Norfolk parish spurs evangelizers

Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk is leading the way toward embracing a new model of evangelization in the Omaha archdiocese.

Called "Divine Renovation," the model was the subject of an Oct. 2-3 gathering of priests and lay parish leaders from around the archdiocese, held at the parish’s St. Mary Church.

Sacred Heart is one of the first 11 parishes in the United States and Canada to adopt Divine Renovation, said Father Daniel Andrews, pastor.

Named after a book by Father James Mallon, a priest of the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth in Nova Scotia, Canada, and presenter at the conference, Divine Renovation calls for developing the laity to become effective messengers of God’s word to help reverse a worldwide trend of declining Mass attendance and church membership.

Other parishes in the Omaha archdiocese also are joining Father Mallon’s Divine Renovation Network, many with the help of faith formation funds from the archdiocese’s Ignite the Faith capital campaign, said Jim Jansen, director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.

The network provides parishes with coaching, tools and guidance to help them form leadership teams, clarify their visions, develop strategies for evangelization and discipleship, and form partnerships with other parishes.

In addition to Sacred Heart, the parishes include St. Gerald in Ralston, St. Patrick in O’Neill, St. Wenceslaus in Verdigre and St. William in Niobrara.

Jansen’s office also is supporting the effort, with staff members helping parishes get started with planning, organizing key lay parish leaders and mentoring evangelization teams.

To encourage personal relationships with Christ, parishes use one of several proven evangelization programs as part of Divine Renovation. Sacred Heart is using "Christ Life," a 21-week Catholic experience using a three-stage approach – Discovering Christ, Following Christ and Sharing Christ.

Archbishop George J. Lucas supports the efforts, and gave Father Mallon’s book to all the priests of the archdiocese, Jansen said.

"We realize there is a growing need for adult evangelization," Jansen said. "We’re talking about helping people have an encounter, or a re-encounter, with the Lord."

The Catholic Voice asked Father Andrews to describe how he and his parish began their Divine Renovation journey and the fruits it has yielded so far.


Q: Your parish has been an early adopter of the Divine Renovation approach to renewing the church’s mission to evangelize. Why did you decide to pursue a new model of evangelization?

 The primary reason was, and is, because there are people in our city who don’t know Jesus yet. It’s why the core mission of the church is to go and make disciples and then to baptize them. As long as there are people who don’t know Jesus, we wanted to be a parish that is equipped to have an impact on people who don’t have a way to come to know him yet. John Paul II called for a new evangelization, methods that are appropriate to the current age, which have been reinforced by Pope Benedict and our Holy Father, Pope Francis. They’ve told us what to do and we’ve just decided as a parish to act on this commission. We love the transformative effect that Jesus has on people and we want to help him change people’s lives.


Q: How did you hear about Divine Renovation and what excited you about it?

I read the book, first of all, along with "Forming Intentional Disciples," by Sherry Weddell … Those are books that are having more and more circulation, I know, among Catholics. In reading those, it’s really clear with the statistics that are put out there and knowing our current culture, that they’ve summarized the state of things very well. Divine Renovation provides a solution and certain principles that, if parishes embrace them, already have a proven track record of success.

Conversations with Father Jeff Lorig, along with that book, really sparked my drive to head in this direction. At the end of the Divine Renovation Conference in 2016, the Divine Renovation Network was launched, which is a leadership coaching network for pastors and their leadership teams. So, that really put us on a pathway to be able to form a leadership culture in evangelization.


Q: How and when did you begin? What were you hoping to accomplish and were those hopes realized?

We joined the Divine Renovation Network last August, and were one of the original 11 parishes in the United States and Canada to be in the network. Through that, I’ve been receiving leadership coaching from Father Mallon and his colleague, Ron Huntley, and so is my leadership team. We’ve been in cohort meetings with the other parishes.

More than anything, we’ve learned about leadership and leading out of a senior leadership team. So we formed a senior leadership team and we’re now in the second version of that original team, learning about the optimal model of priestly leadership and the strength of leading out of a team instead of just managing something or leading a team.

There’s a difference in leading out of a team versus leading a team … There’s no way that one person can minister to thousands of people. Jesus didn’t do it that way. So we’re learning how to lead, so that everybody can be properly supported and that the vision can spread.

The senior leadership team helps me as a pastor to make the best, next technical decisions to move the vision forward.

Then we started Christ Life. We knew we had to have a point of invitation to those who needed a "shallow end of the pool" (introduction) into the Christian life – a gradual entry. Christ Life fit for us, so we’re in our second full round. Right now we’re just sitting in the place of needing to let the process work, to let people hear the Gospel and to be given a chance to accept it, to let Jesus change lives and then let people talk about that. It’s helping our parish to get a sense of what conversion is and looks like and feels like, and to build momentum around this. Great things are happening, but it’s always person by person, not in large batches.


Q: What were the challenges along the way and how did you overcome them?

We’re good at many things in our parish but we tend to not define how we’re going to measure our most important point of success. So, what does success really look like in the parish? It comes down to somebody coming to know Jesus and giving their life to him and having their life changed. The main challenge is keeping that the most important thing. There’s so much going on in parish life, but this is what our senior leadership team is for, it’s to help keep Jesus changing lives the most important thing.


Q: How are you equipping your parishioners to become effective evangelizers?

By being evangelized themselves and then inviting others. Christ Life is our main point of evangelization. We’re inviting everybody to experience it and then to invite others. It’s all about the number of invitations. So, we want to outdo each other in the number of invitations, and even in the number of no’s people get to the invitation to come to Christ Life. In the end, it’s pretty direct. It’s just knowing that when people encounter Jesus, he has a great effect on them, letting them tell their story to other people and inviting others to experience the same thing.


Q: Can you briefly explain what the Christ Life approach is?

Christ Life is broken out into three sections. There are about seven weeks apiece. The first one is called Discovering Christ, and it’s a basic proclamation of the Gospel and a teaching on the Holy Spirit and also involves a retreat. It gives the people the opportunity to respond to God and to accept a gift.

The second section is called Following Christ. It’s more about, in very practical ways, how does my life in Jesus form and shape every part of my life?

The last one is called Sharing Christ. How can I then go share with other people what I have received myself? The basic format of the evenings is a meal, a talk and a conversation at tables. And people sit at the same tables each week so they can form community.


Q: What fruit have you seen as a result of these efforts and how is the mission to evangelize spreading from your key parish leaders to other parishioners?

 Well, gradually people are becoming more aware of what evangelization really means. That word can really stump Catholics, oftentimes, because they perceive that it means going door to door. So, we’re becoming more familiar … . The more people go through Christ Life, they understand what evangelization is, it’s just hearing about who Jesus is. We know that any type of vision will leak out and so we have to preach and teach the vision constantly from the pulpit at Mass every few weeks and then have leadership summits with all leaders of ministry about three times a year so that we can continually infuse the dynamic of evangelization and conversion and help build cohesion as a parish around evangelization.


Q: What would you suggest to other pastors considering a new way of evangelizing?

First, pastors have to decide whether or not they have a healthy discontent with the way things are in their parish in terms of helping adults to make a decision to follow Christ. To assess that in my parish, do we have an identified way and a culture around helping adults to come to Christ? And I emphasize adults, because that’s what really makes a difference in the life of children – to see adults who are allowing Jesus to save them and to lead them, heal them and strengthen them. That’s the first thing, and the second is to read books and to tap into all the resources that are out there, such as podcasts and YouTube videos, and seeing what’s working at other places, and to know that the wheel has already been invented. There are things that work, particularly learning how to lead out of a senior leadership team so that the pastor doesn’t have to make all these decisions himself. Lastly, to be not afraid. If it can happen at one place, it can happen at a particular pastor’s parish, whether it’s large or small. So anyone can do it, you’re not alone.

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