I have been to many conferences over the years. But never have I experienced, on the first day of a conference, the palpable excitement, friendliness and hospitality that wasn’t just coming from the organisers and volunteers at the recent Divine Renovation Australasia Conference.
I quickly realised that, as one of the more than 400 parishioners and priests from across Australia and New Zealand in attendance, I was not the only person who did not know much about the ministry of Divine Renovation (DR). I also was not alone in my desire to see parish life renewed.
The energy from delegates and organisers was tested during the opening Mass and keynote address by the hot and humid Sydney weather. However, we were undaunted, and the Mass was celebrated with a reverence and passion that remained for the entire weekend.
The first keynote address was delivered by Fr James Mallon, the founder of Divine Renovation Ministry, and he got right to the heart of why we were there. He said the Church is suffering from an identity crisis. We have forgotten that Jesus established a Church and commissioned her to “make disciples of the nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). Making disciples is the mission of the Church.
Unfortunately, he said, many Catholics “perceive mission as something that a select few carry out in far-off places”. Fr James challenged us that the mission begins in our own parishes and communities. Most parishes work in a state of maintenance; taking a parish from maintenance to mission is the goal of DR.
So how does a parish go from maintenance to mission?
I learned that this process is not something for one person to do! It is important to start with a solid group of leaders ready and willing to go through this process and put in the hard yards. It requires establishing a vision for your parish and then setting goals that will see your vision come to fruition.
It is vital that the priest is part of and central to this renewal. His preaching and spiritual leadership has an integral part to play in guiding the parish towards mission. Programs such as Alpha can be useful tools to bring together long-time parishioners and potential parishioners. Not only does a program like that help participants learn more about the Christian faith, it also helps develop friendships which will foster community life and assists in identifying new leaders in the parish.
We were cautioned to be prepared for conflict and to be prepared to persevere through it. Not everyone will be on-board with the changes that have to be made. Some will come around; others may not. It is my experience that the best relationships can be forged through working through difficulties and differences in opinion. So, while knowing that tension will be inevitable, through prayer and perseverance, it is a necessary part of transformation.
Does this ministry really work? What does a mission parish look like?
DR was born out of Fr James Mallon’s work to renew his parish of St Benedict’s in Halifax, Canada. It is a ministry developed from real-life experience.
One of the highlights from this conference was hearing from lay people and priests who are using tools from DR in their parish. I attended one workshop given by a parish priest and lay leader who gave an account of how their rural parish became a DR parish. They offered a real example of how you can take the tools that DR offers and produce results.
We heard about their mistakes along the way but also the victories they gained. It was inspiring to hear that long-time parishioners experienced a renewal and new joy in their faith, especially from sharing it with others. The stories of those who, through the outward focus of a parish on a mission, came to know the love of Jesus for the first time were especially touching.
The conference was hosted by St Declan’s Parish, Penshurst. Through the witness of this parish, we got to see what it looks like when a parish embraces its mission. Many delegates, including me, were touched by the hospitality shown by the many parish volunteers. This intentional and sincere ministry is an essential aspect of a parish living out the mission of Christ.
I have to say I am somewhat daunted to try to convince my own parish that this might be a way for us to realise our own hopes to be a parish that is both helping her members and also reaching out to the wider community. I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears that this ministry can be the new hope for parish renewal. It is not the first program for renewal and it will not be the last. However, I believe it has something very powerful to offer us in the here and now.
Mrs Anna Abraham serves on the Parish Council at St Joseph's O'Connor (Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn) and is a catechist for the children’s ministry, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
Divine Renovation Network
Catholic Weekly. A renovation of parish life that’s divine. February 14, 2023
Images: Supplied: Emily Hall (Watson Parish, ACT), Anna Abraham (O’Connor Parish, ACT), Selina Stanford (Queanbeyan Parish, NSW).
 Divine Renovation, From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, p. 17.