Western Oregon Catholics are learning a different way to be the church. At parishes from Astoria to Ashland, a movement is underway to augment the rows Catholics sit in on Sundays with weekday circles of small communities.

“I want us to move from being stagnant believers to being dynamic disciples,” said Father John Henderson, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Tigard. “To grow the church, I am convinced we need to form these small communities.”

Large parishes like St. Anthony, St. Pius X in Northwest Portland and Our Lady of the Lake in Lake Oswego have piloted the transformation, helping parishioners form faith-based groups of about 10. It’s early, but parish leaders say the change is bearing fruit.

“People are taking their faith more seriously,” Father Henderson said. “They are going to church more. It is not about obligation. It is about a real change in their lives.”

‘We are sisters’

One small group of women has been meeting at St. Anthony Parish in Tigard for two decades. Seated at a round table, they read Scripture and spiritual books. With solid Catholic resources, the meetings are a mix of study and personal sharing. Sometimes the women view a video.

Individuals come and go as schedules dictate, but all grow in faith and candid relationship. The group has prayed some members through to the end of life.

“We are sisters,” said Melanie Coates, a longtime parish catechist who credits the group for bringing her to faith practice. “We have prayed for each other and we know each other’s joy and hidden pain.”

This is a deeper friendship than the usual, said Elise Shearer, sitting with the others in a quiet upstairs room at the parish office. Shearer knows that temptations come when it’s meeting time, but a sense of commitment keeps her coming and she’s glad.

One former member at first was angry at the church but left a dedicated Catholic.

“We help each other,” said Cindy Marchese, former religious education director at the parish. “People talk about hard things.”

“Then we rejoice in prayer,” said Kathy Alberque.

Marchese advised that small faith communities have an experienced leader who knows the ground rules for a good group: what is said is not to leave the room; listen instead of giving advice; avoid long tangents.

Transforming parish life

Last Lent, Archbishop Alexander Sample sent a letter to parish leaders urging them to help parishioners form small communities.

The idea is hardly new in Christianity. Small groups is how the church started. And in the first 70 years of the 20th century, American Catholicism was identified by its societies, smaller groupings that prayed together and shared a mission. Western Oregon had the Holy Names Society, the Legion of Mary, the Knights of Columbus and ethnic societies like the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

About 30 years ago, parishes in Oregon went through Renew, in which hundreds of small groups formed to help people enhance a personal relationship with Jesus. At the turn of the millennium came Disciples in Mission, in which small groups aimed to inflame individuals’ faith so they could in turn become evangelizers.

The current trend will not add programs or tasks, but aims to transform the way of being a parish.

“The idea is to get to the original vision of church,” said Tom Tomaszek, pastoral associate at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego. “That was small group gatherings in homes. They were one in mind and heart, gathering with one another and for one another.”

One woman started attending an Our Lady of the Lake small group in West Linn. She saw the meeting notice on Facebook and embraced it even though she is not yet a parishioner.

“Doing church this way teaches people a different sense of who we are and why we are,” said Tomaszek, who with wife Kimi hosts a small group at his home. He has observed members of small groups decide to take on service projects.

The groups may meet often during some seasons, such as Advent and Lent, then less frequently at other times. It’s up to the group, though once per month is seen as a minimum.

It can be simple

Groups can decide what they want to talk about, whether it’s parenting or papal encyclicals.

“These are people committed to growth in faith with a handful of others,” said Jason Kidd, director of the Office of Family Life for the archdiocese. “They are growing as disciples together.”

“The goals of small groups are to decentralize and personalize,” Kidd said.

Small groups can offer almost any format: all men, all women, mixed, couples, singles. They may draw people from a particular neighborhood. They may be moms, dads, empty nesters. There might even be a group for non-Catholic spouses of parishioners.

Kidd says Catholics should think broadly. Small groups of the past have focused on the intellectual — mostly Scripture and theology, which is fine. But Kidd suggests expanding the scope to include pastoral, human, and social areas of human life.

Small groups ought to have a facilitator, not a leader or expert in charge, Kidd said. “The facilitator organizes the when and where and moderates so all can speak.”

Groups can meet in church buildings, or even better, at kitchen tables and in living rooms. Members may share a meal. It can be simple, Kidd explains. There is no need to complicate matters.

A more open faith

The Catholic charismatic renewal has long known the power of small groups. The People of Praise, an ecumenical community that includes many Catholics, forms groups in neighborhoods, including North Portland.

“It lets you be with like-believing people so you affirm each other and lean on each other,” said Dick Safranski, a member of Holy Redeemer Parish and a member of People of Praise for 15 years. “It makes you wear your faith more openly.”

Connections come in all ways in the groups. For example, Safranski loans his pickup to anyone in the group who needs it.

Kidd said the first step is for parish leaders to have a conversation and then go to parishioners with a message: “It’s great to have you at Mass, but are you plugged into a small group yet? That is the next step of becoming a disciple.”

Easier on parishes

Parishes don’t need to invent anything. But they can use bulletins, websites and other communication tools to be a clearing house, listing available small groups and ways to join.

The small groups may reduce the number of big conferences and programs. Instead of a session on parenting that draws a group of 50 or 100, dozens of small groups could choose to focus on parenting using resources offered by the archdiocese or the parish.

“The big event makes us feel good, but the longevity of the slow, small group process is more fruitful in the long run,” Kidd explained.

Kidd tells the story of one parish that had many adult education sessions. The staff was burning out and there was no room to grow within church facilities. The parish decided to give parenting materials to small group leaders, who had access to more people than the parish could hold and who already had meeting times that worked for members. The parish even provided a stipend to pay for childcare during small group meetings.

Instead of a one-day extravaganza that may or may not change hearts, the small groups covered the topics deliberately and thoroughly.

“That was much more effective than the big event,” said Kidd. “When you have the small groups in place, they are there to function when needed.”

Deepening relationships

“It is part of our renovation as a parish,” said Father Henderson of St. Anthony in Tigard. “What we are going through is how do we deepen our relationships with each other and how do we deepen our relationship with Christ?”

Parish staff have attended trainings so they can in turn educate parishioners about facilitating small groups.

Though he believes the Eucharist really is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, to cite the Second Vatican Council, Father Henderson is convinced that millennials in particular want more than an hour or two of liturgy each Sunday. “We need to make the Eucharist the center of everything we do,” he said. “We need to help people know the Eucharist as the center of their lives.”

To help facilitate community thriving, and welcome people who might not otherwise come, St. Anthony opened a coffee shop on the parish grounds.

“The church is not growing. We have to start thinking outside the box,” said Father Henderson. “If we don’t, we are going to be in trouble later.”

‘Just necessary’

“I was once trying to live out faith but was doing it on my own and I found it discouraging,” said Sister Bernadette Wilson, a member of the Society of Mary who leads adult faith formation at St. Mary Parish in Corvallis. “There is power in praying together and participating in things together.”

Sister Bernadette thinks the small groups will be particularly helpful to new members of the church who want to form relationships and keep growing in faith.

The priests of the St. John Society and the Society of Mary specialize in reaching millennials and have for years used small groups to help. The little circles not only learn information, but pray together and share their lives.

In Corvallis, a handful of groups are going already. They started out with content from Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, a well-known writer and speaker. The hope is that intellectual discussions will offer a path to sharing the heart.

Sister Bernadette concluded, “In our post-Christian society, getting together with people who share your faith is just necessary.”