If the “engine” of a parish is the mobilization of the laity and the harvesting of their gifts, then most parishes are running at about five per cent “engine capacity”.
That’s what Fr James Mallon, author of “Divine Renovation — From Maintenance to a Missional Church”, and member of the Global Catholic Alpha Board, told about 100 people at a Zoom online Divine Renovation Aotearoa conference on October 16. The online conference, facilitated by Hamilton diocese, took place after a scheduled conference in Taupo in mid-October was cancelled because of Covid-19 restrictions.
At the Zoom conference, Fr Mallon, who is based in Canada, challenged his listeners to dream big. Just imagine if a parish is running at 60 per cent engine capacity or better, he said.
The ability to unleash the full potential in the Church is found in the People of God, Fr Mallon said, but most of the time, this is not happening.
Fr Mallon set out a broad overview of Divine Renovation (DR), a framework for turning parishes from “maintenance” to mission, which is now operating in 75 countries. It was introduced to New Zealand by Fr Mallon at a national priests’ assembly in Christchurch in 2018.
He said that DR is not a programme, but it is a model of parish operation, and is a concrete way of implementing the vision of Pope Francis’s 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
“Some of our best churches do a really good job of saying to people on the outside, you can come in,” Fr Mallon said, “whereas really what we need to do to be a missionary church, we have to say to people on the inside, you should go out.”
But if a parish adopts a missionary posture and allows that posture to be normalised into its culture then, eventually, that parish is transformed in its very identity. The identity of the Church itself is missionary.
Fr Mallon outlined three “keys” for Divine Renovation, which are represented in the movement’s new logo.
The first is being open to and utilizing the power of the Holy Spirit. The second is the “primacy” of evangelization. Fr Mallon said that, for many parishes, if they address evangelisation at all, they “mush it together with catechesis. Guess what happens? Eighty per cent of the energy gets put into catechesis and 20 per cent into evangelization. If you want to turn a parish missionary, you have got to over-invest, you have go to disproportionately invest in evangelization, in adult evangelization”. The DR approach encourages parishes to use a tool of adult evangelization, such as Alpha courses.
Alpha is a course developed in the Anglican Church which has been adapted to use in the Catholic Church.
“What matters is that you have a tool that is accessible for adults, that is directed at adults, and is accessible to people who don’t go to Church, who don’t believe,” Fr Mallon said.
The third key is developing leadership and training people for it. “Someone once said that leadership is the gift that unleashes all the other gifts,” Fr Mallon said. “And yet we don’t train leadership, we don’t train priests to be leaders. And we have to offer some leadership . . . but we don’t train our priests in the art of leadership.”
These three keys make all the difference, he added. The Eucharist is the “keyring” in this imagery, linking all the others, being the source and summit of the Christian life. But the Eucharist itself is not the “locus of evangelization”.
“The Eucharist is not the Church evangelizing,” Fr Mallon said. “The Eucharist is the Church at worship. If you actually use the Eucharist successfully to really be a front-line evangelizing tool, you have probably squeezed it to the point where it is not recognizable. That is my conviction. The Eucharist is built on a presumption that you believe certain things, that you belong. There are a lot of presumptions there that simply don’t apply to your average non-Churchgoer, non-believer person.”
Summarising his talk, Fr Mallon said that DR is a framework, and it is about taking the values inherent in that and putting them to use.
Before Fr Mallon’s talk, Auckland auxiliary Bishop Michael Gielen addressed the question “Is Alpha Effective?” Based on his experience with Alpha courses when he was parish priest at Mt Maunganui some years ago, Bishop Gielen said he is a “total convert”, and this was because of the way Alpha bore fruit in people’s lives and transformed the parish.
Bishop Gielen said Alpha can overcome some people’s reluctance to reach out to others.
“. . . One of the things that I have found hardest, if I am honest, as a priest, is how to inspire people to invite their friends, invite their loved ones, invite those in need, to our table. What I have experienced is that people find it very hard. They don’t know how to do it, because we not taught.
“Alpha does that for us, very simply. It says, put a meal on, get people to provide it, extend hospitality, then put on this video that has been honed and chiselled for 30 years, then get together in groups. And we did that.”
Bishop Gielen recalled that, when people would approach him to sign preference cards for their children to attend a Catholic school, he would discern their interest in the faith and would invite those who responded positively to attend an Alpha course.
The Alpha experience meant his priesthood really “came alive”, Bishop Gielen said. That didn’t mean that numbers were always huge or that efforts did not have to be renewed from time to time. But it did bear fruit and was worth the effort, he said.
“If I am honest, we are too comfortable as Catholics. Miles too comfortable. We don’t put ourselves in uncomfortable positions and take risks. And I was, by asking the people to do this, I was going to do it myself. I was having to go and invite people, strangers and friends, and invite them along. And I saw all sorts of people coming along and then starting to come to Mass. Because, of course, if this is where they experience an encounter with someone who loves them, they want to keep coming back.”
“By being committed, our Church started to change. RCIA numbers doubled and kept doubling. People encountered Jesus in a personal way and wanted to share that with others.”
“I remember those days with such joy.”
Bishop Gielen said that some people had asked about the Catholic content of Alpha – but the core of what Catholics believe about Jesus is in the Alpha programme. Sections where it talks about the Church have been adapted in light of Catholic teaching.
In answer to a question, Bishop Gielen addressed the scenario where the parish priest does not support the programme. His suggestion to people was to “storm heaven” about the matter, asking God to “open Father’s heart”.
But he cautioned people not to bombard their parish priest with requests. Rather, people should seek to inspire their parish priest by their gentleness, generosity and zeal, putting their hands up for other ministries and tasks in the parish, letting the priest see their faith is real.