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In small communities of faith, young adults find deep connections, spiritual growth

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When Molly Loesel moved back to Northern Virginia after college, “I was super lonely for a long time,” she said, even though she attended Mass and sought out young adult church events. “I was looking for friends, and I wanted to find friends through church.” 

She finally found the deep spiritual connections she craved at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, where for the past five years, she’s been part of a small group of about 10 young women in their mid-20s to early 30s, who meet weekly to grow in friendship and faith. 

The idea is to really have brothers and sisters that walk with you on your pilgrim journey.” Father Donald J. Planty

Loesel’s group, which she now leads, is one of more than 20 that are part of St. Charles’ Small Communities of Faith program, in which up to about a dozen people in a similar state of life — young professional men or women, parents, etc. — meet regularly to grow together in faith. 

Like the early Christians, the faithful today are called to be part of intimate communities, said Father Donald J. Planty, pastor. “We are not simply individuals on an individual path.” 

He said two-thirds of the households within St. Charles’ parish boundaries, in the bustling Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, are made up of single people in their 20s and 30s. And at parishes the size of St. Charles, which counts more than 6,000 parishioners, “it’s easy to get lost.” 

So when he became pastor six and a half years ago, he conceived the Small Communities of Faith program. While many parishes have small group activities of some kind, St. Charles’ program is unique in the diocese for the number and longevity of many of the groups, as well as the strength of members’ ongoing connections. 

“The idea is to really have brothers and sisters that walk with you on your pilgrim journey,” Father Planty said. 

While young adults “might get along with work colleagues or roommates, that doesn’t offer the intimate friendships that help you live your spiritual life,” he added. “You can’t find that in work, or in social media. It has to be found in small faith-based communities.” 

Domenic Puzio has been a member of one of St. Charles’ small groups for four years and has been a group leader for three. 

“We’re all in our mid-20s to early 30s, but what's such a cool thing is that we’re all at different stages of life — some are on the younger side and single or dating, but we’ve had three engagements in the last six months during COVID. One guy got married and one had his first child. Another found out he’s having his first child. We can hear where everyone is at, and see God working in people’s lives at the various stages.”

But unlike “a group of buddies who like to get together to have a beer and hang out, we’re a small community of faith,” Puzio said. “There’s both the friendship and spiritual aspect.”

Group leaders strive to center the groups on what Father Planty calls the “four pillars” of Christian discipleship: learning and faith formation; praying together and sharing their faith journeys; celebrating the sacraments together, especially Sunday Mass; and sharing the love of Jesus through service and giving.

When Loesel’s group meets, “we start with a prayer, and for about 30 to 45 minutes, we go around and share a moment when we saw God working in our lives through the week. It doesn’t have to be monumental, but it’s usually a pretty intimate moment. It helps us be aware of where people see God in their lives, and it also bonds us as a group,” Loesel said. Then they discuss a chapter or two of whatever book they’re reading, which may be Scripture studies, writings of saints, books about Catholic women or aspects of prayer. 

Puzio’s group starts by reading and reflecting on the Sunday readings for the coming week, then discussing a book they’ve been reading, perhaps on the spirituality of work or the vocation of being a husband and father. “We’re looking for something geared at us as men and young adults,” he said. Once a year, all the groups read and discuss one common book suggested by Father Planty, most recently “Strangers in a Strange Land,” by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. 

Cecilia Cervantes leads a group of mostly single women in their 20s or 30s, who she said are “interested in the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church.” Nicknamed the “Guad squad” because of members’ shared devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, they ponder questions such as “How do we live?” and “What makes an authentic Christian life?” Since the pandemic began, they’ve been meeting via Zoom. 

Cervantes, who works in higher education, noted that often people settle for what Aristotle called “friends of utility,” but the women she’s met through her group have become “friends of virtue,” who bring her closer to Christ. “People are hungry for that,” she said, adding that one silver lining of the pandemic may be that it has made people recognize their need for deep friendships and authenticity. “St. Charles has built a really strong network in response to this need for community.”

Father Planty said each group is “free to do its own thing, as long as they’re living those four pillars.” He added that the groups enjoy getting together outside of their regular meetings to socialize and have fun as well. “They’re not just piously reading spiritual things,” he said.  “They enjoy each other’s company and share fellowship at every level.”

He measures the program’s success by the extent to which members are integrated into the larger community, not just focusing on themselves, but serving as “leaven in the parish,” whether it’s working in the food pantry, being involved in catechesis or helping in some other way.

“They don’t just stay enclosed in their groups, they bear fruit,” he said.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020