St. Benedict’s Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, continues to build its reputation as an exporter of good ideas for missionary discipleship. Importers include the Archdiocese of Omaha, which hosted a conference spreading those ideas last October; the Diocese of Dallas, where an “Amazing Parish” conference will take place this month; a leadership conference in London, England, holding a “Divine Renovation Day” in early May; and the Assembly of Capuchin Friars, gathering later that month in Loretto, PA.

The compelling guidelines to renew parish life, spreading from Canada to impact the Catholic Church in a number of countries, emerged from innovative minds and bold visions that birthed the “Divine Renovation” (DR) ministry. A debut of DR that transformed St. Benedict’s took shape early in this decade. It focused on inspirational themes such as the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus and awareness of an evangelizing mission which arises from that relationship.

But the ministry also stresses themes that might be called motivational or managerial. These include building successful parishes through coaching and well-orchestrated leadership teams; structural principles that can replace the routines merely “maintaining” the status quo; and a strategy of customization that provides programmatic and procedural tools equipping each parish according to its unique circumstances.

The founding leader and voice for Divine Renovation is Rev. James Mallon, a priest of the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth who was ordained in 1997 and became pastor of St. Benedict’s in 2010. Last year, Archbishop Anthony Mancini appointed him Episcopal Vicar for Parish Renewal and Leadership Support and also gave him time to serve the network of churches adopting the Divine Renovation (DR) approach.

Fr. Mallon placed a spotlight on the rise of passionate Catholicism in Halifax with his first book, Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish in 2014, and his second book, Divine Renovation Guidebook: A Step-by-Step Manual for Transforming Your Parish in 2016. Also in that year, St. Benedict’s and the ministry began hosting a conference, which attracted 600 attendees from 11 nations. The 2018 annual conference, scheduled for June 11-12, is now accepting registrants while space is available.

A newly published book about DR comes from Rev. Simon Lobo, CC, who moved to St. Benedict’s to learn about the ministry by working alongside the founder. Fr. Lobo became pastor last year and has written Divine Renovation Apprentice: Learning to Lead a Disciple-Making Parish. Fr. Mallon continues a regular video podcast on DR and travels to conferences to spread his passion for evangelization.

Rev. Jeffrey Lorig, a priest of the Omaha archdiocese, says the principles of DR have made a big difference there while proving to be an adaptable framework helping to transform parishes in various ways. Omaha’s Archbishop George Lucas has shown strong support. For one thing, he appointed Fr. Lorig, a former pastor, as Director of Pastoral Services, emphasizing a commitment to provide resources to parishes as they try something new.

Many channels of hope spring from the local church, Fr. Lorig said in a phone interview with SPES in March. His purview extends over several offices relevant to parish activity, including evangelization, Catholic schools, family life and stewardship because they all connect to Jesus’ Great Commission—to go forth and make disciples. The whole range of activity supports the missionary momentum that follows once these disciples truly develop their personal encounter with the Lord.

“Basically, we’ve set up a consulting team,” Fr. Lorig says. The archbishop encourages parish leaders to invite team members to go out to meet with them. “We ‘go out’ because our goal in the pastoral offices of the curia is to be missionaries to our parish and school leaders,” especially when the leaders experience a “holy discontent” with the status quo, when they want to do more to change people’s lives.

For the parish and school leaders, their first contact occurs with the directors of the pastoral offices under Fr. Lorig’s purview. “Our first step is really to assess the needs of the pastor. The next step is to encourage the pastor to gather a group of parishioners around him to help him move forward with a new vision.”

“We’re going to walk with you,” the archdiocesan missionaries tell each local group. Pastors and their leadership cadres begin a journey which is based on certain principles inherent in DR, although a “game plan” can be unique to a particular parish, not necessarily leading to formal participation in the international DR network. (Several parishes in the archdiocese have become formal members.) As in all walks of life, he says, good coaching builds upon the strengths of a person, or parish.

The emphasis on working with parish leaders became clear when Fr. Mallon consulted with the archdiocese before speaking there last October. The event, for which Fr. Lorig was a key planner, was first envisioned as a “clergy conference,” but their guest from Canada suggested asking each pastor to bring three to five lay leaders from his parish. That led to an attendance of approximately 500, and the results have reverberated through the archdiocese ever since.

Here are some of the take-away messages from that conference which Fr. Lorig told SPES he and his colleagues have been helping to implement:

  • A disciple is one who learns, and disciples cannot be equipped for the mission of evangelization with catechesis or particular programs alone. They need a theologically grounded model of what a renewed parish looks like, informed by their relationship with Jesus. Every parish must create a clear path for discipleship among its parishioners.
  • Alpha, which describes itself as a series of sessions exploring the Christian faith wherein each talk is designed to stimulate conversation about a particular faith-related question, is a primary evangelistic tool Fr. Lorig recommends. But, again, his team recognizes that not every parish is ready to host Alpha at its current point in the journey toward missionary discipleship.
  • Within the coaching environment, the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization takes the lead and conducts “leveling sessions” where the parish core group unites behind a Catholic understanding of the evangelization process. The process includes playing a “You’re the Pastor” board game the office created to enrich everyone’s perspective.
  • The game plan focuses on adult evangelization. While many parishes have seen their operation of a school at the center of their outreach, a school can take up much of the community’s resources. “We’re here to serve the whole family.” With or without a school, parents are the primary educators of their children. Faith is passed along through the family first and strengthened in the school. “We see the evidence every day,” Fr. Lorig says. “Kids practice the faith of the parents.”

About providing models of transformed parishes, Fr. Mallon says in his podcast series that every diocese needs at least a few parishes that have received the full measure of pastoral leadership and diocesan resources to become a robust “missional” parish. He explains, “When we see health, it inspires.”

In a concluding part of this story, SPES will draw from particular episodes in the Divine Renovation Podcast where Fr. Mallon discusses how to set up bishops for success in transforming parishes for evangelization.