How open would your parish be to accepting an invitation from your bishop to give a new initiative a go? Would parishioners be prepared to devote time and energy to it? Would everyone be able to put behind them the old structure of “Father” running the show, and revel in the belief that everyone on the team would be equally responsible for the success (or failure) of the initiative?
Well, that’s just what a small regional parish in the Central West of New South Wales has done. St Raphael’s Parish Cowra, in the Diocese of Bathurst, was invited to look at how the Divine Renovation (DR) and Alpha ministries might work in their local community. Fr Laurie Beath, a priest of 32 years, together with a small group of parishioners began their adventure a few years ago by attending workshops, training and reading resources about DR and Alpha.
Graham, a father of four and recently retired from a role in local government, found the DR ideas and themes excellent. Graham felt that some aspects might be too complex for their small and less resourced parish. However, when he understood how Alpha was an integral part of the DR game plan, he immediately recognised that Alpha could work very well in Cowra.
Marg, a winemaker and mother of four, has always considered the community aspect of the Catholic faith to be her focus. She felt that Alpha ticked a number of boxes in terms of improving the vitality of the parish. Marg also agrees with the DR motto that people need to feel like they “belong” before they can “believe” in what is being proposed. Once these two steps have been taken, they are likely to “behave” in a way that responds to their newly acquired (or rejuvenated) faith.
Fr Laurie says: “Don’t ever underestimate the importance of hospitality and welcome.” Hospitality is something that he has always placed immense value on. He has worked hard to ensure that newcomers are welcomed, parishioners who offer their time and talent are thanked, and members of parish ministries meet regularly over a meal. So, you might ask, in this regard, was Alpha actually needed? Well, you need to know that Alpha always begins with a meal with participants gathered around the table. Surprisingly, this ritual of gathering for a meal is not one that everyone regularly partakes in. So for parishioners who want to contribute to the Alpha ministry, they are trained in a process that encourages hospitality, conversation and friendship. The Alpha training empowers them to be skilled in helping people to “belong”.
As part of the Alpha program, participants watch a short video on an aspect of the Christian faith. Graham acknowledges that there was some concern that Alpha might not have enough Catholic content. However, these concerns were mitigated when they saw strong references to the Catholic tradition. The organising team have also discovered that many attendees, whether they have been regularly practising their faith or not, have learnt a lot about the basics of the Christian tradition. Many participants have not undertaken any structured faith study since they left school. Alpha opens up the possibility of further formation.
Unfortunately COVID-19 has put a “spanner in the works” in terms of their plans for Alpha. However, they are absolutely positive that once they can, they will continue. There are too many good news stories already.
Firstly, Fr Laurie is delighted that this small Alpha leadership team accepts that they are “in this together”. They are all sharing the responsibility for this ministry, which he has found to be “very freeing”. One can see that this example of co-responsibility for a ministry, which is about sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, will inevitably flow over into how they manage other parish ministries.
The team is excited that two young, non-Catholic mums from the local school community have now experienced Alpha. Fr Laurie isn’t sure if they will continue on to the RCIA journey. However, he knows they have experienced a sense of being part of the Catholic family.
Marg says there is evidence of a shift in the way locals view the parish, especially over the last year. People who had drifted away from the Church, especially since their children finished school, are now sensing that something has changed locally. They are asking questions and they are curious about what’s happening in the parish. There is a “renewed interest in the faith life”.
When asked to name what factors are key to the success of this revitalisation of their parish, they would suggest the following:
- Stability. It is near impossible to bring any good initiative to fruition if the key leadership team keeps changing.
- A team approach to parish ministry has great merit and should become the new normal. How that works in practice raises many questions, but it’s something that parishes and dioceses should be working towards.
- Read the Divine Renovation book! It might not be suited to every parish context, but it will give you plenty to think about.
- Give Alpha a go!
- The DR philosophy of “belong, believe, behave” should be in the forefront of your mind when making plans for your parish.
It would seem that the fruit of their hard work is now seeping out into the community. A good news story indeed.