By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — As people harken the new year’s arrival with good cheer, many in the Fall River Diocese will welcome in the new year with the Good Word. For five years the Office of Faith Formation, with the assistance of Sister Frances Thomas, RSM, has been offering Scripture Alive, a faith-sharing initiative that reads Scripture with an emphasis on Spiritual reflection rather than Biblical study.
“There are many great Bible study programs available, but the underlying philosophy of ‘Scripture Alive’ is to connect adults with Scripture so that they will encounter Christ,” explained the director of the diocesan Faith Formation Office, Claire McManus. “We use the Loyola Press ‘Six Weeks with the Bible,’ authored by Kevin Perotta. The program includes enough Bible study to place the readings into their proper context. We supplement the series with some Biblical study texts to give a firm foundation. We use ‘A Walk through the New Testament,’ by Margaret Nutting Ralph and ‘Reading the Old Testament,’ by Lawrence Boadt.”
When Sister Thomas studied theology while getting her master’s degree in the late 1960s, “that’s when it really clicked for me,” she said. “We had these great professors saying things I had never heard before.”
Wherever she found herself ministering, Sister Thomas found individuals who shared her desire to learn Scripture and to delve deeper into its meaning. By 1971 she found her niche in Religious Education and began leading Bible study groups for adults.
“In those early groups, it was Bible study,” recalled Sister Thomas. “It was right after Vatican II and a whole new orientation to Scripture, the new translations of the Bible were coming out, and people were eager to learn. Catholics had Bibles in their homes but they had never read them, and everything changed. It really blossomed after Vatican II. There was a real desire to read and learn, and to get to know the Bible.”
As time went on, however, Sister Thomas realized that Bible study wasn’t just getting to know the Bible, and “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days just giving people intellectual knowledge,” she said. “I wanted people to encounter the Scriptures, the depth of the Revelations and how it interrelates with their lives. I wanted to create Bible sharing groups, where people would read the Bible together, reflect on it, contemplate on it; we have a process that we follow.”
Sister Thomas changed tactics and created Bible sharing sessions using the catechetical method Lectio Divina (Latin for “Divine reading”), a traditional Benedictine practice of Scriptural that does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the living Word.
“That, to me, is the beauty of these types of groups,” said Sister Thomas. “It’s not intellectual, or such. People who come have done Bible work for years and others come who barely know or have opened it.”
When Sister Thomas came to the Fall River Diocese and began working at the Office of Faith Formation, she not only wanted to create Scripture study groups but also wanted to train people to be able run their own group at their respective parish.
“It was always our hope that the individuals would learn enough to launch the program in their own parishes,” said McManus. “In order to spread the program more widely we began to offer it in other areas of the diocese and to diverse groups. We had a young adult group for a while, and I brought the program to the Cape for a couple of years, and Deacon Bruce Bonneau brought it to Fairhaven. Some of the participants have started the program in their own parishes, but many just want to continue with the original group.”
Though Scripture Alive may not have blossomed as much as the office had hoped, it still found roots in the diocese. Groups have grown in some locations, while others may stay small but have a loyal following in its members. A lot of that is due to maintaining the atmosphere that makes everyone comfortable and on the same level.
“I like comfortable, homey space,” said Sister Thomas. “We sit in a circle in comfortable chairs or couches, and it puts us all on the same level. It’s welcoming and adult space; the diocese is in need of good, adult space for adults to gather. I don’t want to put people in the basement with folding chairs. I want it to be like in someone’s living room.”
During this past Faith Formation Ministry Convention, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., also touched on the diocese’s efforts to push Scripture from the head to the heart of the people: “Bishop da Cunha reminded us in his homily at the Faith Formation Ministry Convention that any catechetical effort must move from the head to the heart,” said McManus. “This is why we have placed so much emphasis on faith sharing and not Bible study. All evangelization must begin with an encounter with Jesus, and there is no better place to meet Him than in the Good News.”
Though they will launch into the fourth and final part of studying Genesis in January, this past fall, the group that meets at St. John Neumann’s Parish in East Freetown studied the parables: “Up until now we had always done a book, or part of a book, but this time we did the parables,” said Sister Thomas. “It was something [the group] had chosen and they were so glad they did. It really focused on what is a parable and what is not, and they really got a lot out of it.”
McManus also shared her experience she had with her group that used to meet on the Cape at St. Pius X Parish in South Yarmouth: “The group was all women, of retirement age, three of whom were more than 85 years old. These amazing women had such rich backgrounds and life experiences. They really enjoyed learning, and didn’t mind that we added an extra week in the beginning so that we could dive deeper into the background of the texts. Their sharing was profound, and I came away from the experience every week feeling as if Jesus spoke directly to me,” said McManus, adding that due to cuts in staff at her office, she was no longer able to offer the meetings.
“If a parish wants help in getting this started they should feel free to contact me,” said McManus. “These small faith sharing groups should be a part of every parish’s pastoral plan.”
Even though she retired in 2013, Sister Thomas continues to feed her passion in Scriptures by leading two groups three times a year. When people gather from all over the diocese to share in their desire to learn more about the Bible, the connection goes deeper than just finding common ground in the Word of God, but in the words of the group: “When you share faith, it bonds people,” said Sister Thomas. “There’s a real bond where they’ll pray for each other, if something’s going on in their lives; they’re concerned about each other. It creates a community.”
The Scripture Alive schedule for 2015 is: Tuesdays, January 6-February 10, 10 a.m. to noon at St. John Neumann Parish in East Freetown to study Matthew 10-20; Thursdays, January 8-February 12 , 10 a.m. to noon at the rectory of St. Joseph Parish in Fall River to study the Philippians; Tuesdays, February 24-April 7 (no class Holy Week), at St. John Neumann Parish in East Freetown to study John 11-21; and Thursdays, February 26-April 9 (no class Holy Week) at St. Joseph Parish rectory in Fall River to study Amos/Hosea/Micah.
For registration information, go to the Office of Faith Formation’s website: www.FallRiverFaithFormation.org.