Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s Proclaim Office hosted a conversation on Leading a Missionary Parish with guest speakers Ron Huntley, a Canadian-based speaker and author whose passion is for parish renewal, and Fr Chris Ryan MGL who spent many years in Melbourne and is currently parish priest of St Declan’s, Penshurst, in New South Wales.
Their conversation is part of a series of live online talks and interviews exploring signs of hope in the Church – globally, nationally and locally. These talks show how parishes with an intentional missionary focus can successfully reach their 21st century neighbourhoods with God’s transforming love.
In case you weren’t tuned into the livestream, here are some key highlights you missed.
The conversation opened with the importance of teams. Fr Chris said that seminarians and priests are not necessarily formed well in how to work together as a team, but it’s so important because ‘there’s a ceiling that you reach if you’re largely trying to do it by yourself,’ he said. Teams give us ‘the capacity to do things we couldn’t by ourselves. There’s not a priest alive who can do everything that’s required for a parish to really flourish . . . Nobody’s got it all.’
One of the problems is that parishes are no longer “communities” in the traditional sense. Quoting Pope Francis’ encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, he said that parishes are a ‘community of communities’ (EG §28). Parishes are too big to simply manage as a single community. In order to feel known and cared for, people need to belong to a smaller group within a parish where they can share their faith and life. A flourishing parish therefore ideally becomes a ‘community of communities’ and people begin to feel deeply connected.
They also spoke about the need for parishes to have a vision. Ron suggested that there is a difference between a “vision statement” and a “vision”. A vision statement helps us return to what’s most important.
A vision, on the other hand, ‘is more detailed, more robust.’
As Ron pointed out, ‘we naturally complicate things as humans … we get lost in the weeds, and [this] is about coming back to the most important thing.’ Or as the author and educator Stephen Covey would say, ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’
Fr Chris shared how he went about implementing a detailed vision for his parish. This started with asking a series of questions about various aspects of parish life. Questions like: In an ideal future, 'what do we want our worship to look like?’ or ‘What do we want our evangelisation to look like?’ Detailing a picture of what different areas could look like in the future was an important first step. In terms of how to get there, Fr Chris said: ‘That’s an evolving reality.’
The mission statement at St Declan’s is simple and about ‘bringing the love of God to life in people.’ This, for them, is a combination of the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, and encapsulates what they are doing.
At St Declan’s, Fr Chris said that the Alpha Program is a regular feature of their evangelising efforts. Focusing on evangelisation is actually the most important thing of all. ‘I think this is the place to start. Evangelisation is the engine-room of everything that you want to do in the parish.’ There are so many ministries struggling to find volunteers but he said that before they volunteer, people have to come alive in faith first. ‘When people have encountered the person of Jesus for themselves and decided they want to follow Him, they will put their hand up to serve.’
Fr Chris mentioned that often parishes plan to delay their evangelising efforts until they have their parish in order and everything working well. He shared the analogy of how when we invite people to our house, we then feel compelled to clean the house before their arrival.
‘If you invite some friends over for dinner, I’ll guarantee you clean the house before they come. This works in the parish. If you want your house of the parish to be cleaned, invite some people over and you’ll start seeing the parish through their eyes.’
If evangelisation becomes the focus, it will naturally begin to affect the other parts of parish life that need renewal. But as Ron went on to explain, this is not necessarily a sequential affair. Reaching out to those beyond the parish and renewing the parish are things that happen at the same time in a fairly chaotic way. ‘It’s messy,’ Ron said, ‘and yet it’s so life-giving.’
Towards the end, Fr Chris said that ‘extraordinary things are possible if you’re prepared to trust that God can work through us. It requires faith, and God wants this more than we do.’
He said that it was easy to get caught up in the ‘big picture cultural shifts’ that we can lose contact with what’s happening on the ground with the people around us. ‘God wants to see people’s lives changed more than we do,’ Fr Chris said. Renewing parishes is about transforming hearts and lives one person at a time.
In closing he offered three pieces of advice:
Firstly, make prayer central to everything you do. Passion is something that waxes and wanes, but ‘the way to stoke your personal passion is through prayer. Our personal relationship with the Lord is the heartbeat of this . . . this is not a human activity alone.’
Secondly, he said that ‘committed missionary disciples are not born. They’re made.’
‘This is not something we imbibe with our mother’s milk. If that ever happened in Christendom, that doesn’t happen now. We’ve got to be really intentional about this. We can’t expect it to happen by osmosis.’
Thirdly, he offered hope that it is possible to turn things around. At one point in time, it was socially acceptable to come to Church – in fact our society was structured around just that. ‘But not anymore,’ he said.
‘I’m crazy enough to believe that in a weird way at St Declan’s we can play our part to turn that around.’
Proclaim: Office for Mission Renewal11 May 2020