Steps towards renewal

Clergy Study Days underway to enliven the missionary spirit of the archdiocese

There is much talk today of a church in crisis.

It’s a phrase that can invoke a plethora of meanings, often pointing towards the highest places of church power and to the most global and widespread of church issues. But perhaps the most central crisis of all is not within the hallowed walls of the Vatican or in news headlines, but in small local churches – in places where the parishioners are getting fewer, the pews are getting emptier, and the participation and spirit of parish life seems to diminish more and more.

It’s a story found in both rural and urban communities – across our archdiocese, across Canada, and across the whole of the western world. And it brings with it many contributing factors – aging demographics, struggling economies, the long-term effects of pandemic restrictions, a secular culture that is increasingly overbearing and hostile to religious life, and much more.

But it’s not a crisis the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan is planning to shy away from. Over the coming months, the priests of the archdiocese are embarking on a program of parish renewal that they hope will rejuvenate their missionary spirit and address this most daunting of challenges.

Priests from across the archdiocese gathered for the first ‘Clergy Study Days’ session on March 8th.

The inaugural event for “Clergy Study Days” was held at the Catholic Conference Centre in Peace River on Wednesday, March 8th. This special program, taking place over the next 9 months, is anchored on Fr. James Mallon’s book Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, which offers guidance towards building discipleship-focused churches that are fully alive in faith, hope and charity.

At this introductory event, Msgr. Charles Lavoie gave a detailed history of pastoral ministry in the archdiocese, Fr. Emmanuel Ekanem gave an overview of how the program will develop over the coming months, guest speakers with the Divine Renovation Ministry joined from Eastern Canada, and the priests discussed some of the major challenges they face in parish ministry.

“The reason why we are doing this is that we want to improve and enhance pastoral ministry, interest and zeal across the archdiocese,” said Fr. Emmanuel Ekanem, director of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. “The goal at the end of the day is to understand how we can make our parishes fully alive.”

Msgr. Charles Lavoie gives a history of pastoral ministry initiatives in the decades since he entered the priesthood.

It was nearly two years ago that Fr. Emmanuel came across a copy of Divine Renovation at Archbishop Pettipas’ house. The book’s title struck him, and with each routine visit to the archbishop’s home Ekanem began to look through the text more and more.

Finally, this year, the OEC has made Divine Renovation and its companion guidebook the foundation for their inaugural Clergy Study Days program.

By focusing on key principles and the creation of local leadership teams, the book offers guidance to help parishes, that at first may be struggling just to survive, become parishes that have a renewed spirit of mission and evangelization, with parishioners that see themselves not as simply members of a church, but disciples of Christ called to proclaim the Good News to all people. The book is largely based on the first-hand experiences of its author, Fr. James Mallon, a diocesan priest based in Nova Scotia.

“[Through Divine Renovation Ministry] we’ve seen priests and Catholic leaders get renewed hope for their parish, a fresh perspective on their ministry, on their priesthood, and a renewal of the potential fruitfulness that is possible at their parish,” said Eric Myatt, a leadership coach with Divine Renovation Ministry who attended the March 8th gathering.

As part of the day’s activities, priests got together in their respective deaneries to discuss the introduction to the book “Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish”.

The leadership team, as proposed by Divine Renovation, is much different than a parish council. Rather than focusing on the maintenance and “business” side of parish life, this leadership team is focused solely on evangelization, on helping the people of the parish foster a genuine relationship with Christ and grow in their faith.

Fr. Bernard Akum, Grouard pastor and the archdiocese’s vicar for Indigenous ministry, hopes this program will help reinvigorate parishes in their identity and mission. He feels this introductory meeting was an encouraging beginning.

“Generally the church in America and Europe is very much going down – in terms of numbers, in terms of participation, in terms of the spirit of evangelization,” he said. “But this was very encouraging – just in the fact that we have an identified this issue, we have accepted it, and now we are looking for a way forward.”

Representatives with Divine Renovation Ministry, Eric Myatt and Alex Lee Hoy, joined via Zoom. (The pope joined via cardboard cutout)

Akum particularly looks forward to the forming of a leadership team.

“With that, it will not only be your work as a priest to evangelize. You will have a team of evangelizers, and where you can’t go, they can go; where you can’t reach, they can reach,” he said. “We want to build up disciples, to win souls for the Lord, with the conviction that the Holy Spirit is always present in the Church, it is always alive and active, and we just need to be available as priests, as a team of faithful who share in this vision, in bringing more people to the Church.

“So that, at the end of our lives, we can keep glorifying God in eternity, just like we have been doing here on earth.”

Priests in attendance were quick to discuss some of the initial roadblocks and obvious challenges that will come with bringing such a renewal to fruition. Fr. Ed Eherer, CSsR of Grande Prairie brought up the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in ways it has fostered an attitude that the church is merely “optional”.

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the April 2023 edition of Northern Light

Fr. Emmanuel Ekanem hopes this year of Clergy Study Days will garner great fruit and missionary zeal for the archdiocese.