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Lay groups inspire communal change

Small Christian Communities of concerned people fill important gaps

  • CM Paul, Kolkata
  • India
  • February 10, 2012
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A tribal woman, Maya Xalxo, is leading a peaceful movement to eradicate alcoholism from her village. In the first year alone, Maya and her women’s group succeeded in eradicating 60 percent of alcohol consumption, and she is confident that in the near future, the men in the village will give up liquor altogether.

Ramesh Das is a school teacher. He spends his free time giving weekly coaching classes to the tenth standard students of his housing complex who are weak in maths. Of course, he charges no tuition fees.

Shalini Mitra is a corporate housewife. Her husband is manager at a leading BPO. Shalini finds time to take spoken English classes for girls who attend a madrassa. Her class room is her husband’s car park.

One thing common among Maya, Ramesh and Shalini is that they are all members of the Small Christian Community (SCC). They are inspired by the Word of God in their weekly meetings to get involved in their own way to help bring change to their neighborhoods.

The SCC movement is one of the strategies developed in recent years to renew Christian faith. It originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s (post Vatican II period) and sprang up spontaneously throughout the world.

Almost everywhere, SCCs were mostly used to overcome pastoral crises caused by hundreds of priests leaving the ministry. In these places, the faithful were compelled to live on the Word of God without the comfort of the sacraments. Gospel sharing was the main agenda of SCCs, which led them to live the Word of God by engaging in social activities that would promote human rights and social welfare.

Though it began with concerned lay people, it was priests and religious who helped the spread of SCCs. In the past three decades, it is claimed that SCCs brought about a qualitative sea change in the faith life of the people.

An SCC generally consists of 15 to 20 families. They get together once or twice a week to hear the Word of God, to share their problems in common and to solve those problems through the inspiration of the gospel. They share their experiences based on the Word of God read during the meeting, create their own prayers and choose a Word of Life to inspire their actions.

They further ask what the Lord is telling them through the different members in the group and decide as a group what their tasks should be in order to translate the Word of Life chosen into action.

Generally there is no priest among SSC members, but priests could be present as guides and as moral teachers, and take part in the sharing just as any other member. Bishops, priests, religious when present in the SCC share just as any other member. In this new Christian community structure, the priest is not by right or nature the direct coordinator of each community, but rather the general coordinator of other ecclesial ministries at the parish level.

The Asian bishops in their meeting in Bandung in 1990 said, “The future Church in Asia will be a Communion of Communities, where clergy, religious and laity will live and work with one another as brothers and sisters.”

In this way the parish gradually evolves to the level of coordination of the different services available at the grassroots level. The diocese is responsible for the broader organization and coordination of this interchange of services.

In the Indian SCC scenario, it is to be noted that some individuals like Bishop Bosco Penha of Mumbai and Fr MJ Edwin of Kottar have rendered yeoman service to the birth and growth of SCC. In Kolkata, Dominic Azavedo played a major role to form the “Christ the King Park Circus model” of SCCs.

The SCC National Service Team (NST) members do not approve of this model on two counts. Firstly, they allege the CKPC model is based on language group and not neighborhood group. The NST insists that SCCs are basically neighborhood groups.

Secondly, the CKPC model does not translate the Word of God into action and leaves it as a prayer group doing some work once a year. Thus, two essential marks of SCCs are missing in the CPKC model.

The rest of Bengal region, including West Bengal and Sikkim, they say, follow strictly the NST guidelines.

Azavedo is also instrumental in forming the CKPC model SCCs groups in northeast India, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh.

Though the first SCC seminar was held in Bangalore way back in 1981, the Indian bishops did not show much interest in the emergence of the groups. In 1989, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s Commission for Laity took up SCC as the main thrust of its work. Twenty years ago, in 1992, the CBCI adopted SCC as a model for the Church in India to address the rising social problems the Indian church faced.

In its Final Statement, the 1992 CBCI Assembly said, “The parish/diocese, perceived as a community of believers, where all sections of the people of God gather in small groups to plan, decide and execute various activities of the Church, and animated by non-dominating leaders, is perceived as the best solution to tackle these problems.”

Today, many dioceses in India have accepted SCC theoretically and found its place in well-articulated vision and mission statements, circulars and pastoral letters.  However the practical acceptance of the reality of SCC would mean that the structures, procedures and policies that are at work in the local Church take into account the reality of the existence of SCC in creative and newer ways.

Decision making and consultation in the local Church need to be streamlined through SCC. Ministries and services need to be carried out through these communities. The Church in India has streamlined her services through various commissions which have their structures at the national, regional, diocesan, deanery and parish levels.  These commissions need to recognize the existence of the small neighborhood communities and function through them while attempting to effectively reach every believer.

The SCC in the Bengal-Sikkim region is organized both at the grassroots level of the parish, and spills over to deanery and diocesan levels. There are about 1,500 SCC units in Bengal-Sikkim region. The NST hopes to double the number of units by 2020. There are already 100,000 SCC groups in India.
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