Pillars Blog Friday, November 10
Adventures of a Parish Vitality Consultant
Episode 2: “Christianity is about friendship” – The genesis of parish renewal at St Willibrords
In the spring of 2013 when I was still the campus minister of the Newman Centre, our then Chaplain Fr Gregory Nunez pulled me aside to share with me the news that he had just been named the new parochial administrator of St Willibrord’s parish in Verdun, and that he could use a pastoral assistant and a housemate if I needed extra work and affordable housing. As I was only half-time at Newman at the time, I accepted his invitation, and began a 3 year immersion in parish life, with a front row seat to the genesis of St Willibrords on-going renewal process that has inspired me to build a career supporting parish renewal.
For those of you who might not be aware, St Willibrords was not exactly firing on all cylinders when Fr Gregory assumed the responsibility of pastoral leadership. Back in the day, she held five Masses a weekend and over 2000 people passed through her doors every Sunday. In 2013, she had a small community of just under 100 regulars attending Mass. Also, like many other parishes that have been declining over the last few decades, times were tight financially and she had been in the red for 7 years in a row at that point. In terms of pastoral activities, the pride of St Willibrord was and still is her long standing soup kitchen for the low-income residents of Verdun. The soup kitchen was more or less the only pastoral initiative every week, other than Sunday Mass. And her monthly flea market kept her in touch with the wider community. But apart from that there was not much pastoral vitality at St Willibrord.
After the first 6 months of meeting one-on-one with parishioners, and observing how things worked at the parish, Fr Gregory slowly began work on re-shaping the culture of the parish. He often repeated to me and the other members of his initial hand-picked leadership team, that “Christianity is ultimately about friendship”. Friendship with our Lord Jesus Christ first of all, and friendship with each other. One of the first observations that Fr Greg made of the parish was that many of the different groups of parishioners where more “friend-enemies” than friends. The organizing of most parish events seemed to be a tug of war between different factions in the parish jealously guarding their turf and objecting to anything that inconvenienced them.
If this sounds like your parish, you are not alone. In my travels around the diocese so far, I have had several people confide in me that parish cultures of maintenance and seniority/entitlement are not exclusive to the St Willibrord of 4 years ago, but exist to some degree in many of our parishes, and frankly in many other secular organizations and institutions. To be self-interested is a very natural human tendency. Be this as it may, Fr Gregory preached that when parishes allow themselves to maintain a self-referential culture, they are living more “like the world” and less like the Gospel that challenges us to a life of radical love of neighbour. In his homilies during that first year, he would pose the following reiterate challenging question: “is this thought, action, feeling, leading me closer to God or away from him.”
After the initial 6 month period of observation without changing anything, Fr Gregory introduced the hand-picked leadership team at St Willibrord to a retreat called The Parish Renewal Experience (PREX). The focus of PREX is on addressing and mending personal relationships between parishioners, and between the laity and the parish herself. I would describe it as community boot camp for Catholics. Similar to Cursillo/Challenge, most of the talks and sharings on PREX are given by parishioners to other parishioners, peer to peer.
In his Divine Renovation Network webinars, Fr James Mallon, the Episcopal Vicar for parish renewal in the Archdiocese of Halifax, Nova Scotia, often states that the first of the three phases of parish renewal always involves some deliberate and persistent effort to effect a change in the culture of a parish. Fr James’ parish used programs like Alpha to begin to try and create a parish culture where ongoing spiritual growth for adults (aka discipleship) and making new disciples (aka evangelization) are the new normal. At St Willibrord, Fr Gregory decided to re-build authentic Christian community at the parish by focusing first on creating a culture of discipleship and a culture of stewardship. A culture of stewardship is one where people freely give of their time, talents, and treasures for the benefit of the whole community. He wanted a parish where the average parishioner is regularly devoting time to spiritual growth; a parish where people volunteer their talents in service of the parish; a parish where everyone contributes financially towards the needs of the parish within their means.
The advice to change the culture of a parish sounds simple in theory, but living it in practise was a very different experience. The theme of the last 4 years at St Willibrord was WORK! There was no easy button to press and no short cut to take, only months and months of hard work. And leading by example, Fr Gregory was the hardest worker of all. For example when we started the first PREX at St Willibrord in 2014, Fr Gregory gave all of the talks and all of the sharings himself to our leadership team at our weekly 8pm Sunday night meetings spread out over 5 months. He had to do this because there were no other PREX alumni in Montreal. PREX includes 12 talks and 12 sharings, so personally leading that first PREX by himself was no small feat. But hard work is the only way to build a new cultural momentum from nothing. And after that first PREX, the leadership team helped lead the next one, and then the participants of that second PREX helped lead the third, and so on and so forth. Now 3 years into the PREX revolution, our PREX committee is a well-oiled machine capable of helping other parishes and communities organize their own PREX. 2017 St Willibrord is currently helping the Filipino Catholic Mission to launch their own PREX.
Over the last four years, all this hard work with PREX and several other new initiatives has started to bear fruit at St Willibrord. Many new faith formation groups have started up on evenings and weekends. Very necessary deferred maintenance of the rectory and the soup kitchen was finally done mostly with free labour of skilled parishioners. And the finances of the parish have improved significantly, with increased financial giving and streamlining experiences. Most strikingly, the mood and attitude of the people has changed. The new normal of St Willibrord is to stick around after Mass for an hour or more, and enjoy some of the home cooked meals that seem to be perpetually available, catch up with old friends and attend adult faith formation. More new parishioners are slowly starting to arrive and telling us that they decided to stay because they feel welcomed.
Fr Gregory’s vision for St Willibrord is that it become a family again. But families often experience growing pains. Not everyone at the parish appreciated the changes to the culture of the parish that our leadership team implemented. Many complained and protested at first. Some unfortunately decided to leave the parish all together. And many mistakes were made along the way. But the key to learn from mistakes and to avoid making the same mistake twice.
Ultimately, parish vitality comes down to parishioner vitality, because it is the people who make up the church. St Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is man fully alive”. A parish that is working hard to help individuals become fully alive, will herself become more alive. And as you can see from St Willibord’s example, the process of changing people’s attitudes and habits can take many years. But I would submit that this process is worth it because as baptised Catholics we have a duty and responsibility to share our friendship with Jesus Christ to all nations and keep doing it until Christ comes again in glory!
I was privileged to be a part of the genesis of St Willibrord’s renewal of the “family” of God’s people living in Verdun. As the Pillars parish vitality consultant, I look forward to continuing to work closely with the team at St Willibrord, to study this “renewal experiment” closely and discover whichtransferable principles of parish renewal are actually working on the ground in an ordinary parish community in Montreal and how other parishes beginning their own unique renewal process can benefit from what we’ve learned at St Willibrord.
I ask you to please pray for the leadership team at St Willibrord, that the Holy Spirit continue to be activated by the good works they are doing to make their own parish more vital.
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