sessions include dialogue and reflection of the content, Bogusz said - and will usually offer refreshments.

"Adults learn better when they read and talk and listen to each other," Collins said. Each session will end by discussing how they can apply the aspects of faith in their lives.

Many of the archdiocese's parishes have small study groups, but this program is another avenue for such gatherings, Bogusz said. Different groups can target parents, seniors, young adults, divorced people and others.

The first year examines the first pillar of Catholic catechism, the profession of faith. More parishes are expected to participate in future years, which take on Christian mysteries or the sacraments, morality and Christian prayer.

The program costs $1,800 for a parish to participate, but given the limited resources of some parishes, Renew has agreed to accept whatever a parish says it is able to contribute, Bogusz said. Participants must purchase a workbook, which costs less than $10.

Part of the challenge is to engage young people who might not make religion a priority. According to the bishops' conference, 40 percent of U.S. Catholics are between 18 and 40 years old.

The Catholic Community of South Baltimore chose to use "Why Catholic" themes for its Theology on Tap lectures. Theology on Tap, a discussion series first developed by the Archdiocese of Chicago about 25 years ago, invites drinkers and nondrinkers to an informal setting - a bar. About 14 different communities in the archdiocese have coordinated Theology on Tap sessions.

Some young adults are new to Baltimore and won't be staying very long, but Theology on Tap and "Why Catholic" provide spiritual touchstones, said Chris Welsh, pastoral associate for the Catholic Community, which consists of three parishes in Federal Hill, Locust Point and South Baltimore.

During the recent meeting at Clayton's Tavern, more than 20 young people gathered around appetizers and pint glasses to hear Sister Julie Fertsch, 27, a Seton Keough religion teacher and coach, discuss "Desire for God."

"Just create the atmosphere, and let the Holy Spirit take over," Welsh said.

People who attended the session said it was worthwhile. Vic Bisignani, 40, of Hamilton said the emphasis on the Bible in some Christian denominations has taught Catholics the importance of Scripture. "When we grew up, we just heard the sermon - we didn't understand it," he said.

Chris Luca, 26, of Hamilton said after the discussion that he has turned to the Internet when he needed to remind himself about some aspects of Catholicism.

"I've done a little bit of Googling," he said. "I went through the sacraments. I figured some of that would just come back to me."

"We can always learn from other Catholics," said Beth Murphy, 32, who's a member of St. Mary's Star of the Sea parish. "Everyone comes from a different point of view."

"I do think it's great to give yourself a refresher on the rituals that we do as Catholics, what it means to be Catholic," she said.

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