The second weekend of November saw nearly 200 Catholic parish leaders converge on the St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral precinct in Manchester Street for the Ablaze Parish Renewal Conference.

For some years, Christchurch Catholics have attended Australia’s Proclaim Conference and wanted to bring this experience to their own diocese and offer it in their own context.

Fr Rick Loughnan, Christchurch Diocese administrator, said “The focus of the Ablaze conference was renewal for those of us who practice our faith, how to reach out to those who have drifted from their faith and to those who have never heard of Jesus.”

To that end, Ablaze offered parish leaders encouragement and inspiration and equipped them to immediately take what they learnt and apply it in their own parishes and schools.

The Ablaze venue was shared between St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral on one side of Manchester St and City Church on the other. This imaginative approach ensured that the sacramental and devotional life of conference attendees could take place in their own sacred space while City Church offered an excellent auditorium and classroom setting for keynote addresses, workshops and discussion.

Christ was at the centre throughout the conference. It began and ended with the celebration of the Mass. The opening Mass featured choristers from St Mary’s School, adjacent to the pro-cathedral who, along with leading enthusiastic congregational singing, offered their own motets in Latin and English, demonstrating that children are capable of singing sacred music of quality and depth. The closing Mass featured a choir of 35 singers, drawn from Christchurch parishes who, along with organ and trumpets led joyful congregational singing, supplemented by choral contributions. The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Nicholas Hudson, Auxiliary Bishop of the archdiocese of Westminster in London.

Bishop Hudson was one of three compelling international keynote speakers featured at Ablaze. He spoke about the importance of parishes radiating Christ and he challenged participants to be sure that their personal relationship with Christ impacts on their parishes, enabling them to become “oases of mercy”.

The second keynote address was from Australian Jan Heath, promoter of the Catholics Returning Home programme. She spoke of her own journey back to the Catholic Faith after encounters with three people who witnessed to her about their faith within a short period of time. Ms Heath has gone on to be involved in evangelisation both in Australia and in other countries.

The third keynote speaker was Daniel Ang, director of evangelisation for the Broken Bay diocese in Australia. His keynote address provided insights into the current reality of parish life and the challenges for our parishes to become places of mission.

In addition to the keynote addresses and opportunities for prayer and discussion, participants attended a range of workshops covering topics such as hospitality and welcome, renewing sacramental preparation, the role of the parish in welcoming and helping non-practicing and inactive Catholics to come home, becoming a confident Catholic, evangelising in the digital age, the parish school, the importance of prayer and the Holy Spirit for the evangelising parish, proclaiming the Gospel to a new generation, evangelising through the Church’s sacred music and art and Catholic social teaching.

A highlight was a panel formed by the three keynote speakers and Fr Michael Gielen from Holy Cross Seminary to respond to questions about parish renewal. After the closing Mass, Ablaze ended with a conference dinner, allowing everyone to relax and share what they had received.

Among those conference participants who have shared their experience of Ablaze was Anna Malone of Waimakarere. She said “I was challenged, informed and inspired. Ablaze broadened my view of evangelisation, identified current cultural challenges, emphasised the importance of embracing an evangelistic parish vision and gave so much hope for the future”.

Fr Dan Doyle of the Ferrymead parish commented that “Ablaze was a really encouraging experience – so many youthful parish delegates fired with enthusiasm and love for God. It must be the greatest resource we have in the diocese”.

Albert Chow of the Palmerston North diocese offered the thought that “Our homes, schools, parishes, workplaces and local communities are mission fields. As disciples of Jesus, are we ‘mission’ ready to live out our faith authentically and proclaim the Good News?”

Christchurch diocese’s Mike Stopforth and the bishop’s pastoral office co-ordinated Ablaze. Mr Stopforth stated that “We know already there are conversations as people return to their parishes inspired for mission and making Christ known.”

“Ablaze really highlighted to me the talent we have in abundance within the diocese.” said Christchurch diocesan general manager, Andy Doherty.

“I am hopeful that this conference will enable us in our parishes to recognise what we already do and lead us to practical ways to spread the Gospel more effectively by our actions and our words.” said diocesan administrator, Fr Loughnan.