Small Groups, Big Steps

June 26, 2003
Small Groups, Big Steps
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Guided Bible sharing in RENEW leads to deeper, richer faith

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20

A new parishioner at Blessed Sacrament Church, Marie Chesnick was searching for a way to refresh her faith and meet fellow parishioners when she heard of a spiritual enrichment program called RENEW. Not knowing what to expect she signed up for one of the program’s small faith sharing groups. What she found opened up a whole new world of spirituality and fellowship with other believers. That was over a decade ago. When RENEW started up again at Blessed Sacrament Church last year, Chesnick came back to join and to encourage other parishioners to get involved. “RENEW is very moving. You feel such an energy,” said Chesnick. “I want everyone in the parish to experience the power of RENEW.”

RENEW is different from a Bible study group, or a weekend stay at a retreat house that some might associate with achieving spiritual growth. RENEW is a thorough spiritual renewal and evangelization process designed for today’s parish life, said Sister Lillian Farrell, IHM, staff consultant to RENEW at St. Ambrose Church in Endicott. “Parishioners are busy and thirsty for God, for life in all its fullness,” stated Sister Lillian. “Participation in RENEW will be time well spent. It is a make over for your soul.”

Founded by Monsignors Tom Kleissler and Tom Ivory in 1976 in the Archdiocese of Newark, RENEW International today is in use, in varying forms, in 250 dioceses and 13,000 parishes around the globe. Following a period of preparation, parishes make a three-year commitment to RENEW. Parishioners who sign up for RENEW join a small group that meets over a three-year cycle divided into five, six-week sessions.

Though it takes place over three years, RENEW is not signing away three years of one’s life, laughed Sister Lillian. “We do not want parishioners who are hesitant to join because of the commitment. RENEW goes by weekly sessions that work around an individual’s needs. We try to accommodate you,” Sister Lillian said.

For parishioners who decided to experience RENEW and who have stayed with it, RENEW proved to be a fulfilling experience. What makes it so unique is that it employs small parish communities, comprised of eight to 12 parishioners, who meet to share and grow in their faith. These intimate communities read assigned scriptures, pray together and share faith experiences according to listed questions and activities. The small groups are the perfect size to allow people to feel comfortable sharing and to ignite spiritual growth. “The heart of RENEW,” Chesnick said, “is the small parish communities. We are welcoming each other into the group not as parishioners, but as friends. Within this context, people begin to freely talk about their faith and how it affects their personal life.”

The small community atmosphere in the RENEW program recognizes that Jesus told His followers to gather together to build and sustain their faith, rather than to isolate themselves. Small faith sharing communities are becoming more a part of parish life, said Father Charles Currie, pastor of St. Ambrose Church, whose parish will begin RENEW in September. “If you think about it, we are always in small groups – in families, at work. It makes sense to share our faith in this small group structure,” explained Father Currie.

Faith sharing can be difficult at times. Although it is easy to practice faith –– by devoutly attending Mass or praying daily –– it can often be challenging for Catholics to live out their faith. People might be reluctant to share their beliefs with others for fear that they might be thought of as strange or “preaching their faith.” According to Sister Lillian, RENEW members have an advantage because they can talk about faith among friends. “It is not always socially acceptable for Catholics to share our faith,” noted Sister Lillian. “RENEW provides a safe, comfortable environment for Catholics to come together and grow in their faith.”

Each person of the small group communities has something different to bring to the spiritual table. In turn, participants often inspire each other and stimulate conversation. Janet McCormack, of Blessed Sacrament Church, noticed that participants in her small group often draw from each other to elaborate on personal experiences and deepen their faith. McCormack recalled one member of her small group community who would faithfully attend meetings but not talk. Then one weekend, someone in the group triggered an old childhood memory within the woman. Now, she is an avid contributor. McCormack said that the entire group shared in the breakthrough. “The whole group was so delighted,” McCormack said. “But this is the kind of effect RENEW has. Although we do not force anyone to talk, people tend to feed off one another. It trickles down.”

The themes of the five sessions of RENEW are drawn from significant events and from Christian spirituality, such as the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. With the way RENEW is structured, even people who do not consider themselves deeply religious or frequent Bible readers can still elaborate on personal experiences based on the topics. Suzanne Reardon, of St. Ambrose Church, noted that some people might have the misconception that the Bible, written in a totally different time and culture, cannot be applied to their lives. “During small group discussions, the scripture passages are brought into modern times and applied to our lives. It’s not too hard to relate to something that happened back then because they were people just like us –– Jesus had bad days too,” explained Reardon. Be it the sense of community, the support group members provide for each other, or the spiritual growth that takes place –– something about RENEW has caught on. “People just love it,” said McCormack.

That is what Sophia Penna, parishioner at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Binghamton, is hoping for in her parish. As a core committee member, for the past six months, she, and a team of five other core committee members have been hard at work helping to get the word out to parishioners about St. Mary’s RENEW kickoff in late September. “”The core committee is like the sun of RENEW. Groups and ideas that spring from it are like the sun’s rays, giving energy to RENEW,” said Penna. One of these “rays” that Penna refers to is the invitational ministry which helps to organize information nights and sign-up times for interested parishioners. The invitational ministry also works to target specific age groups. Penna has been particularly reaching out to confirmation and religious education classes at St. Mary’s. “Younger people are the key. They will continue what we are starting with RENEW and carry it into the future,” stated Penna, adding that, so far, she has gotten a good response from parishioners who are enthusiastic about the program.

The core committee at St. Ambrose has also made efforts to reach out to an array of parishioners. The invitational ministry recently contacted nursing homes to invite senior citizens to join RENEW. There are even plans in the works to hold some of the RENEW sessions in nursing homes in order to better accommodate the elderly. “Diversity in your small group makes faith sharing so beautiful,” said John Desimone, who along with his wife Evelyn, is on the core committee at St. Mary’s. “Everyone has lived out a different faith experience that will give them something new to offer.” With a decline in the number of priests, parishioners recognize RENEW as a valuable tool for lay people to help minister in the church. RENEW helps participants to discover the powerful gifts and riches they have as Christians, and opens up doors for them to share those gifts and riches with others, said Sister Lillian.

McCormack said that her small faith community became more active in the parish. They made a commitment to collect items for the children’s pantry at Blessed Sacrament Church and collected clothing for the local Catholic Charities. Joseph Brown had his first RENEW experience in 1984 at St. Ambrose. As he began finding his way to God and the Scriptures, Brown said that God led him on a spiritual journey. Following RENEW, he completed the Formation for Ministry Program, being commissioned as a lay minister in pastoral care in 1991. He has also visited the homebound and is presently involved in jail ministry in the Southern Tier. “As I grew in my faith, God became prominent in my life,” Brown said. “He led me down a path that became exciting.” The bonding that takes place with RENEW, both in the small groups and the parish at large, is something that will affect the participants long after the program has ended. While parishioners might recognize one another from Sunday Mass, RENEW lets them sit down and get to know one another on an intimate level –– finally putting a name and story to the face.

“At RENEW, you meet the people that you see each weekend at church and develop a relationship with them,” pointed out Desimone. “You also meet fresh new faces that you have never seen before. It is a transforming experience.” McCormack and the members of her small group enjoy RENEW so much that when this session wraps up next month, they plan to continue meeting. “The parishioners in my RENEW group have developed such a bond and energy that we want to keep it going,” McCormack said. “RENEW is so much more than I expected. I hope that it gains this kind of momentum in the entire parish.”

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