evangelisation at the grassroots

Liturgy 5The English theologian Nicholas Lash once noted that people are not saved from drowning by thinking differently about the law of gravity. Their lives are saved by a change in action.

In reflection on the future of our parishes, a change of approach to evangelisation at the grassroots is critical if these communities are not to become relics of a life once lived. Sadly too many parishes today rely on a ‘come and see’ approach to evangelisation that has not proven particularly effective and may even reflect a passivity in regards to mission. There is a need for a change in intent, a renewed commitment to ‘go and tell’ in the everyday conditions of our life.

Working with parish pastoral councils and ministry groups in the past months, I’ve shared some of the following insights as a means of provoking conversation and clarifying intent among parish leaders in their outreach.

In any given parish there is a small core group of dedicated members who attend Mass, serve through various forms of ministry and parish leadership, take part in occasional opportunities for formation and are generally committed to developing their faith and understanding. Then, there is a larger group of Catholics who attend Mass regularly but go no further. The last cohort within the parish is much, much larger, around 90% of all Catholics who live within the parish boundaries, who do not join us for worship and are distant or else disconnected from the faith.

It is this third group, baptised Catholics who no longer connect with what is going on in our parishes, which presents as a starting point for a renewed evangelisation. The question is how do we reach this large number of non-attending Catholics, those who could be described, for convenience sake, as the ‘unchurched’?

From experience, parish responses to the unchurched tend to be limited to letter box drops or advertising Mass times in the local paper, initiatives which are not bad in themselves but can reflect a rather skewed imagination about what is keeping people away. To sharpen the point, non-practicing Catholics are not staying away from our pews because they don’t know what time Mass is on! They are missing from our pews because they don’t see the point in being there or have no sense of what the community is about or where it is going. Evangelisation in the wider community cannot be limited to the dissemination of Mass times and impersonal mail campaigns. Our efforts must be person-centred and relational, an insight that is not unique to Pope Francis but certainly brought to fresh attention by his leadership.

dioceseThe first step toward renewal is to recognise that the unchurched 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, 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 relationships and via the bridges of credibility in our lives. Parishes might also offer their parishioners personalised invitations, prayer cards and expressions of support to family members or connections at critical times in their lives. Prayer and faith resources that support people in times of distress, in times of life transition (e.g. retirement or new parenting) and times of joy can also form a bridge between faith and life. Welcome teams, ministry groups and others can be readied to offer particular hospitality and friendship to relatives and friends who take up the offer to join us this Easter or Christmas.

While such initiatives of evangelisation can sound a little provincial or homespun, grassroots efforts such as these can make an enormous difference. It locates or embeds the mission of evangelisation in the relationships that already exist between the unchurched and practicing Catholics.

Ultimately, it is not good policy or strategies that make disciples. 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.

Another measure by which we 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.

On the inside of our church doors, an evangelising parish will also think through all that the parish does through the lens of an ‘outsider’, not through the experience of an ‘insider’. As an example, parishes can often assume they are welcoming and friendly because they think in terms of how existing members treat one another, not how outsiders experience the parish. Some of the most self-identifying ‘welcoming’ parishes and dioceses I have visited barely register the presence of newcomers in their midst. On the flipside, we know that when visiting a parish other than our own, a gesture of welcome or personal recognition by others can be extremely touching and can encourage longer term commitment.

‘Insider’ thinking can also be reflected in a lack of signage in many of our parishes. It is not only the local delivery man who can find it difficult to find the parish office but first time visitors as well. Good signage reduces the need for insider information. The fewer blockages to participation in, and acquaintance with, a community of faith the better.

SB048Evangelising parishes also have mission statements, that is, they have reflected on, defined and articulated their identity and mission in the local community. I recall a priest who commented on the utter uselessness of mission statements. Of course, he is right – they are useless unless they are something other than a ten year old paragraph in an unread parish bulletin.

A parish mission statement, as a guiding announcement or expression of Christian intent, will be valuable to the extent that it is understood, given commitment and lived by the whole community of faith. Sadly, many of our parishes lack a clear sense of self-identity and purpose. Of course, having a strong and defined home of one’s own can lead to selfish exclusiveness, as Pope Francis has warned, but having a home built on clear foundations and direction can also enable us to offer a home to others. What are our parishes about and what is their vision or aspiration for the years to come? Evangelising parishes pray about their mission but they also talk and communicate about their mission. Parishes that neither pray nor talk about their God-given purpose, their existence for others – including the unchurched and people of no faith – are unlikely to mobilise anyone out of the pews.

In closing, Pope Francis has underlined that we will evangelise as disciples and parishes to the extent that we are convinced there is a goal, or rather a relationship, worth embracing and sharing:

It is impossible to persevere in a fervent evangelisation unless we are convinced from personal experience that it is not the same thing to have known Jesus as not to have known him, not the same thing to walk with him as to walk blindly, not the same thing to hear his word as not to know it, and not the same thing to contemplate him, to worship him, to find our peace in him, as not to. It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelise (Evangelii Gaudium 266).

It is the call of practicing Catholics, all of us in our local parishes, to first know the difference that Christ has made in our lives before moving out into the fields of relationships and networks that form our mission field. It is in our homes and everyday lives that the Gospel must come to life for the sake of the world. It is in this context that we need to form intentional and missionary disciples.

 

parishes that make a difference

blktwn_p_059The last month has been tremendously rewarding with the launch of the Parramatta pastoral plan, Faith in Our Future, and meetings with parish pastoral councils, welcome teams, parish ministry groups and other faith groups across the Diocese and beyond who have begun using the plan as the basis of their pastoral life. The Spirit and Bride are truly at work.

It has been a deep joy to see two years’ worth of work come to life in local communities of faith though it has demanded some quick learning and flexibility as each parish is unique in its potential and needs. What our parishes share, however, is a common recognition that planning for evangelisation and renewal is a part of the ‘new norm’ for our Church. It is a delight to support parishes in that effort.

Several insights have surfaced these past weeks which I hope will be of interest to anyone involved in ministry, planning or leadership within the Church. I’ll be elaborating on many of these in the Dioceses of Townsville and Bathurst in coming weeks, dioceses which, like Parramatta, are exploring not only the ingredients of evangelising parishes but Catholic schools as partners in this common mission.

Parish leaders matter

If a parish is to grow and not simply subsist, the leadership of the parish must be capable of leading others towards a goal. This not only assumes that parish leadership has a vision of growth for the community (not always a given I’m afraid) but that others are willing to follow that leader towards a preferred future. As they say, if no one is prepared to follow you, you are not leading – you are just a talking a walk! Parish leaders have to be people of vision and credibility, people who bring the future of a community into the present in such a way that others want to be part of it, passionately and prayerfully.

bibleIn facilitating the process of change within parishes, it has also become clear that while leaders must set a vision for the community, go out in front to provide direction and hope, they must always and constantly ‘double back’ and collect the rest of the group, taking others with them on the journey. If this does not happen, the risk is that leaders can be so far ahead from the rest of the community that the majority simply do not feel engaged or a part of the new direction at all!

To make this concrete, in meeting with parish pastoral councils and encouraging them to articulate a vision for their communities, I have underlined that the conversation must certainly start with them but then go beyond this select group to include collect others and invite their engagement. A parish council might set three goals for the next year, but then these three goals have to be taken to ministry group leaders for their feedback, and then ultimately shared with the whole community to invite their thoughts about the communal vision in development. It is only by this ever-expanding circle of discernment and conversation that the whole community will take ownership of the parish plan and its priorities. So leading change demands both determination and patience. There is little point in writing even the best parish plan overnight if no one is with you the next day to put it into practice.

Ministries exist for growth

God calls the Church and our parishes to grow. However, today many of our parishes assume that their current members are growing and new disciples are being made, despite much evidence to the contrary (e.g. diminishing Mass attendance, complacency among parishioners, a lack of missionary outreach, falling contributions). In other words, our parishes can be more hopeful than honest.

In seeking renewal, parishes can ask of their ministry groups, ‘Are you making disciples and what evidence is there that people are actually growing in their faith?’

baby_plant.28104733To highlight the importance of growth, consider the education sector which exists to grow student performance. We know that a lack of academic opportunity is transmitted from generation to generation and, as such, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often do not perform as well as they could. However, some education systems (e.g. those in Shanghai and Korea but sadly not Australia) are able to lift these students well beyond their statistical likelihood of poor academic performance, enabling these young people to perform and excel at their full potential. Quite simply, good schools and teachers make a difference.

In a similar way, we know that ignorance of the faith is transmitted from generation to generation, and that many of our people start their journey in the Church ‘disadvantaged’ by low religious literacy and low or no commitment to practice, including little enthusiasm for proclamation or evangelisation. The aim of good parishes and ministries is to lift people out of this religious rut, and support them to grow in faith and discipleship above and beyond what their religious background might have equipped them for. Parishes must make a difference and be recognised for this potential – as schools of holiness and understanding in which disciples can flourish beyond all expectation.

How well are our parishes and ministry groups equipped to be a ‘circuit breaker’ in the story of low religious literacy, practice and understanding of faith that marks our Church and world? How do they imprint the living Gospel and urgent mission of God in the hearts of those whom they serve?

Good parishes stop giving people what they want

While the above headline might defy the logic of market economics – which suggests we should keep the customer happy for the right price – the economy of the Church is rather different for the Church and its parishes have always been about more than comfort or self-satisfaction.

sbTo provide a concrete example of this need to challenge rather than merely comfort our people, take these results from the National Church Life Survey, one of the best qualitative surveys on Catholic life not only in Australia but in the world. The NCLS revealed that Australian Catholics 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”. 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. In short, the results of the NCLS survey suggest to me the importance of changing perceptions of our people rather than simply feeding them what they want.

Our parishes need small groups whether they think they do or not because the weekly Mass rarely provides sufficient intimacy or a sense of belonging nor has it proved convincing or supportive enough for people to stay (and then there is just the plain size of our Catholic congregations which are behemoths compared to Protestant communities such as the Baptists). I do think it is true for us that whereas once small groups (study groups, meditation groups or even pilgrimage groups) were ‘optional extras’ for those already entrenched in Catholic life, now it is frequently the reverse: people are now first drawn to a small group, perhaps a pilgrimage, a meditation group or prayer circle and then later, if they move along the appropriate course, find themselves embedded in ordinary practice. Small groups provide a way of people enjoining the community life that we all value with the practical support of others.

To make the point a different way, no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. Parishes are similarly challenged to give and offer a hungry people what they never knew they needed, whether that be a small group of prayer and reflection, Scripture study or missionary outreach which develops their personal relationship with Jesus in the midst of others. We are not artisans of our own holiness – we come imprinted with the marks of all those who have nurtured and sustained our faith in a variety of ways. We need the support of fellow disciples to grow in faith and yet small groups remain strangely anathema in the mind of the average Catholic parish.

Conclusion

There is nothing harder than institutionalising vision, whether that is across a diocese or in the local parish. To make a vision come to life there is a need for effective leadership and bold witnesses to hope, ministries that seek to grow and not simply sustain their people, and small groups and other entryways into the heart of the Church. Our parishes can still make a difference but they can only do so if they refuse to remain the same.

Faith in Our Future to launch!

FIOFForVideoCoverWelcome to the first blog of the New Year! 

I write this blog from the ACBC Pastoral Research Office Conference in Melbourne where we are hearing analysis and discussing the pastoral implications of the 2011 Census data and National Church Life Survey and Mass counts of the same year. I hope to blog some thoughts on the conference and summarise the latest statistics for the Australian Catholic Church in a week’s time or so.

The past months have been extremely busy finalising the content, graphic design and launch materials for the Pastoral Plan for the Diocese of Parramatta. Launched this weekend online, in parishes and among migrant communities, it brings to completion some two years and four months’ work and represents the fruit of a year of consultation in parishes, renewed goals and directions for twelve diocesan agencies and other ministries of the Diocese, and an ecclesiology which strives to place real growth in faith and deliver practical resources for evangelisation. Included are almost 100 actions that parishes can take up to renew their life, step-by-step guides for parish pastoral councils, ministry groups and others to make the most of these ideas, and announcements of change and renewal that will be of interest to other dioceses and everyday readers as well.

(As a reader of this blog, you can head direct to the new website which is online as of this morning and be a few hours ahead of the game! Head to www.faithinourfuture.org.au to read and download two versions of the Parramatta Pastoral Plan – a summary 8-page version as well as the complete 72-page document for pastoral leaders in the Diocese and anyone looking to dig deeper into our diocesan plans over the next five years. Over 60,000 copies of this material are being distributed through the Diocese this weekend and the next in addition to prayer cards, posters and DVDs of the Bishop’s pastoral message to offer people good information and opportunities to get involved in the many aspects of its vision).

yobrek_021

(c) Diocese of Parramatta

The project has been a great teacher for me and provided an opportunity to work at the crossroads of ecclesiology, missiology, pastoral theology and canon law, and with the Bishop, chancery staff and lay men and women of a Diocese in forging a vision and practical resources to realise that vision within a local church. It has been a labour of love. Please pray that it bears fruit as it is now time to hand it over to the Spirit and the Bride with gratitude and expectation.

I continue on in the Diocese in a new role as Director of Pastoral Planning with staff and resources to bring many of the announcements and diocesan initiatives to life as well as offer grassroots practical support to clergy and communities who are seeking to use the Pastoral Plan as the basis of renewal and a more focused mission in their region.

While it is difficult to summarise the major gleanings from such an initiative here are a few that will be of interest to those working at the intersection of theology and pastoral leadership of communities:

  • Pastoral planning, rather than reflecting an emergency or panicked response to conditions that are less than ideal, is in fact a proactive response of faith to the call of God to grow the Church and its mission by critical thought, prayer and effort, all the while imploring the graces of God
  • The experience of Christian communities, Catholic and otherwise, confirms that making no plans for growth results in little or no growth every time and such complacency even places communities at risk of decline as the surrounding culture changes and becomes less open to the offer of faith
  • Far from expressing a bureaucratic or else Pelagian approach of the Church’s life – a suspicion that can be engendered by the language of ‘community engagement’, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘best practice’ – the activity of pastoral planning recognises the Church’s existence in history as sacrament. As a spiritual communion and an historical people, baptised and baptising, given as the bearer and mother of faith as well as a forward endeavour, in the words of de Lubac, ‘a life that is passed on’, the Church is both gift and task, exalted and labouring. In sociological terms, communities need plans and organisation to do things together (we see this in the NT communities in Acts 2:42-45; 4:32-35; 6:1-7; 11:1-18)
  • Consultation of communities in the development of pastoral plans affords the diocese or parish leader an opportunity to witness to a listening and receptive Church and to foster a spirit of communion through dialogue with lay men and women at the grassroots of parish life, ministry and mission. In addition to serving as a form of catechesis on the Church within a theological framework of renewal, consultation invites and challenges participants to concretise their suggestions and hopes within the realities of the contemporary Church
  • (c) Catholic Diocese of Parramatta

    (c) Catholic Diocese of Parramatta

    It is the responsibility of leaders to articulate the rationale for community change, whether that is easily received or otherwise. In the case of our particular Diocese, the handful of structural changes announced are reconfigurations designed to respond to population growth, demographic change and emerging needs. The underlying principles include that all parishioners continue to have access to Mass, other sacraments of the Church and pastoral support to live their baptismal mission, that our diocesan priests are able to serve in areas of greatest need, particularly in the growth areas of northwest and southwest of the Diocese, and obviously to ensure the viability of parishes into the future

  • While pastoral planning has a reputation for being focused almost exclusively on structural change and policy, at its best it is from experience and reflection a deeply theological and ecclesial act. In its integrity, it is a part of the Church’s stewardship of the gifts, resources, and people that God gives for the sake of his mission

There is much more that could be said but, for now, Faith in Our Future represents a best attempt to offer a local church practical ideas for their future life, a vision to guide its communities towards a preferred and faithful future, and stands as a statement of personal and ecclesial hope in the Spirit of Christ who calls the Church onward to engage with the work yet to be done. I hope it is of interest in your own ministry and leadership in the Church.

evangelii gaudium

1385914493-evangelii_gaudiumThe first apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel”, was published late last month. It received an overwhelmingly positive reception in the Church and beyond (with the notable exception of some U.S. Republicans and Fox News commentators for its commentary on market economics). In my view, Evangelii Gaudium could emerge as a document more ‘programmatic’ for Church renewal than Novo Millennio Ineunte (2001) which has been a foundational document for those involved in Church planning and adult education. Summaries and analysis of Francis’ exhortation are available through various websites and blogs, including America, the National Catholic Reporter, and the ABC (Austin Ivereigh).

Rather than rehearse the content of Evangelii Gaudium, which others have done superbly, I will simply make a few comments on the document through the lens of pastoral planning for Catholic dioceses and parishes.

In providing a compelling vision for the contemporary Church Francis’ document is not intended to serve as a simple instruction manual or a blunt recipe for success but remains a work of theology proper, mediating the tradition in the present with a view to the future of the Church’s mission. Nevertheless, the implications for planning are striking.

Cardinals 5As background, the document represents Francis’ distillation and extension of themes surfaced at the October 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation for the Transmission of Christian Faith. It remains of note how much currency the word ‘evangelisation’ now holds in the Catholic Church in light of a historical reluctance to engage the term at all. While finding its origins in Scripture itself, Archbishop Rino Fisichella notes:

In all probability, it was Erasmus (a Catholic Dutch theologian) who first inserted into our language the derived term ‘to evangelise,’ to designate what he considered to be a form of Lutheran fanaticism (Fisichella, The New Evangelisation: Responding to the Challenge of Indifference, 17).

In other words, ‘evangelise’ was understood by Catholic minds in the wake of the Reformation in a largely pejorative sense, attracting disapproval for its Protestant overtones that included Luther’s exhortation to ‘preach the Gospel alone’. In contrast to ‘evangelise’ Catholics preferred to speak of ‘mission.’ It is only from the middle of the twentieth century, say the 1950s and onwards, that we see the word ‘evangelisation’ reemerge in Catholic idiom with any vigour.

If the ‘new evangelisation’ was a child of the pontificate of John Paul II, and gathered strength and stature as a concept or idea under Pope Benedict XVI, it has reached perhaps not yet maturity but certainly a living presence and tangible dynamism under the leadership of Pope Francis.

jp11 version 2On his part, John Paul II identified a ‘spirituality of communion’ as the basis of ecclesial renewal in Novo Millennio Ineunte as he shared his vision of the Church on the cusp of the third millennium. This letter was and remains exceptional for grounding reform in both the eternal life and relations of the Trinity as well as the temporal conditions in which the Church lives its mission:

. . . it is not a matter of inventing a ‘new programme’. The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem . . . But it must be translated into pastoral initiatives adapted to the circumstances of each community (Novo Millennio Ineunte 29)

The Church is called to manifest its permanent identity and mission as a sacrament of communion in the concrete and changeable conditions of human history. Novo Millennio Ineunte then went on to identify holiness as the abiding measure and goal of all of the Church’s planning and activity, asserting plainly but evocatively,

. . . to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness is a choice filled with consequences. It implies the conviction that, since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity (Novo Millennio Ineunte 31)

Pope FrancisTwelve years on, Evangelii Gaudium contains no such reference to pastoral planning per se though it does, in fact, express much of Pope Francis’ thought on the subject. This becomes clear when we take note of the pontiff’s address to CELAM (the Latin American Episcopal Council) earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro, at the tail end of World Youth Day. In that address he observed:

In Latin America and the Caribbean there are pastoral plans which are ‘distant’, disciplinary pastoral plans which give priority to principles, forms of conduct, organisational procedures… and clearly lack nearness, tenderness, a warm touch. They do not take into account the ‘revolution of tenderness’ brought by the incarnation of the Word. There are pastoral plans designed with such a dose of distance that they are incapable of sparking an encounter: an encounter with Jesus Christ, an encounter with our brothers and sisters.

Such pastoral plans can at best provide a dimension of proselytism, but they can never inspire people to feel part of or belong to the Church. Nearness creates communion and belonging; it makes room for encounter. Nearness takes the form of dialogue and creates a culture of encounter. One touchstone for measuring whether a pastoral plan embodies nearness and a capacity for encounter is the homily. What are our homilies like? Do we imitate the example of our Lord, who spoke ‘as one with authority’, or are they simply moralising, detached, abstract?        (You can read the full text here)

It is apparent that the same ‘revolution of tenderness’ commended to the Latin American bishops in planning for the Church is recapitulated with vigour in the style and letter of Francis’ first exhortation.

StonesApart from the continuing focus on the homily as a key vehicle of pastoral renewal, Evangelii Gaudium includes the same warning of a ‘distant’ and bureaucratic approach to Church reform and planning, ‘a spiritual worldliness’ which can ‘lead to a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God’s people but the Church as an institution’ (EG 95). As I read it, Francis intimates that an introverted, managerial and administrative approach to the Church’s life can bring about a neglect for the people of God as church processes end up replacing or even compromising the larger goal of holiness and mission. To draw from the language of Thomas Merton, without due care the ‘cause’ – even a ‘religious’ one – comes to replace concrete persons in their dignity and need of healing, interpersonal bonds and helps to holiness.

Further on in the exhortation, Francis guides the Church and pastoral workers between the Scylla of good intent without action and the Charybdis of practical proposals devoid of genuine spirituality. He writes,

Mystical notions without a solid social and missionary outreach are of no help to evangelisation, nor are dissertations or social or pastoral practices which lack a spirituality which can change hearts. These unilateral and incomplete proposals only reach a few groups and prove incapable of radiating beyond them because they curtail the Gospel
(EG 262).

Those planning for evangelisation and church renewal must, therefore, avoid a sociological reduction of the Church to the status of a commercial enterprise – one in which spiritual fruitfulness is replaced by a concern for ‘efficiency’ and missionary discipleship is reduced to the mere matter of the right ‘technique’. Also to be eschewed is that false elevation of the Church out of history, an abstract ecclesiology that is expressed in the fideistic hope that all will simply fall together and that the Church’s mission will be compelling without our best efforts.

candlesFrancis makes clear that the Gospel calls forth our human engagement and creativity in the work of God. It is a call to a renewed intent, zeal and commitment to mission that resists all self-satisfaction and smugness among dioceses and parishes. He can say, therefore, ‘pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way”. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelisation in their respective communities’ (EG 33).

Finally, in Evangelii Gaudium there is a call for prudence among pastoral workers who are prone to what Francis describes as ‘pastoral acedia’, a dimming of expectation and resolve on account of a variety of factors. These include the pursuit of ‘unrealistic projects’ where pride or ambition overtakes reason, a lack of patience for processes to mature in time, and the aforementioned depersonalisation of the work of the Church in a narrow focus on ‘the road map’ without a consciousness of the journey – those evolving landscapes and human situations to which we are being called to respond in faith.

While never speaking of pastoral planning as such, Francis’ exhortation, clearly informed by his experience of the local Church and the ecclesiology of the Aparecida Document (PDF), seeks to guide the Church toward a more intentional, explicitly missionary mode of existence. Evangelii Gaudium represents a significant addition to the developing tradition of planning within the Church, supporting as it does a ‘new chapter of evangelisation marked by joy’ (EG 1).

As the calendar year comes to a close, thank you to all those who have read my blog over the past first year of its life. I’ve deeply appreciated your comments, critiques and responses and wish you, your families and communities a peaceful and holy Advent and Christmas. Until the New Year, best wishes and every blessing, Daniel A.

from diplomacy to discipleship

CathedralLismoreThis week I am in the Lismore Diocese speaking at a clergy conference focused on parish renewal. This morning I will present on specific practices of parish renewal, followed by Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, formed in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Here are excerpts from my opening address, delivered last night:

It can be relatively easy to speak of ‘the Church’ in general terms and the last fifty years have certainly seen a great deal of such talk. The range of debate and literature concerning the Church is almost inexhaustible, including such subjects as the Second Vatican Council, the relative merits of post-conciliar reform, the proper form/s of the liturgy, the relationship of the Church and world, the exercise of governance and authority in the Church, the coresponsibilities of the ordained and lay, and more recently the meaning and implications of a ‘new evangelisation’.

It was conciliar peritus and ressourcement theologian Henri de Lubac SJ who pointed out that such talk of ‘the Church’ was relatively rare in the age of the Fathers. For the ancients, the Church was less a discrete body that existed outside of ourselves than it was a common atmosphere which formed our faith, our very life, from within. The Church was the ‘womb’ in which Christian life was born, the ambience in which the human spirit were raised to God and indeed, in a certain sense, it was our destiny as a communion, a people reconciled to God and one another.

The danger, as de Lubac saw it, was that constant talk, ever greater refinements, and systematic analysis of the Church would create a ‘gap’ as it were between ourselves and that of which we talked. He writes,

 . . . some people find themselves tempted to say there is altogether too much talk [about the Church] . . . Would it not be better perhaps to try, quite simply, to live the Church, as so many have done before us? It seems that by considering her from outside in order to discuss her, we run the risk of growing apart from her, in our heart of hearts . . . And in addition to this . . . the Church is a mystery of faith and ‘surpasses the capacities and powers of our intellect no less than any other.’ (De Lubac, Splendour of the Church, 18-19).

886335_lowHowever, even de Lubac, a lodestar of the ressourcement movement, would admit that circumstances arise in which the Church must proclaim a word about itself in order that its vocation and mission in Christ do not fall into disregard or forgetfulness. Here in Australia, in the midst of a Royal Commission, we know that this process of self-reflection, self-understanding and scrutiny is essential to our faithfulness into the future. Words need to be spoken and truths be told.

This need of self-reflection and scrutiny extends also to our parishes which, as local communities, are called to bring the Gospel into contact with the unvarnished reality of a particular people in a particular place. It is in the parish where ecclesiologies are tested and it is in the parish where our mission as Church begins, born of the Word and Eucharist. It is in the parish where the meaning of faith is mediated to contemporary culture, and it is the parish that remains the most important locus in which the mystery and contradictions of human life meet the healing company of God. For many, the parish simply is Church and they know no other.

However, with less than 10% of Catholics attending a parish Mass on any given Sunday in many Australian dioceses, Lismore included, it is clear that there is a significant disconnect between what is understood to be ‘going on’ in our parishes and people’s larger lives, struggles and aspirations.

Reading the Scene

In addressing areas of renewal for parish life, it is vital to retain some perspective about statistics concerning the Church. First of all, as least as far as I am aware, the Catholic Church has never experienced a Mass attendance rate of 100%. We know even at the Last Supper that at least one disciple was not convinced of what was offered. In speaking of the relative vitality or diminishment of our parishes, we should not measure our pastoral effectiveness or ‘success’ against a mythic Golden Age that has never existed. There have better times, yes, but not all churchgoers are disciples. We are where we have always been as Church – in the midst of the work yet to be done, gathering the harvest when the workers are few.

It is also worth noting as perspective that statistics are not the only measure of a Church’s vitality. Indeed, our Church was never more ‘catholic’ than in the Upper Room at Pentecost when all of its members could fit inside a tiny room. So ‘good church’ doesn’t not necessarily mean ‘big church’, and faithfulness is not measured in the size of a crowd, though we do want our parishes to grow, to make mature and more disciples in every generation.

Continuing on the level of diagnosis for the moment, a further point worth making is that the decline in commitment and participation in some of our Catholic parishes is not only or merely a product of what is ‘going on’ in our parishes but also deeply influenced as well by what is happening in the wider community and culture. In short, there are bigger factors at play and these need to be acknowledged when talking about the state of play in our parishes. (In the same way the legacy of Vatican II was shaped not merely by the Council itself but changes in the wider culture).   

For our parishes, it is becoming clear to a number of commentators that a ‘consumerist’ mentality is shaping how many Catholics understand, relate and interact with the parish, and the parish priest, today to the detriment of their genuine discipleship.

Baptism 4The American priest Michael White makes this point well in a recently published work, Rebuilt. In telling the story of his own parish upon his arrival as parish priest, White notes that the people he met struck him not as disciples at all but quite simply consumers. It had become common for the parish to be treated as if it were ‘there for me’. It had become a mere provider of services, filled with programs and services to cater to ever increasing demands, but it was not a community of mature, convinced or missionary discipleship.

White’s experience and reflection on the parish he inherited are worth citing at length:

Little did we appreciate how detached the second and third generations of demanding consumers had grown. We now know they are perfectly comfortable maintaining a loose association with an institution whose organisation they do not like and whose teachings they do not accept or respect. They take what they want and ignore everything else. To their credit, our consumers are specific and consistent in their consumer demands. They want church for their kids – mainly Baptism, First Communion, and a part in the Christmas pageant; they want church as an adornment to their family calendar – Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday . . . they want Communion when they feel like showing up for Mass. They want the church building as a backdrop for funerals and perhaps for weddings – but only if the church is pretty (because weddings are destination driven). Beyond that, we’re mostly an annoying distraction.

But we were inconsistent in our ‘supplier demands’. Our system implicitly understood the ‘hook’ we had into their lives and essentially coerced them to do all the things they didn’t want to do; attend regularly, give us money, and keep their kids in religious education. We kept dreaming up new rules to try to make the system work for us while they kept figuring out new ways to circumvent our rules to make the system work for them. The result was the mutual cynicism to which a consumer mentality can easily lend itself. (White, Rebuilt, 17).

It is a challenge to consider that many of the people we are seeking to re-engage with the Church bring not the question “What can I do to serve?” or, even less likely, “Whom I called to be here?” but rather “What can the Church or parish do for me?” This rather pragmatic, utilitarian outlook can not only shape a lack of ongoing commitment among some of our people but it can distort our own pastoral responses to such ‘Catholics of convenience’, however good or hopeful our intentions may be.

SB004We can see this at times in the urge to renovate parishes, to upgrade halls and carparks, for example, a facility focus which, I acknowledge, is often necessary but that can nevertheless only support a community of disciples and not attract, create or sustain one. We know that even the most pristine, beautiful, well-organised and comfortable parishes can be spiritually dead if they do nothing but cater for the comfort and convenience of a consumer mindset. Consider also Europe which houses some of the most majestic, beautiful churches in the world, churches that remain, nevertheless, idle and empty. It has always been much easier to renovate a building than grow a community of disciples.

From an internal perspective, the absurdity of the situation that White describes is that we, too, can play the game as we are wise enough to know what these ‘consumers’ want. We understand the ‘hook’ we have in their lives (whether its admission to our schools or a priest for a family wedding) and we can leverage on these desires to attempt to make them do what we want them to do which is to ‘attend more regularly’ or even ‘give us money’. The problem is that this entire scene remains fundamentally misguided, played out on the level of pharisaical diplomacy and has little if anything to do with making disciples which is the true goal and mission of our parish life.

The process of bargaining over the practice of faith in our parishes and in our schools only increases negative perceptions and resentment of the Church by ‘outsiders’, deflates a sense of hope and generates cynicism within ourselves as ‘insiders’, and ultimately does little to bring people to a living and open encounter with the person, message and mission of Jesus.

Discipleship

credoSo what of the way forwards? In recent years, even decades, there has been a slow but steady call to reclaim the language and meaning of discipleship and for good reason. Not only is the concept of ‘discipleship’ biblically-grounded, rooted in tradition and accessible to the majority of people but it aptly names the purpose of the parish community: to foster and raise up disciples in the midst of the Church for the sake of the world.

Many of you may know the work of Sherry Weddell on this subject of discipleship and the primary insight of her work has been to acknowledge quite candidly how our parish cultures can work against discipleship by their almost complete silence on the subject.  She writes,

Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey – their relationship with God – except in confession or spiritual direction. This attitude is so pervasive in Catholic communities that we have started to call it the culture of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Unfortunately, most of us aren’t spiritual geniuses. If nobody around us ever talks about a given idea, we are no more likely to think of it spontaneously than we are to suddenly invent a new primary colour. To the extent that we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship. (Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 56).

What Weddell seeks to recover is the fact that a personal, interior journey and encounter with Christ is at the heart of discipleship and at the heart of the Church’s mission as the sacrament of Christ. More strikingly, she will go on to claim that a majority of churched Catholics, even those who show up at Mass, may not yet be disciples in a fully conscious way. She notes that those Catholics who do talk openly about Jesus and their relationship to God, and with any enthusiasm, can be viewed with suspicion, as either ‘Protestant’ in spirit or as pretenders to sanctity.

While we are certainly not called to be spiritual exhibitionists, there is, I think, a challenge here – to revive the conversation and expectations of discipleship in our parish culture and to recognise the overt expression of discipleship as the ‘new norm’ for our parishes, or more accurately, the altogether traditional and abiding norm of Catholic life.

It is interesting to note that in some parish cultures the Mass, the sacraments in general and Catholic devotional practices in particular, given to us precisely for a life of discipleship, have come, for some, to substitute for that journey. Returning to White, he shares this experience:

[The Church of the Nativity] was a sacramental machine: Mass every day, twice a day in Advent and Lent, and eight times each weekend, 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. (White, Rebuilt, 77).

SB011It has been said, often of our families progressing through the rites of initiation, that people can be ‘sacramentalised’ without ever having been evangelised.

Of course, we want to underscore attendance at Mass as a core dimension of a life of faith, to receive Christ in the Eucharist and to hear his Word, and yet, in another sense, an almost exclusive emphasis on attendance can place into the shade a broader focus on discipleship within which the sacraments hold a central and inimitable place. The problematic as I view it is that if discipleship is reduced to liturgy 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 without discipleship’ only feeds the form of ‘consumer Catholicism’ or participation of convenience of which we spoke earlier.

Our contemporary context calls on priests, parishes and centres of adult formation alike to again place discipleship at the front and centre of our identity and mission as a Church. We must also seek to make explicit the link between the Eucharist and mission, for instance, so that it becomes clear that the point of the Eucharist is not simply the conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but our conversion by our reception of Him.

By reaffirming this role of the sacraments within a life of discipleship we not only recover the fullness of the call to holiness but renew an awareness of the sacraments as not merely a comfort but also a challenge, not as objects for consumption but a relationship in which we are invited to grow and develop over time. This recovery of the full view of Catholic discipleship stands at the heart of our mission as parishes and dioceses.

the communion of saints

Fra Angelico SaintsThe Feast of All Saints may seem some distance from the practical realities of parish life – and light years from the task of pastoral planning – and yet it remains central to what the Church is in its deepest reality and what she seeks to become: a communion of holy men and women who give historical witness to the power of Christ in their lives.

In these saints the Church sees her own vocation and mission realised in flesh and, more often, blood, and it sees that the gift of eternal life is not merely a promise but has been brought to fulfilment in the lives of men and women throughout history.

It is clear in parish life that the past fifty years or so have seen a decline in the veneration of the saints along with other practices of piety. There are many reasons for this ongoing alienation from the saints, too many to rehearse here, but they include their trivialisation as well as their romanticisation. While their names adorn our churches and schools, are plucked out as confirmation names (with the notable exception of St Adolf of Osnabrück) and appear in our liturgies from time to time, the sense of connection between this ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Heb. 12:1) and our Christian life in the here and now can be pretty thin to say the least. The reality of real and constructed saints (for instance, the case of St Philomena who as far as I can tell never existed) and their eccentric hagiographies only complicates the matter.

Saint Francis of AssisiThe neglect and trivialisation of the saints has led theologians to write of the ‘disappearance of a doctrine’ and while it is true that the Second Vatican Council neatly addressed them as “examples of holiness”, as offering “fellowship in communion” and “aid in their intercession” (Lumen Gentium 51), ever since the saints have gone marching out. Their relevance to the lives of ordinary Catholics is rarely preached, they are not often discussed by theologians and their significance is frequently passed over in programs of adult faith formation. The upshot is that the cult of the saints remains largely confined to the arena of personal piety or devotion and holds little intellectual credibility, currency or appeal for the ordinary Mass-goer.

As well, the pastoral reality for many Catholics is that the dead simply disappear. Karl Rahner recognised as much when he wrote:

. . . if people think of their own nearest and dearest as disappearing at death into that darkness which surrounds the meagre light of our existence with its silent infinitude, how can they then find it in themselves to take up an attitude of veneration towards other dead persons merely on the ground that they were holier? (Rahner, “Why and How Can We Venerate the Saints”, Theological Investigations VIII, 7).

What we can draw from this is that the alienation from the saints reflects an alienation from the sacred in general, a disenchantment that closes the door between this world and the next, that no longer sees the bond between heaven and earth, that holds no vision of the thoroughfare between the two that remained upmost in the minds of our ancestors in faith.

As a word to this ancient tradition, the sanctorum communio first entered into the Apostle’s Creed in the fourth century, with testimony of its inclusion given by Nicetus, a bishop of Remesiana (present-day Serbia). The communion of saints also appears in St Jerome’s Credo, a contemporaneous Latin translation of a creed that was used in Antioch.

SB010As noted by de Lubac, the reference to the sanctorum communio that appears in our creed today contains a double meaning present from the very earliest versions of the profession of faith – referring both to the holy ones of the Church, the persons of the saints, as well as to our participation in ‘holy realities’, notable the Eucharist. The communion of sancta, then, describes both the mysteries of Christian worship as the source of holiness (sacramental communion) and the effect of those divine gifts (a communion of holy persons). This provides an explanation for those who have ever wondered why the creed seems to make no mention of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith.

The subsequent tradition of the Church also upheld the import of saints as examples and pointers to the way of holiness in Christ. In the sixth century Dorotheus of Gaza exhorts:

Imagine a circle marked out on the ground. Suppose that this circle is the world and that the centre of the circle is God. Leading from the edge to the centre are a number of lines, representing ways of life. In their desire to draw near to God, the saints advance along these lines to the middle of the circle, so that the further they go, the nearer they approach to one another as well as to God. The closer they come to God, the closer they come to one another . . . Such is the nature of love: the nearer we draw to God in love, the more we are united together by love for our neighbour.

As imitable models of holiness in its spiritual and social dimensions, the saints draw us into intimacy with God, their sanctity challenging us to conversion in the present and renewing our basic awareness of our capacity for grace. Gregory of Nyssa remarks that the saints cast light, like lamps, upon the path for those who are walking with God, having done God’s will throughout the ages. In their suffering as well the saints emerge as models of Christian life, following as they do the way of self-emptying and self-giving of the crucified Christ and personalising the future which all faithful disciples will receive as their reward, a redeemed humanity in the eternal glory of God.

prayer-25It can be seen even in this brief overview that in their great variety, common witness to holiness and testimony to the fulfilment of God’s promises, the saints are a source of hope, challenge and companionship for ourselves personally and our life as a Church, including our parishes. The saints capture or embody the purpose for which communities of faith exist, for the making of holy disciples within the Church for the sake of the world. By the practice of invocation, the remembering and retelling of holy lives, the celebration of feast days and in praying the litany of saints, the promise of eternal life in Christ remain not only within our line of sight but surrounds us in the very company of holy men and women who already, even now, live in that light which knows no setting.

reforming our parishes

SB048It is relatively easy to speak and write about ‘the Church’ in general terms. Drawing on our tradition as well as reflecting on the contemporary context and its challenges, it becomes possible to articulate visions of the Catholic Church for the future. It is perhaps ever easier to hold varied opinions about the Church and suggest reforms if you never have to put those opinions or ideas into practice.

The task of translating Catholic identity into mission, theology into practice, is a particular responsibility of local bishops, ministers, planners and lay leaders in the Church, including pastoral workers at a parish level and even those in your local parish ministry group. Again, a serene vision or theology of the Church is one thing, the experience and practical realities of Church life and reform are a little more complex (the move towards reform of the Roman Curia will no doubt prove the rule).

The challenge of implementing church reform has come to the fore in recent days through a number of conversations and forthcoming commitments. There is the task of writing an implementation guide for parishes as part of the Pastoral Plan I’ve been working on for the Diocese of Parramatta (how do you write an implementation guide for parishes that are unique in their gifts and needs, while holding them together as members of one local church?), there are preparations for Proclaim 2014, a conference led by the National Office for Evangelisation, which will continue its focus on transforming parish life, the experience of lay ministers I teach, many of whom experience keenly the gap between their best hopes and experience of community life, and then an upcoming address at a clergy conference for the Diocese of Lismore next month on the very subject of parish culture and practices of evangelisation.

SB058All this has brought home the challenge of reforming our parishes in particular as the primary experience of the Church’s communion for most Catholics and the most immediate opportunity for a new evangelisation. The parish community is where visions of the Church and visions of reform are tested, either brought to concrete life or else struggle in their realisation. Unlike Europe where the new ecclesial movements have filled the void left by parish decline, when we talk about ‘the Church’ in Australia we are most often talking about our parishes (and sometimes, though less commonly, our schools).

In preparing for some of the work above, here are a few points that struck me about our parishes as relevant to our future mission as a Church. I hope these will be helpful as points of ongoing reflection for those at the coalface, serving in our parishes from week to week with inspiring dedication to the Gospel:

  • Sadly, many of our parish cultures can actually work against the call to discipleship by their silence on this very matter. This point is made forcefully by Sherry Weddell of the Siena Institute, “Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey – their relationship with God – except in confession or spiritual direction . . . Unfortunately, most of us aren’t spiritual geniuses . . . To the extent that we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship.” (Forming Intentional Disciples, 56). Weddell goes on to note that those who do talk about Jesus and their relationship to God can be viewed with suspicion, as either ‘Protestant’ in spirit or as pretenders to sanctity. I agree. While we are certainly not called to be spiritual exhibitionists, there is, I think, a challenge here – to revive the language of discipleship in our parish culture and to encourage explicit conversations about its meaning at all levels of Church. There is nothing more biblical or traditional than the concept of discipleship as the expression of faith received.
  • SB007Related to this pervasive silence about discipleship, and so a lack of focus on this relationship at a parish level, is the phenomenon in which the Mass and the sacraments in general, given to us precisely for a life of discipleship, have come, for many, to replace that journey. As it has been said, people may be ‘sacramentalised’ without ever having been ‘evangelised’. Flowing from this confusion of one for the other is a surface level emphasis on attending Mass in our parishes rather than an accent on a whole life of discipleship within which the sacraments hold a central, inimitable place. If discipleship is reduced to liturgy alone then even the practice of attending Mass is likely to weaken over the long term as the point of a sacramental life is lost on those participating. This whole phenomenon calls on preachers, parishes and diocesan centres of adult formation to again put discipleship at the front and centre of a parish’s identity but also to make explicit the link between the Eucharist and mission for example so that, as Henri de Lubac notes, it becomes clear that the point of this Eucharist is not simply the conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but our conversion by our reception of him. We learn as much from the account of the Last Supper in Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 22:14f) in which Jesus links the remembrance of him at table to the act of service, as well as the description of Eucharistic gathering provided by Justin Martyr.
  • Moving from the internal life of parishes to their external organisation, it has only recently dawned on me that parishes in Australia are likely to becoming, over the long term, geographically larger while often numerically smaller with the practice of parish amalgamations and the continuing erosion in those identifying as Catholic. A fairly simple and obvious point I know. However, this reality of parish structural change only bolsters the argument for reforming our parishes in terms of discipleship and mission for these concepts provide a larger framework in which to understand and respond positively to such change. If laypersons and clergy alike are focused on the mission for which the Church and each of us personally exists, then structural reform may at least be better understood or contextualised even if not always accepted. To put it simply, sometimes dioceses need to close or change parishes in the interests of the mission of the wider Church and structural change does not need to impede or dampen the missionary initiatives and hopes of the people involved. While this broader missionary identity and purpose of the Church has been a constant refrain of our tradition, reawakened in the minds of both committed and nominal Catholics by Pope Francis in particular, the institutional or even territorial view of our parishes and the Church still dominates to the detriment of a sense of mission.
  • Laity 3One final point that could be made about our parishes is that even ‘successful’ or vibrant parishes, and there quite a few around the country, can become victims of their own success if not constantly vigilant. As has been pointed out, even flourishing parishes can become comfortable in a self-affirming culture while the larger culture continues to move in other directions, leaving a disconnect between the parish and the wider community. All structures, and not merely ecclesial ones, can become introverted and Pope Francis has laid emphasis on this danger throughout his pontificate to date. At a parish level, most of us will know of youth groups that have grown quickly only to experience decline as it finds it difficult to integrate new and other members into the existing group. In the Church and its groups there is always a delicate balance between an internal identity and purpose and an outward mission for which the group exists. Similarly to youth groups, parishes can have a ‘family feel’ that is nice and a comforting experience for those within the group but their relationships can be so intimate that it can be difficult for outsiders to join the community or shape its spirit or direction.

The very complexity of parishes expresses the fact that what lies at the heart of each and every parochial community is not simply a geographical jurisdiction but a fundamental network of relationships. In this sense, though properly a constituent of a diocese, each parish must be sustained from below, not merely by what Karl Rahner SJ described as “folkloristic attachment” to the Church but a real and intentional communion based on a lived discipleship for the sake of the world. A Church grows and is reformed by parishes and communities that focus anew on discipleship and the mission that flows from that relationship. Parishes grow and are reformed by having groups and individuals that are focused on the same.