Whenever we flag the need for renewal in our parishes, part of me can go on the defensive. I have served in parishes for some thirty years, through ministries and councils, or as a pastoral associate, and latterly offered a range of parish support via diocesan roles.
So, when someone calls for parish renewal, it can be heard as criticism of what has gone before. Renewing our parishes may wrongly suggest that our priests and other parishioners have somehow been sitting on their hands or not trying many wonderful initiatives.
At a deeper level, the word renewal may suggest we need to change something fundamental to parish such as our sacramental life. The phrase “church renewal” can sound like “change our beliefs”.
However, authentic renewal is very Catholic. Each Lent offers a period of renewal or metanoia, calling for a radical change of heart towards a greater engagement with God and others. Authentic renewal seeks to bring us closer to the heart of our faith.
Why are our parishes called to change? On the surface, we may consider the answer has something to do with declining numbers of people in the pews, ageing populations and a shrinking of ministries and groups. We can renew ourselves by working harder to fill the gaps, to maintain rosters, maintain the health of ministries and prayer groups, and maintain the buildings and site. Yet these may be outward signs of a deeper invitation.
Fr James Mallon, a Canadian parish priest, witnessed the decline in his own community. His book, Divine Renovation, offers his own approach to a wonderful renewal. Over four years, attendance returned to previous levels, giving doubled, and involvement in ministries blossomed. His book is a result of much trial and error and is widely applauded as a great help to communities seeking authentic renewal. Fr Mallon has lived the change he proposes. He asks the question: What is at the heart of parish? Why does parish exist? He suggests that sometimes we become so focused on maintaining the parish that we forget that we are on mission. Parishes exist to serve Christ’s mission.
We are called to bring our best knowledge and efforts to the work of parish. It is not enough to try to prop up existing approaches to parish life. God has entrusted us with an amazing task of introducing people to life in Christ and our church, forming them in faith, and sending them out in mission to our world.
Divine Renovation offers a set of tools from someone who lives in trenches and witnesses the fruits of their own labour. His approach focuses on the role of priest as parish leader, of shaping a close-knit team with the priest, engaging with the parish pastoral council, developing a strong Christ-centred vision of forming missionary disciples, and addressing what is in our current parish culture and structures that gets in the way of this vision. He simply shares his learnings, suggesting that one uses other approaches if they prove more effective in forming people in Jesus Christ and our mission as church.
Parishes worldwide, including in our Diocese have begun exploring the riches of Divine Renovation. It offers new insights and approaches for a new time, while remaining authentic to the heart of our Catholic faith.
If your parish community is seeking assistance with seeking new and energising ways of bringing to life the mission God has entrusted to you, then I recommend this work. Our Pastoral Planning Office is also happy to accompany you in your journey of renewal.
Richard McMahon is the Director of Pastoral Planning & Implementation for the Diocese of Parramatta.
You can contact the Pastoral Planning Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (02) 8838 3441.