Review of Divine Renovation
By Mark F. Fischer
In Divine Renovation, Father James Mallon, a priest of the Diocese of Halifax, advances the thesis that a “crisis” faces the Catholic Church. Mallon argues, “We have forgotten who we are and what we are called to do as a Church,” including “why we exist as a Church to begin with” (p. 13). Instead, he says, “most parishes, crippled by a culture of maintenance, focus at best on meeting the needs of parishioners” (17). Such Catholics merely try to maintain their congregations, serving themselves rather than extending their mission and bringing the gospel to the unchurched.
Divine Renovation does not cite research to prove its claim that “most parishes” merely “maintain” the size of their congregations. Mallon speaks, not as a sociologist, but as a pastor. He relates biting anecdotes about parishioners more committed to playing-card socials than to the gospel. He views contemporary Catholicism as a sinking ship whose passengers will perish unless they recall their essential mission. His analogy is the ship Titanic. When it sunk, more than 1500 passengers drowned because Titanic not only had an insufficient number of lifeboats, but most of them were only half-filled. Passengers in the lifeboats neglected to save those who had jumped into the water. Just as the passengers neglected to do their duty, so do today’s Catholics. “Lifeboats exist to rescue people,” says Mallon, and “so does the Church” (18). To Mallon, most Catholics have forgotten that mission.
Divine Renovation belongs to a genre that might be called “entrepreneurial Christianity.” Preceded by Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish (2013), Mallon addresses readers as a pastor, enthusiastic about the Catholic parish and eager to recall its origin, so that, properly managed, it can achieve its fundamental purpose. Like the authors of Rebuilt, who claimed to triple the size of their parish in suburban Maryland by focusing its mission and becoming hospitable, Mallon is eager to share his accomplishments. In 2010, he became the pastor of St. Benedict in Halifax, a “brand new, beautiful, large, state-of-the-art church” (90). St Benedict was built after selling three church buildings and amalgamating their congregations. Mallon then “implemented a . . . campaign to transform the culture of our parish” (94). Mallon fully subscribes to the thesis of Rebuilt, namely, that a health parish is a growing parish.
The Importance of Alpha
For Mallon, evangelization means proclaiming the gospel in such a way that it awakens a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. To awaken that relationship in his parish of St. Benedict, Mallon has offered the “Alpha” course for the past several years. Alpha, a course in evangelization developed in 1977 by the Reverend Charles Marnham at a Church of England parish in London, was highly effective at St. Benedict in Halifax. Almost 2,000 people participated in the course, writes Mallon, “with 20% to 30% being non-churchgoers” (25). According to Mallon’s testimony, “We have . . . seen hundreds of lives changed and transformed as people encountered the person of Jesus Christ” (25). The Alpha course is inextricably linked to Mallon’s paradigm for evangelization.
Mallon acknowledges that he has been active in Alpha since 2001, and in 2009 he gave evangelization and Alpha workshops in Chihuahua, Mexico (36). He admires Alpha’s threefold-approach to evangelization that he calls “belong-believe-behave.” The first step is to create among participants a sense of belonging. Then, during the ten-week Alpha process, Mallon says that people “begin to let down their guard.” Eventually, he says, “the truth of Jesus and his Gospel begins to knock on the door of their hearts.” Participants make a decision to follow Jesus, and the result (he says) is “a total re-evaluation of lifestyle and behavior, as the journey of discipleship begins” (142). In Alpha-style evangelization, belonging comes first, followed by believing and behaving as Christians.
Mallon embraced Alpha, he says, out of a sense of frustration. He describes himself as “a proud John Paul II priest” who “believed that the path to renewal in the Church would be found in personal holiness and orthodoxy” (51). But personal holiness and orthodoxy, he discovered, were not enough:
I was convinced that if I just preached enough homilies on the need to grow spiritually, to serve in ministry and to put more in the collection, and if I just provided enough opportunities for parishioners to take programs to help them change their behavior, then it would all work. (141).
But when not enough people grew spiritually, ministered, and contributed to the parish, Mallon turned to Alpha. Now, he says, Alpha is “foundational” to St. Benedict parish’s identity “as a missional and evangelizing Church” (143). At St. Benedict’s, parents who want their children baptized must take the Alpha course. Young people are enrolled in it. Taking Alpha is one of the requirements for serving on the pastoral council. Alpha originated in a non-Catholic context, Mallon writes, but that is not a liability. Its “ecumenical base,” he says, will “enhance the effectiveness” of St. Benedict Church.
What distinguishes Divine Renovation from other literary examples of entrepreneurial Christianity like Rebuilt is a sustained theological reflection. Although Mallon confesses that the academic atmosphere of seminary studies did not bring him to his knees (284), nevertheless he takes a stab at theology in Chapter Four. It is a 27-page interpretation of what Pope Francis, in a 2013 address to the Latin American bishops in Rio de Janeiro, called the “Temptations against missionary discipleship.” Mallon advocates missionary discipleship, and argues that two temptations hinder it: Pelagianism and clericalism.
Pelagianism is usually treated in textbooks as the fourth-century heresy that denied original sin. At the time of St. Augustine, it tried to maintain the illusion that uncorrupted human beings possess all they need to save themselves. Today’s Catholics remain under the Pelagian influence, according to Mallon, because they believe that they earn their way into heaven by good works. They regard salvation, he says, as “getting my card punched so I can meet the basic requirements” (70). It is not covenant faith but a culture of minimalism. Mallon diagnoses the common Catholic ailment this way: “Never having tasted the sheer, naked mercy of God, we are not filled by his mercy, and therefore are not merciful” (68). The remedy is for Catholics to recognize their sinfulness so that they can experience God’s forgiveness. In this, says Mallon, pastors play a key role. Their duty is to confront parishioners, not primarily with social justice or other “secondary” moral issues (69), but with a proclamation of the Gospel that emphasizes their need for God’s mercy. The Alpha course is just such a proclamation.
If Pelagianism is the first temptation that Mallon emphasizes, the second is clericalism. Usually clericalism means the jealous insistence by priests on the privileges that accrue to their office. Clerics (it is assumed) are superior to lay people. But Mallon takes a different tack. From his standpoint, clericalism stems from a radical division between the clergy and the laity, including what he calls “clericalized” lay ministers. Both priests and lay ministers isolate themselves and do specifically “religious” things, he says, persuading themselves that ordinary lay people cannot do them (73). Brainwashed into believing that holiness and mission are the job of the clergy, says Mallon, lay Catholics ignore “spiritual maturity, discipleship, knowledge and familiarity with the Scriptures” (77). The result, according to Mallon, is “lifelong parishioners who are stuck . . . spiritually” (81). They never embrace holiness and mission. The solution, says Mallon, is to help lay Catholics take responsibility for their faith. He condemns Pelagianism and clericalism because they prevent Catholics from feeling the need for mercy and from growing spiritually. If they recognized their sinfulness, they would seek God’s mercy.
Transforming the Parish
Chapter Five, at 110 pages, is the single longest chapter of Divine Renovation. Entitled “Laying the Foundation: How to Transform the Culture of the Parish Community,” it is full of practical advice, much like that offered in Rebuilt and in William Simon’s 2016 Great Catholic Parishes. The chapter advises pastors, for example, to “give priority to the weekend” by preparing and celebrating the liturgy well. When they do so, the liturgy becomes “the best possible experience for the maximum number of people” (96). It encourages hospitality to the stranger, uplifting music, and “solid biblical preaching” for “fifteen to 20 minutes” (124). The divinely renovated parish whose culture has been transformed then will strive to create “meaningful community.” One way to do this, Mallon says, is to give parishioners the expectation that they have a ministry and need to make a practical contribution to the parish’s mission. The parish should recognize the strengths of individual parishioners and offer them the experience of small communities. Divine renovation takes place when Christian faith is not individual but shared.
To promote such sharing, Divine Renovation offers insights often recommended by experts in human dynamics and also employed in the Alpha program. For example, Mallon describes “three specific changes we introduced to our Sunday Eucharist that, in effect were an attempt to move a little bit of Alpha from the basement into the sanctuary” (144). Once a month, he invites congregants to wear nametags to Sunday Mass. There he invites people to become “prayer partners” and pray for each other. He even gives advice (147) about how to pray for another person:
- Pray immediately.
- Allow your own weakness and sinfulness to be challenged.
- Enable the person who asks for the prayer to “hear” it.
During the Alpha experience, he says, team members pray over guests. Mallon assures us, “The model we use at Alpha is non-intrusive, gentle and respectful” (148). He admires it because it is a ministry that lay people can perform as well as priests.
Father Mallon’s parish practice stems from the strategy of Alpha. He insists on the importance of Alpha because it helps people recognize their sinfulness and their need for God. A confession of sinfulness is the first step toward the transformation of parish culture. Such a transformation, he says, “will bring about health, and health will bring about the growth of the parish” (95). In brief, transformation leads not only to re-evangelization but also to the growth of the congregation. Alpha, Mallon says, “embraces the belong-believe-behave approach to evangelization” (142). People first have a sense of belonging. That opens them to faith or believing. Believing leads to changes in behavior. Mallon summarizes the Alpha approach in this way:
As the sense of belonging grows, they [participants] begin to let down their guard and receive the message of the talks. . . . What happens after this transformation of belief is a total re-evaluation of lifestyle and behaviour, as the journey of discipleship begins (142).
Divine Renovation, in brief, offers a prescription for parish renewal. When people feel that they belong (as they do in Alpha), they become open to a message. They regard themselves as sinners who need God. That prepares them to hear the good news of salvation.
Many dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Chicago, have embraced James Mallon’s approach. In the fall of 2018 the archdiocese sponsored a “Renew My Church” gathering that featured Father Mallon. Chicago’s evangelization campaign, the archdiocesan newspaper said, has “partnered with Divine Renovation for coaching and guidance for parish communities.” That is a strong endorsement.
One can ask, however, about the liabilities of Divine Renovation’s strongly Augustinian theology, its strange treatment of clericalism, and its reliance upon Alpha.
Father Mallon insists that the path to a genuine encounter with God is the realization and confession of sinfulness. Only the sinner can come before God, humble and ready to receive God’s grace. Augustine was a great saint. But his preoccupation with human sinfulness and his suggestion that we are predestined to hell tend to overshadow the Christian optimism of Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes.
Father Mallon describes himself as a “proud John Paul II priest.” To him, that means that he prizes orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is worth celebrating. But Mallon’s orthodoxy is colored by a peculiar critique of “clericalism.” In Mallon’s mind, clericalism is not the jealous preoccupation of some clergymen with their own status and privilege. That is the normal meaning of the word, but not Mallon’s. In his mind clericalism means the aspiration of lay ministers to authority that rightly belong to priests. He seems to neglect the far broader meaning of the term.
Above all, Mallon emphasizes the Alpha program to such an extent that the program almost defines his ministry. It seems excessive to insist that parents must take Alpha in order to have their children baptized, or that youth must participate in Alpha to participate in youth ministry, or that pastoral council members must participate in Alpha. It is doubtless a popular program, but it should not be the sine qua non for parish membership.