Catholic Herald staff
One parish’s quest to invigorate the faith lives of its members has yielded a cornucopia of spiritual fruits.
The formation of small faith-sharing groups at Holy Rosary Parish, Medford, began in 2010. Encouraged by Fr. Gerard Willger, the program started as a series of book clubs that met at participants’ homes.
“It was more of his initiative,” said Mary Hebda, a parishioner whom the pastor recruited to organize the effort. “This work was Holy Spirit-inspired genius, from my recruitment to help Fr. Gerard, through the struggles of formation and direction to the evolved self-running of the groups today and for the future.”
A librarian and media specialist at Holy Rosary School at the time, Hebda lives in Rib Lake and maintains ties with both Holy Rosary and Good Shepherd Parish, Rib Lake.
She was recovering from surgery in 2010 when Fr. Willger stopped by for a communion call. They chatted about Renew, a program that had revitalized the church in the past, and the conversation progressed to the parish.
“We needed a faith family,” Hebda summarized. “I was volunteered.”
Tom McDonald, Fr. Willger’s former parishioner from Chetek, donated 250 copies of Matthew Kelly’s “Rediscover Catholicism” to be used by small groups. The parish already had several active clubs – a moms’ group, men’s group and others – and Fr. Willger began promoting the formation of book clubs through the parish festival and Sunday homilies.
“Rediscover Catholicism” was the pick for 2010; at their priest’s suggestion, the groups read Bishop Robert Morneau’s “Pathways to Relationship: Four Weeks on Simplicity, Gentleness, Humility, Friendship” the following year. This year, it’s Jason Evert’s “Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves.”
Book clubs meet for six weeks each in fall and during Lent. Because each group selects a different time and place, the groups have become multigenerational, Hebda said. Participants choose which group’s schedule works best for them.
“We’re getting a big mix of people,” she said.
Readers are invited to assess each book, and facilitators may use the suggested book or opt for another text. Facilitators can also learn how to pray over group members; some are interested, she added, and some are not.
Measured in numbers, the program has been a success. In 2010, they had 80 participants in seven groups, according to Hebda. As of this fall, they had 150-plus people meeting in 15 groups, and she expects more will join for the Lenten session.
Hebda hoped group members would forge lasting relationships and develop as small, supportive faith communities. In her experience, that, too, has happened in the past few years.
To keep the program fresh, the parish organizes small- and large-group events every year. Each season begins with facilitator formation, which can be a meal at Fr. Willger’s house or an educational seminar.
“Doing it year after year, it can get old, but not if you keep some element of it new,” Hebda said.
All participants are invited to an annual large-group gathering.
“The team of Fr. Gerard, myself and now Deacon Joe (Stefancin) are able to give creative encouragement for the groups and develop discussion guides if needed and plan large group gatherings in spring to celebrate and bring together all those involved in groups,” she continued. “It always involves celebrating Mass, but with the needs of the people in the groups in mind and formation of ministry.”
In past years, they’ve had a Mass on the Grass, Mass in the Barn, and a Mass followed by prayers for healing.
“Much testimony, fun, closeness and true community have evolved with this easy-to-do idea,” she added. Fr. Willger “knows how to incorporate people, so they start to feel like family.”
“The biggest value I see in faith-sharing groups is it allows stronger faith friendships to form. They’re not just friends – they are faith friendships,” Fr. Willger commented. Over time, he’s watched those bonds extend to the entire parish.
Fr. Willger also finds it interesting that “Rebuilt,” Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s book on a struggling parish’s turnaround, promotes the same practice.
“The book ‘Rebuilt’ speaks about small groupings, and most of the large mega-churches, one of the reasons they are successful is because of small faith-sharing groups,” he added.
The Lenten season session kicks off Valentine’s Day with a dance. There will be line dancing, swing dancing, a spaghetti dinner and raffles. All are welcome.
For information, call the parish office, 715-748-3336.