By Steve Sears
After one visit to the Notre Dame of Mount Carmel Parish, in Cedar Knolls, it is easy to gather that this is a community for the community. Those last few words are key, but so is the message of the parish mission, that is the message of renewal.
Notre Dame has a rich history within its 98-year old congregation. In the summer of 1920, George Hild donated to the Cedar Knolls Catholic Association a parcel of Ridgedale Avenue farmland, and shortly thereafter parishioner Michael Beresh used his horse and scoop to break earth for a chapel building. Monsignor Ellard of Assumption Church in Morristown laid the cornerstone on Nov. 17, 1920, and official dedication ceremonies were held on July 5, 1925. The deed of new chapel, which then served as a mission, was eventually transferred from the Cedar Knolls Catholic Association and incorporated into the Diocese of Newark on Sept. 7, 1926. Spiritual care of the parish was taken over by the Benedictine Fathers in Sept. of 1926, continuing until 2016 when it was transitioned to the Diocese of Newark.
Such was the early beginning of Notre Dame of Mount Carmel Parish; the parish family only numbered 15 at the time and has grown to an extremely vibrant community of almost 2,000.
Father Paddy O’Donovan, who was ordained in Ireland in 1972, is in his fourth year as Pastor of Notre Dame of Mount Carmel Parish and loves it.
“This is a very involved, very engaged group of people,” he said. “I’ve found I’m serving so many groups of people from various ministries.”
With such an involved group of people, activity at the parish is very widespread.
“People are involved in a way that maybe some of our Roman Catholic churches are not,” says Donovan. “There’s a great engagement here, and there’s a huge outreach to people in need.”
O’Donovan reflects on the parishes’ involvement: “There’s just an amazing desire for the people to be what the church ought to be: a group of disciples for Jesus. It’s a community, and that’s the key thing that we’re doing here that we’re engaged in, a new path in engaging people in the life of the church, and that simply is renewal. We can no longer depend on being the organized, expanding church that was organized back in the 1940s or 1950s. We’re in a post-Christian culture today, more and more people are disconnected from the church, I believe.”
O’Donovan’s recent reading turned up the disconcerting number of 30 million United States Catholics who had left the church.
“That tells us a story,” he reflects.
This statistic has resonated with other members of the parish and they attempt to do something about it.
“That’s part of our renewal, our mission really,” adds Jean Pankow, Pastoral associate of the parish.
“The renewal is this, as I see it,” says O’Donovan, “We cannot continue doing the same old, same old stuff in ministry. We just can’t contain a model that is hemorrhaging its people. So, we’ve got to go back on mission. I just think we’ve got to be like the apostles in the early days of the church, we’ve got to go out and let people know we have good news. It’s all about a relationship with Jesus. So, I see ourselves as going out again and evangelizing.”
He adds that the model at Notre Dame of Mount Carmel is an open welcome and engagement with Christ; the goal to raise up disciples and leaders in the laity, all leading to small Christian communities within the parish which can engender faith. “Leading,” he adds, “is very important.”
Per Pankow, Notre Dame fosters desire in three ways: “The most important way to create desire to get involved is to offer people opportunities to personally encounter the Lord in their lives,” he says. “We have programs like Alpha, a 12-week journey through contemplating the big questions if life – it’s not a Catholic thing, it’s not bible study – it’s exploring the big questions of life with others at your table for 12 weeks.
“Cornerstone – those are retreat models, those are great pre-evangelization opportunities for people who have been disconnected for years; it opens the door to come back in to start to see God working in your life,” he continues. “Once you begun to have that encounter which can be an explosive moment or it can happen gradually, you’re compelled to serve for two reasons: love of the Lord, but also wanting to be part of this community.”
Another way the parish seeks to instill desire is through the welcoming, the homily message, and musical components of the weekend liturgy, he says.
“In this parish, what blows people away is the level of participation in song,” he says. “In fact, somebody said to me at an Alpha meeting that she’s been disconnected from the church for nine years and she was at the Cornerstone closing Mass, she said ‘The joy and community I felt at this Mass was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.’ So that’s a powerful entry point.”
“There’s isn’t a weekend here that something isn’t going on in a gathering space that isn’t ministry related,” he says.
Notre Dame of Mount Carmel parishioners come from “all over,” says Pankow. “They come from Whippany, Morris Plains, Sussex County.”
O’Donovan adds, “And that’s a new phenomenon that we’re experiencing in the life of the church today. The ease with which people can travel nowadays, automobile or whatever it might be, they are no longer bound to the geographic area. And now people are going to go where they’re fed.”
“We are in a serious mode of renewal, a radical one,” says O’Donovan. “We must realize that, for a lot of people, the renewal is frightening. The renewal is about change. We have found, and all the studies will tell you, that we’re [the Catholic church] hemorrhaging. Give or take as percentage points, between 20 and 45-50 years old, there is 80 percent of those people who are disconnected from the life of the church. If that’s the trend, why would we keep doing what we’re doing? We’ve got to be very careful and sensitive, too, to the people that may be pushing back, and they’re there, but we can’t not go forward. This renewal reminds me, ‘Paddy, you’ve got to build up leaders.’ And we have a staff here and parish leaders that are being built up. They’re going to be engine that is driving this renewal.
“So, we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and listen to what Christ was saying to us in the scriptures, which is to go into the world and tell them the good news, baptize them, teach them, and tell them everything I commanded you, and just remember this, I am with you,” continues O’Donovan. “So, we shouldn’t be afraid.”
Adds Pankow, “The key phrase, though, from the great commission from the Gospel of Saint Matthew is ‘Go out into the world and make disciples of all nations.’ Our model of renewal is based on a model presented in a book titled “Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to Missional Church.” In this book Mallon posits that the church has lost her true identity, and that identity is in the great commission of Jesus – go and make disciples. He just didn’t say ‘Go and sit in the pew on Sunday and then go to work on Monday.’ So, that’s our mission, that’s our vision, which is not the way it used to be.
“We’re trying to get people to think of faith not as something related to this building, but something that’s transforming their lives in their families, in their friendships, at their jobs,” continues Pankow. “It doesn’t end when you walk out the door on the weekend; it’s something that radically transforms your life and relationships.”
Concludes O’Donovan, “In our renewal we’re trying to invite everybody to become a disciple of Christ, and if you do, then you are transformed, you’re fired up, you’re changed, and you’re sent on mission yourself.”
For more information about Notre Dame Mount Carmel Parish call 973-538-1358 or visit the website at www.ndcarmel.com.