Pope Francis has given us one of the most significant magisterial statements in recent years in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium [The Joy of the Gospel]:
I dream of a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.
This statement is significant because it captures Pope Francis’ dream— and dreams are what inspire. In 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial to address those who had come to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he did not say, “I have an idea,” or, “I have a plan,” or even, “I have a to-do list.” He said, “I have a dream!”
Whenever we talk about dreams, we are speaking the language of vision, and vision is essential. A powerful vision does not just inspire; it also points in a direction: here’s what we can achieve! Here’s what we can become! It encourages, enlivens, and often makes us feel good.
If we listen closely to Pope Francis’ dream, we will see that it is absolutely revolutionary and therefore demanding. When he talks about a “missionary impulse capable of transforming everything,” he is not just talking about theories of parish life. Rather he is talking about how we live and how we do things concretely.
Our parishes have customs and schedules—and we generally do not want anyone to change those familiar patterns and structures. . . . But it does not matter what our mission statements, websites, and social media pages say. If you look at what we do, our values are quite clear.
Ultimately—if we are truly committed to renovation, transformation, and renewal—vision lies at the heart of what we do. Vision taps into passion; it galvanizes the leadership of a community at the level of the parish, the diocese, or the universal Church. Vision enables us to move in a new direction; it creates a picture of a dynamic future. The passion that vision arouses, however, rests on something even more foundational—namely, hope.
Hope is one of the three theological virtues, the other two being faith and love. When there is a deficit of hope, we lose our passion. We become cynical, disillusioned, tired, and depressed. Hope is critical to the Christian life. As St. Paul writes to the church in Rome: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
If we are going to push forward in this task of mission and renewal, we need to begin with the supernatural reality of hope. Christian hope is rooted in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead; it allows us to stand at the cross on Good Friday and yearn for Easter Sunday.
In the face of death and defeat, our hope remains undimmed, because the One who brings forth rivers of water from the desert can also bring forth streams of life from our heart. He is the God of hope, and it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we receive this hope, which brings with it the capacity for passion and the capacity to dream.
I am not talking about optimism here. Optimism tends to censor the data, put on rose-colored glasses, and selectively filter reality. Optimism says, “I will only look at certain parts of the truth and ignore anything that conflicts with the picture that I am trying to paint.” Hope, on the other hand, has the strength to look at the whole picture, to look at reality as it currently exists, both its good and bad components. The virtue of hope throws off the shackles of denial to stare reality in the face, sure that God is going to do something new, even though what he might do is not readily discernible.
Battling the Demons of Defeatism
Christian hope is rooted in the reality of God’s grace that conquered the grave, destroyed the power of sin, and raised Jesus from the dead. This risen Jesus now offers divine life to the world through the Church. Therefore we have hope, a thoroughly Christian hope. Our God is a God of victory! Pope Francis highlights this truth in Evangelii Gaudium:
One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses.” Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand.
I know this: if we are apathetic, if we lose hope and fall victim to a defeatist attitude, then the future indeed is dire. There are indeed many reasons to lose hope; the pain we experience when we try to lead others is one of the most common. If you have ever stuck your neck out and tried to lead something or do something new, you know what opposition is. People come against you. Our natural wiring tells us to avoid this painful experience.
Exhaustion can also lead us to lose hope. We can be so worn down by the demands of parish life that we end up overwhelmed and wondering if we can make a difference. Everyone who steps into some kind of ministry wants to bear fruit. When we see our hard work and grueling schedules bearing fruit, then we retire at the end of each day in a kind of joyful exhaustion.
Parish life, however, often becomes a voracious machine. When everything we do centers around the structure and mechanics of maintaining parish life, when maintenance becomes the end game and we (often inadvertently) sacrifice mission, then the parish becomes a kind of ecclesial vampire. We give and give and give, and it takes and takes and takes. That kind of exhaustion is soul numbing. It produces burnout and depression, and it strips us of hope for the future.
Disillusionment is another enemy of hope. In contemporary usage, it means being stripped of your capacity to dream. In other words, the disillusioned become so firmly rooted in reality as they are experiencing it that they cannot see beyond that reality. Unable to conceive of something that could move them in a different direction, they lose hope.
Cynicism is yet another enemy of hope. Cynicism focuses attention on the strength of the problem and not on the possibility of a solution. In cynicism’s grip, you will never mobilize.
Here is the tricky thing about cynicism: it not only tries to cripple the hope in your own heart, but it also tries to destroy hope everywhere. It has a broad mission. Cynicism can detect the presence of hope in others and will try to strangle that hope when it finds it.
The final enemy of hope to highlight is contentment. Contentment looks at the reality of our current situation and says, “I am not bothered by the decline and all these statistics. . . . I am quite content. . . . I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing; it doesn’t bother me.” Often the desire to see parishes come alive begins with dissatisfaction with the current state. It is hard to experience that dissatisfaction if your heart is overcome by contentment. Contentment with the present state of affairs in our Church is by far the biggest threat to hope for the future, and if we do not have hope, we likely do not have a future.
If we can serve our Church and her people with an attitude of hope, if we trust in what God wants for his body, then we will have started on the path to renovation—a path that can lead to real and lasting change. As Paul writes, “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
I have been blessed to witness the renewal of a parish. Actually I have seen renewal happen in various places throughout the world. I am thinking of a parish in Brisbane, Australia, a parish outside of Lisbon, Portugal, and a parish in East London, one of the poorest boroughs of the UK. I think of a parish in Montreal, a city considered by many to be one of the most secular on the face of the earth. I think of parishes across the United States and around the globe, parishes that are very different from my own parish of Saint Benedict in Halifax, with leaders very different from me or the current pastor of Saint Benedict Parish, Fr. Simon Lobo.
These parishes are experiencing incredible transformation. Transformed lives yield a growing army of missionary disciples. These parishes celebrate stories of transformation; they see people step into ministry; authentic Christian communities are forming; worship and sacraments are coming to life. These parishes are even seeing dramatic increases in giving.
I have lived through renewal myself, making lots of mistakes along the way. I know that transformation is possible—not just theologically, not just in theory, but in real settings with real (and very fallible) people. If God can do it with broken, foolish people in a small town like Halifax, God can do it anywhere. But first we need to take hold of hope, dream big, and call people to a vision that moves them.
The beautiful thing about the movements of maintenance and mission in the Church’s life is that if we get it right, they can be mutually reinforcing: the better we feed the sheep, the greater desire the community will have to go out on mission.
This is an excerpt from Beyond the Parish by Fr. James Mallon (The Word Among Us Press, 2020), available at www.wau.org/books.