George Cornelius, standing, serves as interpreter for Irish-born Father Eamon Tobin, pastor of Ascension Parish in Melbourne, Fla., center (in white vestments), at the third annual Small Christian Community Summit May 19 in Orlando. Father Tobin was the summit’s keynote speaker and the interpreter shared his remarks with 12 attendees who only spoke Spanish. (CNS photo/courtesy Tomas Evans)

ORLANDO, Fla. (CNS) — Representatives of 26 Florida parishes came to Orlando for the third annual Small Christian Community Summit with a common purpose: to listen to God’s voice speak within, prepare to respond and then go out to proclaim the Gospel.

These 85 people all live in Florida but their birthplaces represent the world — New York, Ireland, Costa Rica, Louisiana, Africa, Texas, Philippines, California, Colombia, Britain and elsewhere.

“The Gospel speaks to everyone — all ages and backgrounds,” said a 14-year-old named Joseph, a Florida native who had traveled with his parents from nearby Kissimmee. “It never stops, but goes on and on.”

Sponsored by the Diocese of Orlando, the event took place at St. James Cathedral May 19, the eve of Pentecost, and drew pastoral staff, ministry leaders and volunteers.

Its theme, “From Source to Summit,” echoed words from the Second Vatican Council document “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which called the Eucharist “the source and summit of Christian life.” It also took place in a diocese whose shepherd, Bishop John J. Noonan, had declared this the year of the Eucharist.

Father Eamon Tobin, pastor of Ascension Parish in Melbourne, was the keynote speaker. The priest, who writes commentaries on the Sunday readings and is the author of “Introduction to the Mass,” founded the Space Coast Alliance of Small Christian Communities, known as SCCs. The collaboration of six parishes, begun in 1992, in Brevard County developed the event.

“I wish I could speak Spanish,” Father Tobin began, acknowledging the group of 12 Spanish-speaking-only participants wearing earphones to receive simultaneous interpretation. “I was ordained in Ireland, but started my priesthood here at St. James 46 years ago. I am honored to be here today with you who want to spread God’s word.”

“We’re not doing anything new,” Father Tobin explained. “This is the way. What happens in SCCs is what happened with Jesus’ disciples. Jesus never intended us to walk this journey alone. He established a small Christian community with his apostles showing us the way to do the same.

“The second chapter of Acts tells us that the first followers of Jesus devoted themselves to God’s word; they shared fellowship and prayer and they shared the breaking of the bread — Eucharist. This is what we are doing in SCC today. We’re devoting ourselves to God’s word. We read, we share and we are doing the best we can to prepare to be transformed by Eucharist on Sunday and then go out to share the good news.”

Luis Perez, who is from Guatemala, came to the summit with 16 others from two parishes led by Divine Word Father Cyriaque Sounou, who is from Benin in West Africa.

Through a Spanish interpreter Perez said: “Jesus’ words on forgiveness in the Gospel (John 20:19-23) opened a new door for me. It was enlightening and Father Tobin’s explanation was educational and useful for me and for this ministry.”

Father Tobin has been writing commentaries on the Sunday readings for 30-plus years providing a brief exegesis of each of the three readings for a better understanding and then faith sharing questions to help participants hear and respond to the message that Jesus has for them today.

The purpose, he explained is to assist participants to become as St. James says, “Be doers of the Word, not hearers only.”

Father Tobin recently worked with Father Art Baranowski, recognized as a leading authority on Small Christian Communities to adapt Gospel-centered commentaries.

“The Gospel is the crescendo moment of the Liturgy of the Word,” Father Tobin explained, “Jesus is speaking directly to us. Although I include my commentaries on the first two readings in this new format, I realize there is only so much time for discussion (a typical SCC session is 90 minutes) so the faith-sharing questions are focused specifically on the Gospel.”

Other elements of the Baranowski model Father Tobin has included:

— Playing a religious song helps to create a sacred space to hear God’s word.

— Reading the Gospel text twice helps to the faithful to first hear with their heads for understanding and then with the ears of their hearts for the word God is speaking.

— Journaling helps to respond with prayer to the word heard.

The commentaries are available on the Ascension Parish website — www.ascensioncatholic.net — and can be found in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

“The Mass — the eucharistic Sunday liturgy is the primary transformative experience,” Father Baranowski said in an interview. “We have to come more prepared for him to form us — and ‘prepared’ means spending time with the Word — to what Jesus is saying to us today in this Gospel. It means spending time in quiet and then being open and receptive to being transformed.”

Father Baranowski explained that after his ordination in 1968, the pastor of the first parish to which he was assigned had a plan for “neighborhood church.”

“I was newly ordained,” he said. “It was a big parish and I saw people come and go and not have any impact on one another. I was caught with this priest’s vision of small groups becoming church for one another.”

Father Sounou expressed the same sentiment.

“For Missionaries of the Divine Word — the Word is so important to us — that’s the only way to extend the circle of the friends of Christ and to make disciples of the kingdom,” he said. “It is a challenge to help people hear God speak to their hearts. But I notice that sharing the word of God in SCC, people who don’t know Christ join us and the parish community is growing bigger and bigger.”

Tomas Evans, diocesan director of adult ministry in the Secretariat for Laity, Family and Life, had an instrumental role in organizing the summit.

“This is not a new ministry,” Evans said. “It is the way to do ministry. If we understand the depth of our baptismal call — we must make disciples and promote the construction of the kingdom of God. The beauty of the Small Christian Community is based on the intimacy that Jesus achieved with his disciples and if we say that we are followers of Jesus, we must do the same as he did.”

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Dodson writes for the Florida Catholic diocesan newspapers.