This is the fifth article summarising an important book by Father James Mallon, which is based on his experience of renovating and renewing his Canadian parish. There are lessons in the book for our parishes and our diocese, as we face the challenge of being God’s people.
A healthy church is a place where Jesus is at home, and where those who do not yet know him can experience a personal encounter with God. Within our own families, we want our children to be strong and healthy and when they are healthy they grow. When they are not healthy they stop growing, and then we get concerned and seek ways to sort it out. Now look honestly at our churches, and we have to acknowledge that most of them are not growing. That means that they are unhealthy. Father James says that the largest religious category in North America is fallen-away Catholics, and it is probably true in this country that there are more fallen-away Catholics than practising Catholics. Look around you at the weekend Mass and bring to mind those who used to be present but have since left. However comfortable we may be sitting in church with our friends, most of us are still in a church that is unhealthy.
What is it that makes a church strong and healthy? Father James contrasts the experience of being part of an Alpha course with what he sees as typical of regular church attendance. An Alpha course can be a powerful experience of encounter with God through sharing a meal with others, and sharing with others the issues that matter most in our lives. For many people on Alpha, this transforms them as they recognise God in their own lives and in the lives of others.
Contrast that with a Eucharist which for many is a private and anonymous experience where individuals come into the church building to be with God alone but not with each other. What it often doesn’t look like is a banquet, a party, a feast where the guests are excited to be there, they have a good time, and they can’t wait to go out and tell others. When visitors come to your church how many of them will say – surely these people love God and love each other (as they said about the early church in the New Testament)? The Eucharist should be the kind of experience where the people go out eager to put into practice the exhortation to ‘glorify the Lord with your life’. Can we honestly say that of where we worship?
Pope Francis said, “The parish is not an outdated institution,” but our parishes need transformation from top to bottom if they are to be healthy, to grow and to be relevant to the lives of people in the communities where we all live.