New culture, new wineskins

Friday, August 10, 2018 - Updated: 10:00 am

By Father Samuel J. Esposito

This is the latest in a series of columns about On Mission for The Church Alive!

“No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

Father James Mallon, a Canadian priest, well-known speaker and author of “Divine Renovation,” says that in his opinion “the primary challenge of the new evangelization is nothing short of the transformation of the cultures of our churches.” What does this mean? Why is it necessary to change our cultures? What’s wrong with what we have now?

Father Mallon tells us that merely changing the furniture around is not enough. In our case in Pittsburgh, we could say, just putting parishes in the new groupings isn’t going to be enough. But it is a first step. Let me explain.

We are well aware that around us there are cultural forces that have shifted. These forces now place little if any emphasis on organized religion, let alone regular Sunday worship or participation in our Catholic faith. As we go down the road of this millennium, what will slow or stop the decrease in our faithful? What keeps young people in, even as the older generations die off?

When he brought three parishes together, Father Mallon realized that a deeper kind of change than just merging parishes or closing buildings and adjusting schedules had to happen. He realized that something had to shift interiorly. This change meant that individual hearts had to be open “to allow the Lord to make us into new wine for the beautiful new wineskins we had received.” He described how people who leave the Catholic Church to join non-denominational churches often do so not because of theological reasons, but for reasons that come from everyday life.

How can we live out our rich theology? What do we believe is normative for the Christian life? This is about conversion of our lived values. We can’t simply state our values. We have to incorporate them into how we live daily.

Compared to closing church buildings or forming new parishes, those become “cosmetic” when we consider the deeper changes of real conversion so that our lives are transformed.

In some instances, bishops have responded to dwindling resources by simply giving priests, already stretched, more parishes to administer. But the expectation is that the priest will keep everything as it has been; a concentration of resources that helps for a while. In the long run this is not the answer. Bishop David Zubik realizes that, and this is the reason we are being asked about our relationship with Jesus. Is this the core of everything? It’s a shift that draws us back to the reason we exist.

In 2010, Father Mallon was made pastor of a newly amalgamated parish, formerly three parishes. The new parish, St. Benedict, also had constructed a new church building. It seemed like things were rolling along. He said that even though from the outside it looked like St. Benedict was doing great, it was dying. Why? He believes it was because nothing had changed in how the parish functioned to meet the demands of the shift in culture.

What was his response? First, he had to have a vision. What would a new way of being a parish look like? Then he began to restructure the pastoral team, to create a staff that understood the need to change. He added positions that would help him achieve the vision. In his case, the vision was to draw those who typically did not come to Mass to come and see what was happening. It began by giving priority to the weekend.

What would be attractive about the Sunday experience that would make people want to participate? It wasn’t changing how liturgy happens. We have a liturgical structure that remains in place no matter where the Mass is celebrated. This was about making sure the Mass was celebrated to its full potential, and getting people to see that this was important. Father Mallon insists on excellent preaching, wonderful hospitality and great music because 80 percent of the people who participate in a parish are only there for Sunday Mass. He says we must grab the opportunity to wow them.

So how does that translate for your grouping? What are ways to wow people who come to Mass so that they leave having had an experience that is uplifting, nourishing and practical to their everyday lives? Is it by working on the delivery of homilies that speak to them, challenge them and feed them? Is it by replacing stale music with something more lively? Is it by getting every person to understand that hospitality doesn’t belong only to greeters and ushers but is the responsibility of everyone?

Father Mallon says it works. You can search him out online and see for yourselves. New wineskins certainly are being offered as we prepare for the implementation of On Mission. But are we going to pour old wine into them and expect them to hold?

Keep looking up. Check out Father Mallon’s book if you haven’t already. Look for him on YouTube. And pray, pray and pray some more.


Father Esposito is episcopal vicar for On Mission for The Church Alive! For more about On Mission, go to www.diopitt.org/onmission.

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