I’ve only been to Halifax once and the visit was brief. But Atlantic Canada, as that section of the country is called, is not exactly known as a revival center and the province of Quebec next door is a graveyard for churches.
Thus, I was surprised to find a piece in the Christian Century -- for decades a major commentary voice for the old Protestant mainline -- about an enterprising Catholic priest who cheerfully admits to stealing church-growth ideas from evangelical American Protestants. His primary instrument is the Anglican evangelistic program Alpha.
These ideas aren’t entirely new, as charismatic Catholics have been appropriating Protestant methods since the 1970s. But this time, the institutional church is taking notice.
As the article begins:
"Do you know what amazes me about Father Mallon’s book?” I said to Pavel Reid, head of outreach for the Archdiocese of Vancouver. Reid had just told me that Catholic dioceses across Canada were using Mallon’s book Divine Renovation as a guide to parish renewal.
“Let me guess,” said Reid. “That he stole it all from the Protestants?”
James Mallon, pastor of Saint Benedict Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was recently named vicar for parish renewal throughout Canada. He has fielded more than 150 speaking requests since the 2014 publication of Divine Renovation, a book that has gone through multiple printings and been translated into French and Spanish. Divine Renovation and its sequel, Divine Renovation Guidebook (2016), are full of insights from people such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Andy Stanley, and from the Alpha course, an Anglican evangelization video series. Mallon jokes that he subscribes to the CASE method -- “copy and steal everything.” And it’s mostly Protestant practices that he’s been stealing.
If you can’t beat them, join them? In this case, the details in the story really matter. Let's keep reading.
Liberal Protestants will notice that his materials are mostly borrowed from evangelical Protestant sources -- but then many mainline parishes use the resources of Gallup, Leadership Network, and Alpha as well. Mallon spends a surprising amount of ink defending his Catholic flank -- citing this pope and that encyclical to say why something that he’s borrowed from Protestants isn’t actually not Catholic.
The Sunday I visited Saint Benedict Parish I noticed that the band uses standard numbers from the praise music repertoire, with lyrics projected on screens. (Mallon calls screens “Baroque Catholicism on steroids.”) Moms with babies in Björns swayed and sang; others raised their hands and closed their eyes (including the presider that day, associate pastor Simon Lobo). The homily was a good 20-minute exposition of scripture with four points (flashed on screen) and two items for homework.
We then learn this is the biggest Christian church east of Montreal and that the pastor fights against the Catholic tendency to let the priests do all the heavy lifting.
Saint Benedict Parish is no Vatican II–rejecting neotraditionalist revanchist congregation. It follows Vatican II’s call for ministry to begin with baptism, not ordination. It wants the whole people of God to be serious about discipleship.
In pursuing that end, it’s found that the Alpha course, a discussion-based introduction to Christianity, is the best vehicle. Mallon runs a class called Catholicism 201, and when asked why he doesn’t teach a class called Catholicism 101, he replies: “Because it already exists. It’s called Alpha.”
Sure enough, among Catholic evangelization sources, Alpha is listed.
Next, things get personal as we learn that the priest had a conversion experience through a Cursillo weekend, how he failed at trying evangelistic practices at his first parish but that St. Benedict’s proved much more hospitable.
Through Mallon’s quotes, the reader gets a realistic assessment from the priest of how a typical Catholic parish can be quite dead. The best quote is here:
A campus minister once told McDowell that Catholics are the easiest converts: the wiring of faith is already present, but the electricity hasn’t been turned on; all you need to do is flip the switch.
The writer was quite knowledgeable about the topic, comparing the Halifax parish with a similar effort in Baltimore and showing familiarity with Protestant leaders such as Rick Warren. It helps that the writer teaches homiletics and biblical theology at the Vancouver (BC) School of Theology.
Lower down in the piece, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Mallon had encountered the Catholic charismatic renewal in Ottawa, which is what opened him up to Alpha, which has a charismatic component.
I found the article immensely interesting, in that it not only involves members of a Catholic parish acting like evangelicals but apparently the bishops over Mallon approve of what he’s doing. I would have liked a quote from someone in the Canadian Catholic hierarchy about Mallon’s new post as vicar for parish renewal but that’s a small complaint in an otherwise well-rounded piece.
There's a bit of confusion as to Mallon's new role, especially in light of this video from St. Benedict's that makes it sound as though Mallon will be working within the Diocese of Halifax-Yarmouth instead of nationally as the article says. If the former is so, that needs to be corrected.
Also, if the magazine follows Associated Press style, the references should be to "Mass" instead of "mass." The ritual is always capitalized.
The Tablet also did a piece on Mallon in June but it’s not as complete as the Christian Century feature. The latter is frank about the charismatic content of the Alpha course and some of the liberal Protestant objections to the whole idea of Alpha. And, in an era of massive losses among mainline Protestant denominations, evangelistic success stories are hard to refute.
Here's a Catholic parish that's growing through conversions instead of having to lean on Latino immigrants -- as to many U.S. parishes -- to amp up the numbers. I'm glad the Christian Century chose to tell its story. News publications across Canada may want to look this over.