First phase of Renew My Church journey nearing conclusion

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, August 17, 2022

(Chicago Catholic photo illustration)

More than six years after the Archdiocese of Chicago set off on its Renew My Church journey, the first phase is nearing an end.

Wave 6 includes the last group of parishes, all in Vicariate I, that will enter the discernment and decision-making processes to determine what their future structure will be as the archdiocese works to create parishes with the resources to be vibrant, evangelizing faith communities.

Already, the archdiocese has seen what were 344 parishes become 221 parishes as some have closed and more parishes have united with their neighbors, and these newly configured parishes — along with those that have remained in their former structures — have embarked on the “building the new reality” phase of Renew My Church, the phase that aims to help parishes and parishioners fulfill the church’s mission of evangelization.

Father Jason Malave, the cardinal’s liaison for Renew My Church, said that over the past six years, archdiocesan staff members who work on the restructuring process and parish leaders have learned that it is important to be honest upfront, and that the restructuring process must have a spiritual component from the very beginning.

“One thing that we have learned is that there seems to be an appreciation of the people in the pews of honesty,” Malave said. “A lot of people are very appreciative of the honesty, not just about where the church is today, where their particular parish is today, the fact that their parish is not on a trajectory to be sustainable. … On their best days, they are grateful for the honesty.”

But that does not mean closing or combining parishes is ever easy.

“People have great connection to and pride in their parishes, and it is therefore difficult if they unite or close,” Malave said. “But we came to realize that it wasn’t just structural. There was a spiritual component as well.”

That means having members of each grouping’s parish discernment teams go on retreat together at the beginning of the process, and helping all parishioners understand the spiritual benefits of having more vital parishes.

“Because everyone has experienced the decline in Mass attendance in their own parish, in their own families — for many of them that did help them make the structural change in preparation for the spiritual renewal to come,” Malave said. “Which means we really have to deliver on the spiritual renewal.”

Elizabeth White, director of evangelization and missionary discipleship for the Archdiocese of Chicago, and vicariate-based parish vitality coordinators work with parishes that are in the “building the new reality” phase to help them cultivate missionary disciples and build a culture of evangelization.

One thing they have learned, White said, is that they cannot try to jump into evangelization immediately after parish structures change.

While parishes whose structures remain the same might be ready to move on faster, those who have united with other parishes need time to get on the same page, she said.

“They need at minimum a year,” White said. “You can’t put your energy in two ministries. They have to get their new name, combine their ministries. We tell them they really need to focus on bringing their communities together.”

Malave said that parishes where the leadership, including the pastors, are on board find unity more quickly.

“A leader that really invites people to keep Christ at the center and expand their hearts towards evangelization, those unifications generally go better,” he said.

To encourage that, the archdiocese is working with Divine Renovation, a ministry based in Canada aimed at building evangelizing parishes, to mentor pastors, creating structures for pastors to support one another and helping auxiliary bishops and Cardinal Cupich to support pastors, Malave said.

While parishes are coming together, White said, they can start a new process, something that was added to Renew My Church after the first parishes tried to build a new, evangelizing reality, and encountered difficulty. The new step, called “tilling the soil,” shares the vision of what an evangelizing parish is, so that when a parish is ready to go, the seeds do not fall on rocky ground or get choked by weeds, as happens in the parable of the sower in the Gospels.

“What we really need is soil that is rich and has been tilled,” White said. “If you just jump into evangelization, it can really end up stalled. … Evangelization is not a ministry of ministries. It’s not one more thing that we do. This is a process of really changing the culture. It is the core of the ministry.”

Which does not mean that evangelization is not also a ministry. Parishes that are building the new reality now offer Alpha or something like it, a no-pressure invitation to learn about the salvation offered by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, known as the kerygma. Those “kerygmatic entry points” are for people who have been in the pews for decades just as much as those who have never been to church, White said.

“It’s a way to enter into the faith journey, not the church,” she said. “And it’s a way to learn the good news and experience the good news and hopefully encounter Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It’s learning why Jesus lived, died and rose again for us. It’s the foundational teachings of Christianity. It has to do with who Jesus is, who God is, who the Holy Spirit is, and why it matters. … We actually have people sitting in our pews, maybe for years, who have never reflected on their experience of an encounter with the divine. I guarantee they’ve had those experiences, but if they never reflect on them, they just go away.”

Then, she said, parishes must work with people who have experienced that entry point find next steps to share their faith, becoming not just disciples — people who are willing to make sacrifices for God — but missionary disciples who are willing to share their faith and make sacrifices for God’s people.

Malave said the process has changed his own perspective on faith.

“My faith — it’s personal, but it’s not private,” he said. “We need to move people away from a privatized faith and move towards discipleship in their faith lives. … Pope Francis talks about it all the time. He calls us to missionary discipleship. It’s a powerful reminder that we are not in it for ourselves. Our faith is not a self-referential faith.”



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