As “cradle” Catholics many of us took our identity as “Catholic” for granted. We attended Catholic schools, we were often immersed in Catholic culture. It seemed we knew what it meant to be Catholic. Now we discover that putting words on what is “Catholic identity,’ especially in light of moving from a Roman model of Catholic living to a Synodal Catholic experience, has been very challenging often. It has also been challenging for those of us who were not “cradle” Catholics as we seek to understand the Who, What, When, Where and How of this expression of Christian life. I offer the following as brief bullet points that are important to this journey of faith as Catholics. They are by no means exhaustive on the subject, but only morsels of consideration.
Having a Catholic identity means being:
+Eucharistic: All that Catholics do flows toward the "Breaking of the Bread", and all we will do flows out of Eucharist. Eucharist is at the very center of being Catholic. Being a Eucharistic people is the chief identifier of being Catholic. We bring ourselves, and all that we are and do, to the Table. We come with thanksgiving. We recognize Christ and we recognize the Body of Christ in the Breaking of the Bread. We are sent out (“Ite missa est,” Go, you are sent!) to transform creation.
+Incarnational: We Catholics use the stuff of creation to express mystery. We are earthy people and use the stuff of earth to speak to us about God and mystery. We know that the way IN to people is through their senses. Often this stuff is what people think of as showing their identity as Catholics. There is lots of “Catholic stuff”: Holy water, oils, bread, wine, candles, bishops, priests, deacons, ashes, palms, holy cards, rosaries, pictures/icons/statues of saints, liturgical colors, altar, ambo, font, tabernacle, etc. Our symbols need to be "done large" so they speak well.
+Sacramental: Catholics highlight the stages of life through ritual and celebration. These sacraments are transforming, celebrating change; celebrating new life. There are at least seven sacraments, though as our sisters and brothers of the Orthodox household maintain, there are many beyond these seven.
+Graced: Grace is the starting place for our theological understanding of the relationship between God and Creation. All that is created is good. We begin by seeing all humans as created in the image of God. People are basically good.
+Charismatic: Church is based on the active presence of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts of the Spirit for the community. The Spirit of God acts in the Church. It is the Spirit of God that acts through the sacraments, blessings, etc. (epiklesis: "Come, Holy Spirit").
+Communion of Saints: There is a continuum of relatedness of those who have gone before us, those who are alive today, and those who will come after us. We are one. We are on a common journey; we are a pilgrim people, streaming through time. Catholics believe in the afterlife, and saints are very good at symbolizing that belief.
+Common Good: Our moral stance is communal, not pelvic. Preference is given to that which is best for the common good, not just to what is best for one individual. Even in individual choices we ask: if everyone did this, what would be the consequences on society as a whole? Social Justice - seeing that everyone gets their share of resources for a good life -- is a key ingredient in Catholic life.
+Revelation: Our faith tradition is based on the fullness of revelation, past, present and future, not "Bible only" (i.e. Sola scriptura). Scripture is incarnational: God's revelation as given through very human means, conditioned by time, place and culture. Our understanding grows.
+Inclusive: A meaning ascribed to Catholic is "here comes everybody." Catholics have unity with diversity; we are the big umbrella. Not only are we inclusive of all people, we are inclusive of all prayer types and spiritualities, from contemplative to charismatic; from "rote" prayers to centering prayer; inclusive of liturgical expressions from chant to dance.
+Absorbent: Catholicism takes in culture and transforms it, rather than rejects it. From Christmas trees to Easter eggs, to spiritual practices, to feast days themselves, we absorb culture and make it part of us. Nothing human is foreign to us.
So, “YES,” we are Catholic in every sense and meaning of the word. Thanks be to God!
The peace of Christ be with you.
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Size doesn't matter, right? God is! God is at work among us! Big things are happening, big things will happen within your small Synodal Catholic community.
There are some essential important questions for us to continually ask ourselves:
1. Is our community culture healthy?
2. Is the Holy Gospel being taught and lived?
3. Is there a vision for reaching people?
4. Are lives being changed?
If we can respond 'yes', then keep up the good work. While we all desire size, size is ultimately up to God. Our responsibility is to serve and to lead well will all of our being, the rest is up to God.
However, in small community we often get stuck with our struggles and difficulties of ministry. So, let's breathe!
There are five qualities of a small community of faith that have a big impact:
e) and Favor.
UNIQUENESS: Regardless of the size of your community, there is "something" that makes your community special. It might be described as your 'secret sauce,' or your unique DNA. What is it? Learn to lean into it. Perhaps it is the wonderful liturgies celebrated, the compassionate culture experienced and shared eagerly, or a particular or specialized ministry that you have taken up together. You can't force it or make it up. It's already present and will always be there.
AGILITY: Small is the new big! Small communities are able to move and turn fast. They are not bogged down by the complexity of their own systems. Small communities are not aircraft carriers, but much more like speed boats. We tend to make decisions quicker and respond to needs more easily. In small community, we sense what God is up to with us and we jump in wholeheartedly. It is easier in our experience to experiment, unafraid to try something, to experiment, but we keep our list short.
INTIMACY: In our communities, we easily experience closeness, connection, and fellowship. It's fantastic simply because people feel 'at home' and cared for among us. We remind ourselves to be genuine and generous in our welcome of all people. We relish making friends and inviting them to liturgy. It's not a program with us, rather it is our lifestyle.
SEEDS: We learn to be a sower of seeds, many seeds. Love, kindness, compassion, generosity, and encouragement: which of these are you? Which of these are you good at? Which of these do you need to add? Big church seeds in a small community are vocations, missions, and ministry planting. We are always blessed when we give ourselves away, sometimes foolishly in the eyes of our detractors, but always wisely in the eyes of the Kingdom of God.
FAVOR: Do not be fooled in thinking that blessing only lies in large communities. God is looking for the humble and the available to reach out to the spiritually unresolved. There is a sense of Divine Mystery that we can neither demand or strategize. Ask God to bless your community, be patient in waiting upon God's slow work among us, and be faithful to the right things. Favor is Divine Touch that brings the supernatural into the natural. It provides life change and momentum, grace and 'Kingdom' power. Favor is a Holy Presence that makes hard work into fruitful results.
There is great and sacred beauty within a small community of faith. What are your beauty marks, your characteristics? In my personal pastoral experience, they can be numerous:
a) We are relationally-driven.
b) We prefer informal channels: coffee versus formal meetings.
c) We work as a whole.
d) We celebrate our synodality. The community is the church, not the pastor alone.
e) We tend to describe ourselves as family because there is a depth of relationship that has taken time to develop.
f) The proverbial 'grapevine' is a blessing for us, not a curse, for it is a sign of close-knit people.
g) Traditions and heritage undergird our structure, our ministry, and our culture. Traditions are stories and bonds,not ruts.
h) We are easily inter-generational because everyone is involved and we like being together. We resent any split or segregation among us, even children's church!
i) We focus on people over performance. We tend to keep people in a particular position even if there are more qualified folks.
j) We deeply value a 'place for everyone'!
k) We relish inter-relatedness. We love relatives!
l) We value generalists over specialists as we tend to multi-task roles and responsibilities. Yes, I do windows and bathrooms!
m) We celebrate a place for everyone and everyone has a place. We notice and feel absences. Place is a symbol of belonging and security in a world that is insecure.
n) We tend to have our own calendars, which tend to be seasonal and connected to the local employment base.
o) Our people are givers, strong in their sense of ownership. We are need-based rather than formula-controlled.
These are just a few of our beauty marks, our distinctives, or our 'quirks' that make us who we are. Rather than easily defeating ourselves by clinging to a 'size-envy' syndrome, we can flourish in the verifiable sacredness of our own small Synodal Catholic community, united to other small Synodal Catholic communities. Explore and name your identity, be proud of your own unique beauty, sacred purpose, and joyful life embraced together.
More than thirty years ago, I was taught a Latin phrase to be said upon return to the sacristy after every Mass:
Presbyter: Prosit. [May it be fruitful.]
Acolyte: Pro omnibus et singulis. [“For all and for each”]
This simple acknowledgement of the presence of God is my prayer for you and your community as you continue to build up one another around the sacred table.
Greetings, dearest friends!
Our Communion is joyfully comprised of small worshiping communities of faith, whether they are parishes or an intentional religious community. Often the work of calling forth, planting, and nurturing a small community is daunting, particularly because we do not have ready templates for such in the liturgical-sacramental tradition. People have a hard time envisioning their small group as “a church.” They may think, “We meet in a home. We are only a handful of people. We don’t have steady attendance. Maybe someday we’ll be a church.” But a church is constituted by “the Church” – where two or three people are gathered in the name of Christ (Matthew 18:20). It is most present at Eucharist, when all share the sacramental meal that unites us as Christians. At Eucharist, the priest feels his/her sacramental role; the people are truly at prayer – body and soul; and the many ministries of reading, preaching, music, etc., are intensely present. But the growth of the church is only half developed at Eucharist. Here are some practical elements to assist that growth:
1. The small church needs to meet for prayer and sharing once during the week.
This is a time for quiet prayer and meditation – a special time for small groups, and it should be relished. At no other time in the history of your church will you feel such closeness and dedication. Prayer is a time to feel the presence of God in the love and faith of the people who share week by week. This is a time of great spiritual growth for each person, and the miracle of that growth will happen right before your eyes.
2. Sacramental ministry needs to involve others in the church besides the priest.
Individuals begin to enter the ministries of the Church (lector, Eucharistic minister, etc.). A small church takes up these ministries with the anticipation of future growth when others will be mentored into those ministries. This also means inviting people to do the set-up and prepare for sharing after the Eucharist (coffee, etc.).
3. Share special occasions with the small church.
First of all, this means the celebration of sacraments within the group who comes to Sunday Eucharist: baptisms, anointing of sick members, weddings. These can be shared at Sunday Eucharist, or in a larger context if necessary. Also, others should be invited others to celebrate the sacraments in the context of the small church – a real opportunity for the group to grow. One of the hallmarks of parish ministry is the ongoing celebration of all the sacraments. The priest of the small church can invite people to celebrate these sacraments in the context of the Sunday Eucharist (e.g. baptisms, first communions, renewal of spousal vows, etc.).
4. The priest needs to be an intimate leader of the small church.
It is important that the priest be a part of the warm friendship shared by all. All Christians are icons of Christ, and the priest is also a particular icon of Christ for his/her church, large or small. People depend upon their priest’s leadership – as the one who celebrates sacraments, counsels and comforts, and gives a vision for the life of the small church. This is a special place recognized by parishioners as distinct.
5. The priest should always be a teacher.
Especially at Eucharist – even if there is common sharing after the homily – the priest should always give a homily that instructs in the scripture and leads the small church in the life of faith. Homilies are good when they make the Gospel relevant through stories from the life of the church or the experiences of the priest. And, as a good teacher, the priest remembers that he/she will always learn from others’ experiences – and transforms this learning into future teaching in homilies, weekday groups, etc.
6. Individuals in the church need special development in their ministries.
Part of the ministry of the faith community – and its pastor – is aiding church members to discover their own ministries. Emerging ministries need support from the church and openness to others outside the church. Adding to these ministries adds to the church. For instance, a teaching ministry or a ministry to the poor may be led by specific individuals, but the whole church will support it, and the pastor will be a spiritual guide for the ministry. These ministries will add numbers to the church from those who are served. All ministries are celebrated together at Sunday Eucharist.
7. A retreat will solidify the identity of members as a church.
Retreats grow the church and to deepen the lives of members. Retreats are, first of all, days of prayer. They can be one-day retreats (e.g., from 9am to 3pm on a Saturday in someone’s home), or week-end retreats at a retreat center or similar place. Generally, the longer retreat takes place once a year – although each parish may differ. One-day retreats are more easily organized and can happen more often.
8. The small church needs to display stability and longevity. Most of the churches in this country are under 100 members. Small churches should advertise in the phone book, newspaper, and be present at as many community functions as possible. The small church should meet weekly for Eucharist and encourage the members to socialize with one another without becoming a clique. In addition, most churches meet on Sunday morning between 9am-12pm. [This time may be difficult for some because they cannot find a facility that can accommodate the church at these hours.].
9. The pastor should emphasize the connection with the Diocese and larger Communion.
Events in which the people of the small faith community can meet others in throughout the Communion will support the identity of the smaller community as it struggles to establish itself. People of the small church will become aware of other communities and not feel so isolated in their efforts.
10. Some small churches choose to limit their appeal.
Because of small numbers or geographical distance, some faith communities only meet every other week. Others try to appeal to a specific population, based on gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. But this limits the growth of the church if it is too strongly identified with one group. Every community is challenged to ask itself, “Are trying to build a church that is open to all or only to an exclusive group?” The average family with children seeks to pass on the faith of their ancestors in the tradition that is familiar to them. This means that they need to feel comfortable with the language of the liturgy. Liturgy is a “sacred dance” among the young, the old, those with special needs or desires, and (yes) the priest. Small groups must ask how to balance new liturgical language (that seems more just or inclusive) with language that is cherished by those who have prayed all their lives using beloved prayers. So much of this is educational, takes time and education, and requires a sense of balance.
11. The small church needs to be “family and kid friendly.”
Children always need to be welcomed. Parents are eager to attend a church where the children at loved, nourished and respected. Programs need to fit around the family and its needs (This is the most important consideration in beginning programs.)
12. We need to be a sacramental church honoring the traditions of the people.
The sacraments are ancient symbols that touch our hearts and souls and bring us the presence of God. People have often been excluded from the sacraments in other Churches and are longing to return to the reception of these sacraments. Others have come from non-sacramental religious traditions – but long for the beautiful and sacred mysteries of the sacraments. The sacraments belong to the people. If we prayerfully and inclusively celebrate them, many will come through our open doors.
13. Small churches need to move toward an active music and youth ministry.
Early Christians were known for their joy, and their mutual love. Both music and the joy of our children remind us to “let go” and to see God in the moment. The choir or singing group is also at the heart of the liturgical ministry.
14. The members of the church should start to contribute financially.
This is important because the contribution of money means the sense of ownership of the community by its members. The church really belongs to the people, and they realize their stake in it by the investment of their time, energy and money.
15. Growth will come through outreach to specific groups.
The community to be open to all, but real growth comes from outreach to specific groups. For instance, the community might want to reach out to families by offering programs that emphasize their needs. The group might want to reach out to divorced people, and make plans for healing programs for the divorced. The same could be said of the gay and lesbian community, ethnic communities, etc.
16. The call to social justice must be emphasized from the beginning.
Tithing is an excellent example of one step for the community toward the ministry of social justice. This is not just one of many ministries, but is at the heart of the Gospel. Social justice and the ministry of compassion arise from the Eucharist as an outreach of the unity and love shared by the community. The entire community would benefit by turning its attention to one specific project (e.g. a ministry to the old and sick in the larger civic community). This would be both a sacramental ministry and service of the needs of those who are marginalized in society. Such a project unifies the small parish in a sense of purpose.
17. Finally, learning not to take the whole experience too seriously is important.
We mistakenly believe “success” is measured by the number of church members. But the walk of faith only measures our love for one another, and the experiences we discover of God in our lives. The rest is up to the Spirit, who leads us through prayer in an adventure of faith; and teaches us to laugh as much as we cry through troubles. Success belongs to the faith community which finds these things.
Our communities are prophetic in every sense of the word. We recall together that a prophet is not called to be successful, but to be faithful. May we bear fruit for one and for all, in Christ.
God's peace and every blessing to all that you undertake with faith and courage!
Admittance to Holy Communion varies enormously between ecclesial communities. Some Communions defends the sacrament most rigorously, as it is well known, and thereby causes pain not only to their sister churches but also embarrassment and deep marginalization to many of their own members. Many ecclesial communities list a disciplinary rubric surrounding the Eucharist, concerned with what to do with those of a notorious evil life or whose conduct makes them a scandal to other members of the community.
Whether it is appropriate to use the Eucharist as a means of discipline is, however, a tricky question. Very occasionally we will encounter individuals who come to the Eucharist to disrupt and divide, but fortunately this is rare. But even in such a case, our best hope is to make the Eucharist so dynamic, so participatory, so engaging (and thereby so excruciating for those of evil intent) that the Liturgy does its own ‘screening out’ without recourse to canon law or a bishop’s intervention.
Since our inception and taught by our forebearers, the Communion of Synodal Catholic Churches maintains the custom of the priest or the deacon during the Liturgy, following the Lamb of God litany, to announce that all, from any tradition or no tradition, are welcome to receive Holy Communion.
Consistent with Catholic theology, especially as promulgated by the Second Vatican Council called by John XXIII, we recognize the one baptism and faith of all our Christian brothers and sisters. By virtue of our common baptism, a genuine unity already exists in Christ’s Church. Therefore, we are pleased to make known to all our Christian brothers and sisters, regardless of denominational affiliation, Christ’s invitation to partake in the Eucharist. All are welcome to receive and to celebrate the sacramental life in our communities. We recognize that the sacraments are not rewards for any human achievement or accomplishment but are divine gifts of grace to enable us to become the People of God.
Some of our liturgical invitations to Holy Communion vigorously proclaim:
“In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) We encourage you to take your place at the table, for we understand and acknowledge that this is Christ’s table and that this sacred meal is Christ’s supper. We are all invited guests. No one is excluded. All are welcomed here!”
"We have long recognized that this is not our table but the Lord's Table. Jesus is the host of this Eucharistic meal. It is Jesus who invites you to come and receive of Him. It matters not what church or denomination you are affiliated with if any. What matters is that you respond to the invitation of Christ in accord with your heart's desire to come to Him. As a Catholic faith community we recognize that we encounter the living presence of the Risen Christ in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharistic Meal. As such, we refer to the bread and wine as His Body and Blood. We also recognize that Holy Communion is not a reward for any accomplishment or achievement of our own but rather, it is a gift offered to us by God's grace so that we would be enabled to be the Body of Christ, the presence of Christ, in the world."
These have their origin in a growing awareness that the most radical thing Jesus did was to ‘eat with publicans and sinners’ (Matthew 9:11). He scandalized the religious authorities of his day by his outright refusal to observe the purity laws in relation to eating and drinking. He sat down to eat with all and sundry, the elite and the riffraff. As a result, it can be said that it was his open table, his policy of unconditional hospitality, as much as anything he ever said or taught, that led to his downfall.
As a result, there is an increasing uneasiness about refusing Holy Communion to anyone, either because they are too young (we have made Christianity such a cerebral thing) or because they are considered somehow beyond the pale, due to their lack of belief or the non-existence of their washing habits (we have made Christianity such a prim and proper thing).
This unease with traditional practice resonates with our own experience of everyday life in that we know how the shared meal has a power to reconcile, to heal and to unify that is almost sacramental in its power. We recall those times when we have been ‘pleasantly surprised’ by dining companions we would never have chosen and from whom we instinctively shrank at first sight. The Eucharistic assembly, as well as being an intimate community of the like-minded, can be understood also as God’s ‘mess’ where we are all required to sit down with all sorts and conditions, to have the corners rubbed off us, our assumptions challenged, and to find healing and hope in the company of people radically different from ourselves, with whom we would never have chosen to break bread.
In these post-Christian days, when those who seek God, or truth, or meaning, or something, present themselves in our Synodal Catholic assemblies of faith, it is no time to quote rubrics or canons. Far better to respond as the One whom they seek, Jesus Christ. We can live the Benedictine response and treat ‘the guest as Christ come among us.’ Or as St. Augustine urges us to ‘become what you see, receive what you are: the Body of Christ’ (Sermon 272).
Come to the Table!
The great ecumenist and monastic, Brother Roger Schütz of Taize, once prayed:
"O God the Father of all,
you ask every one of us to spread love
and reconciliation where people are divided.
You open this way for us,
so that the wounded body of Jesus Christ,
your church, may be leaven
of communion for the poor of the earth
and in the whole human family."
Our fundamental call in our common Baptism as disciples of Christ is one of unity. Jesus prayed this to his heavenly Father: "that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21). Our most profound witness to our discipleship is to be found in our unity with God, others, and self. God was, is, and shall always be relational rather than obscured or removed from our experience of who God is. The most blessed Trinity is the core doctrine of Christian faith that models for us and instructs us in holy relationships. Indeed, the Communion of Synodal Catholic Churches (CSCC) chooses to re-embrace the Holy Trinity as our pathway for life together and with others. Our synodal polity and practice are given full life through our contemplation of the unique yet interdependent Persons of our Godhead. Each expression of the Trinity teaches us the profundity of divine love for all and inspires us repeatedly to persevere in this way of love we have discovered together in our communion.
Christianity's greatest blessing is her diversity of expression. Sadly, for many Christians though, this sacred gift of diversity has become a distraction that bleeds us of energy for authentic Gospel living. Denominational spats, ego-based schisms, and the unrelenting "us and them" diatribes only serve to give scandal rather than bear witness to the prayer of Jesus. It is lamentable to behold the sacred Body of Christ so wounded, as well as the part that we may have played in this malady of faith.
As members of the Communion of Synodal Catholic Churches we seek to go back behind the divisions of the sixteenth century and to rediscover the great Catholic Tradition. We seek to be attentive to the treasures of faith of the Eastern Church. We never desire to break fellowship with anyone or to be a symbol of repudiation for those who transmitted the faith to us. We seek to be men and women of communion, overcoming and detesting antagonism or rivalry between persons or households of faith. Our unity with one another and the entire Body of Christ is intensified by our charity and hope as Christ has shown us: "may all be one!"
Peace and every blessing, in XP!
As the Presiding Bishop of the Communion of Synodal Catholic Churches, I have been called forth by the Communion to serve with our Bishops as "first among equals" to represent the Communion, to articulate the vision and mission of the Communion and to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.