CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

Francis Campbell: Priests on a mission to make missionaries

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  • July 9, 2018

The Lord God called to the man and said, “Where are you?”

At the opening Mass for the Divine Renovation 2018 conference in Halifax in mid-June, God was still calling.

Fr. Simon Lobo, pastor of the amalgamated St. Benedict Parish in the city’s west end, focused on the Genesis reading about Adam and Eve.

“Adam and Eve messed up early,” said Lobo, delivering a spirited homily in front of 32 priests, three deacons and 700 congregants at an early-morning Sunday Mass to kick off the two-day conference on parish renewal.

“What does God do? He pursues them. God took the initiative.”

Lobo said that God continues His quest. “Where are you, are you afraid, are you lost? … Jesus today, He is coming for us and He is saying the same thing. Where are you? I want to find you, I want to be with you.”

Lobo is the self-described renovation apprentice to Fr. James Mallon, the ministry’s founder and Lobo’s predecessor as pastor at St. Benedict.

Mallon’s ministry is predicated on his 2014 book, Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish. The book has been translated into six languages and there are more than 65,000 copies in circulation.

And Catholics and other Christians from across Canada and the United States and around the world have been calling on Mallon to share his strategy for combating the challenges facing the modern-day Church, particularly dwindling attendance.

Mallon and Lobo do not lend much credence to the theory that the Church should cater to the parishioners in the pews and not fret about those who are not there. That’s not the evangelization example initiated by Jesus.

“We are a missionary organization but we function as a club,” Mallon said of the Catholic Church. “A club is something that exists for the members. A church is the only organization that exists for those who don’t belong, it’s outward-focused.”

Mallon said a missionary Church cannot neglect its members but “its primary concern is the people you don’t have.”

The Scottish-born Mallon grew up in Nova Scotia and took over St. Benedict eight years ago when the burgeoning three-parish amalgam was in its infancy. Mallon leaned on the Alpha program, an evangelistic course that seeks to introduce and develop the tenets of the Christian faith through a series of live or videotaped talks and small-group discussions. 

Mallon’s vision evolved into the Divine Renovation ministry, which now includes nine full-time staff, one of whom is a United Kingdom co-ordinator. The others work out of St. Benedict, doing a weekly video podcast, advising ministry coaching teams and helping to promote Divine Renovation conferences around the globe.

Mallon works exclusively with the ministry and the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth. St. Benedict, now in the capable hands of Lobo, regularly attracts some 1,500 congregants to four weekend Masses. 

During the opening of the conference, the Mass featured several simple but effective touches. On this particular Sunday, everyone was greeted openly at the entrance and offered a name tag. Before the Mass begins, attendees were asked to turn to someone they may not know, introduce themselves and promise to pray for that person during Mass and for the rest of the day. The music was vibrant and inviting, all the responses were flashed onto big screens at the front of the church and the homily came complete with a slideshow.

This is not rocket science, but it is effective.

“We need to be a missional Church because we serve a missional God,” Lobo concluded.

That message is all at once simple to understand yet extremely challenging to execute. God will do His part to call to us, to continually seek us out when we are lost or afraid. In turn, God asks us to reach out to the people we should care for and love because of family, parish, community and collegial connections.

That’s where our mission begins.

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)

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