Bec Review: Divine Renovation

Published in 2014, Divine Renovation by Fr James Mallon (Twenty-Third Publications) is one of the books (along with Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples) that has recently made big waves in the Church. What is different about Fr James’ book is that it is written from the lived experience of a profound renewal in his parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Back in June, I spent a month in this parish and witnessed first-hand how it is different. But before telling you more about it, it’s important to know that it’s come from the same reality many of our own parishes face.

A young priest friend of mine, when he heard about this book said, “Oh great, another book to make me feel depressed at how awful my parish is and how great this priest’s parish is!” Maybe there is a risk of feeling this way. But in the first few chapters, Fr James immediately displays his experience of what he calls “the pain of a maintenance church”. Often, we look at movements and initiatives in the USA and say, “that would never work over here.” But in Canada, the depth of secularisation is equivalent to, if not worse than, the UK situation. The renewal that has happened at St Benedict Parish has taken place in circumstances similar to or worse than our own.

Having worked with parishes in Kent for two months now, it seems evident to me that “the pain of a maintenance church” is the experience of many parishes and priests. Our numbers for sacramental programmes might be healthy each year, but where do they disappear to once the sacrament is celebrated? Fr James’ conviction is that the models we rely on to hand on the faith in parishes are models unchanged from a past where faith was buoyed up by a more Christian-friendly culture. That culture is long gone, and yet our means for transmitting faith have remained the same, and have become more and more ineffective. Our practices and programmes are designed for a Church in “Jerusalem” when she is really in “Babylon”. UK statistics attest to this: for every person received into the Church, another ten leave. And three out of five babies who are baptised go on to never or rarely practise their faith as adults (Bullivant, S. (2016) “Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales: A statistical report based on British Social Attitudes survey data”). Our sacramental figures obscure the darker reality – that we are failing to make disciples of Jesus Christ. In Chapter 4 of the book, Fr James identifies the models of the past that he believes should be jettisoned if we are going to rebuild parishes capable of evangelising our secular culture.

In Chapters 5 and 6, he proposes practical models for parishes that wish not just to manage decline, but to grow. A mantra at St Benedict Parish is, “healthy things grow.” “Divinely renovating” your parish is not about starting a few new programmes. The change required is deeper and cultural. Culture shift includes a fresh look at everything from hospitality to homilies, and from music to meaningful community. One of the biggest changes will be the approach to sacraments as evangelising opportunities. 

To give an example, when I visited St Benedict Parish I was fascinated that they did not advertise sacramental programmes. This is because they don’t have any. I attended a Youth Night which runs every Monday night and is the entry point for all teens into the life of the parish. Many young people bring non-Christian friends. Pastoral ministry at St Benedict follows a paradigm of ‘belong – believe – behave’, in other words, they want people to belong first before they invite them into a relationship with Christ. Once a young person becomes a disciple of Christ, they join a discipleship group where they receive catechesis. Only then would they think about Confirmation – regardless of whether they are 12 or 17. The model works. At the Youth Night I attended, 80 teens gathered for one of the most fun experiences of my stay, and what is more, they themselves led the music, prayed with each other, and shared testimonies.

All of this – including talk of such deep-rooted change as culture shift – may sound overwhelming. After all, everyone wants change, but no one wants to change. Yet, Fr Mallon is convinced that the consequences of not changing are graver than the risks. If you keep doing the same things, you will keep getting the same results – or worse. He challenges priests everywhere, “Do you want to be caretakers, undertakers… or risk-takers?”

One of my best memories of being at St Benedict Parish was Pentecost. At every Sunday Mass that day, the pastor (now Fr Simon Lobo) invited forward those who felt they had become disciples of Christ in the past year. I sat in the congregation feeling the tension as everyone collectively wondered if anyone would have courage to go forward. Over four Masses, 96 people came forward. A challenging question to ask ourselves is, Are we making disciples? If we posed this question at our Masses, how many would come forward?

The young priest friend I mentioned ended up reading Divine Renovation. He cancelled his holiday in October and attended the Maintenance to Mission conference at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, to find out more. Now he is determined to take steps to bring about change in his parish. There are one or two parishes that we know of in Southwark who are beginning a serious commitment to Divine Renovation in their parish. To find out more, read the book or see the website http://www.divinerenovation.net.

Review by Hannah Vaughan-Spruce (Kent Adviser, CCF)