A recent publication – Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish by Father James Mallon (2014, Twenty –Third Publications) is a book that is creating big waves in the Church. In it he describes the profound renewal that has taken place in St Benedict’s church in Halifax, Nova Scotia of which he is parish priest. Your reaction to this might be, ‘Do we really need to change our parish, things are quite good the way they are? After all, here at St Edmund’s there is Sunday and weekday Mass, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is readily available, our newborn are baptised and our children receive First Holy Communion and Confirmation and there are many parish groups that cater for our needs and interests’.
But, however commendable it may be, if we think in this way it rather demonstrates how conditioned many of us are in seeing our parish as just serving and satisfying our needs. In chapter three entitled, House of Pain: the Experience of Maintenance Church Fr Mallon writes, ‘…at the conclave that eventually elected him pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had written by hand a four-point reflection on the type of pope the Church would need. It described a pope who would help the Church remember her true identity: to be a Church “called to come out from itself and go to the peripheries.” He warned that if the Church does not do this, if it “does not come out from itself to evangelize, it becomes self-referential and gets sick.” This “self-referentiality,” he warned is a “grave” evil wherein the Church no longer glorifies Christ but seeks to glorify itself. The Church succumbs to the “worst evil” and becomes a worldly Church that lives in itself, of itself, for itself. The Church has, therefore, become a house of pain, because our Church is sick. The root of this sickness is our deep forgetfulness of our deepest identity: that we are missionary, that we are a Church “called to come out from itself.”
This is strong and challenging language and some of you might take umbrage at any suggestion that we are part of something that is self-referential and sick. Others may agree with Pope Francis and Fr Mallon but balk at the work involved in transforming a parish from a maintenance one to one that is mission driven. Hannah Vaughan-Spruce a PhD student at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, has written an article in the Pastoral Review (January/February edition) on this subject and in it she describes the reaction of a priest friend to Divine Renovation, “Oh great another book to make me feel depressed at how awful my parish is and how great this priest’s parish is!”
Yet Fr Mallon would openly admit that the renovation of his parish which started seven years ago is far from the perfect model if indeed there is such a thing. He still sees many areas where the parish needs to grow.
Whatever our thoughts and feelings on the matter none of us can hide from the facts. According to Hannah Vaughan Spruce the official statistics show that UK Catholic parishes are unsuccessful at evangelizing. ‘Among those who are baptized as infants, 59.6% of them as adults say they never or practically never attend church.’
Of those who become Catholic ‘our conversion rate is low compared to other Christian traditions – only 7.7% of current Catholics were not brought up Catholic.’ She goes onto say that ‘our lapsation rate is high; for everyone Catholic convert there are ten cradle Catholics who no longer regard themselves to be Catholic.’
Such figures should not really surprise us. Anyone who attended the Chrism Mass at St George’s Cathedral during Holy Week would have heard – and not for the first time – Archbishop Peter Smith warn his listeners of the deeply secular environment we live in. Hannah Vaughan-Spruce goes further and describes our culture as ‘corrosively secular’ with 48.5% describing themselves as having ‘no religion.’
That is the last statistic I promise you and if you have got this far on the front page I do hope you aren’t losing the will to live. It certainly is a mountain of a challenge with lots of prayer, planning and courageous work to be done but I believe we have the resources in our parish not least among you the parishioners to make a few waves of our own as we work alongside our brothers and sisters from other churches in our locality.
Perhaps we could all take a look and gain encouragement at this Sunday’s Gospel particularly where the resurrected Jesus utters those challenging words to his disciples, “AS THE FATHER SENT ME, SO AM I SENDING YOU” Then he breathed on them saying, “RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT.”
We too are sent by Jesus to the peripheries Pope Francis speaks about. Who identifies these peripheries and gives us the courage and wisdom when we set out? The Holy Spirit given by Jesus Christ!