BLOOMFIELD – Small Christian Communities were first formed in the Archdiocese of Hartford 30 years ago under the leadership of the late Archbishop John Whealon. The program has flourished to the point that a combined dinner and anniversary celebration was held to celebrate their achievements.
An estimated 200 people turned out at the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary on Oct. 8 for that celebration. After a dinner, a program brought attendees up to date on a newer initiative that’s beginning to take root in a few Connecticut churches. It’s called Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP), or “chirp.”
“A small Christian community is a group of eight to 12 adults, men and women, who come together every week or two” to study the Gospel, said Brother Robert “Bob” Moriarty of the Society of Mary (Marianists), director of the Pastoral Department of Small Christian Communities for the archdiocese for the past 25 years. “They look to make connections between faith and everyday life.”
He explained that part of the evening was designed to introduce the Christ Renews His Parish retreat as a pathway to Small Christian Communities.
“They’re not ends in themselves. They’re about making connections, people looking at their lives through faith,” Brother Bob said.
He said the idea is to root CHRP within parishes and watch what develops. He gave special credit to St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, part of the Diocese of Bridgeport, the first church in the state to try CRHP.
St. Rose has reached out to parishes in the archdiocese, sending its experienced lay leaders to help them develop the 30-hour overnight retreats that are a key component of the CRHP process.
Brother Bob spoke about CRHP as a prelude to four speakers who would address the topic in more detail. It is a retreat format that originated in the Midwest and is seen, among other benefits, as creating a pathway to greater involvement in Small Christian Communities.
It is also seen as a way to reach out to Catholics in their 30s and 40s and draw them back into more active church participation in an energized and evangelical manner.
Michael Ronan is one of the CRHP retreat leaders at St. Rose of Lima, where the retreat has been conducted for 10 years now. He said the result has been new retreats and ministries as well as more overall participation in all aspects of church life.
“The CRHP experience … has helped us to love God and love one another,” Mr. Ronan said.
Participants also say that it enables them to feel a sense of encountering the living God and a spiritual awakening. They also get to know each other much better and form close friendships.
St. Vincent de Paul Parish in East Haven has participated in CRHP. Father Thomas Sievel, pastor, spoke about the experience. He said the center of any parish should be the Eucharist, and Small Christian Communities are a great way to promote this.
Father Sievel likes the fact that CRHP is an overnight retreat “done by the parish, in the parish, for the parish. It was truly an enriching experience” that reinforced “Christ as the living word” in participants.
Daniel Dionne talked about how his parish, St. Bartholomew in Manchester, has also tried CRHP. He directed its retreat team.
“I now believe I am a born-again Catholic,” he said. “This has been a powerful, life-changing and affirming experience.”
St. Bartholomew is twinned with St. Bridget Parish, also in Manchester, and Father Stephen Sledesky is pastor of both. One of the many benefits he finds in CRHP is that it teaches people how to connect religious topics to real-life experiences.
“This can only enrich our parish,” he said. “This has the potential to grow new Small Christian Communities within our parish.”
He also sees it as a way for younger Catholics to find their niche within his parish.
Archbishop Leonard Blair spoke of the many challenges to faith in today’s world and his excitement over the CHRP initiative.
“This is a tremendous encouragement to me,” he said. He encouraged those in attendance to “always invoke the gift of the Holy Spirit in all that we do.”