How We Can Renew Our Parishes
In August Canadian Father James Mallon will visit South Africa to speak about how to reform parishes to evangelise better. FR BRUCE BOTHA SJ looks at the book Fr Mallon wrote, and how it suits the African context.
Father James Mallon, a priest from Nova Scotia in Canada, has written an important book about parish ministry, and is coming to South Africa in August to share his experiences.
In his book, Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to Missional Parish, Fr Mallon shares his lessons learnt over his 17 years in priestly ministry as a parish priest in Halifax, Canada. In short, Divine Renovation is a description of a process whereby parishes renew themselves by discovering their true identity.
Fr Mallon puts forward that the Church is in danger of shrinking to irrelevance as we turn inwards and become obsessed with liturgical exactness and doctrinal rigidity, instead of focusing on the core mission of the Church which is to evangelise.
Put more simply, that mission is to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
The Church exists to form missionary disciples, that is, followers of Christ who have been empowered by their encounter with Christ to leave the safe confines of church and community so that they may bring the good of Jesus to the margins of our society.
The question arises of how this applies to South Africa—after all, Africa is not Europe or North America.
Yes, it is true that the Church in Africa is growing, if we count the people who are baptised. But we could be lulled into complacency by those reassuring figures if we say: “After all, our churches are full, aren’t they?”.
In my own experience as parish priest in Orlando West, Soweto, I baptised 100 babies, our parish joyfully received ten into the Church over Easter, and then confirmed another 40 young adults. With statistics like this, my parish must be busting at the seams.
However, what I have noticed is that no matter how many babies I baptise, the church never goes beyond comfortably full.
Yes, on some Sundays we have to bring in chairs to cater for the extra people, but more often than not our parishioners have a little elbow room. Our church is full, and it has stayed full, but it is never growing—and that is the problem.
Is growth real growth?
Consider this, then, from a diocese’s point of view. If the diocese was growing at the same average rate as the South African population, then we would be growing by about 9000 Catholics a year. Assuming that they all went to church, we would be building at least three churches every year.
This is why I was gripped by Fr Mallon’s book. It speaks to my experience of a Church that is beginning to die without even realising it.
I recognise the people and priests that are spoken about in the book because they are our parishioners, my colleagues, and me. I recognise the same battle to simply maintain the physical condition of the church, to simply pay the bills and salaries, as Fr Mallon describes in the book.
But most importantly, Divine Renovation also excites and fills me with hope. It fills me with hope because what is described is a process whereby my own parish community can rediscover our identity and purpose, and is now able to lead others into a deeper relationship with Christ.
I submit that we can possibly read Pope Francis’ new exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad) alongside Fr Mallon’s Divine Renovation, and in them see a way of living more deeply our baptismal calling as Catholics, to a life of holiness or blessedness. For it is in living the Beatitudes that we truly fulfil our identity.
What we find in the book
The book Divine Renovation covers seven chapters, with the introduction subtitled “House of Cards” and a conclusion subtitled “House of Prayer”, which tells the story of travelling card players which remembers our identity and purpose.
The other chapters are:
Rebuild my House: From Vatican II to Pope Francis remembering the universal call to holiness and the universal call to mission.
The House of Pain covers the maintenance church. In this case it’s from a northern hemisphere perspective, the sex scandal, falling vocations, giving up institutions.
Clearing Out the Junk: What needs to happen if we are going to rebuild. This touches on three areas relating to Jansenism, Pelagianism and clericalism.
Laying the Foundation—How to transform the culture of the parish community revisits the priority to the weekend, hospitality, uplifting music, homilies, meaningful communities, clear mutual expectations, strength- based ministry, formation of small Christian communities, the experience of the Holy Spirit and becoming an inviting Church.
The final two chapters — The Front Door and The Leader of the House — speak to the sacraments as our greatest opportunity, with particular emphasis on those who otherwise never come to church, and secondly the role of the clergy as central animators and the function of a meaningful leadership team.
The overarching theme throughout the book is that of forming missionary disciples and is brought about what the team at Fr Mallon’s parish calls “The Game Plan”.
“The Game Plan” refers to what an invitational Church would look like, its mindset and openness to others.
Fr Mallon refers to the Alpha course as the on-ramp by which the parish offers to help people encounter the Gospel in a fresh way, encounter Jesus, experience the Holy Spirit.
From here guests become helpers and hosts and then are encouraged in “Connect” groups. Ministry discipleship groups focus on service and learning content which then reaches its true potential as the “source and summit”, when fullness of Christian life is being lived.
Clergy and laity are encouraged to get in the game — it’s not about doing everything at once but rather about starting somewhere.
Fr Bruce Botha SJ is the episcopal vicar for evangelisation in the archdiocese of Johannesburg. Divine Renovation is available in Catholic bookshops.
Fr Mallon in SA in August
Father James Mallon will come to South Africa in August to present “Divine Renovation” conferences which will explore key themes from his book Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish.
“The conference will inspire, equip, and empower you to bring transformation in your church,” according to the organisers.
The conferences will be held in:
Johannesburg: August 13-14 (over two days at a cost of R350).
Durban: August 16 (one day at R150).
Cape Town: August 18 (also one day at R150).
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