The sign of a good book is that it challenges you; that it makes you question where you are at, and makes you ask where you want to be. Sacred Scripture serves as this prototype for none of us depart its pages unchallenged.
Fr. Mallon’s Divine Renovation does just that. It challenges us to ask serious questions about the culture of maintenance found in the Catholic Church and exhorts us to boldly go out into the culture with the message of Christ. We Catholics have the fullness of truth; why are we too scared to share it with others?
This book is more than just an exhortation – in fact, the main exhortation is not from Fr. Mallon, but from our Holy Fathers – it is a practical guide to spiritually renovating our parishes. We should care for and maintain the exterior of our churches, but how much more so should we care for and nurture the interior heart, the culture, of our parishes?
Fr. Mallon identifies very real issues inside the Church today. For example, the inclination to support structures and institutions over people, especially those “that no-longer serve the mission or that prevent the mission from being fulfilled.”1 However, he does not assault with an endless list of problems, but instead lovingly points out flaws to which he offers remedies. His critiques might be hard to hear for some, but like the loving correction of a son, Fr. Mallon only seeks to nurture and grow the family of the Church. And, importantly, Fr. Mallon is the first to admit his own failings. His answers are possible solutions, not dogmatically defined truths.
The main body of his book focuses on “How to Transform the Culture of the Parish Community.” While everything he discusses does not apply to every particular parish (this he readily admits) at least some of what he says applies to all parishes. He rightly identifies that it is a parish’s culture and its values that matter, not what their mission statement might dictate from its plaque on the wall.
In transforming his parish’s culture, Fr. Mallon addresses the very thing Christ addressed: the change must be an interior change not an exterior one. As individuals, when our hearts are drawn into union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the transformation that occurs is radical. When a parish embraces Jesus wholesale, how radically wonderful this will be! Everything he discusses is to this end: that of changing hearts and minds so that we Catholics fully live the gospel in our lives.
Now, Fr. Mallon is the first to admit “we implemented these changes without any conviction that what we propose is somehow the answer to our pastoral dilemma, but with the conviction that it cannot be worse than what we have been doing.”2 All of us should be open to the working of the Holy Spirit and embrace that which the Spirit bears to fruitfulness, not that which we determine is the “right” program or method. Knowing our end and constantly evaluating if we are headed in the right direction means that we need to throw off that which is not working and embrace that which is.
God’s role in changing hearts is never forgotten through the entirety of the book, but it is perhaps most concretely emphasized in the discussion of the sacraments. This section comes directly after the fairly practical guide on how to transform the parish and it is quite fitting for, if we want to share the message of Christ with all, we are inviting them to join in substantial union with him through the sacraments. Fr. Mallon opens up this section by saying:
“I believe that it is essential that those knocking on our doors be welcomed with open arms and love, no matter how limited their faith or understanding of what they are seeking…I strongly believe that our starting point must be that we never say “no” to any request for a sacrament. To do so is to cut off at the heels even the possibility of conversion and transformation. However, this begs the question of what it means to say “yes.” “Yes” cannot simply mean the fixing of a date, some paperwork and a quick marriage preparation class. Our “yes” must be a wholehearted willingness to walk with [them] until they are ready to celebrate the sacraments and be accompanied with a clear definition of what readiness looks like. Our “yes” must be an invitation to a process, a journey…Our “yes,” therefore, may also include a “not yet.” The journey must be one of authentic conversion, and not be just a complicated obstacle course that must be successfully navigated in order to get the prize at the end.”
The sacraments are about living out in actions our relationship with Jesus Christ. How right it is to build relationships with those seeking the sacraments for this is truly edifying to their being and respectful of their dignity no matter what their particular circumstances might be. Rejecting or accepting them to the sacraments outright is an unloving action. In the former, we close the door in their face; in the latter, we unintentionally express through our actions that we would rather have them “do the ritual and get them out the door” than enter into a relationship with them. Either way, the door to the saving power of God’s grace through the sacraments is greatly hindered if not closed. “Yes, but not quite yet” might not be the only answer to living the truth in love, but it is one of the best I have ever heard. It returns the sacraments to their proper glory and builds a relationship between God, man, and His Church.
A lot more could be said about Divine Renovation and my academic inclinations entreat me to turn this book review into a treatise critically exploring every nuance. However, for your sake, I’ll cease with these words: read it. Read it and see for yourself that which is true and discard that which isn’t. Put that which applies into practice and ignore the rest. You don’t have to agree with all that is said for this to be useful in your life and the life of your parish. Perhaps it could be summed up as “this is what we did…try it, try something else, I don’t care, but try something. It can’t be any worse than what we are doing now.”
This book is about what Fr. Mallon did with his parish. May it inspire you to write your own parish story.
Recommended especially for pastors, though all can greatly gain from reading this. It is written from a pastoral position and is therefore most practical for pastors as they are the ones who can put his suggestions to use.