Matthew Halbach is a Catholic lay theologian and executive director of the St. Joseph Educational Center in Des Moines, Iowa. His first book, Becoming a Parish of Mercy: A New Vision for Total Parish Evangelization, offers practical advice to renew parishes with Pope Francis’ vision of a more merciful church. On Aug. 14, I interviewed him about the book by telephone. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.
There have been a number of “parish renewal books” on the Catholic market in recent years, all of which promise to transform parishes, but it seems hard to measure the impact of such books. Why should people care about yours?
In my book I talk about the number of parish renewal books on the market. Many of them focus on renewal as one kind of program or another—that if you do steps A, B, and C your parish will become vibrant. My book tries to be a conversation-starter about why the Gospel message is joyful and why mercy needs to be shared. There are reflection questions challenging readers to examine these issues.
Who is your audience, and what do you hope they will take away from this book?
The audience is everyone in the parish from Father down to the pew sitters, including those like me: people who come to Mass every Sunday but aren’t really plugged into parish life.
Matthew Halbach talks about his vision for “total parish evangelization.”
Your phrase “parish of mercy” evokes the language of Pope Francis and the recent Year of Mercy. What does mercy mean to you?
I think you can make an argument based on biblical evidence and church tradition that mercy is making room for other people. Who needs us to make room for them in our parishes right now? What kind of room do we need to make? Sometimes it’s physical space, but sometimes we need to make space in our hearts.
What do you mean by “total parish evangelization”?
I mean looking at all people who make up a parish community, asking questions, offering biblical stories and insights that touch people’s lives—people from the pastor down to disgruntled Catholics thinking of leaving the church.
Many parish renewal books urge people to do door-to-door evangelization, but many U.S. parishes have tried this approach without seeing any noticeable difference in parish life. What is your response?
I don’t explicitly encourage door-to-door evangelization in the book, but I encourage accompaniment. One form of accompaniment might be door-to-door evangelization. But the particular forms of how we accompany people and who we accompany is something we need to discuss and pray about.
Mercy is making room for other people.
Can you say more about the accompaniment that you are advocating?
Francis doesn’t give us a program, but a series of attitudes and actions that call us to go out of ourselves to encounter others. He invites us to ask a number of questions: What does accompaniment look like in my life? Does that mean going door to door? How do I go out of my comfort zone?
How have you accompanied others in your own life?
I like to tell a story about a time when I was at Mass with my wife and four young kids. After Mass, I wanted to pray over them in the pews for the coming week, and two women behind me had varied reactions to what I was doing. One woman obviously really liked it and the other was scowling at me—that really bothered me and I felt like I had to find out what was going on.
As part of the broader accompaniment that Francis describes, invitation is key.
When I went to say hello and ask if everything was all right, she said my prayer “looked Protestant” to her and was distracting. Right there I could have given up on engaging her, but I went a step further and awkwardly invited her to join my family for coffee and donuts, where she revealed that watching me pray with my kids brought up some painful memories of her husband passing and her son leaving the Catholic Church—memories she needed to share. So that was the real source of her negative reaction to me. That illustrates accompaniment for me: simple actions that connect us and touch people deeply.
Other than accompaniment, what are some practical actions you prescribe for parish renewal in this book?
As part of the broader accompaniment that Francis describes, invitation is key. Are we a people of invitation? Do we invite people to come to Mass, pray, socialize, or do anything else with us that touches on faith? Who do we exclude from our lives? That’s another area for reflection and conversation.
How do you pray?
I pray every chance I get, in a lot of different ways throughout the day. Sometimes it’s sitting down and being intentional about quieting myself to hear God’s voice and word. Sometimes it’s Lectio Divina and sometimes it’s very Ignatian, imagining myself in the story. Sometimes it’s in the witness of some service or good work that I’m doing or someone is doing for me. I also pray occasionally in a charismatic fashion. I like to put my arms up in the air and really try to reach for God and allow whatever comes into my mind at that time to be something God is giving me as direction, instruction or encouragement.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about parish renewal, what would it be?
He’s already done it a bit, but I would ask him to encourage pastors to be leaders and to lead by following. That tension between leading and following is a tough one. Leading by following means being open to suggestions that might have something to say about the way a priest is leading his congregation.