By Vincent Mwakhwawa
After completing my two year master’s program in Pastoral Theology in Nairobi, Kenya in June 2012, I went for a two months holiday in the United Kingdom. I was invited by a friend staying and working in England. Taking advantage of the holiday, I conducted research interviews (meetings) in the Archdiocese of Westminster in London. The main aims of the research interviews were:
(a) To learn more about SCCs in the Archdiocese of Westminster.
(b) To find out what they are doing to sustain and encourage SCCs.
(c) To get an opportunity of participating in a SCC meeting and then interview one Christian and a parish priest.
Before going for the research in Westminster Archdiocese, Fr. Joseph Healey introduced me to Dr. Mark Nash, a team member at the Agency for Evangelisation, the office that is responsible for SCCs as a means of evangelization. This report, therefore, is based on the interview and discussion that I had with Dr. Mark Nash. I did not have the chance to participate in SCC meeting because it was summer time, SCCs do not meet because many people go for summer holiday. As such, I could not find an opportunity to interview a parishioner or a parish priest where I could have attended the SCC meeting.
2. Existence of Small Communities in the Archdiocese.
In the interview, Dr. Mark Nash confirmed the existence of small communities which are a type or category of prayer groups as described by Joseph Healey in his new book Building the Church as Family of God: Evaluation of Small Christian Communities in Eastern Africa. He said that there are many parishes that have these groups where Christians meet in houses for prayers and reflection on the Word of God and the Church’s doctrine. Since their establishment in 2002 by Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, these groups have brought Christians together especially in renewing their faith through sharing the Word of God and praying together. The prayer groups are not in all parishes but in some parishes. However, these groups do not meet throughout the year, rather, they meet every week in the autumn (Advent) and Lenten seasons. In the other seasons of the year, for instance, in summer, many people go for holidays. In January (at the beginning of the year) many parishes are busy preparing for the sacrament of confirmation.
3. Successes of Small Communities.
According to Dr. Mark, despite the fact that these small communities are not in all parishes, in the parishes where they exist they are a force that help Christians to renew their faith and bring communion of believers. This, for him, is a major success of these groups. This is evidenced by the Christians’ feedback in expressing the wish to be getting the resource books in time and their eager longing to do something more in the Advent and Lent seasons. This shows that Christians value small community prayer meetings and are helped spiritually by the activities in their Small Christian Communities.
These resource booklets that are used by Christians in small communities and also for their daily meditations (and prayers) are produced by the Archdiocese of Westminster. The resource booklets are not tied to a particular time of the year and are ideal for groups who meet together. Some of the resource-booklets produced and used are: “Your Kingdom Come” — 2009; “Hail Mary Full of Grace” — 2011; “A Foretaste of Heaven” — 2011; “Sparks of Light” – 2012. These booklets are very helpful in assisting Christians to make daily personal meditations and group reflections. Such resource booklets are very important because apart from helping people to pray, they also help in catechising people on different topics of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That is why the topic of the booklet is reflected in the different themes and lessons contained in the booklet.
For instance, this year’s Lent resource booklet is “Sparks of Light,” produced on 22 February 2012. The Archbishop of Westminster, Most Reverend Vincent Nichols in his foreword, explains the topic of this booklet by writing that “This resource takes its name from the words of Blessed Pope John Paul XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council: ‘Every believer in this world must be a spark of light, a core of love, life-giving leaven in the mass: and the more he is so, the more he will live, in his innermost depths, in communion with God.’ Thus in this booklet, the lives of four modern saints have been presented (St. Gianna Molla, St. David Roldan-Lara, St. Joseph Bakhita and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati). The aim is that the life of these saints should help Christians to appreciate that saintly living is for the present Christians as it has been for anyone, and that Christians (participants in SCCs) should explore how the seeming ordinariness of daily living can be an effective agent, a spark of light, in the Church’s mission today.”
This means that from the booklet Christians will learn about the lives of some saints and, having reflected, they will try to imitate them, living their everyday lives as good people. In this booklet there are six sessions that teach about human virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) and theological virtues (faith, home and love) according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. These virtues are explained though the life of a saint. Scripture passages and reflection are also given, reflecting the themes of the respective session.
There is also a part in the booklet that has daily prayers taken from the Divine Office that Christians are invited to use. All these contents in this resource book can help Christians to nourish their faith through the catechetical material to and grow in their spiritual and virtuous life through the prayers included in the booklet. Certainly, using this booklet, every reader (Christian) will be challenged to renew his or her faith and practice the virtues given through the lives of the modern saints.
These resource booklets that are produced every year and not tied to a particular period of the year are a very big success for the Archdiocese of Westminster in sustaining and revitalizing the existing SCCs and are also used in some other dioceses in the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland. Through the resource book there is also a common approach in the whole diocese as regards the content for meditations and the format used. This is what is lacking in my diocese – the Archdiocese of Lilongwe, Malawi.
4. Challenges of Small Christian Communities.
Dr Mark Nash outlined the following challenges:
(a) The major challenge is poor participation of Christians in small communities. Dr. Nash said that in many parishes, prayer meetings are attended by the few usual people. Other Christians do not attend these meetings.
(b) The youth do not attend these prayer groups. In actual fact, Dr. Nash said that most of the people attending meeting for prayer groups are retired people.
(c) Some parish priests do not encourage these small communities. They look at such small communities as “none of my business.”
(d) The prevailing culture in London is one of each person living his or her life with a limited number of contacts. There is little sense of community life among many people.
(e) People are busy with work in order to earn a living in this metropolis. Thus, with the different working schedules it is difficult for them to find time to be with their fellow Christians for group prayers.
5. Future Plans.
Despite the challenges outlined above, the Agency for Evangelisation is busy finding ways of improving the situation. Dr. Nash said that they will continue producing the resource booklets for the prayer groups. He also said that he will work hard to sensitize priests on the need of encouraging or revitalising the prayer groups.
6. My Recommendations.
Having discussed and learnt a lot from the Archdiocese of Westminster (from Dr. Mark Nash), I suggest the following:
6.1. For the Archdiocese of Lilongwe
(a) The Archdiocese of Lilongwe should study the resource books of Westminster Archdiocese and make an effort to produce a SCC resource book relevant to the situation of Lilongwe that should be used in all SCCs of the Archdiocese of Lilongwe.
(b) The Archdiocese of Lilongwe should pay attention to the city parishes and conduct research for city parishes (or use the findings and suggestions made in the thesis research done by Fr. Vincent Mwakhwawa of Lilongwe Archdiocese) in order to address the poor participation of the laity in SCCs in the city.
6.2. For the Archdiocese of Westminster
(a) It will be very important to find out how the Archdiocese can live and implement the ecclesiology of communion as proposed by Vatican Council II – which the Diocese of Westminster has already started planning for as part of the celebration of 50 years of Vatican Council II as proposed by the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI.
(b) Priests should be encouraged to support these small groups – taking advantage of the Year of Faith –as the Church of England and Wales is already planning.
(c) To conduct research on these Small Communities so as to hear from the laity themselves and the priests on how they see these small communities and how to revitalise them.
(d) To read my thesis and the other AMECEA documents/publications on Small Christian Communities so that they can learn something from AMECEA.
From the meeting with Dr. Mark Nash I learned a lot. Certainly other African dioceses can learn something from London that has many cultures meeting in this city. One thing we should remember is that whether in Africa or Europe, our cities are growing, Christians in the cities are becoming much busier and multiculturalism is here to stay. Thus there is a need as pastoral agents to conduct research on the pastoral challenges existing in our cities so that we can timely and strategically respond to them. Of course one of my aims to participate in the small community meeting and interview a parishioner (and a parish priest) was not achieved. It is my prayer and plan that next time, with prior proper arrangements, I will have the opportunity to participate in the prayer group meeting so that I learn something more by being present and being part of the participants.
Father Vincent Mwakhwawa is a diocesan priest in Lilongwe Archdiocese, Malawi. He has a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Theology from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Nairobi, Kenya in 2012. Presently he is teaching at St. Anthony’s Kachebere Philosophy Seminary, Mchinji, Malawi. He was ordained a priest on12 July, 2003. Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Agency of Evangelisation, Sparks of Light (London: WRCDT, 2012), p. 4
 Agency of Evangelisation, Sparks of Light (London: WRCDT, 2012), p. 3