Father James Mallon runs Alpha at his parish (Saint Benedict’s, in the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth, Canada) and is a member of the Global Catholic Alpha Board. In his new book ‘Divine Renovation’, Father James shares insights from his experience as a parish priest in bringing transformation to the parish. Beginning with a theological foundation, Fr James moves to pastoral application, looking at how the parish can become what Pope Francis describes as a ‘community of missionary disciples’.
Cardinal Gérald Lacroix, Archbishop of Quebec and Primate of Canada, says of ‘Divine Renovation’:
‘A book that transmits extremely well the passion for the New Evangelisation at the heart of parish life. Truly inspiring, practical and challenging! I believe that this is where the Lord is leading the Church’.
We took some time to interview Fr James on his new book…
What are some of the main points that you want people to take away after reading ‘Divine Renovation’?
The first thing is that we have an identity crisis. We have reduced evangelisation to being one of the things we ought to get to eventually, as if it’s optional. I think the Catholic version of the Great Commission would read at present ‘baptise and teach’. We’re not too great on the ‘go forth’ and ‘making disciples’ is usually just not on the radar. We see this in the operations of most parishes where the primary understanding of the role of the parish and the priest is to meet the needs of the people. And yet, the Church is the only organisation that primarily exists for the sake of those who do not yet belong.
In the book I make a scriptural case that the mission of Jesus has a Church and not the other way round. I believe that it’s vital to state that making disciples is at the very heart of what Jesus calls the Church to do.
As Pope Francis has said we mustn’t be inward-focussed and self-referential. He has expressed his vision statement, if you will, in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’:
'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 channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.'
In the book you say, ‘I am convinced that the primary challenge of the New Evangelisation is nothing short of the transformation of the culture of our churches, which means a conversion of our values’. What would you say are the first steps to bring about this transformation of the culture and conversion of values?
The only way that this transformation can be brought about is through leadership. To see the renewal of the parish, priests can’t simply be managers. They must lead, which means helping the church move from one place to another. The priest needs a keen sense of his own vision and call, he needs to be communicating that vision to people and getting a team around him to begin to move the vision to being something that is owned by the parish as a whole. Then you need to move from vision to strategy and from strategy to execution. I’m talking about nothing short of hard, hard work. I would say that changing the culture of a parish takes at least 12 years of hard labour; preaching, teaching and resetting all the frameworks of what is perceived to be normal.
What can lay people do to help bring about the renewal of the parish?
Well, a practical step would be to run Alpha. In the chapter ‘Laying the Foundation’, I look at some of the common values of parishes that are healthy and growing: giving priority to the weekend, hospitality, uplifting music, homilies, meaningful community, clear expectations, strength-based ministry, formation of small communities, experience of the Holy Spirit and becoming an inviting church. These are also the values of Alpha! In my experience, a part of the answer to the challenge of parish renewal has been running Alpha. 45% of our parishioners at St Benedict’s have done Alpha and as people experience it, it helps to transform the culture from the ground up. I talk in the book about the 3 biggest impacts being hymns, homilies, hospitality. These all arise out of giving priority to the weekend. So I would encourage people to get involved in the hospitality ministry within their parish and if there isn’t one, ask the parish priest’s permission and start one!
How can lay people help their priest catch the vision for parish renewal if he doesn’t seem interested? If it all depends on leadership, what can the lay person do?
This is the number 1 question I get asked. Countless numbers of lay faithful have a heart for renewal and are frustrated. First, you’ve got to intercede and pray for your priest. You might also try to discern what makes him closed to renewal. Sometimes priests are drowning in the urgency of ministry and all the different demands on them. It’s important that you say to him, ‘We’re not expecting you to do more. Rather, we’re coming to say how can we help you?’ In all my years as a priest, only twice has someone come into my office and said to me ‘I’m here to ask you how I can help you.’ You could also join the pastoral council and try to reform it so that it is not a management committee that represents different interests in the parish but a true pastoral council that addresses vision and strategy.
In the chapter entitled ‘The Front Door’, you describe ‘the sacraments as our greatest pastoral opportunity’. Please explain what you mean by this.
Many businesses would kill to have what we have - that is, people who come knocking on our door. But often they are looking for apples and we know they need oranges. At the very least this gives us an opportunity to sit down with people and encourage them to begin a spiritual journey. The sacraments of initiation are a key moment in the life of Catholics. They are moments when we can meet people where they are and draw them into a process of conversion and formation.
So at St Benedict’s, we’ve structured all of our catechesis with families and invested primarily into these moments of sacramental preparation. But in order to allow this to produce fruit, there is a need to address things. There needs to be a radical openness to people regardless of the messiness of their lives, and a desire to love them so that they can come to really open their minds and hearts to Christ.
To give an example, all the time couples who are getting married get in touch with us who have no connection to the church. Regardless of where they are on the journey, if they’re willing to engage, we engage them. Alpha is a part of our marriage preparation process and already we’ve found that a much higher percentage of people preparing for marriage come to Christ than before and lots more people now stick around afterwards.
Tell us a little about your experience of running Alpha at your parish.
We’ve been running Alpha since January 2011 and have run close to 30 courses since then. Over 2000 people have done the course – around 1/3 of the guests have been non-churchgoers and 2/3 have been church-going Catholics. 50% of those who have attended have had a life-changing experience and lukewarm Catholics are awakened in their faith. They have a profound experience of community, which brings them to an experience of the Lord and an experience of the Holy Spirit.
What advice do you have for parishes that are running Alpha and wondering what to offer after Alpha?
We invite people to join mid-size groups called ‘connect groups’ after Alpha. Around 25% of our parishioners are involved in connect groups, which meet every 2 weeks.
When thinking about what guests needed after Alpha, I used to look at it from a content perspective because I felt that the theological content needed to be filled out. But now I think the most pressing concern after Alpha is to get people connected in an ongoing way with a loving community that will enable them to continue the discipleship process for the rest of their lives.
If we reduce discipleship to just giving people the right information, we’re going to fail. At least 50% of people who go through RCIA fall away from the Church within a year or two. They have all the right information and it’s the right programme, but they fall away because the nurturing community that brought them to the Easter Vigil disappears and evaporates as soon as the Vigil is over. In the book I quote Dr. Michael Warren, who said that ‘Catechesis ought to be occasional and lifelong. We have made it continuous and terminal’.
At St Benedict’s, we do all our catechesis in small groups, using resources such as ‘Catholicism 201’, ‘Dogmatic Theology’, Bible Study programmes, Fr Robert Barron’s ‘Catholicism’ series, and Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose Driven Life’. You need a resource that is trustworthy and something that is very easy to run. We have about 12-15 small groups running but we want 50-60 over the next couple of years.
I should also say that Alpha provides the core of our leadership pipeline. After Alpha, many guests join the team as helpers, then they become small group hosts or they help with running other courses (for example, we have a team running Alpha in the local prison). After a while we actually fire people from Alpha and we train them to become connect group leaders.
In the book you say that Alpha ‘is perfectly suited to the post-modern mindset’. Can you explain why?
The paradigm of Alpha embraces the ‘belong-believe-behave’ approach to evangelisation. Post-moderns aren’t going to behave just because you, or the Bible, or the Church says so. People will only behave according to their own convictions and convictions are not changed by having an argument with people. This question was at the heart of the recent debate at the Synod on the Family. People become open to begin to listen once they experience being listened to and once they experience loving community. This begins to open people up to the Gospel message and once people encounter Jesus, they are open to changing their lives. The fact that this takes place over a period of time is key as well.
I believe that Pope Francis supports the Alpha approach. He says in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’:
‘All this demands on the part of the evangeliser certain attitudes which foster openness to the message: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental’.
What role can Alpha play in making ‘missionary disciples’ through the local parish?
First of all, Alpha is going to make people disciples. People become disciples when they encounter Jesus and they experience the Holy Spirit. They are awakened – their lives are changed. They realise that there’s so much more to the Christian life than they thought. And as Cardinal Bergoglio said in the Aparecida document, when you become a disciple you immediately have a missionary impulse.
I’ll give you an example. A Hindu lady called Ava was baptised at the Easter vigil this year. She had been invited to Alpha by her colleague Cheryl. Cheryl was a fallen away Catholic who hadn’t been to church in a couple of years when I met her and invited her to Alpha. She then invited Ava who had a conversion at Alpha. I saw her at the door to the church on Sunday. She was waiting for a friend who she’d invited to church. She’s become an evangelist! People automatically become missionary; they have a heart for others and they begin to look outside.
The very fact that the last week of Alpha is the first week of the next course shows that this outward focus is in the DNA of Alpha. If parishes don’t run Alpha successfully, too often it fails because it is not run as a rolling programme. We’ve run Alpha in homes, in the pub, in the prison. I don’t need to be involved in each course because our laity are empowered to do it themselves. It’s so amazing to see!
I’ll give you another example of Alpha making missionary disciples: A lady who had fallen away from the Church for many years did Alpha and it had a big impact on her. She helped serve on Alpha for a while and now she has founded a ministry for divorced Catholics, which has an impact across our city. She’s a true missionary disciple; her life now is seen as a mission field.
What excites you about the vision of Pope Francis?
So much! He’s got the heart of a pastor. He says in Evangelii Gaudium, ‘I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason I am here in this world’. He is seeking to bring about a cultural shift in the global Church. He is enunciating a vision for the Church and he is living the values that he wants the Church to adopt.
He has very clearly articulated a theology and a pastoral practise for mission. I go back to the Aparecida document of which he was the primary writer. Aparecida was a pastoral model proposed out of a reflection on what happened in the Church in Latin America with the presence of Evangelical Protestant groups. In effect, their effectiveness held up a mirror to the Catholic Church. They saw that people left the Catholic Church not for theological reasons but for ‘vivential’ reasons. So this is not about changing our doctrine. We need to live our theology and allow our pastoral methodology to be transformed by that theology.
Thank you very much Fr James!
To get hold of copies of 'Divine Renovation' go to:
http://www.rpbooks.co.uk/ (Europe and Africa)
http://www.garrattpublishing.com.au/ (Australia, New Zealand and Asia)