This is the sixth article summarising an important book by Father James Mallon, and his experience of renovating and renewing his parish can help us too.
Look around you at the next Mass and ask yourself how many you recognise, and of those people how many you know by name. Many of our churches are little more than a gathering of isolated and anonymous individuals under the same roof for an hour. Yet for Catholics, faith should not be just a private matter practised by individuals. At the Eucharist we meet Jesus together, and church is our family and should be a place where we are known and loved.
Father James describes many ways of building this kind of community. One of them is by enrolling in an Alpha programme which involves a weekly meal, a talk on Christian basics and discussion in a group. This is a powerful way of creating a sense of welcoming, being together and belonging for those who take part. Once people feel that they are accepted and that they belong, then they are much more likely to stay around within the church.
In Alpha, the moment when team members pray over the guests is a profoundly important element of the whole experience. This is a time when many people find relief, peace and healing. Prayer partners can bring this same experience to the Mass. At the start of Mass, the priest can invite people to partner with someone (preferably someone they do not know) and to pray for that person by name during the Mass. Praying for those around us by name builds a sense of community, where we look out for each other. Another means of building community is through prayer ministry after Mass, involving a team of trained people available after each Mass to pray with those who may need prayer. Prayers does not need to be long or eloquent – God doesn’t only answer the prayers of those with theology degrees.
What do we expect of members of our parish? For many churches, the message often seems to be – you are welcome to be a member of our parish, but we don’t expect you to do anything, give anything, or even show up if you don’t want to. But Jesus was never like that. He welcomed all sorts of people (including the outcasts of society) whether it was convenient or not, but then he challenged them to follow him down the road of discipleship. He expected God to work in and through them, and we should too. Parishes that aim to build a loving community full of growing disciples may not achieve all its goals, but a parish that does not aim to do that will surely fail to grow and thrive.