‘The main challenge is that everyone is so busy, and our groups are dying.’ I was talking to the Jesus Youth leaders of a big city. ‘Of course, when they gather, they enjoy it and come up with so many ideas. But once they go away, you never see them again for a long time. This upsets any plans we make. People are so unpredictable, and we don’t know how to go forward.’ This led on to a good deal of discussion and reflection.

Fellowship an essential ingredient of faith life

The early Christians took the commandment of Jesus very seriously. The Lord asked them to love as he loved and that by this all men will know that you are my disciples (John 13:35). As a result, they developed a lifestyle of meeting together regularly, having fellowship meals and responding to the needs of every person in their community (Acts 2:46; 4:35). Centuries passed by, and these intimate caring and sharing communities were reduced to mass congregations that come and ‘see the Holy Mass’ or participate in long prayers at massive churches. 

Charismatic renewal became a powerful bringing back of many early Christian practices including lively caring and sharing communities of early Christians. A person is introduced to charismatic renewal through LSS (Life in the Spirit Seminar) or Initiation Retreat. In it the final instruction used to be, ‘Here you were introduced to a new lifestyle of being guided by the Holy Spirit. But you need to build it up in a weekly fellowship gathering in your own places.’ And people went back and took part in regular prayer groups.  

My own charismatic introduction was in a 4-day seminar. On the third night we had a ‘model prayer meeting’. I still remember how I made my first ‘spontaneous prayer’ that night. Finally, before the seminar ended, Fr Marcelino, one of the resource persons, offered to begin a weekly group in that campus. I readily signed up, like about 40 others.

When I look back, this weekly gathering became a breeding ground for rich faith life, Christian leadership, and numerous small and big initiatives. Spanning many decades, it has seen many ups and downs, but it has always been a rooting experience for most people. People returned to the group every week, not because they were duty bound, but eager to experience the movement of the spirit and close friendship, and unknowingly they grew in faith and were built into a community.

Regular attendance in such a fellowship does three things: i) a person learns to overcome different personal challenges little by little and grows in faith life, ii) joyful and vibrant relationships are built resulting in one’s belongingness in a living community, and iii) the person gets support to lead a witnessing in his or her living situations. Pope Francis phrased this quite well, ‘Here and now . . . the Lord’s disciples are called to live as a community which is the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are called to bear witness to a constantly new way of living together in fidelity to the Gospel. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of community!’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 92)

Gather weekly, not once a month

Our discussion moved on to the frequency of the meetings. ‘As people were busy, we proposed a monthly gathering, but when a person misses even one meeting the gap becomes too long.’ Another person raised an issue; by gathering once a month how will you have a sharing and caring fellowship and how far that group will be a community! 

I shared with them one of my interesting memories. A group of youth from a parish near Cochin wanted a meeting with me. During the sitting they mentioned that they were meeting every evening to pray together. I thought seven days a week was a bit too much and told them so. ‘But before coming to Jesus Youth we all were meeting every day, and that was for doing really bad things. Now, this daily meeting for prayer and mutual support is keeping us safe from falling away into those old ways.’ I grasped their point well; they desperately needed a daily intimate fellowship to remain in this newly found Christian life.

Our discussion continued: People fall away because they don’t feel part of the body of Christ. A lot of teaching or an occasional coming for prayer will not give youth an experience of belongingness. One young person shared how Jesus Youth students in the university hostel meet every week in small groups and occasionally all of them together for a larger meeting. The students were so eager to gather, as they enjoyed times of deep friendship and mutual support. Someone shared about their family groups, meeting not weekly, but gathering in a couple of weeks to share, interact and pray. ‘Children enjoy it most. Even if we elders become busy and think of not going to the meeting, the little ones won’t allow us, but insist on going to the fellowship.’

I shared my own experience of meeting in small groups week after week. Those who responded to that challenge grew well as mature persons and committed Christians. But many who could not commit to a regular fellowship, as they were too busy, have unfortunately fallen away. The support of a Christian community is such an important ingredient of growth towards Christian maturity.

We concluded our gathering with a reading and reflection on the exhortation from the letter to Hebrews (10:24,25): Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. They agreed to challenge youth and families to meet at least once a week to pray together, reflect on the Word, share their lives and support one another. The meeting ended with a plan to encourage and help youth to form small groups that meet weekly and grow in friendship and Christian discipleship.  

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