Renew My Church: a movement of significant spiritual renewal

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Hundreds of parish and school leaders listen to a presentation during the Renew My Church Summit at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont on Oct. 2, 2018. The summit introduced participants to the overarching goal of Renew My Church to create cultures of evangelization and missionary discipleship in parishes. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

While many Chicagoland Catholics may think of Renew My Church as merely a structural process involving parish mergers or unifications, the archdiocese designed it to be a movement of significant spiritual renewal in parish life, not unlike Pentecost.

In 2016, some parishes were clustered into “groupings” and began piloting the Discernment and Decisions phase, which was scheduled to end for the whole archdiocese in 2023. But the plan changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and put a new financial strain on many parishes. As a result, the archdiocese accelerated the Discernment and Decisions phase this fall, adding more parishes to the process. The rest of the groupings will begin this phase in 2021, wrapping up in 2022, a year early.

“We never anticipated the pandemic would go on as long as it has,” said Cliff Barber, chief strategy officer for Renew My Church. “While we seem to be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel now, clearly there still is a long pathway to the end of the pandemic, so our parishes are going to be under strain for a lot longer than we thought they would.”

The decision was not made lightly, Barber said.

“The idea was we needed to move quickly to move forward with groupings, particularly those that included those parishes that were under the most financial strain to really relieve them of that strain,” he said.

This year, 15 parish groupings were added to the initial 14. Not all 29 groupings are going through the process at the same time. Decisions for two groupings were announced in early November and another round of decisions for 15 groupings will be announced in January. Decisions for the remaining groupings will come in March and May.

“What that will mean is that over 70 percent of the groupings will have completed their feedback to the cardinal and have received their decisions,” Barber said. “That’s is a lot of blood, sweat and tears from some really hardworking people around the archdiocese in parishes who volunteered their time to be on grouping teams to really engage with parishioners from other parishes to discern from the Holy Spirit what the best decisions would be going forward for their parishes.”

It also means the archdiocese can start to see the fruits of this difficult part of the renewal movement, he said.

“We know across the whole archdiocese that people are dealing with the fear and the grief that comes with these decisions,” he said. “But what we’ve seen in more than a few instances, while the grief and the fear don’t go away, there have been signs of hope that help balance out that grief and that fear. We’ve seen parishes turn the corner.”

The structural renewal is only a small portion of the renewal work that has to be done parish by parish, he said. After the decision process, the newly formed parishes spend about a year working with an archdiocesan team that assists the pastor in creating operational stability and unity in the newly formed parishes. When this is complete, a ministry team helps support the pastor and parish in building a culture of evangelization and missionary discipleship.

“The challenges that we face as a church didn’t come in two years. They came over decades and it will take time to truly rebuild them. But we can make great starts with the support we’ve seen already just in a year or two,” Barber said. “This never was just about the structural changes.”

Renew My Church takes its inspiration from St. Francis of Assisi, who in prayer heard God say, “Rebuild my church.” At first the saint thought God meant he should literally rebuild the small church in which he was praying. He soon discerned that God was calling him to rebuild the church writ large through spiritual renewal.

“That mirrors the process we have here,” Barber said. “In a way, we’ve started with structure because we had to. We needed to have a strong structural and operational foundation in our parishes in order to truly build a spiritual renewal we know can be durable and last for decades.”  

This spiritual renewal is rooted in the last chapter of Matthew, where Jesus calls the apostles to go and make disciples of all nations.

“We’ve always done that as a church, but Renew My Church is just a reminder of something that’s always been sitting there in the Gospel,” Barber said. “It is to remind ourselves that’s why we’re here. It’s remembering our baptismal call to be disciples and to be missionary disciples who go out and find ways to share the Gospel more effectively in the world that we live in.”



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