Loyola Institute for Ministry and Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa Advance the Work of Synodality and Small Christian Communities by Michael Centore

On Thursday, May 11, friends and colleagues from the Loyola Institute for Ministry (LIM) at Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA) gathered via Zoom to discuss ongoing collaborations to advance the projects of synodality and small Christian communities (SCCs). Representatives from Loyola kindly allowed Today’s American Catholic to sit in on the gathering, and invited me to make a brief presentation on our new Mikroi initiative for SCCs.

The Synodal Spirit

Thomas Ryan, Loyola’s Interim Vice President for Mission and Identity, began by welcoming everyone and reminding us that the assembled representatives from LIM and AMECEA were all involved with SCCs as both participants and advocates. In a truly synodal fashion, our task was to hear “input” from one another, to listen to how the Spirit was at work, and to think about some action steps or “outputs” that might announce the Good News to our various communities.

Fr. Joe Healey carried this synodal spirit forth with an opening prayer that referenced the early church followed by a few moments of silence. As we introduced ourselves and our organizational affiliations, we kept in mind that we were joined together both “across space”—from North America to Eastern Africa—and time, given the long and enduring partnership of LIM and AMECEA. Ryan also recalled that SCCs are not a “new thing,” but “a way of being church since the very beginning.”

A Lasting Collaboration

Fr. Healey opened with a brief review of the 35-year history between LIM and AMECEA. As a self-described “roving ambassador of AMECEA,” he was in a special position to articulate this relationship. He focused on the role of Bernard Lee, SM, who was named LIM Director in 1989, and whose dedication to SCCs helped shape the collaborative program for decades.

Fr. Healey highlighted some key moments of this collaboration, including the first AMECEA-affiliated priest to study SCCs at LIM in 2001; Lee’s visit to Eastern Africa in the early 2000s to observe how SCCs are official, pastoral, and ecclesial structures within individual parishes; and recent connections between LIM and AMECEA around a shared interest in young adult ministry and greater participation of young Catholic voices in the ongoing Synod on Synodality. Fr. Healey also referenced the many SCC-themed publications written by and about members of the LIM and AMECEA communities, and singled out groups like the Kenyan Young Adult Seekers as representatives of a new model of organizing online SCCs worldwide.

Walking with Young Adults

Dr. Tracey Lamont, Interim Director of LIM, followed Fr. Healey with an update on LIM and related programs. Dr. Lamont is a Director and Associate Professor of Religious Education and Young Adult Ministry at Loyola and has a deep and varied background in new directions in ministry, including its relationship to developmental theory and sociology. Her research and experience led to her advising the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on young adult ministry and creating resources for the 2018 Synod on Young People. She is currently on the board of the National Institute for Ministry with Young Adults (NIMYA), which she lauded for being “the first [organization] of its kind that is modeling co-responsible leadership and apportionment of duties.”

Dr. Lamont focused on two specific young adult ministry–related programs: the FIELD (“Faithful Innovation through Encountering, Listening, and Discerning”) Project for young adult ministry, and the National Dialogue on Catholic Pastoral Ministry with Youth and Young Adults. The FIELD Project is supported by a $1.5 million Lilly Endowment grant to develop, train, and support parish ministry teams in practicing synodality and co-responsibility with young adults. An initial cohort of seven US parishes will work with LIM to discover and implement new ways of “walking with” young adults, transforming their parish communities in the process.

The National Dialogue is a USCCB-sponsored initiative that came about as a response to the Synod on Young People and is a direct response to Pope Francis’s call for greater accompaniment and dialogue. Dr. Lamont participated in the initiative and assisted with some of the planning. The leadership team at the National Dialogue created a synodal “listening guide” to elicit feedback from young people on their experience of church and to help draw out their hopes and joys. Young people who participated in these listening sessions were grateful to be heard, and many came back and asked to participate again. Most excitingly, SCCs began to form organically out of this synodal process.

A “Neighborhood Church”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of SCCs as an AMECEA pastoral priority. To mark the occasion, the association is hosting a yearlong event beginning in July, “Small Christian Communities: 50 Years of Building the Church as the Family of God in the AMECEA Region.”

Fr. Emmanuel Chimombo, pastoral coordinator at AMECEA, presented on this Golden Jubilee Celebration with his colleague Bernard Mberere. Fr. Chimombo walked us through the timeline for the event, which will join two member conferences for its inauguration: the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM), and the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB). Both conferences will include the participation of laypeople to help evaluate the status of SCCs, and to ensure that SCCs have roots in local dioceses throughout the AMECEA region.

Fr. Chimombo said that SCCs can act as a counterbalance to the culture of “individualism” that has crept into the church. Feedback from laypeople is critical in “reawakening the spirituality” of SCCs to empower local leaders. SCC members are trained to identify the needs of their neighbors, not just their fellow Catholics, becoming in the process a “neighborhood church.”

SCCs also create a “self-reliant church,” Fr. Chimombo said, which is self-propagating, self-supporting, and self-ministering. As part of the Golden Jubilee Celebration, AMECEA will gather data on member conferences and “document, publish, and disseminate theological and historical account[s] of SCCs as [a] Pastoral Priority in the region.” The end goals will be to reawaken and reanimate SCCs with programs for SCC facilitators, and to strengthen the network of those who have studied SCCs through LIM’s schedule of courses.

Inner Life and Public Life

Alphonce Omolo, a member of AMECEA’s SCC training team and currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Limerick in Ireland, concluded the gathering with a report on the two online courses he teaches for LIM: the “Inner Life of SCCs” and the “Public Life of SCCs.” The courses have drawn students from Ireland, Ethiopia, the US, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. Students have included religious sisters, laypeople, and priests.

I presented next on Today’s American Catholic’s Mikroi initiative to host, promote, and network SCCs. Mikroi (μικρός) is a key term in Matthew’s gospel that means “little ones” or “the least of these.” We chose the name for the way it captures the spirit of humility inherent in SCCs, inspired as they are by the gatherings of the early church that were distant from sources of civil and ecclesial power. We also took inspiration from Pope Francis’s characterization of a future “Church of the little ones” that is “more spiritual, poorer and less political.” SCCs can serve as “training grounds” to inaugurate this future church.

Our group then moved on to a moment of prayer and reflection to discern what action steps might grow out of the morning’s gathering. Among those suggested were articulating the links between SCCs and synodality; praying the AMECEA’s “Jubilee Prayer” (as well as the synod’s “Adsumus Prayer”) in solidarity and support; and developing SCC fellowships for campus ministers and international students. Especially promising was the idea of integrating the subjects of SCCs and synodality more formally into pastoral theology departments in seminaries and universities, which would increase the viability of both within the life of the church. I also suggested that Today’s American Catholic might consider republishing influential SCC-related texts such as Michael A. Cowan and Bernard Lee’s Conversation, Risk & Conversion: The Inner & Public Life of Small Christian Communities.

Conclusion: Reasons for Hope

As I listened to the each of these presentations, my thoughts continually returned to the reading from the First Letter of Peter that was slated for the following Sunday: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.”

In the US church, we can become caught up in abstract debates about our future, about the threat of schism or the prioritizing of one element of doctrine over another. But here, among those participating in a process of mutual sharing, one felt the “future church” already being realized in concrete ways. This is the church of compassionate, interdependent communities that have adopted the practice of synodality, and whose relationships across international boundaries model what the theologian Michael Budde has termed “ecclesial solidarity”: a sense of belonging to the Body of Christ that supersedes the claims of nation-states and other political institutions.

Kenyan Loretto Sister Jane Frances Mulomgo, whose graduation from LIM’s master’s degree program in Pastoral Studies we were also celebrating, summed it up best in her final reflection on “yearning for inclusivity” within the church. Sr. Jane Frances will be using her education to promote SCCs and empower laypeople in East Africa and network LIM graduates throughout the region. As with all the participants, hers was another explanation and “reason for hope” in a church that continues on its earthly pilgrimage. ♦

Michael Centore is the editor of Today’s American Catholic. 

Image: David S. Soriano, Power of Prayer, 2023. Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
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