VICTORIA, Texas — The “Disciples on the Journey” small-group study has become a Lenten tradition for many over the past 18 years.

Those who have been with the program since the beginning are likely to have an array of the books, printed in different colors to make them distinguishable from the previous years’ books.

This year, those who wish to take the journey can simply download the book from the “Disciples on the Journey” website, The Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in the Diocese of Victoria are not selling the online books but are asking for a free-will offering.

The uncertainty that still exists because of the pandemic has made it a reasonable way of distributing the study. It costs thousands of dollars to produce the book, even though it has made a profit in past years.

Next year is even more uncertain. There’s a good chance that this may be the last one, according to Sister Digna Vela, who is coordinator of the project and one of the people who created the study.

The first time the diocese had small groups doing a faith-sharing program for Lent, the Paulist community’s “Disciples on a Mission” books were used.

Chris Alvarez, director of the diocesan Office of Catechetical Ministry, and Sister Digna both said many people told them their study program would never work.

They were wrong.

“It was like a Pentecost experience for the diocese,” said Alvarez. “It woke us up. We were alive. We were energized. It got people’s attention.”

Before the small-group studies, Vela recalled, many Catholics had not really cracked open the Bible. In fact, many did not own a Bible.

Alvarez remembered having to guide Catholics in their purchases because they bought Protestant editions.

At the time, Alvarez was the assistant in the Office of Catechetical Ministry and Sister Digna was the director.

Vela remembers the beginning of the project well. There was a meeting about how to follow the Paulist program. “If God didn’t have everybody in that room that I needed!” she said.

With a team of willing volunteers and the blessing of now-retired Bishop David E. Fellhauer of Victoria, the “Disciples on the Journey” first edition was put together in two months’ time for the next Lenten season.

It wasn’t an easy two months. Besides working their normal office hours, Alvarez’s and Sister Digna’s nights and weekends were consumed with the effort to get the project complete.

“We birthed it,” Alvarez told The Catholic Lighthouse, Victoria’s diocesan newspaper.

Once born, “Disciples on the Journey” grew fast and traveled far. They had the blessing of the Paulists, who even helped promote it. The two women called on every diocese in the U.S. and eventually the program was selling books in 46 states and some foreign countries.

Vela and Alvarez both credit Laurie Bautista, who owned an advertising and printing company, for making the project professional and saleable.

Sister Miriam Perez, who like Sister Digna is a Sister of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, helped translate it into Spanish when there were few Spanish-language resources.

And another member of the religious order, Sister Donna Bonorden, who had an eye for editing and a mind for theology, also worked on the content.

When Vela left her post at the diocese, the bishop gave her permission to take the project with her and continue it as a project of the Sisters of Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament. That was in 2012, and they have kept it alive.

Alvarez said the thought of “Disciples on the Journey” reaching its final year is bittersweet because of all the memories attached to its “birth.” But, she added, it might be the right time to make a change and consider something different — some type of app or other digital Lenten resource.

But for now, people can celebrate the fact that it’s a new year and there is a new “Disciples on the Journey” book online.

“The sisters hope by the time Lent comes, people will be able to meet in small groups to share faith with one another physically or virtually,” according to Vela.

This year Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent, is Feb. 17.

Another service is provided for families to share the Gospel readings with their children and for teens groups to share physically or virtually. The “Disciples on the Journey” website has free downloads for family and teen groups in English and Spanish for the six weeks of Lent Cycle B.

Jones is editor of The Catholic Lighthouse, newspaper of the Diocese of Victoria.