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Divine Renovation: Bringing our parishes from maintenance to mission

A declining Church in this country?

  Worried about declining numbers in your parish?  Worried that the church seems to be shrinking in this country?  Worried that many young people don’t seem to continue in the practice of their faith?  Worried about church closures?  Fr James Mallon of St Benedict’s Parish, Halifax, Nova Scotia threw out a challenge to us to change our way of thinking.  Stop worrying and be converted to the Gospel.  Be open to the working of the Holy Spirit, turn to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour and learn to respond to his Great Commission to, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’.

Reaching out to the suffering world around us

  A group of us from the Hallam Diocese joined delegates from all over the country and from around the world at the Bethel Convention Centre in West Bromwich, including about 80 priests, 6 Bishops and 400 lay people, to hear Fr James Mallon and his team share with us their experiences of renewal through a radical change of focus in which leading people to a personal encounter with Christ and learning to look outwards can become the new focus for our parishes.

The group from Hallam at the Divine Renovation Conference

  As Catholics we are quite used to witnessing as individuals to our faith, whether at work, or to our neighbours in places of education or wherever.  But few of us are really used to ‘throwing open the doors’ and welcoming people into our churches through a collective community effort.  Fr James preached an inspirational sermon on the prodigal son, reminding us that the Father looked out every day for his son’s homecoming, rushed out to meet him when he saw him in the distance and completely put aside the fact that the prodigal son’s repentance was far from perfect – he thought he would get a better deal back home rather than feeding the pigs.  Fr James challenged us to become ‘like the Father’ in our love and openness to the broken and suffering world around us.  It’s no longer good enough for us to focus inwards on maintaining our dwindling numbers.

Becoming missionary disciples – and making more disciples.  The Alpha Progamme

  So how on earth do we do this? The challenge seems to be so immense and we are well and truly out of our comfort zones with all of this.  Fr James described how using the Alpha Programme, which was originally developed at Holy Trinity, Brompton in London, has brought about an amazing renewal and growth in his parish.  People are encountering Christ in a deep and personal way, new people are being welcomed into the community, young people are being engaged with their faith and the parish is becoming used to a radical new missionary focus.  The Alpha Programme is based on a few core principles:

  • A radical commitment to prayer and an openness to the working of the Holy Spirit. Only through the working of the Holy Spirit can people be brought to conversion and a meeting with the Lord.  This is an opportunity for us to commit ourselves in our parishes to deep and faith filled prayer for all those hosting and attending the Alpha programme.
  • The commitment of the whole parish community to a new spirit of welcome and hospitality. Providing a warm and open welcome with a cooked meal is an important part of the Alpha programme.
  • A non-judgmental spirit, and freedom from any sense of ‘pressure’. People are accepted ‘where they are’ and are free to attend all or part of the programme of 11 weeks that is offered.
  • The building of a sense of community and friendship.

This all sounds a bit un-Catholic – really?

  Fr James reminded us that the call to evangelisation is at the heart of our Catholic faith.  Not only does the call to evangelisation come from the Lord himself, but its importance has been reiterated by many popes, not least Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis.

A new sense of mission cannot be left to a small group of specialists but must involve the responsibility of all the members of the people of God.  Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him.’  Redemptoris Missio 1990, Saint John Paul II

I want a mess!  I want the Church to go out into the streets!  I want us to defend ourselves against all worldliness, opposition to progress, from that which is comfortable, from that which is clericalism, from all that which means being closed-up in ourselves.  Parishes, schools, institutions are made in order to go out!’  Pope Francis at World Youth Day, Rio de Janeiro

  Fr James said that one of his least favourite quotes was the one said to come from St Francis, ‘Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words.’  Firstly, there is little evidence that St Francis ever said this, and secondly there is much evidence that St Francis did use words in preaching the Gospel – all the time.  There is a danger that we can use this quotation as a big ‘get out’ from ever having to share our faith in an open way – with words!

Want to find out more?

  Most of us attending have read or are starting to read Fr James Mallon’s inspirational, but highly challenging book Divine Renovation, ISBN 978-1-62785-038-4.  If you are up for a serious challenge, then give it a go.  Also check out the website: https://alpha.org/catholic-context/home.

Richard Watts

DIVINE RENOVATION: The first in a series of articles about the book which focuses on renewal in our parish communities

Divine Renovation: Bringing your Parish from Maintenance to Mission – Fr James Mallon

  This is a powerful and very readable book written by a priest from Canada, and several of us from Saint William of York Parish, Sheffield, went to a conference in West Bromwich which was based on the book.  We heard him preach on new ways of understanding the decline of the churches in the West by bringing the parable of the prodigal son to life for our times.

  This is a profound story of a father who had two sons.  One was faithful and obeyed his father year after year.  He brought up his family to take care of his father’s estate and fulfilled all his obligations as a son.  His younger brother was different – he wasted everything his father gave him and walked away from his family obligations.  Which of the two deserved the father’s celebration banquet?  We know what Jesus taught, but how many of us secretly sympathise with the gripes of the dutiful son who complained of unfairness?

  The father loved both equally, not because of their practises but because they were both his offspring.  The wasteful son delighted his father because he came to beg forgiveness.  The dutiful son griped at what he felt was his father’s unfairness.  Now let’s look at our parishes.  Being good Catholics, we fulfil our personal obligations to go to Mass, give our time and our money, bring our children through Baptism, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.  Surely we deserve the father’s praise, haven’t we done enough?

  Look around your parish and into your heart.  Does our Father look more favourably on those who never miss Mass on a holy day of obligation and dutifully make sure that their children are brought up as ‘good Catholics’?  The message of the parable (and Fr Mallon’s book) is that none of us buys the Father’s love by doing our duty as Catholics.  We have his love as a free gift because he chooses to give it to his children.  Our response should be to hold out empty hands to embrace him and join in his joy.

  Fr Mallon goes on to show how destructive it is to the life of a local church if it focuses on maintenance – the dutiful son obeyed his father but from a cold heart that could not welcome back his wayward brother.  Instead, our parishes should share the loving heart of the father and be looking out in mission to welcome home those who have squandered the father’s gifts, as well as those who have never heard of his love.

  In future articles we will look in depth at chapters from Fr Mallon’s book, as he diagnoses the problems of our churches and teaches us how we can renew them through sharing the love of God in mission.

Paul Jackson