Finding a Way Forward: A Story From Slovenia

Father Simon Potnik, Pastor of the Pastoral Union of Slovenj Gradec parishes, Slovenia. Web.

“For the first time there was a way. The path that I believed in, the logic, was there.” –Father Simon Potnik

Jacqueline Marie | November 8, 2023

Slovenian priest Father Simon Potnik went to Halifax for the DR18 conference looking for a new way forward in parish renewal. There he saw “for the first time there was a way. The path that I believed in, the logic, was there.” The Divine Renovation principles made sense and offered him hope. 

Father Simon Potnik, Web. Credit: Jerneja Golob

Father Simon has been a priest for over 20 years. He is currently the Pastor of four parishes (comprised of 13 churches), the Reverend for Youth Formation and for Young Priest Formation in the diocese.

His plate is a bit full.

When he was first ordained as a priest, he says he was “eager to fit in the box. I never thought about any changes.” But then he became a pastor (“Zupnik” in Slovenian) and he started burning out… and losing hope.

Clericalism in the country had driven the laity to feel more like decorations in churches that were run almost entirely by clergy. In decades past, when vocations were plentiful, this had been a manageable, though not missional, model. But with fewer priests taking on more parishes this model was completely untenable. Father Simon reflects, “This was not the promise of God.” He was torn between the tasks of being a parish priest and the call of being a spiritual father.

In his search for help and education, he connected with Father Milan, a fellow priest and, at the time, professor. They both needed something from each other: Father Simon needed Father Milan’s expertise and resources into new modes of leading a church, while Father Milan wanted to learn from Father Simon’s experience in the trenches of a parish.

Then there was a crisis in the diocese when – for the first time– they couldn’t cover all the parishes with priests. A group was established to address the issue of low priest numbers and both Father Simon and Father Milan took part. Father Simon says, “God is the one showing us that the numbers are not to be questioned.” He likens it to football: would you want “11 really good players or 44 crippled ones?” 

Then he went to DR18.

“The best thing about Divine Renovation is that different priests can have the same results, and that they can learn these skills, and they can all start these journeys.” 

Father Simon (centre) with Father James mallon at DR18 in Halifax, CAN

Father Simon and his pastoral associate Mateja Solar read Father James Mallon’s book, Divine Renovation: From Maintenance to Mission. They created an online group to read and discuss the book – 10 priests and over 60 people from across the country went through it together. The word about parish renewal began to spread. To top it off, Father Milan was chosen as Bishop of the neighboring diocese of Celje.

After DR18, Father Simon’s parish started Alpha in full gear. Even when the pandemic hit, he recalls, “we were like a cat on four legs” deftly dodging the new obstacles, continuing online without losing momentum. 

But the focus on mission did not come without resistance. When lay leaders began serving in full steam in the community – visiting the sick, bringing Holy Communion – the complaint was, “where is the priest? We want him to do this.” When a holiday tradition was adjusted, people wrote a complaint to the Bishop, stating, “it wasn’t like this before.”  

Father Simon explains, “When change becomes real, conflicts happen.” 

Father Simon has now been accompanied by Divine Renovation for three years. When priests and parish leaders from across Slovenia come to him asking for direction on moving towards mission, he points them on a similar path with DR – helping facilitate renewal throughout the country. 

These days, Father Simon is seeing fruit firsthand. Alphas are bringing in new people hungry for Jesus. He references one man – new, enthusiastic, filled with the Holy Spirit, who wants to help, who wasn’t even attending Church five years ago.  

His parish offers a family catechesis program once per month and people are driving from two, sometimes three dioceses away to attend.  

The harvest is plentiful. 

Father Simon dreams of a Church with so many Christ lovers that they would overflow and not have enough places for them, for “a choir that would worship God from all its heart,” and a strong leadership team. 

He reiterates that it is not about him and his talents, but what God is doing in the Church. Father Simon says, “the best thing about Divine Renovation is that different priests can have the same results, and that they can learn these skills, and they can all start these journeys.”  

Ultimately Father Simon affirms, “the way is Jesus Christ.”