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Eric Myatt talks about the rejuvenation of small parishes at the Divine Renovation conference at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax on June 13. Photo by Ingrid Bulmer

Parish renewal conference draws worldwide audience to Halifax

By  Francis Campbell, Catholic Register Special
  • June 15, 2016

HALIFAX – Size doesn’t really matter. That’s the hymn book Fr. James Mallon sings from and one of the principles he pushed at a two-day Divine Renovation conference that attracted more than 600 people from 11 countries to his city and his church in mid-June.

“Size is a relative thing, it depends on who you are standing beside,” said the slight, 5-foot-7, 164-pound priestly dynamo.

“We are probably the biggest parish in Atlantic Canada but compared with some parishes in Toronto or the United States, we are actually a small parish.”

St. Benedict parish in the Clayton Park area of Halifax is the product of three area churches that merged some six years ago and welcomes about 1,500 to 1,800 people to four weekend Masses. For the conference it welcomed priests, Church leaders and people from other Christian denominations who travelled from most of the Canadian provinces, many parts of the United States and from countries as far flung as Britain, France, Australia, Germany, Austria, Colombia, Spain, Uganda and Mexico. 

The sold-out conference was hosted by Mallon, the pastor at St. Benedict and the author of the book that spawned the gathering, Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish.

“One of my convictions is that the goal of parish renewal is health, not size,” Mallon said after he wrapped up the energy-charged opening Mass for a conference that featured 18 different workshops and a diverse spectrum of presenters tasked to lead the charge toward Church rejuvenation.

“Healthy things grow and bear fruit and sometimes a large church can disguise the lack of health because it looks good, there are lots of people there, but when you scratch the surface, it might not be that healthy. The mission of the church is to raise up missionary disciples. Just because people show up at church doesn’t mean that they are disciples.”

The disciples that followed the Mallon mantra were offered a variety of talks and workshops at nearby Mount Saint Vincent University, presentations on everything from effective communication, music ministries, navigating diverse parish needs to the sacraments and energizing small rural parishes.

Johannes Seidel arrived from Bavaria, Germany. He had met Mallon at Alpha gatherings in Europe and was keen to learn more.

“I got the book and the book convinced me to have a closer look into the reality of the parish,” said Seidel, a 51-year-old church leader and evangelist who was in Halifax with six other Catholics from Austria and Germany.

“For me, this will be a success if I were to be more focused and more encouraged to do my work and to bring people out of resignation and depression into a life experience of evangelization. Reaching people is possible.”

Seidel said his parish of St. Martin’s in the Lake of Starnberg area has about 1,200 congregants but it is steadily declining.

It is that decline in North America and western Europe that drives Mallon to action.

“There is a difference between a church and a club,” Mallon said of the prevailing attitude in some circles that the Church should concentrate on the people who are in the pews instead of concerning itself with those who don’t attend.

“Pope Francis nailed that in his pre-conclave speech when he said the Church is dying because it has become self-referential, becoming a Church in itself, of itself and for itself. It’s turned inward, that is we should worry only about the people in the Church. That’s the definition of a club, a club exists to serve the needs of its members. A Church exists to reach those who are not yet members.”

More than 200 volunteers helped the conference-goers,  who paid a registration fee of $160, to travel between their accommodations and conference events.

“We’ve used four words,” Mallon said of the focus of the conference that has been in the planning stages for the past 15 months.

“Come to be inspired, to be informed, equipped and empowered. All four of these are important.” 

(Campbell is an editor and writer in Halifax.)

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