Bringing Faith Formation to the Parish Level (Part Two)

Members of Alpha Address Synod for New Evangelization

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, OCT. 30 2012 (Zenit.org).- How can parishes preach the Gospel to a culture that is often suspicious or hostile to the truth?

This is one of the questions Father James Mallon seeks too address. A parish priest of the Archdiocese of Halifax, Canada, Father Mallon, is also board member of Alpha Canada and Alpha International. He is also founder and director of the John Paul II media institute, a video production company which makes documentaries and adult faith-formation resources.
Speaking in the context of the Synod for the New Evangelization, for which some members of Alpha participated, Father Mallon sat down with ZENIT and shed light on the mission of Alpha, and on the Christian call of spreading the Gospel.

ZENIT: How can the main themes discussed at this Synod apply to the needs particular to Canada?

Mallon: The greatest thing that I can hope for from this Synod is this pastoral conversion, which means we have to change the very culture of our Churches. The predominant culture of the Churches where I come from and my experience doing this work, is that we have a maintenance culture within our parishes. In the past we had strong Catholic cultures that helped people go to Church and to believe. Usually the only growth we had in parishes was from demographic shifts. We didn't really have to do anything: we just had to schedule Masses and pay the light bills. And for the culture of the time that worked. There was no sense of being missional. Today the culture is toxic, not just neutral. If you do nothing you will be stripped of faith.

We have got to apply new methodology, which means we must move from a maintenance culture to a missional culture. That means addressing the values that we – perhaps even unconsciously – hold as local Churches within parishes. We can be very quick to say "I value this, this, and this." But, it's one thing to say what you value; it's another thing to actually look at how you function as a Church, and what you put your money and resources and time into. By analyzing those, we find out what we truly value.

If we look at what we truly value, as opposed to what we often say we value, we might be surprised to find that there is quite a gulf between them, and the kind of pastoral conversion we need is to change those values. The right kind of values I believe will bring about health in the Church, and a healthy Church is a Church that grows. It's just like with children: we don't make our children grow by sitting them down and commanding them solemnly to grow. You feed them and keep them healthy and they grow all by themselves.
The vision of the Church that we find in the Scriptures is that is vibrant and one that grows and bears fruit. The Lord says, even if you are bearing fruit – which is the bare minimum requirement – you will be pruned so that you will bear even more fruit.

We have witnessed the most dramatic cultural shift in human history. I believe that in the last 50 years, the culture shift of our parishes in Canada there is a move from our rural parishes in Canada to the urban centers, secularization, and all of these things mean that our parishes have been diminished in resources. We have got to change, because if we simply stand still, that diminishment will continue, and unfortunately most of our parishes have been managing decline as opposed to managing growth.

ZENIT: Could you speak a little more about why Alpha is so effective?

Mallon: What is unique to Alpha is that it addresses our post-modern culture, which has a deep-down suspicion of "absolute truth" claims, or any comprehensive world view that claims to have the answers to many of the questions: such as our own faith does. There's an outright suspicion, if not hostility, towards that.

How do we speak the Gospel to that kind of culture today? That's a very challenging question. Oftentimes, we're often just speaking to the choir; we're not speaking to the culture. I think we have to ask ourselves if what we are doing is actually accessible to nonbelievers, not just to people in the pews.

This is where Alpha comes in: Alpha is designed as a process. There are three parts of the evening: it begins with a meal where you don't talk about faith; you welcome people as guests with hospitality, friendship, and kindness. Then there's the talk on some aspect of the Christian faith. Finally, there is a small group discussion. This last part is important because the small group is not teacher and student: it's host and guest. There needs to be the freedom for people to say whatever they want. They are not corrected: we have got to authentically listen to them.

Once they have the experience of being truly listened to and respected, then in turn they come back the following week, and they become more open to hearing the message of the talk. And as friendship builds, and as the bonds of trust are built, it is almost like there is a space created for God to begin to work, for the truth of the faith to touch hearts. By the time we have the retreat weekend on the Holy Spirit, many people's lives are changed.