The wonderful work being done by Small Christian Communities is helping sustain faith, life and energy in parishes across Africa
How many 15 year-old boys do you know who, without embarrassment, admit that being part of a lively faith community helps to give meaning to life? Yet Tlotlo, a 15 year-old South African schoolboy, declares, “The parish is home to me. Growing up as a young boy I didn¹t see the point and my mum would drag me to church. But now, I come to church on my own. I’m not ashamed. Other teenagers might lose interest, but I don’t.”
Tlotlo lives in Mogwase, a platinum mining town close to Sun City in South Africa’s North-Western Province. Tourists from across the world visit Sun City and the magnificent Pilanesberg National Park, but bypass Mogwase, reluctant to witness the poverty of its mining community. But the tourists are the losers. Those who live in the shanty compounds surrounding the mines experience tremendous hardship, but the Church is also alive and active, truly one faith and one family.
Many Catholic parishes throughout Africa are subdivided into Small Christian Communities, (SCC). These family clusters sustain the faith, life and energy of the parish and the local community, especially in remote areas where a priest might not be regularly available.
Mogwase’s SCCs are the building blocks and mortar of the parish. Is a new church or classroom needed? The SCCs make the bricks and provide the labour. Does the church property need cleaning and maintenance? The SCCs see to it. Are there sick people in the vicinity? The SCCs visit them, pooling meager resources to ensure that the patient has food and medicine. When there is a death, the nearest SCC organises the funeral and the burial. They prepare children for the Sacraments, instruct converts and form church choirs.
Understanding that they belong to ‘one faith and one family’, their weekly meeting identifies and plans concrete ways of putting the Gospel into practice. Tlotlo left the Church for a while, but not for long. “I didn’t find what I wanted elsewhere. I can now see that this is where I belong and this is my faith.”
After a request from the parish priest, he now helps youngsters whose faith is shaky. “My mum was a good example in coming to church and being active in the SCC. Both of my elder brothers were enthusiastically engaged in the SCC and advised me to stay involved. I feel blessed. It gives me an opportunity to serve God.
“In the SCC, I have a second home, amongst people who saw me grow up from a baby into the young man I am today. My faith has helped me mature and be more understanding. I have become a youth leader. To my surprise, I was elected head boy at my Catholic school.”
Jacinta is Tlotlo’s mother and a parish catechist. She explains that the parish community’s impact extends beyond their own parish. “Sometimes in our SCCs we find non-Catholics joining us. They don’t have that same sense of community and family in their own churches. They see that we care for the poor. We don’t have much to give, but we pray for them. We also pray for the sick who come to the church from the hospice down the road. We have a healing service once a year.
“I joined the workshop for catechists simply because I wanted to enrich my faith. I wanted to understand in adulthood what my faith meant. When I became a Catechist, I was invited to lead a group of young people who had just made their First Communion and stayed with them until Confirmation.”
Jacinta laughed as she reflected on her value to her parish family. “Now I prepare all the parish candidates for Confirmation. Nobody wants me to leave the group!”
Jacinta described the impact of the SCC on her own and her family’s lives. “My husband and I had three children. The eldest is the altar server. My husband helps with leading the service when the priest isn¹t here. We can only have Mass every two weeks, so it is the SCC¹s responsibility to lead a prayer service when there is no Mass.
“I am proud to have this faith passed on to me by my parents. I don’t remember a day without going to Mass. On Saturdays my mother, sisters and I would wake up and go and clean the main church. In the evening Father Vincent would take us home and say Mass in our house. The SCC built a sub-parish church here. When it was finished, people could see it and find us. We grew from 20 coming together for Mass under a tree to over 300 in our own church!”
She added, “I even founded a choir. We started with 12 singers and now there are more than 30.”
World Mission Sunday is about helping parishes such as that in Mogwase. It is about supporting parishioners just like Jacinta and her son Tlotlo, who speak so confidently about their parish family as they live out their faith surrounded by the appalling poverty and hardship of a mining township.
The hands of the SCCs become ours, reaching out to the poor and needy, providing a lifeline to child-headed households where parents have died of HIV/AIDS and bereaved children are left to care for each other. Countless families, where one or more members has HIV/AIDS, could not cope without the daily visits and nursing care given freely and unstintingly by SCC members whose faith in God underpins and inspires their generosity.
“One faith. One family. World Mission Sunday is the annual day of solidarity celebrated by the Church across the world. The collection in your parish helps the SCCs in Mogwase to continue caring for each other. It sustains 1,069 dioceses in developing countries. Without your help, many parishes would struggle to survive. World Mission Sunday shares and builds our faith, nurtures and strengthens the family of our Church. In Brazil in July, Pope Francis declared ‘Go and make disciples. Go beyond the confines of what is humanly possible and create a world of brothers and sisters.’ This is also the message of World Mission Sunday as we celebrate one faith and one family in Christ.