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Pastoral Letter 2013-2014...

Pastoral Letter

To the Priests, Religious, Lay Faithful and People of Good Will in the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman

(Approved English version of the Pastoral Letter  No. CP-Past/156/2013 written originally in Konkani language)

 

SMALL CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES: COMMUNION OF FAITH IN LOVE

 

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Cor 13, 13).

A great Church event is awaiting us later this year. It is the First National Convention of Small Christian Communities. It will be held in our Archdiocese from 19th to 21st November and bring together thousands of lay faithful, along with many bishops from our country. Preparations for this event have already begun in 2012 and these will be intensified in this Pastoral Year. It is my sincere desire that this National Convention becomes a driving force for all of us to fast-track our efforts towards promoting Small Christian Communities (SCCs) in our Archdiocese.  In view of this and having in mind our diocesan priorities, we are dedicating this Pastoral Year to Small Christian Communities. 

Many have been asking questions regarding SCCs and I shall strive to provide answers to these questions, hoping that this will help all of us to understand SCCs better and to appreciate their importance to the life of the Church today.

 

1. How is the work of SCCs going on in our Archdiocese right now? 

The work of Small Christian Communities in the Church in India is going on for more than forty years and is at varying stages in different dioceses. The message of the National Assembly of Yesu Krist Jayanti 2000 in Bangalore was, clearly, to take up SCCs as a national priority for the Church in India. “In order to make Jesus’ vision a reality, we recommend very strongly that the basic structure of the Church in India is to be a communion of communities and for this Small/Basic Christian Communities must be formed in every parish” (YKJ Message to the Church in India, no. 44). The National Service Team for SCCs is responsible for promoting such communities at the national level. 

In our Archdiocese, our first two Diocesan Pastoral Plans - 1983 and 1990 - took up SCCs and PPCs (Parish  Pastoral Councils) as the priorities of the Church in the Archdiocese. The Diocesan Pastoral Plan 2002 also lists these two, besides another four priorities. Initially through the Planning and Co-ordinating Team and, later, through the Diocesan Training Team and the Diocesan Pastoral Secretariat, our Local Church has put in serious efforts in this direction throughout the length and breadth of the Archdiocese. Presently, the Diocesan Centre for Lay Apostolate has been entrusted with the task of promoting SCCs in our parishes. In my first round of Pastoral Visits to the parishes of our Archdiocese I came face to face with the new life and the collaborative way of doing things that SCCs have brought in. I also learnt that it is not all that easy to promote SCCs. There have been ups and downs, but the promotion of SCCs has nowhere been given up altogether.

 

2. Why Small Christian Communities at all?

i. Way back in the 1960s, the Dominican theologian Yves Congar, speaking to his contemporaries, had said: “The Church’s machinery, sometimes the very institution, is a barrier obscuring her deep and living mystery, which they can find, or find again, only from below.” And to explain the term ‘below,’ he writes in his book, Lay People in the Church, that Small Christian Communities are “little church cells wherein the mystery is lived directly and with great simplicity.” 

ii. Our God is a Trinitarian God and, in the process of creating humankind, he shared his Trinitarian Life with us. This means that we have a spark of God’s life within us. We are therefore relational, by nature. Small Christian Communities, in the manner the Church in India is promoting them, are an excellent means to promote relationships among people in their neighbourhoods, thus giving expression to the divine nature within them. Actually, genuine SCCs help create ‘heaven on earth.’

iii. The Son of God, coming down in human form, chose the twelve Apostles, with whom he lived and moved and formed a community (Mk 3, 14ff; Jn 20, 24; Mk 14, 17). This group of Apostles, with Jesus, constituted the first small community of believers. For three years they listened to the Lord and grew in his ways. This became for them their school of faith. After Pentecost, they spread out and formed similar Christ-centred communities in different places. Thus the Church went on growing, because of her inner dynamism flowing from her faith in Christ and communion among her members.

iv. The Church of Christ, therefore, evolved from such Christ-centred, Gospel-based, outward-oriented small communities of the first century, as can be seen from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2, 42-47; 4, 32-37).

Closer to us, there have been a number of important statements of the Church on the relevance of Small Christian Communities to the life of the Church.

a. Post-Synodal  Apostolic Exhortation on the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World — Christifideles Laici  (1988):  “So that all parishes of this kind may be truly communities of Christians, local ecclesial authorities ought to foster…small, basic or so-called ‘living’ communities where the faithful can communicate the word of God and express it in service and love to one another: these communities are true expressions of ecclesial communion and centres of evangelization, in communion with their pastors” (CL  26).

b. Encyclical Letter on the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate — Redemptoris Missio (1990): “A rapidly growing phenomenon in the young Churches - one sometimes fostered by the Bishops and their conferences as a pastoral priority - is that of the ‘Ecclesial Basic Communities’ (also known by other names) which are proving to be good centres for Christians who at the level of the family or in a similarly restricted setting, come together for prayer, Scripture reading, catechesis and discussion on human and ecclesial problems with a view to a common commitment. These communities are a sign of vitality within the Church, an instrument of formation and evangelization, and a solid starting point for a new society based on a ‘civilization of love’ (RM 51).

c. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Jesus Christ the Saviour and His Mission of Love and Service in Asia — Ecclesia in Asia (1999): “Drawing on their pastoral experience, the Synod Fathers underlined the value of basic ecclesial communities as an effective way of promoting communion and participation in parishes and dioceses, and as a genuine force for evangelization. These small groups help the faithful to live as believing, praying and loving commu-nities like the early Christians” (EA 25).

d. Plenary Assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (1998): “SCCs also known as Basic Christian Communities are powerful witnesses to the mission of the Church and need to be fostered and encouraged. These communities contribute towards the well-being and growth of the Church.... In all our dioceses  a very serious effort must be made to form and foster SCCs because it is through these that the role of the Church to be a leaven in society can be effectively realized at the local level” (Message of the CBCI, nos. 2 and 6.12).

e. Western Region Bishops’ Council (1991): The Bishops of the Western Region, when they met at Nashik on March 6th-7th, 1991, made the decision to take the building of SCCs as a basic thrust in all the thirteen dioceses of the Western Region. This decision was reaffirmed by the WRBC at its 1995 meeting (Cfr. Priorities for the Church in Western Region, WRBC, 1995).

f. National Service Team for SCCs (2010): “We commit to establish, empower and sustain SCCs, networking for the transfor-mation of society” (Mission Statement).

 

3. What are the essential traits of the Small Christian Communities?

Basically, a Small Christian Community is a web of relationships, rather, a four-fold relationship. The Church in India is trying to promote  these fourfold relationship Communities. 

The first is the Relationship of neighbours with each other: A Small Christian Community signifies fundamentally relationships among neighbours, namely, neighbours of a given locality, usually Small, sealed with the imprint of Jesus through Baptism, thereby making them Christian, living in close bonds with each other and promoting these bonds through their day-to-day life, thereby becoming a Community. Neighbours, as we know, include all kinds of people — rich and poor, learned and illiterate, young and adults, belonging to various social strata, etc. What brings them together in fellowship is that they all are children of God. So they are drawn in love,  not because they share the same blood, the same profession or because they are friends having a common interest or because they belong to the same Church Movement, but because Jesus asks them to love. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13, 34-35). In the early Church, such relationships, motivated by their being children of God, had a powerful impact on the lives of the people around, in such a way that they were led to exclaim, “See how they love one another!” (Tertullian of Carthage, Apology 39.7).

The second is the Relationship of neighbours with Jesus:  The second kind of relationship needed for an SCC is a deep personal relationship of the neighbours with Jesus, one which is like that of a vine with its branches. Jesus said, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit”(Jn 15,5). So the neighbourhood group of believers experience Jesus, the living Word of God, through the words of the Scripture in such a way that this word becomes a quasi-sacramental sign, enabling them to come into direct contact with Jesus. This is the uniqueness of such relationships. When neighbours thus enriched by their experience of Jesus share this experience with other neighbours, they too grow in the same and are bound closely together by deep spiritual bonds. This has an impact on their entire life. The Word of God thus becomes the foundation of a Small Christian Community. For this purpose the faithful are to be initiated into new ways of praying on the Word of God.

The third is the Relationship of these neighbours with the needy, the poor, the marginalized, etc.: Intimacy with Jesus leads his disciples to be imbued with the Spirit of Jesus and to be involved in his mission “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people” (Lk 4, 18-19). This was the mission that Jesus entrusted to his Apostles and which today is carried forward by the Church, that is, all of us and not just bishops and priests. We can say that this is the ‘leaven’ mission of the Church in society, wherein she is called to take up for peace, justice, truthfulness and concern for all. Imbibed with the Spirit and filled with an active love for others, such neighbourhoods become foundations for a new society — a civilization of love.

The fourth is the Relationship of this neighbour-hood group with the Church: While living life in this way, neighbours maintain communion with and in the Church. Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jn 15, 4).  Such neighbours have a deep sense of remaining in his love and they show it through their loyalty to their leaders (obedience), accepting the teaching that has come down to us through  them (orthodoxy), reaching out to other communities in need or taking up other worthy causes (charity) or even working with other people (collaboration).

So a Small Christian Community means:

i.   Relationship of neighbours with each other;

ii. Relationship of these neighbours with God;

iii. Relationship of these neighbours with the society; and

iv. Relationship of this neighbourhood group with the entire Church.

  These relationships are intense and dynamic - both inwardly, through communion, and outwardly, in action. A Small Christian Community, therefore,  means community life lived 24 hours of the day and 7 days of the week. It is not to be confused with the one-hour meeting that takes place once or twice a month.  The meeting is only an expression of these relationships and serves as a barometer of the same.  No wonder that, when such relationships are lacking, SCC meetings in many parishes flounder. These are pointers for us to aim at building four-pronged living relationships in our SCCs.

4. How do Small Christian Communities, so localized, connect us to the Universal Church? 

It is important to know that this way of living Christian life is not something which remains confined to small groups of believers. It has a link with the Universal Church. At Mass on Sundays and at our daily Rosary we normally pray the I Believe and therein we say, “I believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” These —  One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic — are the four marks of the Universal Church and when the group of neighbours live the fourfold relationship in their SCC, they realize in their neighbourhood, at the grassroots level, these marks of the Universal Church.

Let me explain ...

i. How neighbours living in a community become ONE. We profess that Baptism makes us all children of God and one family of God. So we have one God, one Faith, one Saviour and are one family (CCC 813-815). But it is only when we practically live that profession of faith among neighbours in close fellowship, irrespective of all the differences, that we really become ONE. 

ii. How neighbours reflecting together on the written words of Scripture become HOLY. Holiness is conforming oneself to God’s likeness (CCC 823-824). Words, whether written or spoken, have the power to touch, mould and transform our lives. When the Risen Lord, through the words of the Scripture, speaks to the innermost being of a person, God is at work in that person, through his living Word. When such a person shares this experience with others, they too are touched by God’s action in the human heart. Thus both become conformed to His image. This is HOLINESS: individuals living in a small community, seeing God at work in others and being drawn to become more and more like Him.

iii. How neighbours reaching out to the poor, the needy and the society at large become APOSTOLIC. The Apostles carried forward the mission of Jesus, one part of which is liberation from all bondages (CCC 857-864). Today this mission is realized by the Church i.e. by all of us. So when neighbours, empowered by their experience of Jesus, move out of their spiritual comfort zone to promote peace and justice, provide succour to the needy and witness to gospel values, they carry out the mission of the Apostles in action. They become APOSTOLIC.

iv. How neighbours living in communion become CATHOLIC. For us the Pope is our Head, the representative of Jesus, par excellence. Accepting his leadership means listening to his voice and submitting to his teaching. The Supreme Pastor thus becomes the visible sign of Unity. This repeats itself at every level in the Church, from the universal to the micro level    —- that of an SCC or a family. Acceptance of the Holy Father’s leadership over us and maintaining communion with the Head become, therefore, for us signs of our CATHOLICITY (CCC 830-856).

  So, the four marks of the Universal Church - One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic - find expression in the neighbourhood through SCCs; conversely, when the SCCs truly live their four characteristics, they become realizations of the Universal Church in that locality.

 

5.   There are some groups in our Diocese that have one or more of these characteristics mentioned above. Can we call them a Small Christian Community?

  To be a Small Christian Community a group needs to have all the four characteristics viz. be Neighbours, be centred on the Word of God, reach out in Action and maintain Communion with the Church and others. Traditionally, parish groups were formed with specific objectives and hence they had only one or more of these four characteristics. 

In practical terms …

i. People particularly devoted to Mary, our Blessed Mother, come together to promote Marian devotion. This is their objective. The Legion of Mary and the World Apostolate of Fatima are some of these groups, which meet regularly. As we know, their members come from every corner of the parish. So they are not neighbours. They may have all the other three characteristics of an SCC, but they lack the first characteristic. Such groups are called Associations (of the Faithful).

ii. Then we have groups whose members are Catholics — and may be even non-Catholics — who are seriously committed to fostering values (like peace, justice, reconciliation, etc.) and bringing opportunities to all. They do not necessarily have the Word of God as the guiding principle of their programme. Thus they lack the second characteristic of the SCC. Such groups are known as Social Action Groups.

iii. We have other groups that meet regularly and promote powerful God-experience. People belonging to such groups are really touched by God. In fact, this is their prime objective. But they do not necessarily move out into action. So they lack the third trait of an SCC. These are the Prayer Groups/Bible Study Groups.

iv. Finally, we have groups of believers who are not in genuine communion with the Catholic Church. They do not accept her authority or teaching. They lack the fourth trait of an SCC. These are the Sects.

Small Christian Communities lead us deeper into our Faith, promote relationships among neighbours and maintain relationship of these neighbours with the Universal Church. Formed this way, SCCs become indeed a Communion of Faith in Love. No wonder that SCCs are known as the “Basic Cells of the Church,” the “New Way of Being Church,” “A Church at the Grassroots,” “A Church in the Neighbourhood,”  “A Solid Starting Point for a New Society.”

At the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome, last October, I had the opportunity of making an intervention on behalf of the Bishops of our country, during which, among other things, I stated that the Church in India has opted for Small Christian Communities as her way of New Evangelization for the Transmission of Christian Faith in today’s context (XI General Congregation of the Synod, 15th Oct. 2012). 

 

6. Some Final Considerations

In spite of so many serious efforts being put in for over two decades in our Archdiocese, many elements of the Small Christian Community way of life are yet to be embodied in our daily living. SCCs, to a great extent, have remained a dream yet to be realized fully. But their relevance has not diminished and the Church in India remains committed to SCCs, an option which she had made, after a long process of reflection, with a view to renew her life and mission in today’s context. So let the National Convention of SCCs in November 2013 be a celebration of all the sustained efforts put in to promote SCCs during these past decades. And as we continue and redouble our efforts to transform our dream into reality, may this National Convention serve as a push towards it. With this in view, I am proposing three broad perspectives that we all need to embrace and act upon. These are:

i. Adopting a new Mindset: We are all living as a Church all these years. But we could also ‘be Church’ in another, perhaps a better, way. As we undertake this journey, we all need to adopt a new mindset. This may mean that we would need to leave behind our own comfort zones and some of our diehard habits, change our pattern of interacting only with those we are comfortable with and of gossiping in the neighbourhood, give up our superficial ways of Christian living and, perhaps, some objectionable relationships, revisit our legalistic approach to participation and our blind attachment to traditional practices. All this may have to be ‘erased’ from the hard discs of our subconscious. A radical change of this style of life is required. We have to open up to a New Mindset and a New Vision. 

ii. Building a new Leadership Style: We need a new style of leadership, both from the clergy and the laity, at all levels of functioning: a style of leadership that animates and creates opportunities, that trusts and entrusts matters over to others, a leadership that is ready to leave its working desk and move to the periphery where the actual action is — as our beloved Pope Francis has been constantly drawing our attention to — one that enables us to break ourselves in order to build others, a leadership that will make everyone, especially the poor, feel part of the parish and of God’s People; in brief, a leadership that is open to renewal brought in by the Church (cf. Statement of the Diocesan Synod — SDS 44, 79, 82).

iii. Charting a new Pastoral Approach: In all our work —  especially in our Church work —- it is of utmost importance that our Organizations and all of us strive to work in collaboration. In this regard, I earnestly wish that the promotion of SCCs in our Archdiocese does not remain the activity of just a single Diocesan Body. I would rather urge that all our diocesan Bodies, Movements, Associations, Institutions, Men and Women Religious,  Clergy and Lay Faithful wholeheartedly  work hand in hand in this huge task of promoting Small Christian Communities and all that it entails, thus paving the way for the Church of tomorrow.

Mary, our Mother, is a powerful heavenly intercessor for everyone who calls to her. She was also an excellent community facilitator, both during the earthly journey of Jesus and after his Resurrection. May she now intercede for the Church in this Archdiocese as we all strive to move into the Small Christian Communities Way of Being Church.

Blessed Joseph Vaz, the Patron of this Archdiocese, will always remain a pioneer, in his own right, of the ecclesial  ‘strategy’ of the Small Christian Community, having formed scores of them, already three centuries ago, in his effort to infuse life into a dying Church in Sri Lanka. Let us commend ourselves and the National Convention of Small Christian Communities to his protection and care.

I wish every one of you a grace-filled and a blessed Pastoral Year!

Archbishop’s House, Panjim, Goa, Feast of the Holy Trinity, May 26, 2013.

 

 

(+ Filipe Neri Ferrão)

Archbishop of Goa and Daman 

 

Golden Verse

1Korintkarank 7:38

Mhonnttôch aplê ankvar hoklê lagim logn zata to borem korta; ani logn zaina to odik borem korta.