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A Church that goes out to the last, the lost and the least

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Fr James Mallon will address Australian Catholics in February courtesy of the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation. Photo: Divine Renovation Ministry

More parishes are shifting their focus to evangelising outside the church doors and it’s the hardest – but most rewarding and necessary – thing for them to do, says Fr James Mallon.

The Canadian founder of the Divine Renovation Ministry will return to the Archdiocese of Sydney next February for the country’s first conference of the same name.

The 2023 Divine Renovation Australasia Conference will be hosted and supported by the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation to help foster the passion for renewal in parishes envisioned by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP’s mission plan Go Make Disciples.

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Father Mallon is also the author of the best-selling books Divine Renovation: From A Maintenance To A Missional Parish, the Divine Renovation Guidebook, and Beyond the Parish, which all seek to guide and resource parishes wanting to cultivate vibrant and dynamic faith communities centred on missionary discipleship.

He also co-authored Unlocking Your Parish with Ron Huntley which examines Alpha as a powerful tool for evangelisation and discipleship.

He says the world today is experiencing a new apostolic age and the Church is rediscovering its primary purpose of mission.

“The word apostolicos comes from apostolay in Greek, which means ‘to send’ and the Latin translation of that word is ‘missionary’, so to be an apostolic Church means to be a missionary Church, which means to be sent,” Fr Mallon told The Catholic Weekly in a recent online interview.

The Divine Renovation approach is aimed a revitalising the missionary intention of parishes in the service of the new evangelisation, including practical ways to go about this process.

“That means to go out from ourselves, not stay in ourselves. Pope Francis says when we stay in ourselves we become a sick Church, a self-referential Church, in itself, of itself and for itself. Going out on mission means going out to evangelise and going out to serve the poor. We’re called to make disciples but we’re also called to clothe the naked and visit the prisoners. As someone once said, we go out to the last, the lost and the least.”

“The giftedness that resides in any given parish among the laity animates the baptised laity for [this] mission. In contrast, parishes that make their primary purpose caring for the sheep never go fishing because even if they want to they never have time left”, Fr Mallon said.

“Parishes who put mission first also do a good job of looking after the sheep because if you’re missionary you’re raising up other believers, and the gifts for caring are not just with the ordained, they’re within the baptised.”

“If we don’t move to a missionary footing there’s not going to be a Church…”

“The ocean is teeming with fish, and Jesus has already said put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.

“But most Catholic parishes are like fishing boats tied up in the harbour. We paint them and maintain the engine and we have card socials and coffee socials and bingo in them – we don’t go out, we stay in the shelter of our harbours because of fear, indifference, anxiety, uncertainty – and we don’t actually obey the commandment of Jesus in a very real way.”

Director of the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation, Daniel Ang affirmed the call for parishes to take the outreach to the unchurched, ‘the lost’ and ‘least’ seriously.

“To be an apostolic Church means to be a missionary Church, which means to…go out from ourselves, not stay in ourselves,” says Fr Mallon. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“There is no trade-off between growing the faith of our people we have and the call to evangelisation to those we don’t – our faith grows through mission, by being sent,” he said.

“Like the first apostles in the Upper Room, we may be scared, unsure, not fully formed, but in the Spirit of Christ we find the courage to embark on mission like those apostles of the Book of Acts who changed the world and the Church through their courage.”

While obeying Christ’s call to “go make disciples” should be good enough reason to strive to do so, Fr Mallon points out that it’s also necessary for the survival of parishes.

“If we don’t move to a missionary footing there’s not going to be a Church because the Christendom model of Christian faith being passed via traditional means of family, school and parish is all gone,” he said.

“The spiritual osmosis process that used to happen stopped working because the world around us has changed and so if we rely on that methodology all we’re going to get each year is smaller and older.”

Having advised parishes and dioceses around the world, the Canadian priest says he is seeing the most growth in the UK where the Divine Renovation Ministry is working closely with around 14 per cent of all Catholic parishes.

“There are amazing stories in Canada and the US as well, and parishes in Australia which are very supportive as is the whole Archdiocese of Sydney,” he added.

“One of the most powerful stories is of a small parish outside of Christchurch in New Zealand. It had a church attendance of 500 people each weekend and last Easter they baptised 13 adults who came to the church through Alpha. It’s incredible that this fruit is being produced in even a small rural parish.”

Key to parish renewal is leadership from the pastor who has the support of his bishop.

“If you don’t have a leader who’s got the fire in his bones it’s never going to happen because even with that and also being willing to stay the course it’s hard. It’s one of the most difficult things you can do in your life, it’s not quick, it takes time.

Divine Renovation: the approach pioneered by Fr Mallon is winning increasing numbers of fans throughout the Catholic world.

“Not everyone will go with you; there’ll always be a segment of people who absolutely refuse. But the aim is to take most people with you.

“Every time you clarify, you attract and repel, people say, ‘Oh my goodness I don’t want to be a part of that’, but other people say ‘Wow I want to be a part of that’.”

Fr Mallon said his current pastoral role, spearheading an amalgamation of five struggling communities in Nova Scotia, has put him back in touch with the reality of getting parish renewal efforts off the ground.

The “cares of the sheep” can choke efforts at renewal, he said.

“It’s the pull of maintenance, and I don’t mean maintaining buildings. Most of our parishes are very inward-focused and there’s a gravitational pull towards the centre, whereas mission is about turning outwards,” he explained.

“Even for me who is pretty motivated and passionate, I still need to fight to give even 10 per cent of my energy towards the most important things.

“Sometimes it’s the cares of the sheep, the demands of maintenance that strangle the impulse for renewal out of you. I speak to priests all the time and they’re getting crushed by the burden of everything they need to do. It’s tough.

“But imagine for a second if we could see many parishes mobilise like this; this is our dream at Divine Renovation Ministry. We’ll know we’re successful when we’re lost in the crowd, when people no longer talk about us. That’s our goal, and that’s beginning to happen.”

“The ocean is teeming with fish, and Jesus has already said put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Parish priest of Penshurst and Peakhurst and director of the Arete Centre for Missionary Leadership Fr Chris Ryan MGL said that as Fr Mallon is an expert in the area of parish renewal it was “very exciting” to be welcoming him to Sydney for the conference next year.

“At St Declan’s we’ve learnt so much from his wisdom and insight and are delighted to host the conference for that reason.

“The renewal of the Church comes through the parish so it depends on parishes to be energised and evangelising communities,” he said.

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