Parish renewal message relevant and urgent no matter how you practise your faith

8 Gielen Mass


While Aucklanders were being told to prepare for Cyclone Gabrielle, I was boarding a plane to Sydney with a definite sense of escape, heading to the Divine Renovation Australasia Conference with a small group from my parish, St Mark’s Mission Parish in Pakuranga.

I was first introduced to Divine Renovation (DR) only late last year, so I had a faint sense of impostor syndrome as we turned up at St Declan’s Parish for registration. But the feeling dissipated quickly as we were welcomed warmly by the DR team, and I discovered that many others attending were also new to the concept of Divine Renovation.

The opening Mass, led by Fr Chris Ryan of St Declan’s, was concelebrated by more than 70 priests, who filled a third of the pews; the rest of the packed and humid church was filled with lay and religious representing over 90 per cent of the dioceses in Australia and New Zealand. The singers were excellent, but I quickly realised that there would be a lot of Praise and Worship over the weekend. I was stuck in the middle of the pew and couldn’t escape, so I shuffled my feet awkwardly and wondered why I’d felt called to be part of something so at odds with my own preferences and personality.

But as Fr James Mallon, founder of Divine Renovation, began his keynote speech, I knew that, regardless of my own personal preferences, I was in the right place, because the essential message of Divine Renovation is universally relevant and urgent, no matter how you choose to practise your faith.

He quoted Pope Francis’s sentiment that our present time is “not an era of change, but a change of era”, in the sense that Christianity is no longer aligned with popular culture.  We’re like the crew in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), having to navigate the interior of the ship vertically; we have to find new ways to reach people in this dramatically changing cultural landscape. Divine Renovation is about encouraging parishes to become “mission”-oriented, to actively find ways to bring people into (or, back into) the Church, as opposed to just “maintaining” the status quo while Mass attendance drops and parishes are forced to amalgamate or close.

But as Fr Chris asked during the opening Mass homily, in a practical sense, “what works?”

That evening, I attended a workshop by the team from St Peter Chanel Parish in Waimakariri (Christchurch), and for me it was the best learning curve of the weekend, as they took us through their story of implementing DR in their parish and the fruit they’re seeing now. It was inspirational and practical, and I felt strongly the power and importance of hearing people’s stories and testimonies.

On the Saturday, we attended more workshops and keynote speeches, visited the chapel where the Sisters of Stella Matutina were holding Adoration and praying for parish renewal, and chatted with new friends over shared lunch, tea and dinner outside in the school grounds, while some kiwis played touch rugby on the turf.

Christchurch Bishop Michael Gielen presided at the final Mass on the Sunday morning with infectious energy and joy. The emphasis was on the Holy Spirit, and the message was one of “commissioning”; to go out and make a difference. “Called to More” was the theme of the conference, and Bishop Gielen encouraged us to identify the area in which we feel most called to serve – for ourselves and for others in our parish; what is the thing that burns in your heart?

As I headed to the airport post-conference, my sense of ease evaporated as I discovered our flight was scheduled to land in Auckland just as Cyclone Gabrielle was due to hit. I had a weird sense of metaphor about flying into the cyclone and heading back to join in the Divine Renovation efforts in our parish.  It’s forcing me out of my comfort zone, to help provide opportunities for others to engage with and grow their Catholic faith instead of just focusing on my own. I think we can’t be passive and hope the situation will correct itself; as Fr James Mallon quoted St Augustine, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”



The first Divine Renovation conference in Australia brought close to 500 delegates from across the country and New Zealand to Sydney for four days of inspiration and education in ways that parishes can become dynamic centres of the Church’s life and mission.

They joined national and international leaders in evangelisation and parish renewal including Divine Renovation founder Fr James Mallon and Fr Simon Lobo CC, the parish priest of St Benedict’s in Halifax, whose experience of renewal was detailed in Fr Mallon’s book Divine Renovation.

The conference was hosted by St Declan’s Parish at Penshurst over three days at the church and Marist Catholic College, Penshurst, with the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation a supporting partner.

It opened on February 10 with Mass and a keynote speech by Fr Mallon in which he laid out the case for parishes to move from maintenance to mission.

The task of parish renewal is “not easy” and involves cultural change in our parishes, but it is an adventure which brings new life, he said.

“Mission is not just something we do, or that we could or should do. It’s who we are. It is ultimately a question of identity. The Church has an identity crisis and has forgotten who we are as a Church,” he said.

“The primary task of the missionary Church is to fulfil the commission that Jesus gave to go and make disciples of all nations . . . to be a Church that is not about itself but about others.”

Following the conference local keynote speaker and Penshurst parish priest Fr Chris Ryan, MGL, said that it had been a privilege to host the inaugural event.

“We are praying that the fruits of the conference may be felt in parishes across Australia and New Zealand in the coming years,” he said.

Director of the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation Daniel Ang, who was also a workshop leader and panel participant, told The Catholic Weekly he thought the high number of registrants expresses the desire among priests and lay leaders for their parishes to fully embrace what is an apostolic age for the Church.

“The decline of merely ‘cultural Catholicism’ in the pews and wider disengagement with our parishes pushes us toward a rediscovery of their identity as true centres of evangelisation where disciples are made, equipped and sent by the Lord,” he said.

The conference garnered high praise from participants who spoke of its reverent liturgies, powerful praise and worship, keynote addresses and workshops.

Workshop topics included how to share the Gospel through personal testimony, forming small communities within a parish, building a healthy, missionary parish team, insights into delivering purposeful homilies and employing strategy in the service of parish renewal.

  • The second part of this article is an abridged version of a story that was first published at It is republished here with permission.

(Photo: Bishop Michael Gielen at the closing Mass (Photo: Alejandro Fdez.-Cotta Andrade/Divine Renovation))

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