Divine renovation

Happy New Year! 

How are those resolutions doing? Resolutions are not always easy to keep, especially if they are unrealistic, but some are absolutely necessary. Exercising more; eating healthy meals; cutting back on alcohol; getting more sleep — all of these are the habits that give us a better chance at a healthy life. 

This year the parishes in our diocese are also going to make resolutions to revitalize and become places that we can focus on our mission to bring people to Christ by centering on our Gospel values. 

Just about every self-help books for parishes emphasize that revitalization must center on the three H’s: Hospitality, Hymns and Homilies. What this says is that the most important area in need of revitalization is their Sunday Liturgies. Giving priority to the weekend experience is a good start, but real change may bother some of the faithful parishioners who want to get in and get out of Mass without being bothered or held too long. The people most likely to scuttle any attempt at revitalizing the parish may be the ones who have supported it through all those years when numbers have declined and seekers have found Spiritual homes in evangelical Protestant churches. 

This is the challenge facing parishes as they begin to transform into places that exude welcome. Some authors of parish renewal programs say that these people should become the collateral damage of changes that need to be made, but this would be an abdication of the responsibility of the parish.

The verb “revitalize” is used as if a parish is a living, breathing organism that exists in a vacuum; doling out Sacraments to worthy visitors who enter on their own volition. It is as if better Liturgies, great music and excellent homilies are all we need to make a parish great. But even if our clergy channel their inner Billy Graham; we get every person at Mass to smile at newcomers; and hire Keith Lockhart to provide a veritable Parish Pops concert each Sunday, there has to be more. Parish revitalization must begin with the individuals sitting in the pews, especially those who faithfully attend. They are the community that Christ has gathered, and He asks that they commit to having a stronger relationship with Him.  Facilitating that relationship must be a priority in a parish. 

Renewing the parish is not about making it new so much as it is about flipping the script. Sometimes we forget that our parishes are not landing places for the perfect few, but conduits for the Salvation everyone seeks. Pope Francis made that clear in Evangelii Gaudium: “The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven, and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” If we pay close attention to the order of his words, we can see where we might have gotten our priorities mixed up. First comes mercy and love, then forgiveness, and last, encouragement to turn one’s life around. 

In his book, “Divine Renovation,” Father James Mallon points out that for many in the Church the priority is first you behave and believe, and then maybe we’ll let you belong. Father Mallon worked hard at changing the culture of his parish so that the order could shift to, “Belong-Believe-Behave;” more in line with Pope Francis’ vision of evangelization. This is a paradigm shift that may be uncomfortable for many because it means welcoming those whom we have long considered the sinful and marginalized. It should be noted that this vision of evangelization is not unique to Pope Francis, but comes from Jesus Himself. 

Parish transformation is the linchpin of the New Evangelization, and we are on the cusp of a sweeping revitalization in our diocese. Before investing in the latest program or the most dynamic staff, parishes should make a decision to bring every person who walks through the door into a personal encounter with Christ. The transformation of individuals in the parish will bear great fruit. Many of our parishes have already recognized the need for personal transformation and have invited parishioners to take part in weekend retreat programs such as Christ Renews His Parish or the ACTS Retreat (Adoration, Community, Theology and Service). Cursillo retreats and Emmaus have been instruments of transformation for decades, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask people to give a witness talk about their experience. No matter where people are in their relationship with Christ, parishes should offer a way to bring them to a deeper level. Some people may need a very basic introduction to the Christian life, and programs like the Alpha courses have been very well received in parishes throughout the region.

As we take stock of our lives this new year let’s not forget our Spiritual well-being. What can we do to spend more time on becoming better disciples of Jesus? This might be the most important change we make for ourselves, and also for our parish.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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