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Visiting Canadian lay leader helping Brisbane Catholics find ways to inject new life into parishes

Ron Huntley: “Jesus is alive, and the Church should matter.” Photo: Mark Bowling

HE’S here to inspire and renew life in our parishes. 

Canadian lay leader Ron Huntley arrived in Brisbane last week to speak with priests and Church leaders about how to go beyond the crisis in the Catholic Church and inspire an authentic renewal of faith.

“If the way we do Church doesn’t lead to an encounter and a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ then we are doing it wrong,” Mr Huntley said. 

“And I would say most people don’t have that experience. 

“And if that’s the case we need to change because it’s not working.”

Mr Huntley is known internationally as a leadership coach. 

He advocates a parish tool for evangelisation known as Alpha that aims to shake up the status quo, to make priests feel they are more than caretakers, and for parishioners to experience authentic community life.

He arrived in Brisbane, just as figures made public confirmed a drop in church attendances, and amid what he called “the twin crisis in the Church” internationally – “a crisis of leadership and the sexual abuse crisis”.

“Jesus is alive, and the Church should matter,” Mr Huntley said.

“And if we can’t make Church relevant that’s our issue… let’s figure it out, God is on our side and the Holy Spirit is with us.”

At the invitation of Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Mr Huntley is in Brisbane to speak at three strategic events – a meeting with 90 parish leaders in the Francis Rush Centre, priests in formation and guests at the Holy Spirit Seminary, and at a convocation of clergy from across the archdiocese.

“His (Archbishop Coleridge’s) heart burns for parish renewal… and to see people’s hearts ablaze,” he said. 

“His heart burns to see fruitfulness and changed lives and his pastors living their priesthoods in ways that excite them and ignite them.

“In my experience coaching priests all over the world – they love Christ and they love the Church too. 

“To chose celibacy and lay their life down in love and service in others is not to be undervalued. But I don’t think we’ve set them up for success in terms of what leadership looks like.” 

Mr Huntley has worked side-by-side with Fr James Mallon to bring about the “divine renovation” of his home parish of St Benedict in Halifax, Canada, turning it into a vibrant, mission-focused community. 

His parish work has expanded into the Divine Renovation Ministry and he is known internationally through speaking engagements, a popular podcast, and coaching pastors who seek to bring their parish from maintenance to mission. 

Fr Mallon and Mr Huntley have authored the book Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish, that challenges readers to rethink our models of parish life, from membership-based communities to assemblies of disciples of Jesus who proclaim and share the good news.

The book articulates practical ways for injecting new life into parishes.

“We are all called to the same thing,” Mr Huntley said, referring to true discipleship and leaning in to evangelisation and leadership.

“One of the things we really try to help people with is to understand what leadership looks like in the context of the Church.

“It will challenge people in what they think, but in a good way, because we love them and we want them to succeed, we want them to be fruitful.”

Mr Huntley praises the Alpha program, now used successfully in parishes around the world, as an accessible way to help Christians re-explore their faith. 

Alpha is already active in about 30 parishes in Brisbane.

“I think it’s an awakening,” Mr Huntley said. 

“Alpha is a great way to explain the meaning of life over dinner, a great video and casual discussion.

“For people who have had some experience of Church growing up, we often say they’ve had just enough Catholicism to know they don’t want it, and they leave.

“As adults they run into all kinds of things that can lead us in all kinds of directions that don’t bring life. Sometimes we find ourselves doing life in ways that don’t give life, but we don’t know what to do about it anymore.

“Alpha gives ourselves a chance to take a pause and sit around a table and say ‘how are you making out?’”

“At the end of the day God is real or he is not, and if he is, you’re going to want to find out a little bit about Him because we’re all going to die. How are we going to spend eternity?

“Most of us find ourselves captive to fear, and addictions and just bad choices – and that’s not life and we know it.

“And when you start to do Alpha in parishes people come alive, because they’re freed up, they are able to forgive and love and laugh and sing – and that makes all the difference in the world.”

Mr Huntley said Alpha was “one small piece in a bigger puzzle” of pastoral planning.

“We teach people how to lead so that they are not just doing tasks but owning the vision,” he said.

“And then they are innovating and coming up with great ideas.”

He said Divine Renovation stressed the primacy of evangelisation, the best of leadership principals, and a reliance on an experience with the Holy Spirit.

“If we are not radically leaning into, and surrendering to Jesus on an ongoing basis and being filled by the Holy Spirit, this isn’t sustainable,” he said.

“Our ministry is a tool to help them with their own parish renewal.”

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