From the Archives: Home Churches Attract Diverse Worshippers by Marci Alborghetti

As part of an effort to communicate the history and mission of Today’s American Catholic, we will be periodically sharing features from past issues in a series we call “From the Archives.” This month, we feature Marci Alborghetti’s article on the home-church movement from our April 1995 issue. In these times of quarantine and church closures, the experiences of small-church communities documented here take on a new relevance—Ed.

Proponents say that it’s modeled on the original, and by that they don’t mean St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Those who have chosen to participate in “home church” or “intentional church” claim that this form of worship is based on the church that Christ actually founded, one in which there is true community worship occurring within the homes of believers. In order to accommodate larger groups, the home churches may find alternative locations like a hall, or in the case of Connecticut’s Mystic Pilgrims, an amenable business or organization that will lend a hall or assembly room. The groups can range from as small as six or seven to as large as nearly 100, depending upon the level of interest, and sadly, the degree of dissatisfaction with local traditional worship communities.

Ironically, this back-to-basics movement is apparently the result of rebellion against all the accoutrements (read: manmade rules and moral dictates) the Catholic Church has picked up along the way over the past 2,000 years or so. Although most members of a small group meeting in central Connecticut were once Catholic, John Walsh is the only one who still belongs to a parish. But Walsh, a member of Hartford’s St. Patrick/St. Anthony parish, does not judge those in his home church group who have abandoned traditional parishes. In fact he understands.

“People in our group have some legitimate problems with the church in the regular parish model,” Walsh said. “Some feel that the church is exclusive when it should include all and some object to what they call ‘the smells and bells,’ or all the pomp and incense rigamarole. Others disagree with the way the church officially treats issues like homosexuality, women participating more fully, and married priests.

“Now, these are all things that are on the minds of most liberal Catholics, and most are bothered by these issues. It’s the same for us in the group in that we take some solace in what we have built together, but there still is frustration with the church and the rigid rules of the structured church.”

Structure is not a big component of the home church that Walsh attends with other area residents like Bob and Marilyn McNally and Ann Percival. Because they are a relatively small home church group, they have managed to avoid the need for rigid structure, emphasizing instead spontaneity and dialogue. Walsh acknowledges that their group has undergone an evolutionary process, and now follows a fairly regular routine, although he said, “I think one of the best things about our meetings is the great dialogue that characterizes our time together. At first, the amount of quiet time during that period of our time together was longer as we came to know and trust each other, but that trust developed quickly. It’s been an experimental, evolutionary process, but the bond between the people is the one thing that hasn’t changed.”

The group, which began nearly two years ago, meets on the second and fourth Sundays of each month, generally at the McNally’s home, although it can rotate. Usually, about six or seven regular members attend, and that occasionally changes since the group is open to new members or those interested in alternative worship. Each member usually brings some food, since the group breaks bread together and continues conversation after the worship portion of the gathering. The morning usually follows a pattern of readings that normally correspond to those of the church calendar, discussion, quiet time, and a period of giving thanks for individual intentions.

Walsh believes that this two to two-and-a-half-hour worship allows for a great deal of individual participation and expression, something that is lacking, at least to the same degree, in traditional parish worship. “You get unique perceptions because everyone really shares their thoughts and feelings. Everyone’s on their own personal faith journey, and that is reflected in the reactions we share. Too often, people go to church, hear the readings, go home and forget them. But here they tend to be more meaningful because we really discuss them. And the time we share breaking bread afterwards tends to be an extension of those very spiritual conversations.”

However, members of the Hartford-area group do not consider their home church a panacea, and, as Walsh observed, all are on their own seeking journey. Although he is the only one who regularly attends another parish, most members view the home church as a supplement to their faith process, and some, like Ann Percival, are exploring several alternatives. She regularly attends services offered through Dignity as well as the Unitarian Universalist Church, a schedule which she admits can be a bit daunting at times.

“Admittedly, I’m looking for an alternative that can provide me with a combination of what I get by going to all three. And, it would be nice to get all that I need from one community. . . . It certainly would be easier,” she said and laughed. Percival said it can be difficult to attend all the services since they sometimes conflict with each other, and, sometimes, it can be plain exhausting.

Still, Percival sticks with it because she considers it part of her own faith journey. Although she doesn’t blame the Catholic Church for her own need to search, she said she did not find much of what she needed in that forum. “I find when I go to a Catholic service, I need to turn my brain off. I like the ritual, but I disagree with some of the dogma,” she explained, and added that her various worship venues offer her different values.

“I find that Dignity gives me what the church could give me, but Dignity is much more inclusive, and it feeds my need for community and ritual. The Unitarian experience feeds my head because they believe that any form of worship is acceptable,” she observed, and concluded, “the home church is the small group sharing that helps me integrate. The most valuable part of home church is that we look at the readings and ask ourselves, ‘What is it going to cost me?’ In other words, we try to apply the words to our daily life.”

Marilyn McNally is basically happy with her home church experience, and she considers it her only alternative at this time. Unlike Percival, she feels that other organized religions offer no answers and can, in fact, exhibit some of the same problems that led her to reject church services. “I run an ecumenical group in connection with the Gathering Place, so I hear about other religions, but I don’t think it’s the answer for me,” she said. “At first I went to Dignity services because I felt that both women and gays are in the same boat in the church in that we are not allowed to be full members.

“But I finally decided to leave the traditional church when one of my daughters, who was sitting next to me during Mass, turned to me and asked, ‘With all your involvement in this parish, why aren’t you on that altar?’ I decided then that, as a woman, I didn’t want to pass this exclusion on to my daughters.” However, she acknowledges that her two daughters do not attend home church, and McNally still wants her youngest child to be confirmed. “The Catholic Church hasn’t cornered the market on hierarchy, and I think we’re all open in that we’re searching for an alternative that doesn’t have such a strong hierarchal component.”

The Mystic Pilgrims do not consider themselves particularly hierarchal, although they need to be somewhat more organized and structured since they have a much larger group of devotees. The group was founded in 1986 and is probably the oldest congregation of its kind in Connecticut. Member Neil Kleupfel attributed the genesis of the pilgrims from the parish of St. Patrick’s as being from “frustration with a local pastor who couldn’t identify with a certain group of parishioners.

“We had developed a more vibrant guitar Mass which the tourists (Mystic is a hot spot, particularly in the summer) loved, the parishioners enjoyed and our former pastor had supported. We had an active parish council and our new pastor was uncomfortable with this particular Mass and the support, so he stopped our Mass in the parish center and ordered us back to the church. Frankly, we felt disenfranchised, and a group of us decided to meet on Sundays and hold our own services. We didn’t know exactly how to do it, but we ended up starting our own small faith community with 35 to 40 people.”

While the core group remains basically the same, numbers can double during the holiday seasons. Accordingly the group extends its biweekly services to meet weekly during Advent and Lent. Kleupfel estimates that the group, which is officially ecumenical, is comprised of about 80 percent Catholics who feel rejected by the church. Like the McNallys, many of them still want their children to receive the sacraments, so they may affiliate with another local parish on alternate Sundays, an option that some use to continue to receive sacraments as well. “For some of us, the Pilgrim experience is enough, and for others, an affiliation with another parish meets their needs. We also occasionally break bread together in an experience we call agape to signify sharing and love.”

Kleupfel said this notion of Christian agape forms the basis for the Mystic Pilgrims who meet in a space provided by Twenty-Third Publications. The space itself, he said, is an example of caring and has come to be dubbed the “warehouse of God’s love.” He added that during the pilgrims’ service, “the kiss of peace goes on indefinitely,” and, unlike the Hartford-area small group, “the Pilgrim small group experience is the primary worship experience for our members, and affiliations with other parishes are more often just a supplement.”

In keeping with the agape philosophy, Kleupfel has nothing negative to say about the church or the local parishes. He simply notes that “the local Catholics are kindly toward us, although perhaps somewhat confused about our need to break away, and as far as the hierarchy, well, we’ve studiously ignored any commentary they might have!” He believes that the Pilgrims have retained all the good things they developed as a group at St. Patrick’s, and have gone a few better as well. He explained, “We have been blessed in that we have the prime music group that we had at St. Patrick’s, and all our presiders are volunteers from within the group. And, unlike many parishes where women do most of the planning and work, but can’t fully participate, our presiding and our workload is split 50-50 by gender. Here, men are responsible for their own faith development, and I think that’s unusual.”

In view of the fact that money and requests for it are often a sore spot in Catholic parishes, Kleupfel is also proud of how the Pilgrims handle the financial end of things. “We’ve built this up with absolutely no expense,” he explained. “All are volunteers; we pay no rent; we bring our own table and chairs, and we all chipped in for a big coffee pot! We are empowered Christians, much like the earliest Christian experience, and if anyone needs proof that this can work without ordained leadership, we are it!”

When the Pilgrims do deal with money, it’s mostly to give it away. Kleupfel said that, since there are no expenses, the group holds regular collections in order to donate to community charities. He said that the small group offers over $600 a month. Additionally, the group collected enough to bring Christmas to over 15 local families with children last year.

Those participating in home churches do so because they have been frustrated or rejected by their traditional Catholic church, and each member perceives this alternative in a different way. But whether home churching is a supplement to the member’s faith journey or a comprehensive, community-based form of worship, all agree that it has become a vital component of both individual and group spirituality by providing the kind of welcoming acceptance and levels of participation that the Catholic Church will not.

Marci Alborghetti is the author of several books, including Prayer Power: How to Pray When You Think You Can’t and The Christmas Glass.

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