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.

 

rebuilding our parishes for growth

logo2014Some 550 delegates from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea gathered at the Proclaim Conference 2014 this past week in Sydney to listen to leaders in parish ministry and evangelisation.

These practitioners included the authors of Rebuilt, Fr Michael White and Tom Corcoran, representatives of other Christian denominations, and Catholic lay men and women committed to transforming their local communities.

It was a whirlwind of three days, with almost forty workshops made available and addressing RCIA, faith support for families, the quality of parish leadership, ordained and lay, issues of disability and inclusion in our parishes, liturgical practice, and the use of new media in parishes, among others.

The best aspect of the conference for me was to connect with old and new friends, to experience the solidarity of so many others seeking to live the same mission, and to hear and weigh up the many complex issues that are involving in living what is, at least in principle, if not in practice, a simple and holy mission: to allow the life of the Gospel, the life of Jesus, to radiate within and flow out of the heart of our parish communities into the world that hungers and awaits a Word of life and hope.

I was also privileged to present a workshop at the conference which I share below in the hope it might trigger your own reflections on how you might best lead your parish community into a better future (for more regular readers of this blog, it contains many of the views expressed previously but not yet shared with a wider audience). A PDF of this presentation as well as a resource I handed out – the ideal parish pastoral plan (at least as I imagine it!) – is also available at the end of this blog if it is of help and interest to you.

The Pastoral Reality

Proclaim 3It is fair to say that the parish remains the primary experience of Church for many Catholics. There is much to celebrate – the commitment of our leaders, ordained and lay, various forms of pastoral activity and outreach, the living faith that makes these communities a true spiritual home.

However, we are also conscious of the many challenges that face our parishes. Among these is the decline in the number of those attending these communities on a weekly basis. Indeed, researchers have described the parish as having reached a ‘critical moment’ in the life of the Australian Church.[1]

We know that of our 5.4 million Catholics in Australia only 662,000 or 12.2 per cent join us for Eucharist on any given weekend.[2] Almost a third of these Mass attenders (some 220,000) are aged between 60 and 74 while of all Catholics aged between 20-34 in Australia, only 5-6% attend.[3] So we are witnessing an ageing congregation with fewer among younger generations to replace them as we move into the future.

Migrants, of course, account for over 40% of our Mass attenders.[4] We are indebted to and sustained by the participation of these diverse ethnic communities. However, we also know that second generation Australians, that is, the children of Catholic migrants, are far less likely to practice than their parents.

Furthermore, some 13,000 Catholics stop attending Mass each year, and across all age groups more than 20,000 Australians every year are ceasing to identify themselves as Catholic (a dis-identification of some 100,000 Catholics over the last five years).[5]

SB048As Dr Bob Dixon, among others, has recognised, the prospect that this situation raises in our lifetime is that of ongoing Catholic institutions, including schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, nursing homes and aged care facilities but fewer parishes where the worship of God enjoins a community of believers.[6] The related concern is that the Church in Australia will be reduced to a form of non-government organisation, a provider of services – including healthcare and education – but whose religious dimension is associated more strongly with their historical origins rather than their existing or ongoing spirit.

It becomes clear that we need our Catholic parishes to grow because they are integral and indispensable to our spiritual identity as a Church. Together with the family, the local parish remains the primary venue where faith is given shape and social support, fostered into discipleship and then enters the world, impelled by the Word and Eucharist. In all these ways, the future of the Australian Church relies on the vitality of the local Catholic parish.

The Call to Grow

It is challenging, then, to concede that many of our parishes have few or no plans to grow, have no explicit vision for making disciples, and can assume people are growing and disciples are being made despite evidence to the contrary.

baby_plant.28104733Indeed, it could be said that we do not often talk about ‘Church growth’ or ‘growing the Church’, apart from the occasional appeal for priestly vocations or in the context of planned giving campaigns. Some would regard talk of ‘Church growth’ as rather bureaucratic or managerial in tone, a language more at home in the Business Review Weekly than the Gospel of Jesus.

And yet . . . God calls our Church and our parishes to grow. From the commission given to us by Jesus himself, ‘Go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:19-20) to Vatican II which exhorts the Church in Christ, to ‘pray and labour that the entire world may become the People of God’, the call to grow is an essential element of our identity and calling as a Catholic Church and as Catholic parishes.[7]

We have been given a mission of grace (baptising into the life of Christ) and a teaching mission (as 2 Peter 3:12 affirms, to assist our people ‘grow in the knowledge of the Lord’). In other words, we are being asked to go deep and wide.

While this may seem obvious, I propose that many parishes have not made growth in faith and the gaining of new members the explicit goal of their life and ministries, and dangerously only assumed them to be so. Without this clarity of purpose and a deliberate intent to expand, parishes can be resigned to a ‘decent minimum of religious conformity’ awash with verbal formula, exterior practices and too many undigested experiences of Mass and the Church among their members.[8] However, a ‘no growth’ mentality or complacency has its consequences.

When asked, 60% of Australian Mass attenders reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[9] The very real danger is that when people don’t grow, they begin to question their commitment and some are even tempted to leave. Meanwhile, 72% of Australian Mass attenders reported that they would not or did not know if they would invite someone to their parish.[10] It tells us that not everything we do as parishes makes disciples and, furthermore, when people are not growing they are not able to be witnesses for Christ in the wider community.

So, as a first step towards renewing parish culture we need to reclaim the basic commission of the Gospel to create better disciples and more disciples, both at the same time, ‘adding to our number’ as the Acts of the Apostles would express it (Acts 2:47) and becoming ‘mature in Christ’ (Col. 1:28). If spiritual and numerical growth, growing in and as Church, does not shape the way we do what we do, our communities can become caught in directionless routine with much movement but very little progress. Moreover, without the goal and the expectancy of growth, our parish workers can be caught dangerously between dedication and despair.

candlesWithout the desire to grow and actual plans to bring it about, we end up drawing on the same, small pool of laypersons for parish ministry and service, we struggle with succession in ministries leading to burn out and fatigue of our existing members, we become trapped in a self-affirming culture that neglects our God-given purpose to evangelise, and even risk becoming communities that are content or resigned to grow old rather than move forwards.

Hence, growth matters. The point made by the ressourcement theologian Henri de Lubac of the life of the Church in general applies to the life of the parish and its members in particular – interiorisation (the process by which the Gospel penetrates ever more deeply in the Spirit) goes hand in hand with universalisation and evangelisation (an awareness, commitment and outreach to others in that same Spirit).[11] The deepening of our personal life in Christ leads to an expanding capacity to serve others. We are called to grow in both person and community.

Obstacles to Parish Growth

It is a great tradition of our life and liturgy that in seeking to grow we must first name those obstacles that prevent us from growing in discipleship and that limit our outreach to those beyond the pews. There are a number of contradictions that could be named.

Firstly, while our parishes are called to be ‘schools of prayer’ we often assume our people know how to pray when Romans 8:26 reminds us that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’.[12] The Gospel reminds us that prayer is taught and learned, just as Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray to the Father, and yet there can be few opportunities to learn the practices and traditions of prayer in everyday life for the people in our pews. There are few prayers for miscarriage, neonatal loss, parent-teen relationships, chronic sickness, life aspirations and personal crises. Parishes can support their people to express their faith and experience in words by teaching and guiding prayer, both personal and communal, support that is not always extended.

We can also assume our parishes are welcoming. However, we can measure this by the relationships between existing members of our communities rather than the experience of the newcomer. When a sense of welcome and belonging to parish is thin, people can fail to graduate from being ‘mere attenders’ to becoming active participants in the mission of God which this community seeks to serve in the world.

SB012Above all, we can assume that those coming for the sacraments are already, ipso facto, disciples. However, as Sherry Weddell estimates, as little as 5% of our Mass attenders could be described as ‘intentional disciples’, as having made the conscious and personal decision to live as a disciple of Christ as their saviour and Lord.[13] Not all of our Mass attenders have allowed the Gospel to become the overriding, internal authority of their lives.

It is a curiosity of Catholic culture, as Weddell goes on to note, that those who do openly talk about Jesus and live enthusiastically in relationship to him can be viewed with suspicion, as ‘Protestant’ in spirit or else pretenders to sanctity (as Weddell concludes ‘we don’t know what normal is’).[14]

In terms of fostering intentional discipleship, an obstacle that can stymie the personal growth of people in our pews is an almost exclusive emphasis on the sacraments which, ironically, can obscure the full life to discipleship for which the sacraments exist. Pope Francis notes in Evangelii Gaudium that in many of our parishes ‘an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelisation’.[15]

This aligns well with the insight of Michael White and Tom Corcoran in Rebuilt when they point out:

. . . baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . . For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it.[16]

The point being made by Pope Francis and Rebuilt is that people in our parishes can be ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised. Sacraments only make sense in the context of a life of discipleship; they can never replace it. The problematic is that if the whole concept of ‘discipleship’ is reduced to liturgy or Mass attendance alone, then even the practice of attending Mass is likely to weaken over the long term as the very point of a sacramental life is lost on those participating.

Sacraments nourish a life of discipleship that already exists, they cannot substitute for it. The grace that the sacraments make present needs to be received by a life of faith, by a ‘positive disposition’ as the Church describes it, within the context of a personal relationship to Jesus that opens the heart and will to conversion in love (indeed, some have questioned whether the Catholic Mass while evangelising in principle is often so in practice on account of the uneven religious literacy of our people and the uneven quality of much liturgical music and preaching).

Proclaim 2On the level of formation, the teaching mission we have received from the Gospel, it is worth noting that the emphasis in parish communities has traditionally fallen on the catechesis of children and youth. Understandable we want young people in our parishes for their vibrancy and energy as well as the tangible hope that they bring. However, we need to acknowledge that young people will not be attracted to parishes or communities that show no energy or dynamism in themselves.

We need a parish focus on adult formation as adult Catholics witness to younger Catholics what a mature faith looks like and the formation of adults creates a context which supports the life of faith of everyone in the community (as they say ‘a rising tide floats all boats’).[17] If we want to raise the standard of discipleship in the Church then adults who are prayerful, steeped in Scripture, theologically literate, articulate and committed to justice must be the new norm. Only then, in fact, will the faith of young Catholics naturally aspire to more than intergenerational conformism.

When we consider our parishes, the sources of formation for the majority of those who attend can be limited to essentially the parish bulletin, a homily preached well or otherwise, and perhaps the sign value of the sacraments. We are, if we are honest with ourselves, often relying on the fact that new and established members of our Church are simply ‘putting it all together’ by themselves, an optimism that that is not supported by the reality of parish decline. From observation, people are grasping only fragments and from the outside.

Finally, there can be a predominance of insider thinking, ‘Church world’ as the authors of Rebuilt name it.[18] This rather skewed perspective can be signified by the simple practice of advertising Christmas Mass times in local newspapers. While this is a good and proactive endeavour, it is worth remembering that, in terms of evangelisation, people are not staying away from our Masses because they do not know what time they are on. People are not coming to Mass because they do not see any point in doing so, because they don’t see any connection between what the parish might be offering and their life that they are living or aspired to bring about. If we get caught in insider-thinking as parishes, we can fail to see that people are not going to come to our parishes if they have no idea why they should.

Practices of Growth

This leads us neatly from our challenges to our potential. In light of the trends impacting on our parishes with growing intensity, and the present dynamics of some parish cultures, it is evident that if we want to reach people we have never reached before, we have to be prepared to do things we have never done before, and have a new heart for the Great Commissioning to grow the community of God.

One certainty is that parishes do not grow if leaders and parish teams do not want them to. We cannot assume parish and ministry group leaders want to grow their community when there are no specific plans or intentions to do so. It is interesting to note that emotions in a parish can pour out over changes to buildings, Mass times or parish structure but rarely do they pour out over the absence of newcomers from our pews. Perhaps our hearts can be set on stability rather than growth.

Prayer 1_2

(c) Diocese of Parramatta 2014

I was once asked by a parish pastoral council to name the biggest obstacle to evangelisation. In my view it would be a lack of faith that the Gospel is worth sharing. Parish leaders and ministry groups must have the desire to grow, have a renewed belief in Jesus and his Church so that our parish programs and processes may bear fruit. After all, programs do not make disciples; disciples make disciples. As Paul VI intimated, only an evangelised Church evangelises.[19] Our parishes will grow when their leaders grow in faith, in the hope of possibilities unseen, and in a love that grows through the practice of love. A sign of a leader committed to parish growth will be one committed to their own growth in the spiritual life.

As intimated, few parishes have a clear direction for their life, a clear vision for making disciples. We need to work towards parishes, each with its own clarity of purpose. Without an overarching vision or purpose that is shared and owned by the whole community, it is difficult for groups, ministries and members to be united or collaborate, quite simply because no one has ever asked and no one has asked together ‘Where are we going?’

To make this concrete, we might ask ‘what is the vision of your parish for its life over the next three years?’ Catholic parishes do not often articulate such a vision and yet are surprised that the commitment level is so low. Commitment will always be low when there is no direction, no sense of purpose and aspiration for the community. Note also that a vision cannot simply be put on a noticeboard; a vision has to be explained, shared and talked about time and again, explaining ‘where we are going’ on the basis of where we are.

A vision also enables a community to evaluate itself on its performance. If a parish community clearly understands that ‘evangelisation of unchurched Catholics’ is its priority for the next three years, the parish can then ask questions when that doesn’t happen, and try and be more effective in that area. Without a parish vision or purpose, no questions are ever raised and there is no motivation to change and to grow.

In speaking of the need for inspired leadership and a compelling vision, it will come as no surprise that parish planning is a particular focus of mine and a recommendation in bringing about renewal.

While ‘pastoral planning’ sounds less glamorous than many other aspects of Church life, it is indispensable for communities to cultivate the type of discipleship which we seek as a Church in response to God.

All communities need to make plans because wanting to grow is not enough. We need to plan to grow and be explicitly organised to grow the faith of our members as well as to evangelise. Indeed, church research reveals that making no plans for growth results in little or no growth every time.[20] Without a commitment to planning, church communities and ministries do not grow and, in fact, risk decline. The alternative to a vision for growth, as we have said, is directionless and unresponsive routine.

plannerWhen a community has a clear plan, including a vision for where it wants to be in three years’ time, and actions, time frames, and owners of those actions to bring them about, it also becomes possible for parishes to let go of activities and groups that do not make disciples or help them to achieve their goals. Planning reminds a parish that its mission is not to preserve ashes but to keep a fire alive.

In terms of parish evangelisation out of the pews, to the 90% of self-identified Catholics on the margins of our parish life, a first step is to recognise that these ‘unchurched’ Catholics we seek to reach for Christ are not strangers ‘out there’ nor are they statistics without names or faces. The unchurched are in our homes, sitting at the dinner tables of practicing Catholics! They are our relatives, friends, and neighbours who identify as ‘Catholic’ in some way but do not participate in regular worship or intentional acts of Christian service.

It follows that reaching the unchurched is a matter of skilling and empowering practicing Catholics to start the conversation about faith with relatives, friends and neighbours. Unfortunately, as we have noted, resources and practical assistance to prepare our people for this task is rarely found in our parishes.

It is worth noting that some Baptist communities offer workshops to support wives in faith-filled conversations and relationships with their husbands who are often less likely to attend a weekend service. It recognises that evangelisation takes place via the relationships and via the bridges of credibility in our lives. Again, disciples make disciples. We need to form practicing members of our Church to have the confidence in faith, skills and relational sensitivity to reach out to those they know and love with the Good News of the Gospel.

SB054Another key strategy for growth is small groups and Rebuilt affirms this as a direction for all parishes to consider. It is interesting to note that the National Church Life Survey revealed that Australian Catholics, when asked, valued ‘community life’ as one of the most valued aspects of parish life.

However, at the very bottom of this scale was ‘small groups’ and ‘reaching out to others’.[21] And yet, it is precisely by small groups and the invitation of others that most Catholics find their way into the heart of the Church as a community of faith.

Our Catholic masses are often just too large for people to feel instantly at home. Most of us have come into the heart of the Church through a small group of some description, whether that was a youth group, prayer group or other association. Small groups are one way in which people can explore and grow in their faith in the context of a personal and supportive network of disciples.

To make the point a different way, no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. As a Church we are similarly challenged to offer our people the small group they never knew they needed, whether that be a group of prayer and reflection, Scripture study or missionary outreach which develops their personal relationship with Jesus in the midst of others.

Finally, another indispensable measure by which we can focus on the unchurched is to pray that the outreach of the parish will be effective. Prayer brings us to what is most important to us in our life of faith. Praying for the parish mission to be effective, praying that members will reach out to others with joy, praying that relationships will be transformative, places our efforts to evangelise in the heart and hands of God and in the heart and hands of the worshipping community. A parish that is not praying for new members, that does not explicitly name those who the parish is trying to reach for Christ, can be reasonably questioned on the seriousness of its intent.

We can be tempted to feel at times in ministry as if there was not enough time for prayer, but in fact the spiritual tradition tells us that a lack of prayer leads to a lack of time for the things that matter. We need to pray so our hearts desire growth. Once our hearts desire that goal, we will find the time and take the action needed to see our parishes grow in life and measure.

Conclusion

Liturgy 1We have surveyed the pastoral reality and underlined the need of our parishes to grow as the foundation of the Australian Church.

We have retrieved the need for parishes to set themselves the goal of actual growth in faith as well as numerical growth in response to Jesus’ commission to the Church. We have seen the consequences of a ‘no growth’ mentality and of assuming our people are becoming disciples by the sacraments alone.

We have affirmed the need for leaders with a heart and vision for growth, parish communities with an explicit and articulated purpose, formation that focuses on and talks about discipleship and conversion, small groups to create the bonds of faith that grow discipleship, and communities that pray for and implore the graces of God in this mission.

As Pope Francis remarks, ‘[God] always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve’.[22]

As parishes we need to look sincerely at our life and be willing to continue to grow, all the while imploring the graces of God. In the light of our reality and in the light of faith, we must desire to make disciples and proclaim boldly that in the face of human needs God has provided a response in the person of Jesus. May we live this mission well in the service of the Gospel and in the service of humankind.

* You can download a PDF of this workshop presentation here. As mentioned, I also offered some thoughts on the content of the ideal parish pastoral plan. You can download the sample parish plan here. With best wishes in your ministry and mission, Daniel

 

References

[1] Robert Dixon, Stephen Reid and Marilyn Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment. A Report Based on the National Count of Attendance, the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Census (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Research Office, 2013), 8.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 2-3.

[4] Pastoral Research Office E-News Bulletin, ‘Issue 18: Who goes to Mass? – First results from the 2011 NCLS – 2 December 2012’. Available online at http://www.pro.catholic.org.au/pdf/ACBC%20PRO%20E-News%20Bulletin%2018.pdf. Accessed 4 August, 2014.

[5] Dixon, Reid and Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment, 4; Robert Dixon and Stephen Reid, ‘The Contemporary Catholic Community: A View from the 2011 Census’, Australasian Catholic Record 90/2 (2013): 144-146.

[6] Dr Robert Dixon, ‘The Catholic Community in  Australia: Context and Challenges’, Presentation at the Pastoral Research Office Conference: ‘Beliefs and Practices of Australian Catholics’, 20 February, 2014.

[7] Lumen Gentium 17.

[8] Thomas Merton, Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (London: SPCK, 2003), 2.

[9] NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Henri de Lubac, ‘Christian Explanation of our Times’ in Theology in History, translated by Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 452.

[12] John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte 33.

[13] Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 62.

[14] Ibid., 49.

[15] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 63.

[16] Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 77.

[17] Cf. Jane Regan, Toward an Adult Church: A Vision of Faith Formation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002).

[18] White and Corcoran, Rebuilt, 43.

[19] Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 15.

[20] See Ed Stetzer and Mike Dobson, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 71–2.

[21] Dr Claudia Mollidor, ‘Parish Life – Who’s Involved and Why?’, Presentation at the Pastoral Research Office Conference: ‘Beliefs and Practices of Australian Catholics’, 20 February, 2014.

[22] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 153.

the church in a digital world

CDMC-webThis week brings two conferences of significance for the Australian Church and at which I am grateful to be sharing some thoughts. The first conference is CDMC, the Catholic Digital Media Conference (19-20 August, 2014) while the second event is Proclaim 2014 (21-23 August, 2014).

The potential to learn new skills, hear the collective wisdom of those practicing leadership in various Catholic fora, and gather with old and new online and real world friends makes these days a great source of personal and collective renewal.

The particular focus of CDMC is to offer insight from new media practitioners on how the Catholic Church and its agencies can use new media and social media to share the Gospel. While not prolific online or an expert in any sense, I shared the reflections below near the conclusion of this conference before joining a panel discussion to break open some of the contributions of the two days with fellow speakers. I hope these thoughts will be value to those wrestling with the nature and extent of the Church’s engagement with new technologies.

Digital technology represents a rich and challenging way of participating in God’s mission, and a frontier which can give new life to the Church. As a potential vehicle for evangelisation, digital media calls not simply on technical ability or ‘know how’ but invites our theological vision as Catholics of the possibilities that God offers us in this moment of ‘radiant ripeness’, when what is ancient and simple ‘[mingles] with what is new and strange’.[1]

Setting the Scene

As people of the Incarnation and the Cross we are bound to recognise that there is overwhelming promise in emerging technologies as well as a shadow side to these developments. The Church and its communicators enter this space aware of the ways in which digital media can reveal and share the joy of the Gospel, calling humanity to its deepest destiny, and the ways in which this same technology can erode a sense of self, human vocation and community.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out that in our cities in particular, where large numbers of people rub shoulders, are unknown to each other, do not have direct dealings but yet affect and influence one another in thought, behaviour and expression, people can be caught between loneliness and communication.[2]

checkingphoneThe use of social media perfectly manifests this swing between individualism and association with others for we can be alone with our digital devices and yet watch world events unfold, aware that hundreds or even millions of others are doing so at the same time. We can hover between a sense of isolation and a loose form of togetherness, vacillate between privacy and the spectacle of mutual display.

The danger of this situation is that personal identity can be reduced to a matter of ‘being seen’ rather than being known, to the desire for publicity rather than authenticity.[3] The notion of human community can also be emptied of its intimacy and personalism, reduced to the blips and squeaks of ‘a lonely crowd’. Even in matters religious, digital media can lead to superficiality, the ‘fortune cookie wisdom’ that fits neatly within 140 characters, as well as spiritual exhibitionism among even the committed, the virtual equivalent of wanting to watch oneself at prayer.[4]

But none of this is inevitable. While isolation and superficiality are risks of any human endeavour, we as the believing Church can bring real and lasting treasure to the myriad of human desires, experiences and quest for meaning that takes place online, playing our part in the humanisation and sanctification of digital culture and the wider world.

As Pope Benedict has shared in his reflection on Christian engagement of new media, we as ‘believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived.’[5] By keeping alive these eternal questions and engaging the concerns and events of the world in the light of faith, Catholic bloggers, commentators, and leaders can bring real depth and consequence to the digital continent.

Catholic communicators can place before these vast audiences the sacred origin and sacred destiny of all humanity, the intrinsic dignity of each person that is at the same time a calling or vocation to encounter the person of Jesus, the ‘Perfect Communicator’, the living Word who speaks not only by a message but through the totality of his life and Spirit.[6]

In the light of faith and in His example, Catholic media can advocate for the forgotten victims of history (many of them voiceless in a technological age) and be for the world even if at times it must be for it by standing against its deficiencies. In the light of faith, the lonely crowds and fragile networks can be opened to the witness of a real and embodied community of Christ whose worship and values are seen to shape the practices and commitments of its members. In the light of faith, the Church can reach out to those in isolation and stand for the poor in spirit and circumstance, bringing the rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching to bear on the needs of the present. In all of these ways, the Church can firmly take its place on the digital realm as a genuine locus of personal fulfilment and interpersonal communion.

Pope Benedict would conclude that while our Church does not ultimately bring technical solutions to the problems afflicting the world, what it does bring is a faith-filled realisation of the deepest needs of humanity which are not merely social but spiritual in nature.[7] It is by reading and responding to the world at these spiritual heights, or rather at these depths, that Catholic media can shape contemporary culture and its online participants in an active and ongoing way.

Communicating in the Gospel

digitalcrossOn a practical level, I would suggest that despite the potential for such Christian influence, new technologies can run ahead of our ability to communicate as Church. While social media supplies us with opportunities that could not have been envisaged even a short decade ago, there is nothing automatic about our ability as Church to use this media effectively and to proclaim the Gospel with influence and real effect. Like all other gifts of God, including the Eucharist, we have to learn and reflect over time on how best to put these gifts into practice, on how to make these gifts come to life in relationship to others. In this respect, there are no ‘experts’, only better or lesser learners.

One of the ongoing challenges for our Church in engaging social media is to recognise that it is indeed social media and not designed to be encyclopaedic, concerned with the delivery of a multitude of facts. Belonging to an articulate tradition as we do, a tradition which includes a body of sacred teaching, we can still be tempted to employ new media as a blunt instrument for the dissemination of information. This is no doubt where we started, when the documents of the Church and the catechism were first placed online, when Catholic encyclopaedias and patristic texts were uploaded and parish websites published their Mass times.

Certainly, this supply of online information is valuable and has enabled greater and unrivalled access to the Christian tradition – Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, the manifold prayers of the Church – resources not instantly or as readily available to previous generations. We can affirm without hesitation that Catholic faith has content, a creed and beliefs, ‘that which it believes’, which calls to be shared and made present in the digital arena.

However, what social media reminds our Church with some importance is that this creed, this faith, these beliefs, also need to be received, to be heard in a way that others can understand and enter into. Social media reminds the Church that evangelisation is more than the transmission of data, that it involves not only proclamation but dialogue, a dialogue with which proclamation has an ‘essential bond’.[8] Digital technologies must certainly be engaged by the Church from a standpoint of conviction, made use of in the unwavering, true light of the Gospel who is Christ, but that unfailing light, identity and conviction can only be brought to bear on actual human lives through discourse and exchange, persuasion and empathy, listening as well as speaking, receiving as well as offering, all those dimensions of human relationship and interpersonal dynamics that contribute to personal conversion.

churchpewsIn surveying the capacity of our social media to foster this sort of evangelising contact with others, it could be said that Catholic Twitter accounts, blogs and media can sometimes assume the religious literacy of their audiences, be prone to religious ‘shorthand’ or else address questions that are more germane to ‘insiders’ than ‘outsiders’. The danger of social media when it becomes self-referential, insular or rarefied in this way is that we can be essentially left talking to ourselves, conversation partners within a self-affirming Catholic subculture, while the wider culture moves on largely untouched and unmoved by the claims of Christian faith.

To highlight this risk of misaligning our communication to audience, note that our parish teams and ministries are now meeting second-generation unchurched families for whom the word ‘sacrament’ is foreign and strange, for whom the word ‘mission’ evokes only faraway places, for whom the meaning and implications of Eucharist would be barely known. As Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium,

We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness.[9]

If we confuse effective Church communication for ‘the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines’ our people will, as they already do in our pews, hear only fragments and, what is more, hear them from the outside rather than as participants in a conversation of eternal significance.[10]

A Church in the (Digital) World

So how might the Church best be present within this digital world which remains only in its infancy?

Liturgy 2It strikes me that when the Church has encountered new cultural terrain, enters new territory or encounters unexpected social conditions, one temptation to which it can fall victim is the instant desire to construct parallel infrastructure to secure Catholic identity in the public square. This form of Catholic replication of existing cultural forms has been a well tried strategy of the Church in times past but one that has its limitation in terms of evangelisation.

For example, the Catholic Church when founded in Australia quickly sought to develop a parallel school system to the State, established Catholic youth groups, Catholic debating societies, even Catholic tennis and bushwalking clubs aimed at the social and cultural reproduction of the Church. As the theologian Neil Ormerod points out, the aim was, in part, to ensure Catholics were held within the church from birth to death.[11] One could travel through life with limited contact with ‘others’, whoever these ‘others’ might be, usually Protestants. Today in the realm of media, it is already possible to watch an exclusively Catholic television channel if one chose to do so.

A similar strategy of mimicry could be attempted online, in which the Church seeks to replicate technologies and media channels to create Catholic-branded platforms which serve much the same purpose as existing secular media. However, I think this approach is misguided, not only because it is inevitably expensive to create a parallel Catholic world online but because it misunderstands the theological basis of evangelisation which is to interact with the world, not present a self-enclosed alternative to it.

To make the point, we can learn from the Jesuit theologian Walter Ong who recalls for us the essential role of the Church in society as a leaven,

Yeast acts on dough, but it does not convert all the dough into yeast, nor is it able to do so or meant to do so. Its primary effect is to interact, and this interaction results in ferment and growth for both yeast and dough.[12]

Like yeast, we do not have to sacrifice our own identity to interact and dialogue with others but it is a part of our identity to interact, not to remain isolated or take over the space of the world (the catholicity of dialogue and exchange is well captured in the ‘retweet’, in our ability as Catholics to share that which carries insight but that did not originate from us).

In a similar vein to Ong, the ecclesiologist Joseph Komonchak writes of the need for the Church to take its place within rather than above or in parallel to the drama of the world,

To enter the Church is not to leave the world, but to be in the world differently, so that the world itself is different because there are individuals and communities living their lives because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.[13]

Catholic media should not, then, aim at the creation of Catholic enclaves in the digital world but must develop the ability to express, represent and dialogue in the name of the Gospel in the midst of the various media in which the world already expresses itself and reflects upon its circumstances, meaning and destiny. Again, this calls on the ability of the Catholic communicators to dialogue in the faith as well as to proclaim it with conviction.

Conclusion

tmUltimately, our ability to evangelise online will reflect our ability to evangelise in the world. There is nothing magic or enchanted about technology; it will reflect what is in us. The Cistercian spiritual master Thomas Merton reminds us that a condition for meaningful relationships and genuine communion with others is a spiritual identity and life of our own. Without an inner life grounded in our own dialogue with God, mass communications can only be a dull and disorientating roar:

How tragic it is that they who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark where there is no enemy . . . They chatter themselves to death, fearing life as if it were death.[14]

There is only one thing that Catholic communicators are called to express – the life and spirit of Jesus who in revealing God reveals humanity to itself.[15] It is his message and life that bears upon every dimension of culture and progress, that is capable of making our world truly human and of our diverse and demanding lives and work a meaningful mission.

The task of communicators in the Church today is as wide as it is deep. They must make the case for digital technologies within the Church, by explaining and even, at times, defending their potential in a community that can grow slow. They must also educate or school themselves in the sources and insights of Catholic tradition while also standing at the window of the world, attending to the best practices in contemporary media and discerning how they might best serve the Gospel in a new time. Catholic media must even play a prophetic role for our Church, bringing the future into the present with the riches and insight of the past.

While all of this is demanding, our Catholic leaders in media can do all of this with the confidence and faith that to the ever evolving landscapes of the world, digital and otherwise, God has already addressed a living Word and that Word provides the light and promise to our path.

I hope to post my workshop from Proclaim 2014 in coming days which will focus on vision and practices for parish growth. Thank you for reading this blog and best wishes in your ministry and mission in the Church, Daniel.   

 

References:

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1932), 185.

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 482.

[3] Cf. David Ranson, ‘To be Seen or to be Known’, The Faith Project, 27 August 2012. Available online at http://www.churchresources.info/missionspirit/0909/RANSON.pdf. Accessed 19 August, 2014.

[4] The Cistercian spiritual master Thomas Merton warns, with relevance to the digital realm, that for the sake of publicity we can forfeit our authenticity, ‘The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men. A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real’. Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, 362.

[5] Benedict XVI, Message for the 45th World Communications Day. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/communications/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20110124_45th-world-communications-day_en.html. Accessed 19 August 2014.

[6] Pontifical Council for the Social Communication, Communio et Progressio 11. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_23051971_communio_en.html. Accessed 19 August, 2014.

[7] Benedict XVI, Address on 12 July, 2009. Available online at http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/church-is-an-expert-in-humanity-says-pope. Accessed 19 August, 2014.

[8] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 251.

[9] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 34.

[10] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 35.

[11] Neil Ormerod, ‘The Laity in the Australian Church’ in Neil Ormerod, et al., Vatican II: Reception and Implementation in the Australian Church (Mulgrave, VIC: Garratt Publishing, 2012), 68.

[12] Walter Ong, ‘Yeast as a Parable for Catholic Higher Education’, America (7 April 1990) as cited in Stephen J. McKinney and John Sullivan, Education in a Catholic Perspective (Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2013), 168. My emphasis.

[13] Joseph Komonchak, ‘Identity and Mission in Catholic Universities’, 12; available online at https://jakomonchak.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/hubbard-lecture.pdf. Accessed 19 August 2014.

[14] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (London: Hollis & Carter, 1955), 162.

[15] Gaudium et Spes 22. See also the thought of Henri de Lubac who writes, ‘In revealing to us the God who is the end of man, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, reveals us to ourselves, and without him the ultimate foundation of our being would remain an enigma to us’; in Henri de Lubac, ‘The total meaning of man and the world’, Communio 35 (2008: 4), 626-7.

new ecclesial movements

This week I was pleased to join the ACBC Commission for Church Ministry to address leaders of lay movements from across the country on the possibilities and challenges evoked by Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Movements that were in attendance included Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Focolare Movement, Antioch, the Cursillo Movement, Lay Carmelites, and the Mariana Community among others.

Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation has already been well covered by commentators, various conferences and symposiums so I will only share in this post some of the broader issues that were raised with the movements, a form of Christian community in which many find a compelling charism and new forms of spiritual living.

(c) Diocese of Parramatta

(c) Diocese of Parramatta

Ecclesial movements, which are predominantly but not exclusively lay in membership, have been one of the outstanding developments in the life of the Church in the twentieth century and may well present as a significant form of Christian community in the decades to come if they are able to align themselves for growth in a changing ecclesial situation.

After outlining some very real challenges for parishes in the Australian context – including but not limited to diminishing Mass attendance, the age of attenders and absence of youth, our dependence on Catholic migrants for their vitality, and the reality of low participation rates among second generation Australians, that is, the children of these migrants – I went on to contrast the Australian Church to the American and European situation.

The parallels between the Australian and American contexts are stronger than what might first be assumed. In both countries, the Catholic Church established itself within a predominantly Protestant settlement that was the result of British colonisation and saw the oppression of an indigenous population. The Catholic Church then thrived in each nation through the development of parallel infrastructure to the State (e.g. schools and hospitals) and grew with subsequent waves of migration. Both countries have large rural contexts which can be sparsely populated and are shaping the exercise of pastoral ministry in the Church; both have seen increasing structural change in Catholic parishes and dioceses over the last decades, have been impacted by the scandal of abuse crises, and are experiencing increasing disaffiliation with religion and Catholicism in particular (the disaffiliation rate in Australia is around 20,000 people a year, 20,000 who choose no longer to identify as ‘Catholic’ at all).

However, one significant difference I would suggest is that the development of ministry in the United States is two to three decades ahead of the Australian Church. While there has been significant institutional support for the development of lay leadership in the U.S., including the emergence and training of pastoral life coordinators/directors in parishes and specific theological treatment of lay ecclesial ministry in the USCCB’s Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, as well as strong growth in the diaconate – the U.S. has some 15,000 active deacons serving 17,000 parishes – the Australian Church is yet to make significant forays into these possibilities.

The result is that the American Church is some twenty years ahead in the development of ecclesial ministries which has buoyed the life of their parishes while the Australian Church is some twenty years further down the track in terms of decline, with an attendance rate that makes the U.S. weekly participation rate of 30% seem (almost) a success.

The European story also differs from the American one. Parishes are largely moribund in Europe and this has explained to a great degree the growth of the ecclesial movements which have flourished ever since the Second World War. Many of these groups owe their existence to the well of lay participation in the Church initially fostered by Catholic Action and then given further energy and legitimisation by the Second Vatican Council and then the pontificate of John Paul II.

layecclesialministryBottom line? With the development of lay ministry and the diaconate lagging in the Australian Church and our parishes in a more immediately dire position than in the U.S., our future may look decidedly more European than American with the upshot that lay movements will find only greater opportunities for growth and perhaps stronger official backing in the years ahead.

Unless there is an unprecedented influx of Catholic migrants into Australia or the development of lay ecclesial ministry surges forward with programs of training and formation, all of which demands funding and organisation, our parishes will continue to experience decline and in some cases their very existence will be at risk, opening up possibilities for other forms of Christian community which the ecclesial movements represent.

You can read my more detailed reflections on the pros and cons of such a scenario, growing ecclesial movements in the midst of the local church, in this article written for Compass Theological Review. It is no secret that whenever popes address the movements they raise the risks of spiritual elitism, separation from parish communities and the real challenge of inculturating their charism and service in contexts which may vary from their places of origin. If they are to flourish, movements will need to mature in their ecclesial integration.

In his treatment of mission in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis underscores with relevance to ecclesial movements that the Church’s identity comes about by its focus on something other than itself – its focus on Christ whose body it is and is called to be, and the world for whom that sacramental body exists as a sign and reality of hope. Endowed with a charism or a compelling narrative of holiness, ecclesial movements are called to look outward for their identity can only grow through an expanding engagement with others within the Church and beyond it. Pope Francis insists

[These charisms] are not an inheritance, safely secured and entrusted to a small group for safe-keeping; rather they are gifts of the Spirit integrated into the body of the Church, drawn to the centre which is Christ and then channelled into an evangelising impulse (Evangelii Gaudium 130).

A further point that was made at the ACBC gathering was that movements have arisen out of specific historical circumstances that have required a Christian response and therefore movements are no strangers to a world-engaging mission that connects creation with redemption, nature with grace, and the historical with the transcendent. If the movements are able to adapt and carry their original charism or genius into social and cultural circumstances that are altogether new, these movements can well support the Church in preparing laity to take their place in the contemporary world as disciples, in that world-transforming mission which Pope Francis promotes with urgency.

Unsurprisingly, many ecclesial movements emerged in the wake of the world wars and crises of the twentieth century, calamities which saw not only an uncharacteristic surge in priestly and religious vocations but new forms of lay association as well. For example, the Focolare Movement emerged from service to the poor and deprived in the bomb shelters of post-war Italy, while closer to home the Knights of the Southern Cross finds its origins in the struggle to ensure Australian Catholics had access to jobs and were free from discrimination on return from the First World War.

Lay movements may be especially well placed to offer appropriate resources, a life of prayer and programs of lay formation directed toward Christian engagement with the world because they themselves have arisen in response to specific needs and hungers in human society and culture.

ACBC Lay MovementsI also recommended that lay movements, who are rapidly ageing as are our committed Mass attenders, explore creative forms of collaboration with dioceses and with one another in order that their charism or spiritual vision can extend beyond the one or two generations of leaders which have sustained their groups to date. It is a truism that institution without charism grows weary and mundane while charism without institution and structure risks eccentricity or parochialism. Lay movements can work together with dioceses and provide much needed inspiration and creative forms of spiritual living while dioceses can support movements in their access to parishes which remain, notwithstanding the reality of decline, the experience of the Church for the vast majority of Australian Catholics.

It is true that some movements have gained a reputation for drawing members away from local parishes, especially when they insist on celebrating separate liturgies or else absolutise their own spiritual experience to the exclusion of others forms of Christian life and prayer. However, in my experience, many members of movements, including Catholic Charismatic Renewal for one, have assumed leading roles in parish life and ministry and can be particularly effective in their outreach to those who are on the margins of faith. As Pope Francis himself underscores, it is a sign of great hope when lay associations and movements ‘actively participate in the Church’s overall pastoral efforts’ (Evangelii Gaudium 105), an opportunity which I sense will only grow in the Australian Church.

To conclude, the insufficiencies and unclaimed potential of the present will suggest, in its prophetic utterance, the ‘more’ of the future for the Australian Church. The movements may well take their place in that future with the dynamism, practical intelligence and spiritual gifts of their past. Let us move towards that new possibility with a spirit and the confidence of joy.

Note to readers: For those interested in learning more about the ecclesial movements, their development and implications for the Church, read David Ranson’s Between the ‘Mysticism of Politics’ and the ‘Politics of Mysticism’: Interpreting New Pathways of Holiness within the Roman Catholic Tradition (Adelaide: ATF Press, 2013) or an upcoming publication by Massimo Faggioli, Sorting Out Catholicism. A Brief History of the New Ecclesial Movements (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014).