Fr. James Mallon is vicar for evangelization in the Diocese of Halifax and the former pastor of Saint Benedict Parish. Saint Benedict’s experienced remarkable growth and spiritual renewal when their focus shifted to forming missionary disciples. Fr. Mallon’s insights for parish renewal can help Catholic priests, parishioners, and lay leaders bring greater vibrancy to their parishes.
We are living in a different age today. In the past, what I call the “Age of Christendom,” culture and faith were closely aligned. If you went with the flow, you would most likely flow into church at some point. Today that is not the case. It is not just that churches are emptying; dioceses are restructuring, and many churches are closing. Recently, I heard that one of the oldest German dioceses in the country is restructuring from seven hundred parishes to thirty-two.
Here is the problem, as I see it: many of our presumptions about pastoral ministry—our methods for sustaining Catholic parish life—are based on a culture that no longer exists. In a Christendom structure, you built a church, posted Mass times, unlocked the doors, and people showed up. But that is not enough now. It is not enough to say to the people on the outside, “Come in.”
Renewing Our Parishes. So how do we renew our parishes? The key is to tell people in the Church, “Go out. Be ambassadors for Christ. Be inviters.” And that happens as we imitate St. Paul, who labored to present his flock “mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). We need to see that pastoral care is about moving people toward spiritual maturity.
A healthy Church will certainly have newer less mature members. But longtime members should be moving toward spiritual maturity. It takes the form of a deepening prayer life, understanding the Scriptures and the Mass, and growing in willingness to serve and to pass on the faith. If we are to have Catholic parishes in which the great majority of members are pursuing holiness and mission, we need to shift our focus.
I would urge parishes to foster five areas that are often found vibrantly in many lay movements of the Church, such as the Cursillo movement, in which my faith first came to life. Those are (1) worship through the Mass; (2) commitment to evangelizing; (3) discipleship; (4) the experience of community; and (5) a passion for serving.
Just 20 percent of Catholics in the United States go to church weekly. Of that 20 percent, what subset do more than simply go to Mass? Very few. Most Catholics have no experience of Catholicism besides weekly worship at Mass. This component is very important, but it is only one of the five areas. And the others are essential.
The Need for Missionary Disciples. How do we close this gap in Catholics’ experience of the faith? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The sacred liturgy . . . must be preceded by evangelization, faith, and conversion” (1072). If there is no conversion of heart, if sacraments are treated as cultural rites of passage for people who have a vague belief in God, we have failed.
I think of the parable of the four men who brought the paralytic to Jesus (Mark 2:1-12). They were willing to tear through Peter’s roof, because putting people at the feet of Jesus transforms their lives. As the four men approached the large crowd, they could have said, “Let’s just put him down over here.” That is the equivalent of letting someone experience a sacrament without a personal encounter with Jesus. You are just hoping the grace will “kick in” at some point.
After about ten years as a parish priest, I realized that no amount of preaching the truths of the faith will bring results if people’s hearts have not yet been set on fire. That was a big revelation for me. And that was the reason for my shift to evangelization.
In the past, the traditional model was “behave, believe, belong.” People generally knew what behavior was moral and what they believed. Not anymore. The framework is disappearing, so I think we need to flip our model in order to engage people: first belonging, then believing, then behaving. Once people have a belief shift, then you can deal with the question of behavior. This is not selling out on our principles; this is what Jesus did. The sinners he encountered had a faith response to the one “who had first loved them” (see 1 John 4:19).
When people are evangelized, their hearts are changed. They help out at church with no prompting. They may want to join a small group or study the Bible. The “primacy of evangelization” is what we call this: helping people to encounter Jesus and experience the power of the Holy Spirit as a foundation.
From Maintenance to Mission. The definition of a mission parish, for me, is one focused on reaching the people you don’t have. That’s what I call mission. What I call maintenance is caring solely for the people you already have. But it’s not one or the other. It’s not maintenance or mission. It’s both. Moving from maintenance to mission simply involves a shift in your primary focus. Parishes that have been caring for their own people as the primary focus usually never get around to doing mission in a way that makes a difference. They will run it as a side thing. But at my parish, Saint Benedict, making disciples slowly became our primary thing. It was our pump—it brought life to the whole parish.
I spent my first year as pastor there preaching and teaching about the nature of the Church and what it means to be a disciple and to evangelize. Then we started to do evangelization. We used Alpha, a method for evangelization that was developed at an Anglican Church in England but used by Catholics all over the world. Thousands of people have gone through Alpha at Saint Benedict in the last nine years. And I have seen it bear incredible fruit in terms of “catching fish.”
Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people” (see Matthew 4:19). But most parishes are not in the business of catching people. If we catch any fish, it’s because the fish swam into the harbor and jumped into the boat. Most parishes say, “That’s amazing. There’s a fish. Let’s put it in RCIA.” But we don’t actually go out intentionally and fish. Alpha is a fishing tool—a way to proclaim the gospel to people who are not yet connected with the Church. People invite other people to come. Because we have a culture of invitation, more than half of our Alpha participants are nonchurchgoers.
By putting on Alpha and having testimonies in our publications and sometimes after the homily, the culture of a parish begins to change. We start celebrating something different. Not only do we celebrate the sacraments, but we also celebrate conversion.
Evangelization before Sacraments. When I first came to Saint Benedict, there was an incredible falloff in registration for catechesis the year after children made their First Communion. We had a great big system where half of our families did not come to Mass. Not surprisingly, Sunday school classrooms were also poorly filled.
With the support of our bishop, we got rid of the classrooms and age-based sacraments. We wanted to celebrate sacraments when people were evangelized. How did we measure that? Instead of Confirmation class, for example, we had youth group and Mass participation. If a person wanted to be confirmed, they could talk to their youth minister, and we could have special sessions to prepare them.
People wondered what would be the basis for receiving First Reconciliation or First Communion. Our answer was, let’s make the “program” the life of the Church: coming to Mass, daily prayer, and so forth. And when people are ready, they’re ready. There were many more changes, but these were some of the important ones.
The Church: Dying and Rising. I think the Lord is preparing us to be a Church that can reach this world that we’re called to reach. People are hungry for meaning, for love, and for God. Many people look at the Church and do not see that it has anything to offer. But I believe we have the answer to their yearning: it is Jesus Christ, who brings us to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. So how do we help people to see that? We have to live our theology, not just teach it.
The Church is going through a dying and a rising process. It’s the paschal mystery: dying and rising. There are aspects of it that are dying, literally, in front of our eyes, but there is something new being reborn. I was in Switzerland recently, where only 4 percent of Catholics actually go to church and parish life has ceased to be vibrant. But I met several hundred young Catholics who are amazingly excited about their faith. These young people are mature and passionate. It is an incredible sign of hope.
So much is falling apart because of the revolutionary changes in our culture, and yet there is something new being reborn. There are lots of reasons for hope. Let’s not cling to a model for parish life that is crumbling and sinking. Instead, let’s be part of what God is doing to build something new.
This article is an edited transcription of an extended interview given by Fr. James Mallon to The Word Among Us.
Fr. James Mallon is the author of Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission. To learn more and to equip your parish to become mission-focused, visit divinerenovation.net. Find Fr. James’ newest book, Divine Renovation Beyond the Parish (304 pp, softcover) at bookstore.wau.org and amazon.com.