The new evangelisation. A Catholic priest on the eastern coast of Canada has turned his parish into a powerhouse of renewal and mission. James Mallon explains the secret
At 31 years of age, in his very first parish, Fr James Mallon sequestered the parish hall for 10 Monday nights. There was a small problem. The hall had already been reserved for a group of card players, and they were reluctant to change their booking. Fr Mallon insisted that he needed the hall for the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity originally developed by an evangelical Anglican parish in London. One woman shouted at him: “We don’t need to know about Jesus. We need to play cards!”
Fr Mallon tells me: “The uproar was so great that an emergency meeting of the parish council had to be called.” He stubbornly pushed ahead, and has been a big supporter of Alpha ever since. “It works,” he says. “Alpha has been at the heart of my experience of renewal.”
Fr Mallon was born in Glasgow and emigrated to Canada in 1982 as a teenager. Every so often you can pick up a little of the Scottish influence in the words he chooses. When he tells me how an ordinary Catholic parish can be brought to life, he becomes passionate. With a wry laugh, he admits it is not always easy to get people on board: Catholics usually think of catechesis or faith formation as something we do with children; adult catechesis is seen as entirely optional.
Fr Mallon is convinced that “drastic action is required”. In the last four years in his present parish of St Benedict, Nova Scotia, almost 2,000 people have participated in the Alpha course. (About 45 per cent of these are his own parishioners; the rest are un-churched or are from other parishes and churches.) Alpha embraces the “belong-believe-behave” approach to evangelisation. It creates a warm, welcoming, non-threatening, non-pressurised and non-judgmental environment. Fr Mallon uses the standard Alpha course: a series of interactive sessions at which the Christian faith is discussed in an informal, fun and friendly environment.
All over the world, Alpha groups follow the same process. They meet for a meal and then there is a talk followed by discussion in small groups. Through the 10-week process, Fr Mallon explains, “trust begins to build”, and, as people begin to let their guard down, they get the message. “The truth of Jesus and his Gospel begins to knock on the door of their hearts and, by the end of the 10 weeks, many of them have been led to a personal encounter with Jesus and make the decision to follow him.” Their lives are “changed and transformed; they come alive in their experience of God’s family, the Church.”
There are many others, but Fr Mallon finds that Alpha is the most effective tool for the evangelisation of a parish. If we turn to the last verses of Matthew’s Gospel, he points out, we read that Jesus said to the disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Which is the vital verb in this passage, the heart of the task that gives Christians their identity: is it “to go”, “to make”, “to baptise” or “to teach”?
Fr Mallon has asked dozens of groups of lay people, priests and even bishops. He has asked large groups and small groups – and with the same result. Laughing, he says: “The right answer is always chosen by the least number of people – and, not just by a few but by an insanely small minority. This result reflects the identity crisis that afflicts our Church and reveals a deep, unconscious bias against the very task that the Lord placed at the heart of his mandate.”
Just in case I was not one of the few who might have given him the right answer, he told me that it is “to make disciples”. Fr Mallon insists that all the other missionary aspects of the Church revolve around the making of disciples: the going, the baptising and the teaching. “We have to remember that the Church is the only organisation that primarily exists for the sake of those who do not belong,” he explains. “We have to rethink our models of parish life, from membership-based communities to assemblies of disciples of Jesus who proclaim and share the good news with all peoples.”
Fr Mallon reassures me that we should not worry too much about the identity crisis in the Church: “It is not unlike the one that existed at the time of Jesus. It is not so much that the Church of Christ has a mission, as that the mission of Jesus has a Church.”
More and more people are convinced that the basic parish communities of the sort envisaged by Fr Mallon are at the heart of parish renewal, where parishioners are enabled to reflect in a personal way on the Word of God, on their faith and on their call to holiness and discipleship of Jesus in their daily lives. His bestselling book, Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish is helping Christian leaders re-think and re-shape their own parishes. It has prompted many pastors from around the world to reach out to him for help in making their own parishes missional. The sequel is a step-by-step manual for transforming a parish, the Divine Renovation Guidebook. Fr Mallon says that “sooner or later a parish that runs Alpha will experience a tipping point”. When this happens, he says, “the experience of Sunday Eucharist will begin to change”.
To help Catholic parishes that desire true change and real growth, Fr Mallon and his team have established the Divine Renovation Network, which gives parishes the necessary coaching, tools and guidance. In addition to the coaching, Fr Mallon has created a number of video resources.
From Paul VI to Francis, our popes have been urging a New Evangelisation. Fr Mallon’s vision is the creation of spaces for people to come to know Jesus as the living Lord and then begin to form them, to make them disciples. Fr Mallon says this will help us to rediscover our identity and place the heart of the Lord’s mandate for his Church at the heart of everything we do, so that, at the heart of every parish there will be a community of growing, maturing believers.
For more information about Fr James Mallon and Divine Renovation and for a list of upcoming events, see https://frjamesmallon.com/upcoming-events/