The task of building Catholic communities at schools and parishes

5 mins read
Student Isaiah Burroughs leads a prayer with members of a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults group at CUA Washington campus. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community,” wrote Dorothy Day in her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.”

Being surrounded by other people is not the same as community. Community requires discipline and practice. What Dorothy Day learned in the Catholic Worker communities she helped found was that listening to each other, being present to each other and intentionally sharing space together were all essential to the formation of community. In her Catholic vision, these practices were in the breaking and sharing of bread: the bread God gives and the bread we give each other from what God has given us. In her words, “We know him and we know each other in the breaking of the bread, and we are not alone anymore.”

What Dorothy Day came to understand is that we do not first know ourselves and then enter into community; instead, we only come to truly know ourselves in and through community. Community is a risk. In particular, we risk giving something of who we are and we risk receiving something of who others are.

It sure seems like it is getting harder and harder to take the risk for community. Ironically, some of the loneliest places tend to be the places where we gather with other people most regularly. How many teenagers feel alone in their high schools? How many young adults feel alone on college campuses? How many people feel alone in a parish, or how many people do not go to a parish because they have not found community there?

Parishes and Catholic schools ought to be places where people can take the risk and find community. But that will not just happen on its own. We need protagonists who will take the risk first and lead other people into the same risk.

Establishing a model

The Archdiocese of New Orleans has a vision for creating these protagonists of community. Through its Office of Evangelization, the archdiocese wants to equip young people to talk about their faith and prepare them to evangelize their peers. To pursue this vision, they hosted a daylong workshop for core teams of student leaders with one adult minister from each of their 20 or so high schools, along with representatives from several additional parishes.

At this workshop, the core-team members learned how to craft “stories of grace” from their own lives, where they speak in specific and real ways about times in which they have come to know God’s presence. Far from fluff and pious pap, these stories deal with real stuff, like suffering, forgiveness, consolation, longing and hope. This workshop was the beginning of fulfilling the archdiocese’s vision: challenging and equipping young people to craft stories of grace.

The reason the Office of Evangelization worked with core teams from schools and parishes is that these young people and their adult ministers would leave with a concrete mission to pursue as a team. This mission has several parts. First, each person crafts their story, with their minster’s guidance. The ministers also craft their own stories. Second, the teams plan and host a prayer service at their school (or parish), to which they invite friends and family. This is where the team members share their stories. Then, they take the lead in helping other people to do what they are doing.

These core teams are now at work doing what they were challenged to do. In schools where, perhaps, it is difficult for people to really know and be known by each other, these students are sharing something real about themselves and how God has been present in their lives, for the benefit of their peers. The adult ministers share their stories, too, so that a single event includes two or three stories from young people and one from an adult. All of the prayer services are based on a simple, replicable model that was shared with them in their workshop, which the core teams adapt for evening prayer, lunchtime prayer or prayer before school.

The risk that the young people in these core teams are personally taking is not the end. This is where the final part of their mission comes in, where they lead others into doing what they themselves have done. Based on these first prayer sessions where they share their own stories, the core teams will host additional prayer sessions where other people will share their stories. To get to that point, though, the core-team members will first invite and then work with other young people in their school (or parish) to help them craft their stories. Again, the guidance of the adult minister is key in helping to form and prepare young people for this challenge.

This approach in the Archdiocese of New Orleans is simple but strategic, and its effects are manifold. First, the sharing and receiving of stories of grace allows people to know each other and be known in a more personal and prayerful way, beyond stereotypes, assumptions and clichés. Second, schools and parishes are enriched as places where the risk for community is more common and better supported. Third, young people (and some older people) are being called, trained and challenged to take a leading role in the mission of evangelization.

Replicating the model

The model that initiated in the Archdiocese of New Orleans is replicable, not just in other high schools around the country, but also in college campus ministries, Newman Centers and especially in parishes.

At the University of Notre Dame, the “Stories of Grace Evening Prayer” series, which established the basic model for the prayer service the core teams in New Orleans adapted, has been running monthly for three years. Within the context of a 45-minute evening prayer, two college students and one faculty/staff member each share stories of grace from their lives, preceded by the chanting of psalms and followed by the sharing of intentions, the praying of the Lord’s Prayer and the singing of the Salve Regina. This regular practice is easy to transfer to another college campus.

In a parish setting, the annual formation for confirmation or Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults are ideal occasions for incorporating stories of grace. With invested and well-trained parish ministers or parishioner leaders who can guide others in this process, sponsors/godparents craft and share stories of grace throughout the earlier periods of formation. Eventually, the newly confirmed craft and share their stories in one of their first significant acts of mission in the Church, in prayer sessions where their families and friends, alongside members of the parish, gather to listen to and pray with them.

This practice is far from restricted to sacramental preparation programs. Inciting parishioners to join together for prayer and this form of faith-sharing — especially during liturgical seasons like Advent and Lent, or even Easter — opens up opportunities for people who share the same space with each other every week otherwise to move from just seeing each other to beginning to really know each other.

“We cannot love God unless we love each other,” Dorothy Day wrote, “and to love each other we must know each other.” Parishes should be places that allows the faithful to know each other in the Lord, so that that elusive quality of “parish community” makes a difference in people’s lives. This is a difference for which people would and must be willing to risk something.

Being surrounded by other people is not the same as community. The discipline and practice of sharing stories of grace on a regular basis, especially in the context of prayer, can help transform the culture of schools and parishes alike to be places where it is easier and more common to listen to each other and be present to each other. It is a key way in which we can share with each other the gift of the presence of Christ, who fills even the longest loneliness with his communion.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D, works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of several books including Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace That Illumine Our Lives (Ave Maria, $16.95).

‘Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace That Illumine Our Lives’

Author Leonard J. DeLorenzo has written “Witness: Learning to Tell the Stories of Grace That Illumine Our Lives” (Ave Maria, $16.95) to help Christians learn the art of telling their stories of faith to others. The book offers seven guiding principles to help you share your faith in a genuine way. Those principles include:

  1. Tell it as a story
  2. Begin with what happened
  3. Express it in style
  4. Modify it for your audience
  5. Ensure there is sufficient closure
  6. Embrace natural emotions
  7. Pray and practice.

Watch the “Witness” webinar videos at

Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His book What Matters Most offers more on related topics. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter, “Life, Sweetness, Hope,” at