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Small neighborhood groups make big impact

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SAN DIEGO — Eighteen years ago, as a parish priest, Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan created “Christ in Our Neighborhood.”

The Scripture study program utilizes the “small church community” concept, bringing together groups of about 10 or fewer Catholics in private homes for weekly reflection on the upcoming Sunday Mass readings.

Bishop Dolan doesn’t claim to have created anything revolutionary.

“It’s certainly not the only game in town and it’s certainly not the most unique idea,” he said.

Yet it does seem to have satisfied a hunger. Since starting at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Chula Vista, the program has spread to multiple parishes in the diocese in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. These include St. Michael’s Parish in Poway, where more than 55 groups have been active at the same time, as well as Our Mother of Confidence, St. Charles and St. Martin of Tours parishes.

Last year proved that Christ in Our Neighborhood can work virtually. (Bishop Dolan currently leads two groups on Saturday mornings via Zoom.) But with the loosening of COVID-safety restrictions, an effort is underway to bring back in-person groups and expand the program.

On Saturday, Sept. 25, the diocesan Office for Evangelization and Catechetical Ministry will host “Christ in Our Neighborhood: Break Open the Word.” The workshop, presented by Bishop Dolan, will run from 9 a.m. to noon at the Holy Family Center at St. Michael’s Parish in Poway. It will model a typical meeting of Christ in Our Neighborhood and equip attendees to form new groups for the Advent season.

The concept behind Christ in Our Neighborhood is simple. A small group meets in the group leader’s home for about an hour each week for a set number of weeks. Using guides available on the Christ in Our Neighborhood website, the group reads and discusses the following Sunday’s Mass readings.

The printable guides — available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese — include an opening prayer; a brief commentary and discussion question for each reading; a suggested weekly task, such as striving to arrive at Mass 15 to 20 minutes early or to make the Sign of the Cross when eating in public; a group prayer; and that week’s Responsorial Psalm. Each week’s session concludes with the recitation of the Our Father.

“I think it’s an invitation to a fuller participation in the life of the Church,” Bishop Dolan said. “It’s kind of a way to get your feet wet. It’s a way to reflect on Scripture prior to Sunday, so that you are more actively participating within the life of the liturgy.”

Alice Beas, who serves as lead facilitator of a Christ in Our Neighborhood group at St. Michael’s Parish, agrees.

“When you’re at Mass on Sunday, everything just makes so much more sense, and you remember what everybody talked about (during the group meeting), and you’re looking forward to hearing the homily … to hear what (the priest) says about it,” she said.

Beas said the groups have forged human connections among fellow parishioners who otherwise might not have entered into conversation with one another, and group participants end up with another 10 people they can “give a big hug (to) at Mass.”

Jane Cruz Alfano, of St. Luke Parish in El Cajon, has been attending one of Bishop Dolan’s Saturday morning groups.

She said the program offers the opportunity “to share our faith with our peers; learn more content of our faith, particularly Scripture; and make us better disciples.”

Her group has also allowed her to interact with Catholics from other parishes.

“I’ve had that benefit of meeting with other Catholics throughout the diocese and sharing our faith together,” she said, “and it just gives you a feel of the larger Church.”

Originally only a Lenten Bible study, Christ in Our Neighborhood has expanded to cover all Sundays of the year and the three-year cycle of liturgical readings. Unlike many other Scripture study programs, Christ in Our Neighborhood is entirely free.

While the program runs yearlong, it consists of multiple series, many of which are only six weeks long. So, participants need not make a long-term commitment.

Among the spiritual fruit of Christ in Our Neighborhood have been religious vocations. Bishop Dolan noted that some participants have gone on to enter the seminary, to be ordained as permanent deacons, or to become consecrated religious. He even related a secondhand account of a non-Catholic who expressed openness to entering the Church after having regularly attended Christ in Our Neighborhood.

“If anybody is debating whether to join a (Christ in Our Neighborhood) group, join a group,” advised Beas. “Don’t be shy. It is hands-down the best thing that you can do to enrich your Catholic life.”

More information about Christ in Our Neighborhood is available at christ-ion.com. Register for the Sept. 25 training workshop at www.sdcatholicdisciples.net/cion.

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