learning from the Church abroad

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A secondary dome in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Baltimore, the first Catholic cathedral built in the United States

The past fortnight of a research tour here in the U.S. has provided valuable insight into the life of local churches and the social fabric of America as a nation, a fabric that is complex and strained as I write this blog. Here in Baltimore the sounds of sirens, demonstrations, the cries for justice and social equity can be heard on CNN or directly out my hotel window, as rallies continue two blocks west of my stay.

As I have spoken to local residents, taxi drivers, and even members of the National Guard over these days, the tensions seem symptomatic of a self-destructive alienation of human society from itself, of the insufficiency of social contract which only mediates conflict without addressing its causes, and of forces of dehumanisation (poverty and militarisation among them) that render genuine communion near impossible.

These tensions, saddled between ignorance and fear, cannot be overcome by force, by technological advancement, by politics, not even the economy, least of all what Merton describes as a “bright official confidence” that all will be well. Surely the profound wisdom of the Christian tradition has not simply something to say to this mess we are in (and we are all in it) but also brings a responsibility to act through solidarity with the poor in spirit and circumstance. And yet this wisdom and action seems largely absent or lost among the roar of the crowds and the rattle of tanks.

In conversation with pastoral leaders in the U.S. over this time, and with the expertise of Sherry Weddell and Mary Gautier, I’ve come to better appreciate the similarities and distinctions between the American and Australian contexts that influence approaches to mission, which includes the peace-making and spirit of reconciliation being called upon in this hour.

I have learnt of the urban, rural and regional variations thread throughout the American Church, many sharing constraints in resources and local priestly vocations as at home, and the distinctive and deep religious identity that builds upon the story of America’s foundation but that threatens to remain a legacy of the past without a renewed mission of evangelisation.

As settlements of religious asylum and religious freedom, states such as Maryland, Philadelphia and New England are indelibly marked by their spiritual origins and aspiration, whether they be Catholic, Puritan or otherwise. These origins have seen religion intertwined with American culture, government, and daily life and religious belonging maintain a civic respectability in the wider community to a degree not at all experienced in the Australian context. The waves of religious revival in the U.S., the five Great Awakenings for instance or the upsurge of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, are not our own story. As Chris McGillion reminds us,

Australia was always more a country of Christians than a Christian country. European settlement was not motivated by some noble cause, far less by any notion that it was part of God’s grand design. There is no foundational myth for Australia, let alone a religious one, no equivalent of America’s Pilgrim Fathers (McGillion, “O Ye of Little Faith”, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April, 1998).

However, like Australia, the Church in the U.S. confronts the necessity of not merely renewal but reform and this places varied demands on leadership. In listening to conversations I sense that when a diocese is in strife (e.g. the Archdiocese of Boston following the sexual abuse crisis), church leadership is able to impose or set out with a firm vision and priorities as this provides direction and confidence in a time when both are lacking. The community is then left with enough wiggle room to live out the set vision and apply it to local circumstances.

When a diocese is in good or better shape, however, I sense that church leadership can more easily invite the community to join in the discernment of the future vision and priorities, a process which is more time-consuming but better at fostering genuine ecclesial integration around missionary goals. Take Bishop Caggiano’s lead in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, for instance, a bishop who clearly has his eyes on the detail, is patiently engaging in an 18-month discernment process with his new flock, and deeply appreciative of the value of pastoral planning to build ownership and invite lay involvement following his tenure as bishop of Brooklyn. The situation in which the local church finds itself – the urgency of issues, history of the church, and culture of its people – ideally will impact upon the style and processes of change that are engaged.

For a variety of reasons, but almost always including financial limitations, I have learned that many pastoral planning roles in U.S. dioceses have been shed in the past decade, planning offices have been closed or otherwise devolved into part-time planning responsibilities among existing staff.

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Planning staff from the dioceses of Bridgeport and Brooklyn at the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development in April 2015

Notably though, and this is critical to recognise, the demise of local, diocesan planning resources and wisdom has not at all lessened the demand for what good planning offers but in many cases shifted the work and expertise from internal staff to external consultants who are engaged at significant cost and, I contend, can struggle to embed their plans within a proper theological framework and the local context in which they are working. From experience I would suggest that some in authority in the Australian scene would hesitate to engage outside consultants in this way for fear of what Pope Benedict XVI described as the ‘bureaucratisation of pastoral care’, particularly if planning is engaged merely as a way of managing scarcity rather than advancing mission and cultivating conversations about discipleship.

These trends in the U.S. pose questions to the Australian Church in regards to its commitment to building up its local planning expertise and resources as the challenge of change is ongoing and the need of unified pastoral outreach more urgent. The alternative to consultative, locally developed and communally owned processes of change and evangelisation, we know, is unilateral decision-making, a tinkering with structures with little impact on personal, spiritual growth, and a reliance on personalities rather than principles in decisions that effect entire communities of faith.

Very briefly, the pressing issues that I have gleaned from local dioceses here so far remain the shortage of priestly vocations (with responses varying from reliance on international priests, the practice of communion services, or exploring canonical options for pastoral leadership i.e. CCC #517.2), the growing migrant profile and strength of the Church (take the Diocese of Galveston-Houston which is becoming increasingly Hispanic in demographic and whose clergy includes more than half who were born outside of the U.S.), and the challenging necessity of greater shared responsibility and the implications of this for the ordained and laity.

Most change in the number and size of parishes is taking place in the north east of the country, where I am heading in the next two weeks, and the size of these communities certainly impacts on organisational complexity as more mega- or multi-parishes arise (these parishes are taken to consist generally of more than 10,000 registered parishioners).

Larger parishes demand well-honed administration or relational skills, operating budgets between $USD850,000 to $1.6 million and above, often include multiple, full-time paid staff, the priest having to act increasingly as an employer with related responsibilities, the hosting of multiple programs, consultation processes that are generally more formal, with complex decision-making and even formal, written policies of their own. Of course, it can be harder to build a sense of community in larger parishes, especially when small groups outside of liturgy are not nurtured or encouraged.

In contrast, smaller parishes can conduct informal consultation of key parishioners and families, engage fewer and part-time paid staff with a greater reliance on volunteers, and there are usually informal, unwritten operating norms. Without understanding these different variables of parish life, pastoral planners and diocesan leaders in evangelisation can seek to engage very different communities with rather generic activities or proposals that will not generate fruit without respect of their actual life.

I look forward to sharing the insights gathered here more systematically and moving from general observations to specific practices in future blogs as I prepare a report for sharing with dioceses in the Sydney region. This will include reflections on the Church of the Nativity at Timonium, in north Baltimore, the subject of the book Rebuilt, where I attended Mass this weekend.

On a more personal note, I also spent some days at Gethsemane Abbey in Louisville, Kentucky, a part of the U.S. where the Catholic Church established itself soon after Baltimore (which is the premier episcopal see of the American Church). After visiting the repository of Merton’s manuscripts, letters, journals, tapes, drawings, photographs, and memorabilia at Bellarmine University (and shaping a potential PhD question), the grounds and life of the Cistercian monastery brought the focus back to the heart of our faith which is Christ living within us.

I’ll simply conclude with this thought. When you get what you want – a diverse Church sharing responsibility for ministry and mission, engaging with the issues of the day with evangelical zeal, moving from what Pope Francis called this past night ‘a superficial and dry religiosity’ to a living house of prayer and deep discipleship – the Church becomes infinitely more complex. We should not be afraid or wearied by this prospective complexity but receive it as the gift of a stronger and more faithful future, calmly accepting the fact that renewal is always bought at the price of risk.

the parish leadership challenge

Ministry 1Last week I participated in a conversation on ‘tomorrow’s Church’ alongside a biblical scholar, with some 150 people gathered.

I shared that I expect the parish to remain the primary experience of Church for Australian Catholics but that this basic community will require conversion and ongoing development if it is to be something other than a testament to times past.

The parish is a privileged place where the living mystery and mission of Christ is encountered in Word and sacrament. It is the very ‘face’ of our Church and is called to manifest the grace and vocation proper to the Church – the mission of evangelisation (Evangelii Nuntiandi 14).

However, drawing on French Dominican Étienne Hugueny (1868-1942), I suggested that the possibility of personal transformation in our parishes is not the same thing as the frequency of its happening. We are called to constantly grow as persons and communities, in holiness and charity, in number and involvement, in personal commitment and public presence as disciples ‘in the midst of the Church for the sake of the world’ (Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples).

Our parishes are filled with good people, dedicated people to God and one another. This includes our ordained priests who form and govern the priestly people, building up the baptismal and Eucharistic unity of the Church through a ministry of grace, teaching and pastoral government. Our parishes depend also on our lay men and women, who are called to be spiritually-well formed, steeped in prayer, witnesses to the self-emptying of Lent and the generous joy of Easter.

The future of our communities depends on an ongoing deepening of this common life, on an ability to preference growth over stability, an ability to recognise that ‘evangelising parishes’ is not one and the same thing as ‘parishes without problems’, and the recognition that there is no universal call to complacency or settlement but a universal call to holiness, a holiness and striving that is always going to take us further than we are accustomed to or comfortable to go.

All of this was a way of saying that our mission in the world as Church, as fishers of men and women, is dependent on the mending of our own nets and this mending must start with the local parish as a community of disciples on pilgrimage to God.

The Task of Parish Leadership

Liturgy 6The Church of tomorrow, I insisted, also calls for parish leadership that on the level of mercy encompasses, invites and consoles each and all, sharing that same mercy given to us as gift in the covenantal relationship between Christ and the Church (the Church is merciful because the Church itself is the object of God’s mercy, redeemed by Jesus Christ).

However, in forging new paths we also require leadership that does not capitulate to the timidity of a ‘convoy routine’ where all travel at the speed of the slowest ship. As leaders we must actively seek out, desire and co-create opportunities for grace which acts not above or behind human history but through flesh-and-blood disciples, through human agency, decision and commitment, even planning.

As I’ve further reflected on last week’s conversation about ‘tomorrow’s Church’, another key to the reform of our parishes has come to mind – the need for us to develop an attentiveness to the dynamics that may be surreptitiously undoing, or at least frustrating, the mission we have been given.

As an example, I’ll focus on our parish engagement of those Catholics who are at the margins of faith or ecclesial life. This refers to the large majority of occasional or non-attenders who are the subject of many a water cooler conversation in our local parishes (at least I hope they are!).

It is important to acknowledge that at times the motivation for less committed Catholics to engage with our Church or parishes is extrinsic; that is, their contact with us is not yet motivated necessarily by an inner drive, an interior desire to explore, learn or find personal or social fulfilment for instance. Often the stimulus for people’s contact with our parish communities is external, focused on an outcome which is separate from the religious act itself. For example, it could include participation in sacramental preparation for the purpose of meeting admission criteria for Catholic schools or to maintain family custom rather than to live faith, attendance at youth groups motivated by parental encouragement alone, or involvement in ministry as a means of offsetting the more ‘boring’ bits of Mass (it can happen!).

What makes this hollow dynamic more entrenched in some parish cultures is that in seeking to respond to those on the margins we can actively feed this extrinsicism by attempting to engage people in the life of faith and the life of our communities by giving them jobs.

Have a young person you want to hold on to? Invite them to a ministry because we tell ourselves that what young people really want, above all, is to ‘do things’. Have a newcomer or neophyte you want to retain? Involve them in ministry as well. Have someone who is restless in the pews, weighing up their commitment or even on the way out? Give them a ministry too, an upcoming event, something to do or an activity in which to get involved.

Jesus Christ 2It doesn’t even matter if those ‘involvements’ involve a formative dimension or not, nor whether they encourage a ‘dropping of their nets’ as Sherry Weddell has emphasised as a necessary step toward discipleship. At least these people might still be with us next weekend. Well, sort of.

Rarely do we attempt to address the issue of discipleship, of that deep interior conversion of individuals that happens to call forth a community that forms and apprentices people in that Christ-embracing life. Just like those on the margins of faith, we as ‘insiders’ can get caught on the extrinsic, frenetic borders of what Merton describes as a ‘mass-movement’, a religious collectivity that is but a parody of the Catholic communion of discipled persons we ought to desire:

A mass-movement always places the ‘cause’ above the individual person, and sacrifices the person to the interests of the movement. Thus it empties the person of all that is his own, takes him out of himself, casts him in a mould which endows him with the ideas and aspirations of the group rather than his own . . . The individual ceases to be a person and becomes simply a ‘member,’ a ‘thing’ which serves a cause, not by thinking and willing, but by being pushed around like a billiard ball, in accordance with the interests of the cause (Merton, Disputed Questions, 132-133).

What separates a ‘mass movement’ from a spiritual communion is a concern and a challenge for persons, each of whom is called to be a disciple and find their vocation by walking a unique path of holiness.

However, we do not address this interior life of persons so well, that intrinsic fire of discipleship that sees people do such things as attend Mass, to give, to live and to desire to live a life of faith in the midst of the Church and world. We are not always focused on cultivating and supporting this personal relationship with Jesus Christ and can distracted by what we think will ‘work’ to strengthen extrinsic or nominal membership, despite all the evidence to suggest that we do not do that either!

We can be especially lackadaisical in responding to the discipleship of adults which is the great challenge for our Catholic Church as we in Australia watch 13,000 people walk out the parish door each year (Dixon, Reid and Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment, 4).

Renewing Our Pastoral Vision

In a recent article posted online, an American commentator, Jennifer Fitz, throws light on the need for renewed vision among parish leaders by pointing to our catechesis of children as an instance that betrays a narrow but customary view of discipleship-making in our parishes. Fitz draws on the ‘orphanage’ as an analogy to critique our parishes, which, she suggests, tend to treat symptoms rather than address causal factors:

In the helping professions, there’s a tendency to want to sweep in and “rescue” children by making them wards of an institution.  We look at the saintly orphanage workers in certain impoverished countries, and forget that the ‘orphans’ aren’t orphans — they have living family members who would take care of them if only they could.  The solution to the ‘orphan crisis’ in such situations isn’t to build bigger, better orphanages, but to work towards economic, political, and social reforms that will make it possible for families to raise their own children.

Proclaim 3Fitz then comes to her point, ‘In our parishes, we have just such an orphan crisis’. Unlike good institutions, we fail to address or else avoid the larger and critical issue which is the faith formation of parents, parents who are, as the refrain goes, the primary educators of children in the ways of faith (Lumen Gentium 11).

Instead, we just work harder on the existing ‘program’ with a cadre of ‘spiritual orphan workers’. We grow and fill our catechetical and sacramental processes with add-ons and trimmings in order to ‘engage’ – tasks for the parents, family-focused events, gratifying and non-confrontational activities – but without address of the elephant in the room, the ability or otherwise of parents to form these children themselves.

Indeed, Fitz notes our actual parish practice gives light to the fact that for many, ‘it becomes inconceivable to imagine the existence of parents who are capable of instructing their children in the faith . . . The norm is to assume that Catholic parents simply cannot be trusted to teach their children the Catholic faith. If you spend much time around Catholics, you know this fear has its basis in sordid reality . . . Since the parents are unable to teach, we’ll teach for them’ (my emphasis).

We widely accept this norm as parishes, and therefore substitute a domestic responsibility with an institutional ‘solution’ which has revealed itself to not really be a solution at all. Fitz concludes, “When you monkey around with Church teaching, bad things happen. We’ve identified a problem — kids whose parents aren’t disciples — and we’re so busy ‘solving’ the crisis by heroically stepping in to replace the parents, that we’ve overlooked a small detail: Doing so is contrary to the Catholic faith’. This is strong tonic for our parishes today and certainly challenged me to widen or deepen my view of the heart of our pastoral ministry.

From ‘Orphanage’ to Ownership

In setting out the scene above, I am very conscious that many sacramental processes in Australian parishes do in fact work very hard and seek to address the faith of parents in the preparation process of their children, including parent-only sessions which are an opportunity for catechesis or, more commonly, for rudimentary evangelisation. This takes place not only in the Parramatta Diocese but also in the Archdiocese of Sydney and in the Broken Bay Diocese.

However, I think our approach is always called to deepen and widen, and ideally we would work towards a whole-of-parish commitment to address adult formation for adult discipleship. As Jane Regan, an impressive writer on the adult Church in Boston, shares, ‘Jesus welcomed the children but taught the adults, and the church has been doing just the opposite for years’ (Regan, Forming a Community of Faith, 2).

prayerA good parish, sacramental process, or parish ministry will seek to lift and support people, not only children but adults as well, to grow in faith and discipleship above and beyond what their religious background might have equipped them for. It will enable parents to claim what is their unique calling and not substitute for it as yet another ‘outsource’ for domestic responsibilities.

As noted in a previous blog, consider what a good school enables when focused on the growth of student performance (we won’t get into the meaning of a holistic Catholic education right now…). We know that a lack of academic opportunity is transmitted from generation to generation and, as such, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often do not perform as well as they could. However, some education systems (e.g. Shanghai and Korea but sadly not Australia) are able to lift students well beyond their statistical likelihood of poor academic performance, enabling these students to perform and excel at their full potential. In this context, good teachers make a tremendous difference.

In a similar way, we know that ignorance of the faith is transmitted from generation to generation, and that many of our people start their journey in the Church ‘disadvantaged’ by low religious literacy and low or no commitment to practice, including little enthusiasm for evangelisation. We know that the aim of good parishes is to make a difference, not simply provide a sort of spiritual welfare service, but to be a ‘circuit breaker’ in the story of low religious literacy, practice and understanding of faith that marks many of our disconnected and loosely-affiliated families and individuals.

We are not talking about revolution in our parishes, sacramental processes and catechesis but we do need to look again at our focus from time-to-time as parishes, leaders and communities, to ensure we are set on the mission of evangelisation not a routine of maintenance and that we provide for the formation and empowerment of parents. We cannot afford to discharge parents of their primary responsibilities by maintaining a religious system devoted to expanding the ‘orphanage’.

Rather, we must attend to reforming our parish vision and practice of ministry and mission so that our communities of faith empower and support parents to raise their own children, to nourish inner belonging not extrinsic membership, and so translate compulsive compliance into a genuine desire to share in the life and mission of our evangelising Church.

on holiness and growth

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(c) Catholic Diocese of Parramatta

Over the summer I was able to skim across a number of themes, from Church governance, to the theology and sociology of discipleship, and a powerful book on the concepts of mission (by Francis Anekwe Oborji). There was also a Lenten campaign to coordinate, all of which returned focus to the parish as a central yardstick of our spiritual life as a communion.

As absorbing as ecclesiology is as a theme of Catholic theology, offering us the ability to look at the Church from this point of view or that, it is the flesh-and-blood reality of the parish that grounds us in the essence of what the Church is in fact, a pilgrim community seeking to develop its baptismal and eucharistic unity not simply for its own sake but for the good of the world. To the extent that the local parish gives witness to and really lives as a tangible sign and the reality of God’s grace alive in the world, the more compelling and missionary it will be in and for that world.

Certainly, some of the signs don’t look as good as we would like – participation wavers, local issues can encourage inwardness, spiritual development can stall, amateurism can prevail, and energy can wane.

Rigorous self-assessment by local communities is a healthy exercise for we are not seeking to build a sort of ‘Potemkin village’, an ecclesial superstructure of show and spiritual pretence, but asking quite seriously how we might deepen our conversion and deepen it together for the sake of a mission we have been given. This is our task. We are forbidden by the Gospel to take a ‘steady as she sinks’ approach to parish life. We want to see what Christ calls us to see and to actively move in that direction.

Liturgy 2To see properly, however, means purifying our vision as Catholic communities. For those in positions of ecclesial leadership, a basic thing to say is that a missionary viewpoint does not consist of imagining ‘parishes without problems’. This can, I sense, be a temptation on account of the tyranny of the urgent, competing concerns and the subtle routinisation and flattening of communal life that results in what Francis calls ‘pastoral acedia’ (Evangelii Gaudium 82). We can settle for tranquillity and cosiness in our communities, a dull serenity that contrasts with the dictum of Blessed John Henry Newman, ‘holiness rather than peace’.

If our vision as leaders is limited to parishes or faith communities without problems, then it is not surprising that our groups and members slip into a managerial or administrative mindset. As Pope Francis has repeatedly conveyed, the mission of Christ into which we have been grafted is not at all synonymous with tidiness, let alone comfort:

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.  I do not want a church concerned with being at the centre and then ends up by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.

We need good structures and procedures as it is naïve and even dangerous to think we could live without them in some sort of casual huddle of believers, sharing life as if by chance. However, we do need to think creatively about how these structures of our communities intersect and support real, personal and ecclesial discipleship and the mission into which that identity eventually unfolds.

In the case of parishes, there are some noticeable structural reasons that we do not often ‘go out’ with genuine missionary zeal, and one reason is well articulated by Sherry Weddell of Forming Intentional Disciples, with relevance to the Australia milieu.

Sherry points out that a key factor in the growth or otherwise of Christian community is scale, with ‘smaller’ groups providing a fertile environment in which personal discipleship can develop, flourish and be sustained. However, the reality for our Catholic parishes can work against this potential:

This strategy of founding hundreds of thousands of small evangelising communities is key to evangelical/Pentecostal growth in Latin America and throughout the global south . . . While in the U.S., Catholics are doing the opposite – largely because of the relative shortage of priest compared to our gigantic Catholic population. Our parishes are getting ever bigger as one priest become responsible for thousands of people in multiple linked or clustered parishes who are already “parish-connected”. Which means our parishes become more and more centripetal, and focused upon the people who are or will be willing and able to make the journey to us. You literally can’t go out as long as you are besieged at HQ.

Proclaim 3So as previous blogs have noted, the recovery of small groups – which I propose is entirely possible even within our now larger parishes and communities – is critical to mission. To be disciples of ‘encounter’, ‘accompaniment’ and ‘mercy’ on the streets, as Pope Francis suggests, requires disciples who have had some opportunity, at some time, to discern the divine initiative and action in their individual human lives. It insists on some forum in which Catholics can share their inner life and wonder, like the Spirit-filled individuals of the Upper Room, at the work of God in their midst.

This need of structures of intimate support amidst the ecclesial calls for the recognition that the weekend liturgy cannot suffice alone in promoting spiritual growth and missionary outreach, and that parishes can do something about this – whether it be creating opportunities for spiritual direction, faith-sharing, catechesis, for the discernment of individual gifts, and openness to the influence of other witnesses to faith and mission including ecclesial movements, religious communities, associations and other groups that offer diverse charisms and often overlooked dimensions of Christian living to the memory of the local Eucharistic community.

To be sure, this may all cause some ‘problems’ and messiness in parishes if ‘problems’ and ‘mess’ are understood as something other than the status quo. However, without such catholicity and creativity of vision and structure, communities may never realise their full potential as centres of grace and formation where we can learn to enter ever more deeply into the life of charity and to engage the world as it really is in Him.

The fostering of such missionary discipleship is not an abstraction but a concrete task and call for communities to pursue a way that life that enables ‘holiness rather than peace’ and growth which Newman will claim is ‘the only evidence of life’. But we must pursue it and actively seek out a new way of life, for without that desire in us not much is possible such is God’s generous reliance on us.

making all things new

photoWe have arrived at the final days of the working year and there is much to give thanks for. Back in February, Faith in Our Future: Pastoral Plan for the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta was launched after two years of preparation and consultation. The months that followed have been dedicated to seeing through the implementation of initiatives in the diocese as well as offering support to parishes and a variety of groups to engage the plan as a vehicle to grow in identity and mission.

For me, planning for mission has never been a desperate attempt of the Church to pull itself out of an abyss; it is an expression of faith in God that there is more offered to us, more possibilities for growth in grace than we have yet to receive, discern and bring to life in our time. It is a way of listening and responding to the future that God really wants to bring about in our contemporary culture and actively walking towards that horizon, rather than remaining content to bemoan the setting of the sun.

st-praxedes-ceiling-of-st-zeno-chapelThis year has exceeded my expectations because there has been a sincere and common commitment to undertake the journey of renewal in the diocese. This commitment has been genuine and determined at all levels. All of us are asking the hard questions about parish life in the light of their challenges and to consider new ways of living this perennial mission we have received. If nothing else, the vision and direction of the plan has given people permission and the courage to reform their pastoral life, to make change in order to remain faithful.

Of course, in bringing forth the new or unfamiliar in the Church, there will always be elements of inertia, sometimes fuelled by pride or inflexibility. Sometimes change is resisted due to weariness, other times by a pessimism or low morale that obscures hope. However, even where such reticence exists, the experience of decline as Church or the lull in vocation among some eventually discloses the hidden, divine situation that lies in wait. The experience of diminishment can reveal what as individuals and communities we have taken for granted – whether that is the presumed sufficiency of our current pastoral practice or the depth of our vision – and also what we have overlooked, the capacity of our people for discipleship, for going beyond mere religious conformism and entering into a real, genuine and evangelical faith.

As Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges OP shares, in the spirit of the ressourcement, there is nothing contradictory about the interruption of the new and continuity in the life of the Church,

It is a rather widespread error, but an error all the same, to believe that continuity and transcendence are opposed to each other, as if in the analysis of a single phenomenon the one were exclusive of the other. The truth is that continuity and transcendence . . . do not impede each other in any way. A ray of sun that strikes water does not prevent it from running, and the current does not prevent the shining of the sun.

Most times the waters of the Church do carry the light of the sun. Other times, the waters can become sullied and the plenitude of the Gospel light is obscured or hidden from sight. The Church is never beyond reform or conversion and ‘the new evangelisation’, first of all and ultimately, is a call to enter more deeply into the life of God, and to bring all of creation, culture and the pilgrim Church with us.

© Diocese of Parramatta 2012

© Diocese of Parramatta 2012

When looking for signs of change and conversion, a shift in language can be a sign of a shifting ecclesial culture. When people and parishes talk about things they have not traditionally spoken about, ask questions when groups or ministries no longer grow and also when they bear unexpected fruit, when communities not only talk about mission, lay formation or evangelisation but actually do something about it or make room for the new, when parishes know with conviction that they do not have to fall into a sense of resignation, low morale or nostalgia for a time past, when parishes give up obsessing about the many red herrings in Catholic discourse and focus on worship, mission and disciple-making, you know that a Church is not merely moving but is being moved. He is making all things new (Rev. 21:5).

Looking beyond the border, this year also saw the privilege of offering formation at the Good Shepherd Seminary in Sydney (February), in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and in Townsville (March), at a Catholic Mission colloquium on Pope Francis (April), a clergy conference at Bathurst (April), at Australian Catholic University with chaplains, and with the priests and deacons of the Melkite Catholic Church (June). Then there were addresses to the ACBC Commission on Church Ministry, at an Augustinian chapter at Dee Why (July), at the Catholic Digital Media Conference in North Sydney and at the Proclaim Conference (August).

Next year brings a research trip to the U.S. where I’ll be attending the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development in San Antonio, Texas, followed by meetings with the archdioceses of Louisville, Kentucky (with a few days retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane, the spiritual home of Thomas Merton, in the 100th anniversary year of his birth), the archdiocese of Baltimore, time at CARA in Washington, a premiere Catholic research body, then meetings with the directors and staff behind the significant planning projects currently unfolding in the archdioceses of Boston and New York.

© Diocese of Parramatta 2014

© Diocese of Parramatta 2014

Closer to home 2015 will see our team offer diocesan formation events for parish pastoral councils, an initiative that recognises that parish pastoral councils best plan for the future with a shared sense of Church and mission, additional parish-based resources similar to Welcome and Evangelise (3MB) released this year, pilot programs of Catholic Alpha at both ends of the diocese, and Lenten resources which have just been prepared to aid the ongoing spiritual renewal of the Diocese. So, much to look forward to even as we look back on the year that was.

Thank you for being a reader and every blessing on you and your loved ones this Advent and Christmas. I’ll be back online in February 2015 and look forward to sharing some learnings and travels with you in the New Year. With every good wish, Daniel.

synod on the family 2014

synod2The Extraordinary Synod on the Family concluded over the weekend in Rome (5-19 October, 2014), bookended by the beatification of Pope Paul VI. It proved to be an eventful, even enthralling journey for the Church, two weeks of discussion, passionate debate and prayerful discernment about the way in which the Church can best bring the Gospel to bear on the lives of millions of families as diverse as they are complex.

Given the multidimensions of family life, the issues canvassed by the bishops and participants were also broad. They included the plight of refugees, the care of children with special needs, the situation of migrant workers and the unemployed, the impact of the internet on family bonds, and then there were the distinctive concerns of African bishops whose concerns differ in striking ways from those in the affluent West (e.g. the practice of polygamy and conditions of extreme poverty).

However, and perhaps inevitably, the focus of media and popular attention ultimately fell on two specific matters: the question of Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, and the Church’s pastoral response to homosexual persons.

Controversies of the Synod

synod3As the first synod of bishops to meet under the leadership of Pope Francis, and affirming as it did many diverse views on the way in which Catholic faith speaks to human lives, the synod attracted not only generous media coverage for a Catholic get-together but wide-ranging interpretations of what was said, by whom and for what intent.

Of course, the synod discussions were pre-empted and almost overshadowed by Cardinal Kasper of Germany who in February 2014 advocated for access to communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried. This was followed by a strong critique of his position by several other cardinals, including in the book-length reply, The Gospel of the Family, which contained a foreword by our own Australian prelate Cardinal Pell (the text of the Cardinal’s introduction is available here).

(For those interested in the pre-history of the synod, preparations began in earnest in November 2013, with a survey distributed by national bishops’ conferences to glean the opinions of Catholics on a number of Church teachings. The survey was a commendable initiative and expressed a sincere desire to be consultative though it clearly suffered from limitations, including the formulation of the questions which could be difficult for the Catholic in the street to say the least e.g. ‘How is the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman challenged in light of the formation of a family?’ This survey was followed in June 2014 by the lineamenta or preparatory document for the Synod which presented the results of the November consultation and set a platform for the synod discussions to begin in earnest).

midtermreportAs the synod officially got underway this month, one of the major causes of controversy was the mid-term or post-discussion report known as the relatio post disceptationem. This was intended as a provisional snapshot of the views of the bishops thus far. However, many bishops objected to the content of this summary, noting that it was not only insufficiently grounded in Scripture and Catholic tradition but that it seemed to present the views of one or two particular bishops as the consensus of the whole assembly, which they were not.

The most strident and vocal objector to this interim report was the American cardinal Raymond Burke who argued, ‘[this document], in fact, advances positions which many Synod Fathers do not accept and, I would say, as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept’. Controversially, the interim report had included praise for the ‘positive aspects’ of what the Church has long considered ‘irregular’ situations, including civil unions and cohabitation, and even spoke of ‘accepting and valuing’ people of homosexual orientation  (though with the notable disclaimer ‘without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony’).

Criticism was particularly focused on the General Secretariat of the Synod which handled the information flowing out of the bishops’ discussion, with accusations that its members, including Cardinal Baldisseri, had manipulated, or at the very least swayed considerably, the content of the relatio to reflect a personal and permissive agenda.

Interpretations of the Synod

synod4As is customary, and was the case following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the major media outlets interpreted the discussions and debates of the bishops through a political lens, with reports of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ camps pitted one against the other (of course, Pope Francis was read as ensconced within the latter and undermined by the former, taken to be the majority).

Without denying the political nature of all human discourse, including the ordinary desire to influence outcomes and press one’s case, the heart of a synod is not the political motivations that underlie the bishops’ views but the theological arguments that are raised in accounting for those positions. Of course, the media is generally not interested in actual arguments, only assertions, and for the most part lack a theological background or concern.

In cherry-picking lines from the disputed interim report we have mentioned, as well as Pope Francis’ powerful concluding address to the Synod Fathers, the Daily Mail and even the BBC were able to run histrionic headlines such as “Massive Vatican shift on gay sex” and “Pope Francis set back on gay policy”.

The BBC coverage focused on Francis’ critique of ‘hostile inflexibility’ among so-called traditionalists and intellectuals, and implied that these adversarial forces had undermined or ‘setback’ the Pope’s more ‘progressive’ agenda on homosexuals and the remarried. Conspicuously, the report made no mention whatsoever of the pontiff’s critique in the self-same address of those who have ‘come down from the cross’ to ‘bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God’ (you can read the complete address here).

More locally, broadcasters tapped into the local response to the synod, including SBS which while perpetuating the BBC caricature of a Pope Francis opposed by backward bishops, at least tried to seek out a Catholic view of things.

sbsIn my fifteen seconds in the spotlight, I shared the view that the synod represents a healthy and vital discussion for the global Catholic Church and that the Catholic bishops are mindful of the lived situations of people from across the world and mindful also of what the Gospel can bring to those contexts. I tried to underscore that the range of issues being discussed by the synod as they relate to the family were broad and that the synod represents the Church’s ongoing and sincere discernment of how best to accompany people in their life journeys, including divorcees, the civilly remarried, single parents, and gays and lesbians to whom the Gospel also speaks. (Other voices in the report included Paul Collins who can always be relied upon to express more than a healthy scepticism about Church matters).

Discernment is Not Division

The key to an interpretation of the synod and its events is given to us, I think, in Pope Francis’ closing address to the Synod Fathers which is a profound and striking statement (you can read it here). He provides us with ‘the eyes of faith’ to continue talking about these issues with confidence.

Firstly, Pope Francis is not at all unnerved by the differing views expressed in the preceding fortnight and accepts the rigorous debates in faith as an expression of the Church discerning how to enter ever more deeply into the heart of the Gospel by the sensus fidei, the sense of faith of the faithful. As he shared,

Many commentators . . . have imagined they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.

9954008What Francis is affirming by valuing debate over the silence of ‘a false and quietist peace’ is the capacity of the Church to receive God’s revelation faithfully and meaningfully by attending, together as people of faith in the Spirit, to tradition, including the teachings of the Magisterium, and the experience of Christian families in the world (I have written about the Church’s discernment of the Spirit here, in relation to the 2013 papal conclave).

To teach and evangelise the Church must first listen, receive time and again the deposit of faith which constitutes our living tradition and attend to the complex realities of contemporary family life which too can be a source of theological knowing.

The guarantor of the Church’s ongoing faithfulness to Christ in this multidimensional process is the Holy Spirit, as Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium affirms and which Pope Francis cited in as many words,

The universal body of the faithful who have received the anointing of the holy one cannot err in matters of belief. It displays this particular quality through a supernatural sense of the faith in the whole people when ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful laity’, it expresses the consent of all in matters of faith and morals (Lumen Gentium 12).

This discernment of the sensus fidei, a sense of the faith and the Church’s sense for the faith, should not be a ‘source of confusion and discord’, as Francis remarked in his address, but should be entered into with confidence, trust and utmost faith in the Holy Spirit’s capacity, through diverse and even imperfect people (like you and me) to lead God’s people to the truth and mercy of God (you can read more about this connection between the deepening of tradition and the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit in Dei Verbum 8 as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church n.892).

As well, in the process of spiritual discernment that will continue until the General Synod on the family in 2015, Francis warns of temptations or polarities. The first temptation is to be fossilised in our faith, exhibiting a ‘hostile inflexibility’ which would in fact impede the ability of the Church to bring the Gospel to new and developing circumstances. This kind of fundamentalism or rigorism can manifest a lack of faith and trust in the Spirit that guides the Church (the Marian dogmas of the 19th and 20th centuries standout as instances in which the Church has developed a deeper appreciation of her own faith). ‘Traditionalism’ is in fact not traditional at all for the pilgrim Catholic Church understands development as a perennial and necessary deepening of her self-understanding in light of the Gospel, and never a departure from it (“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life”; John 6:68)

Christ Mosaic Cefalu Sicily 12th CenturyThe other risk named by Francis, the one that media outlets were less enthusiastic to report, was the capitulation or accommodation of the Church, and the Gospel it bears, to ‘a worldly spirit instead of purifying [the world] and bending it to the spirit of God’.

The Church must engage the world, as Francis has so often stressed, but it engages the world and contemporary culture with a view of what the world really is in Christ, a world of men and women made in the image of God and called to conversion or ‘likeness’ in Christ in whom we find our origin and destiny. Thus, Pope Francis critiques outright in his concluding address,

a destructive tendency to do-gooding, which in the name of a false mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them, that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots

with the phrase ‘false mercy’ a nod to no less than St John Paul II. What does Francis mean by this? He means that we cannot truly serve people in their wounds and in their growth through crisis if we disregard the truth, if we cover over the truth with superficial or cheap dressings. As American Archbishop Kurtz put it, ‘Mercy without truth is not mercy’.

While the concrete solutions to the contemporary challenges that confront the family will be the subject of discussion over the next twelve months, the synodal process has already recalled two principles for our view of Church and mission. The first, that all people are called to Christ and the Church – as all are called to the King’s banquet in the parable of Matthew 22 – and second, that all people are called to conversion in Christ who is the source of true life  – as was the guest at the banquet called to change before approaching the table. The Church must both open wide its arms to the sinner and invite a new creation in each one of us, no matter what our state of life or circumstances may be. This is the universal hope and universal challenge of the Gospel.

Much more will be said on family and life issues in the coming year, by each of the local churches (dioceses), episcopal conferences and the observing media. As Catholics, we are being invited by Pope Francis explicitly and the debates of the synod implicitly to trust in the Spirit-filled capacity of the whole Church, all of us together, to know what the faith is and to better accompany all people in their journeys with the promise and joy of the Gospel.

 

forming the adult Church

Candle 4Next week I begin teaching a ten week course, an introduction to Catholic ministry, which forms part of a year-long course offered by the Institute for Mission, an adult education centre in the Diocese of Parramatta. Remarkably, the course has seen over 400 participants undertake studies in spirituality, Scripture, theology and ministry since its inception and includes spiritual direction, companioning groups as well as plenary days.

My particular component of the course attempts to situate ministry within the broader context of baptismal mission and the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, explores the ministry of Jesus as given witness in the New Testament, overviews the development of ministry from the Constantinian area until the present day, surveys the theologies of the ordained priesthood, the diaconate and lay ministry, relates ministry to Eucharist, before concluding with issues in pastoral practice and spiritual discernment.

Over the years I have tried to ground the course as much as possible in the touchstones of the ressourcement movement, and so the participants are exposed to the writings of the Church Fathers, the Scriptural testimony of early Christian life, and are invited to delve into the meaning of the Eucharistic prayers, including a nod to Eastern anaphora recognised by the Catholic Church (the most obscure of which is that of Addai and Mari, an Assyrian prayer distinguished for the absence of an institution narrative. See here for extended analysis of its use and context).

The growth in opportunities for such theological formation of lay men and women since the Second Vatican Council has been tremendous, meeting as these opportunities do the greater baptismal consciousness that flowed from the Council’s reception, and extending the possibility of theological learning and reflection beyond the seminary and religious houses of formation.

Foundational documents in the area of adult faith education include conciliar documents such as Lumen Gentium (1962), Apostolicam Actuositatem (1965), Gravissimum Educationis (1965), and post-conciliar monuments including Catechesi Tradendae (1979), the General Catechetical Directory (1997), and the pastoral plan for adult formation authored by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us (1999; available here). This last document offers as its model the Emmaus story as a paradigm of encounter and accompaniment on the road to faith in Jesus, in a way which aligns well with the pedagogy outlined by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium.

5382043It is worthwhile noting that the greater opportunities for theological formation of the laity in the contemporary Church reflects, in part, a shift in ecclesiastical culture over the last half century, away from a climate in which ‘religiosity’ was often identified with obeying the will of a superior as opposed to religious practice being the way to obtain our happiness and fulfilment. As the Canadian theologian John Lamont points out of that authoritarian atmosphere, one which extended well in the 1950s, ‘If faith is a matter of obeying orders, then asking questions about Catholic belief is insubordinate’.[1]

This climate also affected theological learning in general, producing an anti-intellectualism because asking questions about the faith was seen as smacking of disobedience rather than looking for new knowledge and a way of approaching God. The second opposite effect was that among the people who did ask questions, which were first the priest-scholars before the laity, there was a certain attitude of rebelliousness (e.g. Hans Kung, Herbert McCabe OP) which has been unhelpful at times to genuine theological development and for freedom of inquiry in other corners of the Church.

Today the possibilities for the faith education of lay men and women are much wider than available to previous generations and a commitment to critical research, historical studies and an awareness of how culture and a globalised context can illumine the mysteries of faith has provided Catholics ordained and lay with a richer theological horizon against which they can make sense of faith, if we are disposed to making use of the resources available to us.

In today’s Church, our Catholic universities continue to serve as the primary venue for formal theological education of lay men and women. However, it is also the case that many laity do not enrol in such accredited courses and degrees for at least two reasons. One is the expense of such courses which can be prohibitive, especially for those without recourse to student loan schemes; the other is that the spectre of rigorous assessments can also discourage participation at this tertiary level, especially for adults who have not studied for some time, even decades, and yet still seek some form of theological input and learning.

Participants at a recent Alpha Leaders Training Day held in our Diocese

Participants at a recent Alpha Leaders Training Day (c) Diocese of Parramatta 2014

Hence, diocesan centres of adult formation, and the occasional talks, retreats, lecture series and programs facilitated by them (Catholic Alpha, Life in the Spirit seminars, the Siena Institute’s Called and Gifted workshops come to mind) as well as opportunities provided by religious congregations, remain critical to the education and formation of Catholics for mission. Online courses and other new media also offer sources of spiritual nourishment and theological reflection for those stretched for time in a work-a-day world.

Sadly, even in these less formal and more accessible settings for adult faith education there has been a conspicuous decline in the number of people taking up such opportunities. The low participation numbers in many diocesan adult formation initiatives brings into question the ability of the Church (at least the Australian Church) to communicate and deepen its faith and prepare its people for discipleship and outreach now and into the future.

As noted in previous blogs, while homilies, parish bulletins and the liturgy itself are the primary forms of formation experienced in the parish, these are rarely sufficient in themselves for working out that relationship between the faith we have received and the contemporary culture in which we are called to live it. As Thomas Merton remarks, as Christians we do not choose between Christ and the world as if they were utterly opposed. We choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him.[2] However, this ‘catholic’ choice requires formation and discernment lest we choose one to the neglect of the other – either a self-enclosed identity incapable of speaking to the world in the light of the Gospel, or a generalised humanism without Christian substance.

When Christian faith is not deepened through reflection on faith, it becomes difficult to live out that life commitment in both an integral and world-engaging manner. It is true, as Pope Francis has pointed out, that we do not need theological degrees to be Christian but it also the case that ignorance of our faith is not a virtue. As Clement of Alexandria wrote in the second century, of those who do not bother to pursue an understanding of the riches of their own calling as Christians, ‘They demand bare faith alone – as if they wanted to harvest grapes right away without putting any work into the vine’ (Chapter IX, Stromata).

In a more contemporary key, the English theologian, Nicholas Lash, describes well the stagnancy in our midst in his 2002 Prideaux Lectures at the University of Exeter,

I never cease to be astonished by the number of devout and highly educated Christians, experts on their own ‘turf’ as teachers, doctors, engineers, accountants, or whatever; regular readers of the broadsheet press . . .  occasional visitors to the theatre who usually read at least one of the novels on the Booker short-list; and who nevertheless, from one year to the next, never take up a serious work of Christian theology and probably suppose The Tablet to be something that you get from Boots the chemist (Lash, Holiness, Speech & Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, 4-5).

SB048On his part, Lash attributes the decline in adult formation to the ‘systematic failure of the Christian churches to understand themselves as schools of Christian wisdom: as richly endowed projects of lifelong education’ (Lash, Holiness, Speech & Silence, 5).

There is much truth to this. As we have noted, our parishes do not largely understand themselves in this way, as ‘schools’, and therefore depend too heavily on the ability of our people to make sense of their faith and give an account of their hope unaided, without the support of a community of kindred learners who sit at the feet of the kerygma and tease out together the implications for life in this world.

As Richard Lennan of Boston College has written, ‘A secure faith . . . does not merely tolerate questions and thought, but affirms their capacity to act as vehicles for an ever-deeper engagement with the God revealed in history’.[3] Without doubt, we need to grow the opportunities for adult faith education but we must first grow the appetite and desire of our people for such formation, so that they can fully realise their own vocation and make use of the gifts and capacities called forth in them.

To conclude, the tradition of the Church upholds that the ‘catechesis of adults must be regarded as a preferential option’, and that this ‘can bear fruit only within the overall pastoral plan of the local Church communities’. [4]  To form our adults to be constructive participants in the life and mission of these communities, we need to place adult faith education once again at the heart of our intent and pastoral practice. Without such a focus, lay Catholics will lack the confidence to bear witness to the Gospel in a complex world and so the mission of the Church will be impaired on account of the undeveloped faith of the majority.


References:

[1] John Lamont, ‘Why the Second Vatican Council was a Good Thing and is More Important than Ever’, New Oxford Review (July/August 2005), 35. You can read the text on this blog.

[2] Cunningham, Lawrence, ed., Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 387.

[3] Richard Lennan, ‘”Looking into the Sun”: Faith, Culture, and the Task of Theology in the Contemporary Church’, Australasian Catholic Record 84/4 (2007): 467.

[4] COINCAT, Adult Catechesis in the Christian Community: Some Principles and Guidelines, 29; available here. Accessed 30 September, 2014.

 

recent news in the Australian Church

Bishop Anthony Fisher OP 2 - CopyOvernight Pope Francis appointed Bishop Anthony Fisher OP the ninth Archbishop of Sydney. Bishop Anthony will continue to administer the Diocese of Parramatta until he is installed as Archbishop later in the year, most likely in mid-November as there is a maximum two month window by canon law (so no change in the Eucharistic prayer for now!).

While it is sad to see him leave the Church of Western Sydney for the east, the connections will continue and his appointment will bring renewal and vitality not only to Sydney but, I suspect, to the national church (for those interested in the nitty gritty of church administration, once the new Archbishop is installed the College of Consultors of Parramatta will appoint a diocesan administrator and onwards we go!).

At this morning’s press conference, +Anthony underscored the Catholic Church as the largest multinational organisation in the world and therefore well equipped to play its role in fostering and building up the harmony and social capital of our society at a time when tensions and fears are at a peak. Catholic education is an ongoing priority as are the connection of young people to the Church which needs their faith and leadership, both now and into the future. +Anthony also underscored the seriousness with which he and the Church takes the scandal of abuse and remarked, ‘I think the Catholic Church is going through a period of well-deserved public scrutiny and humiliation and certainly self examination, but I hope we’ll emerge from that purified, more humble, more compassionate and be spiritually regenerated’. A good summary of his comments this morning can be found here.

For the past four years I have been privileged to work for and with Bishop Anthony in the area of adult formation and then in the development of a pastoral plan for the Diocese of Parramatta, a project which had not been undertaken in the past with significant vigour. When the potential of diocesan-wide strategic planning was first aired over a cup of coffee in late 2011, I did not anticipate the theological and pastoral learning that would follow, not merely from the process of bringing about a common vision and intent among the parishes, clergy, agencies and ministries of the diocese, but from +Anthony’s own style of leadership and governance. In exchanging ideas about organisation of ministries, parish life and structure, pastoral outreach, the mission of the Church’s social services, financial considerations and canon law, all in the effort to foster new norms for the diocese and its communities, there was always a good sense of humour and genuine companionship.

There is also leadership which includes an ability to articulate what a better future looks like, and a commitment and strategic mind to bring it to life. His involvement with the pastoral plan has been anything but a ‘tick-a-box’ exercise and the ongoing commitment to deliver what we promise has been the standout feature of his episcopacy since his installation at the beginning of 2010. On a personal note, he has been a wonderful shepherd and been present in the high and lows of some of our lives in ways which should remain private. Suffice to say, it is rare that one works with a leader over years, in a project of great change and overwhelming detail, only to grow in fraternal affection and respect of their person as a Bishop, colleague but most of all as a Christian disciple committed to the harvest, all the while imploring the graces of God.

Bishop Anthony recording the Faith in Our Future pastoral message in late 2013 for the 2014 launch

Present within +Anthony’s ecclesiology is a keen recognition that the Church is both a gift and task, and that church planning does not represent a lack of faith in God to bring us to greener pastures but rather is a response of faith to the gifts, people and resources with which we had been bestowed for His mission. There is a recognition that parishes need to be re-imagined not merely as congregations but entire pastoral areas in which there are many Catholics who were distant from the Church and still others who did not yet know their home was with us. Parishes bear a responsibility to all those in their midst, for their spiritual care, vocation and yes destiny, and therefore must be missionary in intent and missionary in practice.

There is an appreciation of the gift and potential of migrant communities, in Sydney’s west in particular, some groups being as large as parishes and therefore calling on appropriate resources to support their life and receive their gifts and difference into the body of the Church catholic. While the pastoral plan continues to unfold, with parishes aboard and commitments to unfold in the months and in some instances years ahead, here are the highlights of the first year with no small credit to the confidence and support of Bishop Anthony to make things anew:

  • DABAF

    Celebrating Archbishop-elect Anthony Fisher’s appointment to Sydney after the press conference this morning at Parramatta (19.09.14)

    Overseen the consultations, publication and first stage of implementation of our Diocesan Pastoral Plan, Faith in Our Future (a commitment that bodes well for the future of the Church in Australia);

  • Overhauled the Parramatta Chancery with a new structure and an emphasis on service delivery and collaboration;
  • Established a renewed Office for Child Protection and Safeguarding, a comprehensive diocesan youth manual in this area, and strengthened related processes;
  • Launched a comprehensive review of the Religious Education curriculum in our schools, conducted by the University of Notre Dame;
  • Increased the capacity of our social service and welfare agencies to meet increasing needs in Sydney’s West;
  • Opened the Aboriginal Catholic Services centre at Emerton and renewed the structure, identity and mission of migrant chaplaincies;
  • Strengthened and raised the standard of youth ministry in the Diocese through new leadership, and focus on both international and local events;
  • Directed the building of the new Holy Spirit Seminary at Harris Park which is now fully occupied.

There are a number of other ‘big picture’ plans that will proceed and be realised in the Parramatta Diocese over the time to come, thanks to his contribution to the Church of Western Sydney. The Church can be an overwhelmingly complex organisation, with various concerns on the table at any one time but the overriding mission to proclaim the Gospel and build up the Church for the sake of the Kingdom remains a clear point of purpose and mission. +Anthony has exercised this mission in the local church of Parramatta with vigour, calmness and great competency and he will no doubt continue to share those tremendous gifts with the Australian Church in the years ahead.