Father James Mallon speaking at The Missionary Parish Conference in the Netherlands in March (Ramon Mangold)
“The most hopeful development I’ve seen in the Church in the Netherlands in the last twenty years!”
Timothy P. Schilling | May 27, 2022
I am not an event person and I tend to be cautious in my pronouncements, so when a friend asked me how the “Missionary Parish” conference went and I said, it was “fantastic!”
She looked at me, surprised, and said, “Really?”
It was, I told her, the most hopeful development I’ve seen in the Church in the Netherlands in the last twenty years: a thousand people from around the country and from Flanders, all eager bring on better days in their parish.
The lead speaker for the Missionary Parish conference was the Canadian priest James Mallon, author of Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission. Fr. Mallon’s book and Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s book Rebuilt, another guide to parish renewal, were both published in Dutch in 2019. Both have since been embraced by parishes around the country, together with Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples, as helpful guides to pastoral and spiritual revitalization.
Though pastoral leaders here do not believe any of these books offers the answer to the troubles parish face, it is heartening to see how certain key insights common to all three books are being embraced here, namely:
1) Parish renewal must be grounded in a living relationship with God, and God must lead;
2) Parishes do not exist for themselves but are called to proclaim Christ and serve the world in the name of Christ; and
3) We need to be clear about our vision and make sensible choices (i.e., a degree of “worldly wisdom” is welcome in our leadership and organizational practice).
Exciting for me to realize during the March conference, was just how far we have come in the Netherlands over the last twenty years. I started visiting this country regularly from Seattle in the 1990’s (my wife is Dutch), and we moved here in 2001. My work for the Center for Parish Spirituality (CPS) has taken me into parishes in every diocese and so often in my first years here I would look around on Sunday and think, “Man it’s dead here!” A listlessness prevailed. Typically I asked myself, “Does it feel like people here believe God is truly present and can work miracles?” Usually the answer was “No.”
I quickly realized that a lot was going to have to happen to make parishes come alive again. So our Center started focusing on the God question (Do we still believe? Where can we find God? How can one have a relationship with God?) and emphasizing how important it is that when you’ve tasted the goodness of God that you don’t just keep savouring it yourself, but that you share that saving wine with others.
Photos by Ramon Mangold
Once parish after parish closed, a new realization set in. Nothing focuses the mind like the threat of extinction. Suddenly the last believers, and others hanging on by a thread, woke up and found one another and said, “We have to do something.” Doing something involved mostly praying, reading the Bible, rediscovering our call to mission, and learning from one another what worked and didn’t work in the parishes.
I probably first noticed a shift in momentum around 2010. Whereas “evangelization” had once been a dirty word here – a synonym for salesmanship and proselytization – I noticed more and more people in parishes were now saying maybe we ought to do it. Anyone who had stuck it out this long really did love the Church and really did believe it was there for a reason.
I saw great things happening. Catholics started learning from Protestants – producing new kinds of music, offering Alpha courses, (re)discovering a personal relationship with God. And Protestants, began looking to Catholics for new ways to form communities and pray (contemplatively, in silence, aided by art or symbols). Throughout the Dutch Catholic Church I saw a new willingness to collaborate, often with those active in new ecclesial movements coming together with parish leaders.
“Seldom or never have I in the post-conciliar period experienced such a gathering...all inspired by the Holy Spirit. It fits with the title ‘Divine Renovation’: not by human hands, but by God’s instigation.”
In 2020 the parties organizing the “Missionary Parish” conference – the Diocese of Breda, the Dutch Alpha Center, our Center, and other Christian organizations – had over a thousand people sign up to attend. My colleague at the Center, Mirjam Spruit, asked in wonder, “Lord, what are you up to?” And then Corona struck and we had to ask the same question again. Why was this happening now, just when things were going so well?
Today we have our answer. The two-year corona delay reminded us that life is in God’s hands, not ours. Our chief job is to be humble and trust God. Significant to me, too, was the reminder that the Church is here to serve a suffering world. Our mission is not to make ourselves into big, strong communities, as if those were the true marks of “vitality,” but to offer real comfort and help in the world with our Gospel witness.
It was a joy to pray together at the conference and to learn from Fr. Mallon and the other speakers. That feeling was widespread. One participant observed, “Seldom or never have I in the post-conciliar period experienced such a gathering, with two Church-worlds coming together (the institutional-hierarchical and the Church of the new movements and laity/parishioners), all inspired by the Holy Spirit. It fits with the title “Divine Renovation”: not by human hands, but by God’s instigation.”
I always distrust, just a bit, the high that comes from a great retreat or conference. But I know, too, that God gives us these occasions to encourage us. And for that I am grateful.