June 24, 2016
It doesn’t take extraordinary powers of perception to recognize that the Catholic Church in American in the 21st century is in a state of stagnation, if not outright decline. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of Catholic parishes in the United States in 2015 (17,337) is no more, and in fact, slightly fewer than the number that existed in 1965 (17,637). Weekly mass attendance, one indicator of the commitment of the faithful, has dropped to 24% in 2015 from 55% in 1965. It is often pointed out that the second largest Christian denomination in the United States is former Catholics. We hear that the Catholic Church is in crisis . . . and several areas of crisis easily come to mind. We have a vocations crisis, a sexual abuse crisis, a financial crisis, and a crisis of commitment and connection on the part of many of our people, especially among those of the millennial generation. Hundreds of thousands of faithful, believing Catholics carry the burden of children or grandchildren who have abandoned “the faith.” Many of our parishes are centers of mediocrity and minimalism.
In the opening paragraphs of his 2014 book, Divine Renovation, Fr. James Mallon suggests that these areas of crisis are but symptoms of a more fundamental crisis, namely, a crisis of identity: we have forgotten who we are and what we are called to do and be as Church. Invoking the passage from the Gospel According to Matthew commonly known as the Great Commission—Jesus’ disciples are instructed to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing 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” (Matt 28:19-20)–Mallon reminds us that Jesus gave his followers a command with four parts: to go, to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach. Of the four, the heart of the mandate is to make disciples. And we as Church don’t do this very well . . . if at all. And that’s our fundamental problem.
After making this key observation, Mallon paints a landscape of opportunity and challenge, employing colors from the Church’s vibrant theological pallet, together with shades of practical application, the result of which is a picture of hope and direction . . . and challenge. The picture of hope and direction is the New Evangelization. From the universal call to holiness and the universal call to mission from the documents of Vatican Council II, through the teachings and exhortations of Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and including the Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis, Mallon illustrates the consistent theological message of the Church to mission and discipleship.
But while the Church’s theology of mission and discipleship are sound and consistent (and even inspiring!) the question of how to overcome the inertia of current parish culture—often mediocre and minimal— looms incredibly large indeed. In Chapter 5, Laying the Foundation—How to Transform the Culture of the Parish Community, Mallon suggests priorities for a successful model of a parish culture of mission and discipleship. The first is to give priority to the weekend, that is, to Sunday liturgy. The next three priorities support the first: hospitality, music, homilies. Other priorities include meaningful community, clear expectations, strength-based ministry, small communities, the experience of the Holy Spirit, and becoming an inviting Church. For each priority Mallon offers practical guidance and direction based on his own pastoral experience.
A program that Mallon mentions multiple times and which he uses as an entry point for the formation for new disciples “because it works” is the Alpha Course. (See http://alphausa.org/catholic.) Alpha is a contemporary tool of the New Evangelization. It introduces people to the life-giving message of Jesus with focus on the Kerygma—the essential truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection—to facilitate a personal encounter with Jesus. Designed primarily to appeal to those outside the Church or on the fringes of faith, to youth, and to lapsed Catholics, Alpha promotes Jesus as an answer to the seekers’ question, “Is there more to life than this?” Mallon acknowledges two objections to using Alpha as a tool for fulfilling the mandate of Jesus to make disciples. The first concern is that the content of the 10-week course is limited and leaves out essential elements of Catholic teaching, which Mallon acknowledges. But he then argues that for evangelization to be successful, the kerygma must be clearly articulated, heard and responded to before additional theological details are introduced. The second concern is that course originated in a non-Catholic Christian context (the original context is Anglican, see http://alpha.org/ and https://www.htb.org/). Never mind that a vetted Catholic context for the program is available (see previous reference above), the criticism of “not invented here” is too tiresome to warrant a response by this writer.
In the final chapter, Leader of the House—The Essential Role of Leadership, Fr. Mallon presents a necessary and realistic blueprint for the role of the pastor in accomplishing a movement of parish from maintenance to mission. In a couple weeks, my friend Albert, a former classmate, will be ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. This book, one of several that are recommended reading for the Parish Catalyst staff, is one of the gifts I will give him for his ordination. Divine Renovation should be required reading for every pastor and every pastoral associate, ordained or lay . . . everywhere.
By: Steve Picard, Program Coordinator, Parish Catalyst, Los Angeles, CA