Parishes must cultivate and provide a home for people from a variety of backgrounds, says Fr. James Mallon in his book, Divine Renovation.

Parishes must cultivate and provide a home for people from a variety of backgrounds, says Fr. James Mallon in his book, Divine Renovation.

October 20, 2014

Imagine being a pastor who walks into a parish and quickly realizes not only are there too many empty pews but the parishioners who are there are not present. Yes, their physical beings are there but their spiritual reason – coming to be with Jesus – is sadly absent. Church is just a habit.

They know they are expected to be there. So they are. They go through the service by rote, half listen (maybe) to the homily and readings, and duck out after receiving Jesus's blood from the chalice. Why wait to sing the closing hymn?

If they time it right, they can be among the first out of the parking lot and in time for the football game on TV.

That's the scenario – among others – that hit Father James Mallon when he was assigned from 2004 to 2010 to a Maritime parish where "nothing new had really taken place for 30 years."

Calling it a "dozy parish . . . living off the fumes of the past," Mallon realized the Beavers, Cubs and Scouts used their buildings four nights a week and had been for 30 years. A determined man, he negotiated and initially regained one hall for an Alpha course aimed at bringing people into the Church.

It gets better. During the six years he was there, the parish regained use of its building from various community groups, making room for it to run more than a dozen multi-week faith formation groups for 70 to 80 people at a time.

The dozy parish woke up.

Finally, Mallon was given his current parish of St. Benedict in the Halifax Archdiocese.

Brand new, state of the art, formed by the amalgamation of three previous existing parishes. Another parish. Another challenge.

Oops! Verbal promises had been made to community groups too.

Why the confusion about the purpose of the Church buildings? Mallon says it is rooted in an identity crisis and that ours is an essentially missionary Church.

Fr. James Mallon

Fr. James Mallon

He outlines his vision of a missionary parish in Divine Renovation (Novalis, 2014) "by laying down a theological foundation for this identity with suggestions for a new parish life."

This is a pragmatic book that takes the reader on Mallon's ministerial journey complete with all his strategies and successes, plus his stumbles and miscues. Faithful and wise, Divine Renovation includes parts where the reader laughs out loud.

Mallon's journey is not without his sharing of doubts, trials and tribulations.

But then too is the pain of parishioners. In his 17 years as a priest in the Maritimes, he has encountered people undergoing anguish as they struggle with their faith, especially during the headline grabbing stories of clergy sexual abuse.

He also talks freely about his own struggles with bullying parishioners and the politics of the various aspects of the Church.

A new pope provides an opportunity for "cleaning out the junk," writes Mallon. He provides rich explanations of "junk" but perhaps the most profound is the potential loneliness of priests.

Writes Mallon, there is only one way to live a healthy, life-giving life as a priest and that is first to be a Christian among other Christians before being a priest for the people.

Now comes the eyebrow raising suggestions. He likes to hire regular lay people for staff instead of those with degrees. Why? Because he finds they can inspire regular Catholics "to take a second look at what God may desire to do in and through them."

Next, this Church must have a mission statement. What do they want? How are they going to make it happen? Who will be involved?

He offers an outline of several common values.

  1. Give priority to the weekend: Must it be a "fast Mass?" Are there too many Masses in too short a time?
  2. Welcome. The author tells of going to a strange parish. It was winter and a scarf covered his Roman collar. When he asked questions, the responses were gruff and rude. But when he took off his scarf and they saw he was a priest, their attitude changed totally. As he wrote in the book, "I was Jesus and no one welcomed me." He devotes four pages to the importance of welcoming and that there be a hospitality team.


  1. Guide those who are not familiar with the liturgy. Displaying prayers on a screen, giving a brief explanation at certain times during the Mass.
  2. Uplifting music enchants and soothes the soul. Having a well-trained choir and musicians makes the service even more conducive to prayer.
  3. Homilies. Keep them relevant. Welcome input from selected members. Preach to the whole person. Be real. When you go text free, have several written tips too. There are a multitude of hints and guidance about preparing and delivering that all-important homily. Practice with humility. In other words include vignettes from one's own life and experiences.
  4. Name tag Sunday. Even if you hate slapping on one of those tags, when people can see it, it gives them an opening for conversation. Through conversations, people come to know each other without even looking at the tag. Community is created.
  5. If parishioners feel comfortable, have a prayer partner at Mass. Dialogue over coffee afterwards can create some wonderful insights, understandings, friendly debates, maybe even friendships.


  1. Welcome the Alpha program. Mallon calls it the most effective tool he has. He runs eight Alpha programs, even taking one to prison.
  2. Parish expectations: What do the people see as their mission? What path do they want their parish and priest to take? A mission statement strengthens a parish, gives the priest direction and enables him to dialogue with parishioners.
  3. Mallon also points out the need to recognize the variety of parishioners – the families, single men and women, elders – and to make them welcome.
  4. The book borders on a how-to-manual for priests and their parishes enriched with his own personal experiences. Mallon even addresses the problems priests face both as a priest and as a person.

This rich book tackles what seems to be every situation a priest can be thrown into – or throw himself into.

It's easy to absorb because Mallon is self-effacing. In one memorable part he tells of his feelings as he says 17 years later, he can still remembers the words "Let's do it. Let's get to work."

And he has. Mallon's central message: A "Church filed with an army of missionaries can change the world."