Images of the Future Church: TESTIMONIES

From the many replies, here are three on parish communities, and two on parish education.

From Paul McMahon -

Being a large parish of 4000 plus families and approximately 13,000 parishioners could at first glance lend itself to a place that is too big to intimately know others, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Community, more times than not, needs to be built intentionally. I worked in such a parish for many years but recently moved away for a new assignment. The governance model of this parish was intentionally set up so that seven different larger communities housed many smaller communities within. Fr. Patrick Brennan was the key person for this growth and our model was studied by churches the world over. We often had visitors from the US and abroad come to study the governance model that was built. The seven larger communities were liturgy, social justice, children’s education, adult education, teen and young adult education, operations and pastoral care. Within these seven larger communities were over 100 ministries that each built smaller family style units, not too dissimilar to the model from Guatemala.

I was the Director of the Adult and Teen communities (approximately 40 ministries) and within these we had vibrant smaller cells of parish life. Ideally children would begin in a faith class at ages 4 or 5 (Little Lambs, Adam’s Apples, etc). More often than not the dedicated parent and volunteer catechists of these small groups would stay with the children for years and develop a real family bond where prayer, community service, social outings and pastoral works would occur on a regular basis. Because confirmation was celebrated at the earliest in grade 10, it often meant than some young people were together in the same small group for 10 years, a monumental time of influence in the life of the young person. These groups sat together at weekly Mass, cooked for the homeless in the kitchen at our church, visited the sick together, collected food and clothes for the marginalized, mowed neighbor’s lawns, gathered in prayer when families were in crisis and met for weekly catechesis with dedicated adult and older teen catechists. At the very least the teens were in the same group for JH (years 7 and 8, then HS of 9 and 10). This meant, at the minimum, that most teens had a 4 year confirmation prep program although only 2 years prep (high school) was required. The bonds that grew out of these groups was remarkable and life changing. The testimony to this value was seen in the fact that post confirmation, some 50% at least of the confirmation teens returned voluntarily to become peer ministers in the weekly small groups, often with the catechist they had been with for years previous. The peer ministers were an invaluable asset to the small groups and were witnesses of faith in their own right, often giving witness talks and leading prayer themselves. These peers sat at Mass each week in a noticable “gang” right up the front of church. They were a living witness to the larger parish and a self-made PR spokespersons for all that is good and right with our young people in the world.

These teen small Christian communities (SCC’s) mirrored the adult model in the parish that saw over 1000 adults meeting weekly in homes, church and coffee shops for SCC meetings. I visited many SCC groups in my years at the parish and was amazed at the diversity of the members. I loved the men’s group who met monthly at the local Pub for lunch and fellowship! I joined them frequently.

At my home parish (which is different from the above parish where I work) I belonged to CFM, Christian Family Movement, a national model of small groups meeting in the homes. My wife and I really enjoyed the monthly prayer, discussion and hospitality that ensured. I will always remember being treated to meals delivered for weeks after our children were born, and delivering meals ourselves when members of our group also had babies. This parish had the largest CFM membership in the US, I believe with over 100 couples. It was great to make lifelong friends with like-minded Christian parents and families. Now that I live in Australia, I miss the CFM meetings.


From Mary Whiteside -

My apologies for being so slow to respond. I am the mother of three teenagers and I’m working long hours these days, so my time in front of the computer is limited! I think the best way for me to share my experience of community with you is to give you concrete examples of what goes on in our CFM group. Paul spoke about this at his home parish, and our parish has a unique version of it. Our group began about 17 years ago when I was expecting my first child. There had been a new emphasis on Small Christian Communities at our parish thanks to the work of Fr. Pat Brennan, our pastor at the time. My husband and I were looking for a small group that would include children. All the groups at that time were for adults only, meeting in homes. About five families came together to create a new model of CFM where families would meet at church together once a month; the children would be in the nursery during the actual faith sharing part of the program. The adults would discuss the topic of the day, using the Observe, Judge, Act model. After the meeting, families would gather together for snacks and visiting time. As time went on, the group grew and is now over 60 families strong. There are over 100 children that are part of it.

Our outreach activities include taking care of the grounds for our local crisis pregnancy center, making meals for PADS, collecting food for area pantries, creating cards for our troops and sending them care packages, doing Relay for Life together, building for Habitat for Humanity, packing food at Feed My Starving Children, providing lunch for the families of children with cancer at Ronald McDonald House in Chicago, creating and filling stockings for the homeless and delivering them to the Night Ministry in Chicago. Every single project involves the whole family.

The group is an amazing support system and one that is committed to living with Christ at the center. I’m so thankful to be part of it. Our group also has social outings and annual trips that we take together. Here are just a few things that have happened over the years that have given us the sense of community:

  • One of our members had a baby that was premature. It took one email and within a day we had meals set up for the family for 2 months.

  • One of the girls from the group showed up at their house with several bags of groceries and essentials right after they got home from the hospital. Prayers were flowing…

  • One of the teens in the group organized the Relay for Life Team for the group and another one of the teens organized a trip to Feed My Starving Children. The children are empowered and get involved early on. The Relay for Life teen was inspired by a few parents in the group who were hit with cancer and this was her response.

Our Pastor joins us once a year for a picnic and outdoor Mass for our community. We have created a “Faith Cluster” that came from the group. The children from the CFM community have their religious ed on Friday nights together, always beginning with praise and worship, and small prayer circles before breaking up by age. The prayer circles each have an adult and children of various ages. There are about 10 adults sharing the job of teaching/leading prayer circles. All are volunteering. Some have children in Catholic Schools who aren’t required to send their kids to CCD as we used to call it, but choose to send them and teach them because it is a great community of faith. The older children are prayer models for the younger children. Beautiful.

We also have a First Communion as a group (and by the way, all in the parish are welcome to join as long as they commit to being part of the CFM group that meets with parents). This is one of my favorite events of the year as a community. Everyone is involved. The siblings of the First Communicants do all of the readings and prayers, the children from the group who made their First Communion the year before set the Table for the new group, the families who do not have a First Communicant provide the hospitality after the mass. It’s beautiful. A few times we have had a baby born in the group shortly before the First Communion date and we have baptized our newest members at the First communion Mass. All of the First Communicants circle around the baby as he/she is being baptized, holding their own baptismal candles.

When I was caring for my mother full time at my house at the end of her life, my CFM friends would give me breaks and watch her for me so I could go to my children’s events at school.

We have a little girl in our group who suffers from Neurofibromatosis. In short, she has multiple brain tumors and is frequently at Children’s Memorial Hospital. She’s had many brain surgeries and lots of chemo. One of our group members organized a benefit where we all helped out to raise money to help the family pay for the treatments.

One of our group members had a husband with a traumatic brain injury due to a tumor/brain surgery. She had two young children at the time and she was caring for her husband. The whole group was there for her, helping her with anything she needed. When her husband died and she found herself to be a widow in her mid-forties, the group held her up and provided the funeral luncheon food for her, visited her, helped with her children, brought food….She is now the first single parent to be the leader of our large group.

I found out last spring that I had breast cancer and this group was amazing. My husband had taken so much time off work to attend doctor visits with me and since I had three surgeries pretty close together, I finally told him to just go back to work and I would get myself to and from doctor visits. I felt fine, but it is an emotional journey… Some of my CFM friends heard about this and when I got to my doctor visit, there they were. No way were they going to let me go alone. Community!!!! The families brought me meals all through my treatments and they were there for anything I needed.

Those are just some of the beautiful things that happen in our CFM community. I’ve never known such an amazing, giving, group of people in my life who truly are Christ to one another. I’m blessed to be part of this group.

From Mary Teresa Morgan –

I recall my 18 year experience of community in the Carmelite Monastery at South Dartmouth, MA, as one that journeyed through Ricoeur’s first naiveté, through devastation, to the second naïveté.

Through the years of my novitiate and young professed, I experienced community with a young woman’s idealism and the endless hope of possibility. As those possibilities became exhausted by diminishing events, I was elected prioress and my efforts to keep the community together became increasingly desperate. I sometimes think those efforts were Pelagian, but then remember the constancy of reaching so fiercely for a grace that was out of grasp.

I think it was Arthur Miller who said, “one day the house smelled of fresh baked bread, the next day it smelled of blood.” That is the icon of my experience. One day the house smelled of freshly baked bread, wafting through the corridors, perfuming the walls. The next day, March 10, 1985, the house smelled of fire and blood. That was the day when a visiting nun who was mentally unstable set fire to the Monastery. Because one of the fires was set on the boiler room where the gas pipes were, the place exploded leaving some firemen injured in its wake. I knew then that it was over and spent the next three years arranging for a canonical closing and looking for a place for the five remaining nuns. The seashore of our Monastery was strewn with rocks and it came to me that I had fallen upon the jagged edge of God.

There was no welcome mat for us in other Carmelite Monasteries. The card up my sleeve to secure a convent for the sisters was the monies from the sale of our ocean front Monastery (we owned it) and the fact that the proceeds would be divided equally among the Carmels who received them. As other Carmelite nuns came through our Monastery writing down what they could take, I felt I was serving up my life in a platter.

I shook the dust off my sandals and forged a new life for myself. I left New England for Florida because the memories were so searing. I studied theology. In Miami, I met and married Robert. My 24 years with him have been a rich experience of community. Marriage is the paradigmatic sacrament of the Trinity. It has truly been so for us. But with a completely different perspective than the community of my first naïveté.


from Mary Whiteside -

Our parish has a very active adult faith community. We regularly host excellent speakers through our Catholic Scripture Study program. In the last few months we have had speakers on topics such as “Is This the Church Jesus Intended? The Four Gospels on the Reign of God” with Fr. Pat Brennan and Ms. Dawn Mayer, “The Human Jesus” with Jerry Leitner, “Teaching in Parables” with Fr. Robert Schoenstene, “Women of Scripture” with Friar John-Paul Cafiero, and later this month we will have a webcast presentation with Richard Rohr on Franciscan Mysticism.

We have also had programs of interest for adults that are not part of our scripture study program… We had Dr. Jim Healy out to speak on “being Married and Staying Engaged”, Friar Johnpaul Cafiero presented a retreat “The Spiritual Journey: Reflections on the Wizard of Oz”, and Fr. Jim Halstead from DePaul University came out to speak on “Catholicism, Catholics, and Issues around Homosexuality.”

We also have ongoing Bible Study groups, and a program called Bible Journey which is a one year program of Bible Study. This year the group is studying Acts and the early church. Our teacher this year is Dr. Jim Papandrea. Adult Faith also has an active Young Adult group and a group for singles over 40.

I am on staff in the Adult Faith Office overseeing all of our wedding and marriage ministries as well as serving as support to our Bible Ministries and RCIA program.
We find that people are hungry for this type of learning. We brought in 175 people to our program about exploring if this is the church Jesus intende.


from Maria Teresa Morgan -

My husband and I have been members of St John Neumann Parish in Miami, Florida, for twenty years. The parish has a long and rich tradition of encouraging lay ministers to participate in the building of the faith community. Currently about a hundred ministries are listed in the parish directory.

About five years ago, our pastor convened a “think tank” to discuss needs assessment, ministries and future plans for the parish. Questionnaires were sent to all members of the parish regarding issues such as existing programs and projections. I was invited to be a part of this committee and one of the issues we discussed was the need for a formal adult formation program in the parish. As a result of these meetings the Parish Pastoral Institute was born. This is a two year formation for Pastoral Lay Ministers. The goal of this program is the formation of lay men and women who desire to grow in their understanding of their Catholic identity. Most of the participants are either involved in ministry or desire to be involved in a specific ministry at the completion of this program. Some are developing new ministries that respond to needs that arise out of specific circumstances such as the economic downturn and job losses that have affected many families in the parish.

The program is composed of various units covering subjects such as the Scriptures, Sacraments, Catholic Social Doctrine, Formation of Moral Conscience, Human Development, Church History, and various others. The program is parish based and members of surrounding parishes from the South Dade area are invited to join. The presenters are drawn from professionals in the specific fields that are covered in the various units. The director and presenters in the program give of their time on a volunteer basis.

As to your question regarding how this program relates to evangelization, I believe that there is a hunger on the part of adults to delve into a deeper understanding of their faith. Studies have shown that the field of adult Christian formation is the most neglected in parishes. While there are short term programs, such as a series of lectures, that are offered in numerous parishes, a formal, two year adult Catholic formation program fulfills a need for an ongoing journey into the richness of our Catholic tradition.