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Koinonia: The Beauty and Necessity of Small Christian Communities [K1]

Updated: Feb 3


Fundamental to discipleship is community. One cannot have authentic discipleship without authentic community.

In this episode “K” for “Koinonia”, we will explore the beauty and necessity of being in authentic small Christian communities in order to lead the abundant Christian life that Jesus calls us to, as well as to describe the four key characteristics for authentic community to thrive.


We will consider the examples of St. Benedict, King Charlemagne and St. Dominic, the characteristics of the early Christian community as described in the Acts of the Apostles [1], as well as Church teachings on this crucial topic.


Listen to the podcast here:



Opening Prayer [2]


Come, Holy Spirit, live in us

With God the Father and the Son,

And grant us your abundant grace

To sanctify and make us one.


May mind and tongue made strong in love

Your praise throughout the world proclaim,

And may that love within our hearts

Set fire to others with its flame.


Most blessed Trinity of love,

For whom the heart of man was made,

To you be praise in timeless song,

And everlasting homage paid.


In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


1. Everyone Needs Someone


Pope St. John Paul II, in The Church in America, 22 January 1999, at [41], spoke about the urgent need for parishes in large cities to form small groups that allows for true human relationships:

“One way of renewing parishes, especially urgent for parishes in large cities, might be to consider the parish as a community of communities and movements… to form ecclesial communities and groups of a size that allows for true human relationships.”


The great Saint’s words, though contextually addressed to America, would equally be applicable to Singapore, a large city of many parishes. Forming small Christian communities and groups is key to renewing parishes – because otherwise, we are typically too big, too numerous, to really know one another, and to nurture true human relationships.


Think about this at any typical Sunday mass. One or two kind wardens or communion ministers smile and say “Hi” to you. You say “Hi” back politely, accompanied with a weak smile. Occasionally, someone might ask you how you are. You give the standard, less-than-candid, “good, good”, and spontaneously echo back “how are you?”, and that person replies, “okay, okay, not bad lah”. At the Sign of Peace, you turn and smile to your fellow parishioners with a slight bow to the front, left, right and back.


But at the end of the mass, you still carry your burdens with you, and did not get to share your triumphs and testimonies. In short, you have not known anyone else better, and no one else has known you better. Repeat this 52 times a year, multiplied by the number of years you have lived, and a pervading sense of isolation sets in over time.


"Feast on the Anniversary of a Church Consecration" by Pieter Stevens (1589-1624). The communal spirit and festivity here are palpable.

Love God, love your neighbour. These are the greatest commandments. But we cannot love God without loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. And how can we possibly love them if we do not know them? How can we know them, unless we get small enough, intentionally and purposefully?


Everyone needs someone. We need one another. To be known personally, loved intimately, journeyed with constantly. True human relationships then becomes the fertile soil for true spiritual bonds with God and one another as sons and daughters of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

As David Benner puts it,


“The deepest ache of the soul is the spiritual longing for connection and belonging. No one was created for isolation… nothing vitalizes the human spirit like the experience of a loving connection – something that assures us that we are not alone and that we count for something to someone [3]”.


2. Authentic Discipleship, Authentic Community


Indeed, it would appear that one cannot have authentic discipleship without authentic community.


In the early Church, discipleship was lived in the context of community. In the Acts of the Apostles, references to disciples were almost always made in the context of community. They desperately needed one another to remain faithful to and to grow in Christ. They were not lone rangers. Saints were typically connected with other Saints.


St. Paul’s prayer for the Philippians began as follows:

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Phil 1:5)


“Partnership” here is the English translation for the original Greek word “koinonia”, which also means fellowship, participation, community, a sharing in or communion.


We pause here to seriously ponder this question: Are you currently experiencing “koinonia” in your own journey of Christian discipleship?


Disciples are not individuals. A call to discipleship is a call to community. Without community, any attempts to make, to mature, and to multiple disciples become stunted or unfruitful. Sherry Weddell expresses the critical need for spiritual companions, especially in the first year after conversion:


“We know that the first year after one finishes RCIA or goes through a major conversion is critical and can be surprisingly difficult as the new disciple faces many unexpected obstacles and decisions. We also know that many converts ultimately “drown” in the vast, lonely Catholic ocean. If we are serious about making disciples, we must intentionally support them once they are made. Most new disciples need an “Ananias [4],” a disciple-companion, or an Ananias-like group of spiritual companions who understand what he or she is experiencing and will walk alongside… As we make disciples in our congregations, some kinds of community will form naturally, but we will need to support spontaneous networks of friends with intentional discipleship-centered community building [5].”

This is consistent with what the Church teaches, namely, that “The Second Vatican Council indicates the necessity for pastors ‘to form genuine Christian communities’ [6],” and that such Christian community life is “not realized spontaneously”, but that it “is necessary to educate it carefully [7].”


3. Saints in Community – St. Benedict, Charlemagne & St. Dominic


The Saints understood the beauty and necessity of being in small authentic Christian community in order to lead the abundant Christian life. For them, community was absolutely critical for the pursuit of a good Christian life.


Indeed, Christ’s kingdom would not have progressed if the lives of the Saints were not social. Where Christians lived in strong Christian communities, Christian lives flourished.

First, the Rule of St. Benedict [8] illustrates this clearly. St. Benedict believed strongly in the stability of the community (Chapter 4, “The Instruments of Good Works”), and to this end, the monks took a vow that they would remain in the same community or monastery for life. The Abbot of each monastery acted like a father figure for his monks, whom he would treat as his family, as his children, whereas the monks would treat each other as true brothers. Obedience to the Abbot was obedience to Christ, as one learned to reject one’s will in order to live out Christ’s will fully.


"Laborare est Orare" by John Rogers Herbert (1810–1890), depicting Trappist monks (who also follow the rule of St. Benedict) during harvest time. A monk can be seen giving food to a nearby girl.

The strong and unchangeable sense of community and family was of critical importance because it was the “workshop” in which the monks carried out daily the instruments of good works. Subsequently, countless Benedictine monasteries, all founded on the Rule with its indispensable condition of the stability of the community (i.e. a community for life), sprung up for centuries (600s-1200s, even up to today). These monasteries preserved Christian civilization, and some say even civilization itself, after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century right through numerous centuries.

Second, King Charlemagne in the 8th century also recognized the importance of community for the purposes of leading good Christian lives. He promulgated and standardized the use of the Rule for all Benedictine monasteries. He surrounded himself with monks and advisors (e.g. Alcuin) in the course of his reign, as he was aware that solitary rule could not be better than good counsel from those close to him. This was similar to the Rule where the Abbot was obliged to hear the views of the younger monks before making important decisions [9]. The idea is that God often spoke through the collective wisdom of the community. Eventually, under the reign of Charlemagne, the whole of the Latin West and most of Europe became like a large community of Christians.


Third, the life and mission of St. Dominic further illustrates the importance of community in the pursuit of the Christian life. Dominic was a canon regular in the Cathedral of Osma, Spain, and lived in community under the Rule of St. Augustine before his preaching mission began. Dominic first founded a community for the women. This community became instrumental later for the apostolic work of the Dominican friars. Dominic later founded the Order of Preachers, all of whom lived in a tight-knit community with written rules for study, prayer and preaching (Primitive Constitution of the Order of Preachers). Whenever the friars were sent on a preaching mission, they went out at least in pairs. Dominic endearingly called his friars “brothers” or “brethren”. It cannot be doubted that the strong community life of the Dominican friars contributed to their stability, longevity and inestimable benefit to the Universal Church, as well as to the holy Christian lives of the friars since the foundation of the Order.


Today, being in small Christian communities is uncommon amongst Catholics. It is little wonder why the good Christian life appears harder and harder to achieve.


A painting from the Dominican Nuns' convent in Rome showing St. Dominic and Bl. Jordan with Bl. Diana, Bl. Cecilia, and Bl. Amata. For license and attribution, see footnote [12].

4. Four Key Characteristics of Authentic Christian Community


The Acts of the Apostles paints a compelling vision of an authentic and thriving Christian community.


“42 And they held steadfastly to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. 43 And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47).


There were four critical earmarks of this way of life (v.42):

  • Apostles’ Teaching

  • Fellowship

  • Breaking of Bread

  • Prayers

And there were four key characteristics for it to thrive:

  • Shared Prayer

    • From the Breaking of Bread and Prayers.

  • Shared Learning

    • From the Apostles’ Teaching.

  • Shared Fellowship

    • From Fellowship.

  • Shared Mission

    • Inherent to what the disciples and Apostles were doing. They were caught up with the Great Commission, with mission.

    • Authentic community cannot exist without mission.

If any of these four key characteristics is or are missing, the group will stagnant or even fall apart. For example:

  • Some groups focus almost exclusively on shared mission, e.g. social justice or doing retreats for others. The group falls apart eventually. Mission is stirred by intellectual formation. The will responds to what the intellect receives. If not, the will eventually runs out of steam.

  • Some groups have no mission outside of their own community. They become inward looking, and eventually stagnate.

  • Some groups are steeped in prayers, formation and the Sacraments, and have a strong external mission and constancy in service, but without ever truly fellowshipping and journeying with one another in their lives. The brittle or superficial relationships are not strong enough to keep the group going once fatigue in seemingly unceasing service sets in, and one feels more like an instrument, rather than a valued person or friend.

5. A Call to Action – Join, Start, Restart

Pope St. John Paul II expressed the critical link between catechesis and community:


“A person who has given adherence to Jesus Christ by faith and is endeavoring to consolidate that faith by catechesis needs to live in communion with those who have taken the same step. Catechesis runs the risk of becoming barren if no community of faith and Christian life takes the catechumen in at a certain stage of his catechesis. That is why the ecclesial community at all levels has a twofold responsibility with regard to catechesis: it has the responsibility of providing for the training of its members, but it also has the responsibility of welcoming them into an environment where they can live as fully as possible what they have learned [10].”


This applies not only to new converts, but also to those baptised at birth or long ago. Without community, “catechesis” (which is the name given to the whole of the efforts within the Church to make disciples [11]) runs the risk of being barren.


In short, without being in authentic Christian community, we run the real risk of stagnating as disciples, of not doubling the “talents” we are entrusted with (Matt 25:14-30), and not bearing fruit 30, 60 or a 100-fold (Mark 4:20).


In contrast, being in community, as the early disciples in the Church, St. Benedict, King Charlemagne and St. Dominic have illustrated, is the key to an abundant and good Christian life.


It is time to take action – to join a small Christian community, to start one if there is no suitable one to join, or to restart a community that used to meet regularly but no longer does so.


Conclusion

A life of authentic discipleship is inseparable from being in small authentic Christian community which has the four key characteristics of shared prayer, learning, fellowship and mission. True human relationships in the context of such a community becomes the fertile soil for an abundant, good and fruitful Christian life.

May the Holy Spirit of love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col 3:14), give each of us the conviction, courage and commitment to join, start or restart a small authentic Christian community.


Closing Prayer – Come, Holy Spirit

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.


Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.


O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy his consolations.


Through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.


* Is there anything in this session which struck you or any thoughts, experiences or ideas which come to your mind? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.

** Thank you for joining us on the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP. We look forward to having you with us again next month, as we study the letter “L”, for Leadership.


Recommended Closing Songs



(cover by Lifespring Worship) (see original version published by Marantha Music).


1000 Tongues (Vertical Worship).


Recommended Reading


Sherry A. Weddell ed., Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor; 2015), Chapter 1, “The Generation of Saints” by Sherry A. Weddell.


Weddell beautifully recounts the great spiritual revival in France (in a region called the Chablais in alpine France) initiated by St. Francis de Sales in 1594, which increased the number of Catholics from around 100 to over 40,000 in only four years, and which eventually produced a multi-generational French network of disciple-friends, whom historian Orest Ranum named “the Generation of Saints” (which includes four canonized saints, two blessed, one Doctor of the Church, and six founders of religious congregations).

Authentic Christian community life (amongst other key elements) was critical to this gloriously abundant spiritual fruit.

Reflection and Sharing Questions


This month’s podcast discussed:

  1. How a life of authentic discipleship is inseparable from being in small authentic Christian community which has the four key characteristics of shared prayer, learning, fellowship and mission; and

  2. True human relationships in the context of such a community becomes the fertile soil for an abundant, good and fruitful Christian life.

  • How has the context of community and friendship been an active part of your own spiritual growth and maturity as a disciple?

  • Are you currently experiencing “koinonia” in your own journey of Christian discipleship?

  • How will you take a tangible step today to join, start or restart a small authentic Christian community?


Download the slides here:

K1 Koinonia - Slides
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© Presented by the Catholic Theology Network (writers / contributors / sound): Dominic Chan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Keenan Tan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Nick Chui (MTS, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, AU), Debra Dass (Diploma in Theology, CTIS), Marcia Vanderstraaten (Diploma in Theology, CTIS); publicity & design: Chandra Nugraha.


Footnotes


1. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are taken from the RSV 2nd CE.


2. From the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, Mid-Morning Prayer (Terce), a hymn from the Stanbrook Abbey Hymnal.


3. David G. Benner, Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality (The Spiritual Journey) at pp.15 -16. Dr. Benner’s words were primarily in the context of a spiritual and loving connection with God, of the transforming possibilities of surrendering to divine love. His book is “about knowing ourselves to be deeply loved by God as the first step in becoming genuinely great lovers of others and God” (at p.15). In this sense, the quote above from his book highlights the indivisible link between loving and being loved by God, and loving others.


4. See Acts 9:1-19 (especially vv.10-19), which recounts how a disciple named Ananias affectionately and powerfully ministered to Saul (even calling him “Brother Saul”, despite Saul’s then notorious reputation as a feared persecutor of Christians) immediately after Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, praying over Saul such that he regained his sight and then baptizing him. It is notable that Ananias was the very first Christian that Saul encountered after his conversion, when he was blind for three days, and did not eat or drink anything, and was probably feeling ashamed, lonely, confused and lost. Saul eventually became St. Paul – and Ananias’ loving ministering immediately after Saul’s conversion to Christ would have left an indelible and positive mark in Paul’s spiritual journey, and probably influenced how Paul himself became a spiritual father, mentor and companion to other young disciples as well.


5. Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Kindle Edition (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2012), at pp.248-249.


6. General Directory for Catechesis at [86] citing the Second Vatican Council, Decree on Priestly Life and Ministry Presbyterorum Ordinis (7 December 1965) at [6].



8. The Rule of Our Most Holy Father St. Benedict, Patriarch of Monks, from the Old English Edition of 1638. Edited in Latin and English. (London: Washbourne, 1875). A list of other translations may be found here.


9. See Chapter 3 of the Rule of St. Benedict on “Of Calling the Brethren to Council”, where it is explained that “The reason why we ordain that all be called to Council [to debate weighty matters in the monastery, and for the Abbot to do what he judges as most expedient], is because the Lord often revealeth to the younger what is best. And let the Brethren give their advice with all subjection and humility, and presume not stiffly to defend their own opinion, but rather leave it to the discretion of the Abbot; and what he shall think more expedient, to that let them all submit.”


10. Pope St. John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (On Catechesis in Our Time, 1979) at [24].


11. Pope St. John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (On Catechesis in Our Time, 1979) at [1].


12. "Our blessed nuns", photograph by Fr. Lawrence OP, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

291 views1 comment

1 comentário


Freddy Gomez
Freddy Gomez
10 de out. de 2023

Great write-up. Precise and to the point of what is really needed to grow as a Catholic. Small communities is truly a necessity to grow in the faith. Thank you.

Curtir
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