Putting Evangelisation at the Heart of Parish Life

Updated: Jan 12

We caught up with Fr Mark Hogan, parish priest at St. Peter and the Winchester Martyrs in Winchester to ask him how he's doing things differently in his parish.

What are the things that you most enjoy about your priestly ministry?

'What I most love is when people flourish and grow in their faith and come alive. I’m not very good at horticulture. I don’t know if there’s an opposite to ‘green fingered’ but if there is, then that’s me. So, I have frequently managed to leave plants entrusted to me without water for far too long. It’s amazing, though, how many of them can be revived with just a few drops of water and blossom once more. I love it when, through a homily or a note in the newsletter, a prayer, an experience, a moment of grace, a conversation or a smile, people who have been weighed down and burdened come back to life once more. People filled with a new found joy, with a profound joy, make my heart glow.

I love listening to people - everyone’s story is unique and precious and rich. I love being with the young people in our parishes - I love their questions and their refusal to accept glib answers. I am blessed by the trust people place in me and the love they show me. I love spending myself for people.'

In the last few years you signed up to the Divine Renovation Network. Could you explain firstly what Divine Renovation is and why you felt you needed this support?

'Divine Renovation, as I understand it, is an attempt to be faithful to the call of the last four popes to place evangelisation at the core of a parish’s identity.

Evangelisation can be a scary word but really it is nothing more than sharing good news and that’s something we do all the time.

I tell people when I've watched an amazing new film that I love or a holiday that I’ve enjoyed or a new incredible ice cream parlour I’ve discovered. Evangelisation is sharing the good news of the Gospel: that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, who gave his life on the cross and rose to new life so that you and I could be filled with that love and experience his power at work, both in this life and the life to come.

What’s exciting for me is that this is about renovation in a Catholic parish, which is where my heart lies. Some of the new movements and religious orders, as well as many of our brothers and sisters in other Christian communities, have achieved wonderful things in various settings by making evangelisation central to their identity. It’s not easy, though, to find a Catholic parish which is living out of a conscious sense that they exist in order to invite others into a share in God’s life. There are countless Catholic parishes who are wonderful at looking after the 99 sheep but far fewer who have any awareness of the one lost sheep, never mind the fact that this solitary sheep should be their primary concern.

Divine Renovation has three key principles: (i) the primacy of evangelisation - bringing people closer to Jesus Christ in hope and joy; (ii) the importance of excellent leadership; (iii) an experience of the power of the Holy Spirit. If I’m honest, these are three areas of parish life where I never had much training and didn’t have much experience. I think I’m a pretty good shepherd and a reasonably good teacher (although there is always much room for improvement) but I’m not naturally gifted at sharing the joy of the gospel; leadership training has been mainly “on the job” and very hit and miss; and the Holy Spirit has mainly been the hidden partner in my prayer life and my ministry to others. So, I knew I couldn’t do this by myself and that I needed help.'

One of the core elements of Divine Renovation is encouraging the best leadership principles - why do you think this is an important element of parish renewal?

'Leadership is the gift which, when done well, allows the other gifts to flourish. St Paul writes that a Christian leader is to equip God’s people for works of service. This is why leadership is so central: at its core it is about serving others so that they can serve others, each according to the gifts that the Holy Spirit brings. It’s part of our faith that everyone is called to holiness, everyone is called to be a saint. The Christian leader helps the people of God to recognise that God has some particular task for them and has given them the gifts they need to carry out that task. A Christian leader casts the vision, where it is that he believes God is calling his people to go, and then leads the people there with love.'

How have you gone about helping lay people to step into leadership?

'One of the big changes for me by adopting this model is the idea of leading out of a team. This isn’t an essential part of the divine renovation model, nor is it unique to DR, but it is a way of helping to improve the key decisions made in the parish. This senior leadership team consists of myself and three others whom I’ve chosen because they are people who share the vision, who are trusted by me and each other, and who add some balance to my strengths and compensate for some of my many weaknesses. They help me to see things I wouldn’t otherwise see.

We’re still in the early days but we’re trying to put some structure into place so that all of our parish staff and ministry leaders are supported by or through our senior leadership team.

I want all our lay leaders to know that they are empowered to lead and grow their ministry in accordance with the vision, to develop their teams and to make a difference in people’s lives.

I want them to know that there is someone entrusted by me who will meet with them regularly and take a genuine interest in their ministry - the joys and successes alongside the struggles and challenges.'

How has leading out of a team helped your priesthood? Doesn't it complicate things to have more people involved in decision making or is that not the case?

'Leading out of the Senior Leadership Team can sometimes slow things down. Before I would just make decisions and live or die by them. Now, each of us on the SLT has the responsibility to bring back key decisions so we can talk them through. What it does, though, mean is that the decisions that are made are generally better ones. Moreover, the decisions we make have the buy in of the whole team and so we are able together to communicate why we have reached a certain conclusion and how we are going to move forward. It frees up more people to be able to move ahead in implementing the decisions we make or supporting others as they put them into practice. Sometimes the SLT can also actually speed things up - there can be times where I’ll procrastinate over tough decisions and having an SLT keeps me accountable and on track.'

How does it make you feel to see your parishioners living out of their strengths and gifts and stepping in to leadership?

'As I mentioned above, one of my favourite things is to see people blossoming and flourishing. One key way in which this happens is when they start to live according to the gifts and call which they’ve been given. St Catherine of Siena said that if I were to be the person God has called me to be then I would set the world on fire and I guess that’s what I get to glimpse. When people are being themselves and growing then they will naturally be successful and joyful and that in turn spills over into the lives of others. For me as a shepherd to see my ‘spiritual children’ thriving in this way is a beautiful thing.'

Are there wrong ways to go about this? What would be some things to avoid when trying to encourage this shift?

'I’m sure there must be a million and one ways to go about this incorrectly but I think the worst thing to do is to do nothing.

And the second worst thing to do, I think, would be for a parish priest to think he could do this all by himself. It takes work, incredibly hard work and perseverance and, much more importantly, it takes a lot of prayer. The psalmist reminds us that unless the Lord build this house then the labourer works in vain. I think that must be true of renovating the house as well - it really does need to be a divine renovation, assisted by the priest and a whole army of labourers.'

Our ultimate leader as Christians is Jesus. What have you learned from his example in terms of leadership?

'The Divine Renovation model encourages us to ‘invert the pyramid’ so that the parish priest is seen at the bottom, supporting his senior leadership team and staff and key ministry leaders rather than ‘lording it over them from above’. I find this incredibly helpful and it seems to echo the teaching of Jesus recorded in Luke’s gospel, where he reminds his disciples that Christian leadership is about service.

There are countless ways in which Jesus models perfect leadership - he is rooted in prayer with his Father; he is empowered by the Holy Spirit; he has a clear vision which is of our salvation and is focussed on his goal of proclaiming and inaugurating the kingdom; he spends a disproportionate amount of time with his 72 disciples, the 12 apostles and the ‘inner 3’ of Peter, James and John; he communicates beautifully and teaches wonderfully; he challenges appropriately; he washes the feet of his disciples and he loves us to the end.

Jesus is more than some idyllic model from the past, however. He is, or needs to be, the key player on the team today.

After all, it’s not really me at the bottom of that pyramid but Christ himself, sustaining and encouraging me and preventing the whole thing from collapsing, That’s a wonderful relief and a beautiful blessing.'

You can see more from Fr Mark's parish in Winchester at their website: more from Divine Renovation here:

Office Number: 02392 825430

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