the state of the Australian Catholic Church

As a pastoral planner for a Catholic diocese, knowing the statistics on your local Church is vital in understanding the pastoral reality of parishes and trends in the wider community that impact on faith. Statistics and church profiles are also essential to recognise trends and areas of pastoral concern over time, to form sensible recommendations and develop new goals for the future.

pentecostOf course, despite the hype, statistics are not the only measure of a Church’s vitality nor are they the only basis on which decisions about structural change are made. As Henri de Lubac reminds us, the Church was never more ‘catholic’ than in the Upper Room at Pentecost when all of its members could fit inside a small room. So ‘good church’ doesn’t mean ‘big church’.

However, you would expect that parishes and communities with a clear identity, a strong sense of belonging, and missionary in intent would attract new members through word-of-mouth and the witness of its members (the reality too is that smaller parishes, while enjoying an ‘intimacy’ of community that can be lost in larger congregations, can often struggle financially because of the relatively small number of contributors expected to cover often rising expenses e.g. building maintenance, insurances and the like).

So numbers aren’t everything but they are indeed something. Indeed, the Gospel commission to seek out new disciples is unambiguous and so parishes need to not only want to grow but plan to grow and so be organised to grow. The first step towards that growth is coming to a firm grasp with the present reality.

nclsIn that spirit, I recently crunched some numbers of the 2011 Census and National Church Life Survey for my own Diocese and took note of some national trends along the way that are publicly available and give us some sense of the state of the Church nationwide (these national trends are publicly available as they are based on Australian Census data which is owned by ‘the people’. Diocesan and parish specific data is another matter however and won’t be making an appearance on this blog!).

The national trends were, in fact, provided in 2012 and updated just days ago by the Pastoral Research Office, an office of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) which works closely with NCLS Research, a research body sponsored in part by Australian Catholic University, the ACBC, and other denominations (to declare my hand, I am a member of the NCLS Research Sub-Committee).

These were the stats and trends that caught my attention:

  • National data reveals that my own Diocese of Parramatta has the second highest percentage of Catholics as a proportion of the general population in the country (31.6% or nearly one in three people living within the boundaries of the Diocese are Catholic). This is significantly higher than the national average of 25.8%. (If you want find out the percentage of Catholics within your own parish boundaries, wherever you are in Australia, click here. Why is this helpful to know? In the spirit of the ‘new evangelisation’ it indicates how many people in your part of the world are baptised Catholics and allows you to reflect on the level of engagement in the life of faith e.g. the parish’s worship and potential outreach to the local community).
  • Almost a quarter of all Australian Catholics were born overseas (23.8%), with the top three countries of birth for these being Italy, the United Kingdom (not including Northern Ireland) and the Philippines. Italian Catholics have held the top spot for the past 15 years, while the percentage of Maltese Catholics has declined over time and the number of Indian Catholics steadily increased.
  • 52% of Australian Catholics are female and 48% male, with a median age of 37.6 years (a rise from 30.7 years in 1991). Astonishingly, 21% of all Australian Catholics are children aged under 15 (which underscores the critical importance of the family and the Catholic school as part of the new evangelisation). Incidentally, there are slightly more Catholics in the ‘40-49’ age group than any other age group (these Catholics were born between 1962-1971 and so are roughly contemporaneous with the unfolding of the Second Vatican Council).
  • While 24% of all Australia Catholics were born overseas, they accounted for 40% of all Mass attenders.
  • Our Mass attenders are greying. In 1996, 17% of all Mass attenders were aged 70 and over. In 2011, 27% were of the same age.
  • Between 2006 and 2011 there was a slight decline in the proportion of Mass attenders who had attended a Catholic primary school. There was a similar decline in those who had attended a Catholic secondary school.
  • In 2011, 85% of Mass attenders said they attend Mass usually every week or more often. This is a slight decrease since 2006, when 87% said they attended weekly or more often.

As for the all-important and highly publicised ‘percentage of Catholics who go to Mass’ figure, you’ll have to wait a little longer but be assured it is on its way!  In 2006, it was a humbling 13.8% as reported here (compare this to the U.S. where they lament a Mass attendance figure of around 31%!).

While it demands planning, coordination and resources, including the right people, statistics can be gathered at a local level, in parishes (though most dioceses should be able assist here) and in ministry groups and initiatives of parish outreach. Good church research enables a more focused approach to pastoral care and evangelisation and for these reasons alone is well worth the effort.

praying in faith

”Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

The season of Lent brings renewed focus to the significance of prayer for growth, a practice supported by fasting and that leads us to almsgiving.

It is not novel to suggest that prayer belongs to the essence of Christian life and is essential to the integrity of Christian leaders. Curiously, however, we find few opportunities in our parishes, schools and beyond where prayer is taught and can be learned.

prayerAlthough a life of prayer grows principally through its practice, that is by praying, it is also nourished by an understanding of what prayer involves and awakens us to as we do it. When we understand what we are doing when we are doing it, a new intentionality and fresh desire is brought to our prayer, not only in the setting of the Church’s liturgy but throughout the breadth of our Christian life.

Indeed, in the Gospels we find the disciples eager to learn the way of prayer after being drawn into its circle by Jesus’ example. ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ they ask (Lk 11:1). In the Catechism we find recognition as well of prayer as a practice that is learned, with a call for formation and education in ongoing ‘schools of prayer’ (CCC#2689). While always a gift of the Spirit, prayer presupposes effort by the disciple (CCC#2725) for ‘we do not know how to prayer as we ought’ (Rom. 8:26).

While it can be approached in so many ways, I have come to experience prayer most powerfully as an expression of our radical dependence on God as the source of our life. What is more, it is because of this dependence on God, and not despite of it, that prayer is at the same time the overwhelming (even confronting) experience of our own humanity at its depth, in its fundamental orientation towards God.

mosaicWe learn this much from ‘the master of prayer’, Jesus of Nazareth who is, as St Paul describes, ‘the revelation of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:19). It is Jesus who unveils in his own filial piety our destiny in God, revealing communion with ‘our Father’ not simply as a ‘religious’ venture, an extrinsic performance detached from ourselves, but a calling in accord with the imperatives of our own nature. In short, prayer is not only entry into the divine life but also the discovery of our authentic humanity by that encounter.

As Christians it is essential to note as well that we do much more than merely ‘follow’ or imitate Jesus in prayer. In the act of prayer we, in fact, enter into Jesus’ own prayer to the Father as the Gospel makes powerfully clear: ‘God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son who cries ‘Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4:6, Rom. 8:15). It is the Spirit of Christ who prays within the heart of each disciple.

Hence, in the person of Jesus we come to see not only the extent to which prayer shapes the heart we bring before God but discover our prayer as an entry into His communion with the Father. Prayer is, as the Eucharistic doxology proclaims, ‘through Him, with Him and in Him’. To pray is to allow ourselves to be ‘caught up’ in the prayer of Jesus who is alive in us through the Spirit to the Father.

In coming to an appreciation of prayer’s meaning and possibility, the reflections below might further shape your own imagination and practice of prayer. They are generously provided by a friend, a monk, who has dedicated his life to this ceaseless communion with God.

gospel1.  Prayer rises in our hearts when we listen to the words of the Gospel, meditate upon them, and strive to live as faithful disciples of Christ. In the ‘Life of Antony’, we catch a glimpse of the way the early Christians prayed. Every day, they would go to their local church in order to listen to the Scriptures and pray together. On Sundays, they would celebrate the Eucharist. Then they would go back to their homes, carrying in their minds the words of Scripture they had heard read in the church.

Throughout the day, whether they were walking along the road, working in the fields, preparing a meal, or conducting business, they would recall the texts and meditate on them. This was for them a ‘school of prayer': the continuation of the liturgy in their daily lives.

2.  When we attend to God’s Word in the context of our daily lives it has the power to speak to our hearts and lead us in the way of discipleship. It also has the power to keep the fire of prayer and love burning in our hearts. Abba Joseph, one of the early Egyptian Desert Fathers, used to say: ‘If you will you can become all flame’.

It is important that we see prayer as very much part of our daily living. We need to structure into our lives some time when we can be free for listening to God’s Word, prayerful reading of the Scriptures, and quiet contemplative prayer. However, perhaps the most vital element of our prayer life is the way that prayer overflows and becomes a part of the rest of our lives. Prayer will tend to become stilted and artificial if it is confined only to set times and places.

sb3. Our relations with other people are an intrinsic part of our prayer life. The gentle stirring of love that we feel in our hearts during times of prayer tends to dry up if it is not given scope to reach out concretely to others in our normal, daily contact with the people who share our lives. Love needs to be exercised if it is to grow strong. John in his letter says: ‘How can we love God, who we cannot see, if we do not love our brothers and sisters, who we do see?’ (1 Jn 4:20). We need to trust the love that God places in our hearts and learn to reach out from there to others.

4. Prayer gives us the opportunity to recognise our own limitations: weakness, failure, brokenness, temptation, and even sin. It demands real faith to stand before God and believe in his love. We need the courage to say the prayer of the Eastern monastic tradition which is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.’  When we allow God to enter the messiness of our lives, then grace is able to act and, finally, growth can take place.

This is sage advice not simply for a life of ‘prayers’ but a more encompassing life of prayerfulness. In listening to the Word, allowing that Word to enter and shape our daily living and intentions, as suggested here, we begin to understand and experience the depth of communion that prayer enables.

As a final note, over the past few years it has struck me that ordained and lay leaders of communities can desire that their people change while they themselves remain the same. The primacy of prayer in the journey towards God and one another applies to all and admits of no exception.

Without prayerfulness there cannot be growth and without growth there cannot ultimately be fullness of life in Him. Our communities will thrive in the Gospel and its mission to the extent that we pray.

the legacy of Joseph Ratzinger

The announcement overnight of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, brought on by age and ill health, brings to an end a remarkable contribution to the life and theology of the Catholic Church.

ratzingerFor those who have followed his vocation and studied his thought, Joseph Ratzinger stands out among a generation of European scholars who were integral to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and who consequently shaped the faith of generations that followed.

Only 35 years old at the time of his appearance at Vatican II as peritus (theological expert), Ratzinger would go on to become the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), a position he held for some 24 years, serving with vigour and tenacity throughout the pontificate of his predecessor, John Paul II (some have described Ratzinger’s performance during this time, perhaps not unfairly, as ‘intellectually remorseless’).

The clarity of Ratzinger’s thought is expressed principally in his writings on liturgy (in which he is influenced by the liturgical movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries) and ecclesiology (grounded in patristic thought, especially St Augustine). The Spirit of the Liturgy and his Church, Ecumenism, Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology stand out among others.

Those who have engaged his work will recognise the abiding influence of the ressourcement movement throughout Ratzinger’s corpus. This influence includes Henri de Lubac whose Catholicism was, in Ratzinger’s own words, ‘a key reading event’. It is an inspiration that goes some way to explaining the Bavarian’s subsequent focus on the liturgy as the bearer of faith, the Church Fathers as monuments of our tradition, and his development of a Eucharistic ecclesiology grounded in the concept of ‘communion’ (the Oxford scholar Aidan Nichols singles out Ratzinger as ‘one of the first Catholic thinkers to adopt a full-scale, systematically elaborated “Eucharistic ecclesiology”’).

Ratzinger’s theology of the Church has much to recommend itself for pastoral life today precisely because sound practice can only be established on the basis of a sound theology.

pope-benedict-xvi_19Grounded in the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium, Ratzinger understands the Church not merely as a social organisation but as an organism of the Holy Spirit, encompassing us all from within and bringing about, by Word and sacrament, our genuine ‘contemporaneity’ with Christ in history.

For Ratzinger it is the essential sacramentality of the Church, as recognised by Vatican II, which brings out the twofold nature of the Church’s mystery – its visible, external aspect and its invisible, spiritual dimension which form a vital and paradoxical unity.

This mystery of the Church is well described in Ratzinger’s Introduction to Catholic Theology, in terms of God’s abiding holiness in the midst of the Church’s sinful humanity:

The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in it in spite of human sinfulness. We come up here against the real mark of the ‘New Covenant': in Christ God has bound himself to men, has let himself be bound by them. The New Covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace which abides even in the face of man’s faithlessness. It is the expression of God’s love, which will not let itself be defeated by man’s incapacity but always remains well-disposed towards him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turns to him, sanctifies him and loves him.

Because of the Lord’s devotion, never more to be revoked, the Church is the institution sanctified by him forever, an institution in which the holiness of the Lord becomes present among men. But it is really and truly the holiness of the Lord that becomes present in it and that chooses again and again as the vessel of its presence – with a paradoxical love – the dirty hands of men. It is holiness that radiates as the holiness of Christ from the midst of the Church’s sin. So to the faithful the paradoxical figure of the Church, in which the divine so often presents itself in such unworthy hands, in which the divine is only ever present in the form of a ‘nevertheless’, is the sign of the ‘nevertheless’ of the ever greater love shown by God. The existing interplay of God’s loyalty and man’s disloyalty which characterizes the structure of the Church is grace in dramatic form. . . One could actually say that precisely in its paradoxical combination of holiness and unholiness the Church is in fact the shape taken by grace in this world (p. 341-342).

The objective holiness of the Church as a sacrament of God’s grace, despite its human frailty, is inexplicably bound up for Ratzinger with the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church’s life and identity.

EucharistIn fact, Ratzinger locates the birth of the Church not so much at Pentecost but at the Last Supper, which signifies and effects the incorporation of the faithful into the body of Christ. Hence, the importance of the Eucharist in the realisation of the Church’s identity and mission as Christ’s body in the world.

Ratzinger’s recognition of the Church’s twofold nature and appreciation of the Eucharist as the sacrament of Christ’s holiness, and therefore of hope for the Church, brings great comfort as well as challenge to Catholic faith in this moment of history, particularly amid the ongoing scandal of the sexual abuse crisis which has cast a shadow over the promise of Catholic faith.

No doubt the news of the Pope’s resignation will focus not on the theological achievement of Joseph Ratzinger but on many broader issues including the state of the Catholic Church itself and calls for sweeping (and likely immoderate) ecclesial reform.

As one commentator noted overnight, the media will largely miss the significance of Ratzinger as it has over the past eight years of his pontificate. There will be a popular perception that he lacked the personality and impact of his predecessor but these judgments are more likely to be made by those who have never read his work.

For those who know as much about Catholicism as they do about the Bhagavad Gita, nothing much will have changed. However, for those who share faith and an appreciation of the Church’s living tradition, which demands the living and articulate faith of graced individuals, the contribution of this Bavarian theologian is cause for thanksgiving.

we can all learn from Boston

That is not something we could have said in 2002. After all, it was in that Archdiocese that the scandal of the sexual abuse crisis, including serious maladministration, broke across the front pages of the Boston Globe, sending the American (and universal) Church into a crisis which continues to impact the life and morale of individuals, parishes, and religious communities today. At that time, Boston could not be said to have modelled anything for the Church.

disciplesinmissionMore than a decade later and the reform in Boston continues under the leadership of Cardinal Sean O’Malley, though now with a particular focus that lies in its future. This year has seen the commencement of the first phase of Boston’s pastoral plan, ‘Disciples in Mission’.

What’s the essence of the diocese’s plan and what is its relevance for the rest of us? Boston is focused on the positioning of parishes more solidly for ‘the New Evangelisation’, meaning renewed outreach to ‘our brothers and sisters and drawing them more fully to Jesus Christ’. This is pretty much the focus of the magisterium – a concentration on the baptised who have lost a living sense of faith, without denying the importance of the traditional mission ad gentes. 

(You can think of it this way: the mission ad gentes, ‘to the nations’, is for those who ‘Don’t Know, Don’t Care’,  the mission of the new evangelisation is for those who ‘Know, but Don’t Care’).

In the name of renewal, the Diocese is reorganising all of its 288 parishes into approximately 135 ‘collaboratives’. Most of these parishes will retain their own canonical identity and integrity, with their own name, assets, liabilities and financial obligations but will placed under the governance of a single priest (or ‘pastor’ as they prefer to say in the U.S.). This approach is described locally as ‘twinning’ or ‘clustering’ parishes.

So, why this radical restructure across the Diocese? Boston is reorganising its life in the pursuit of one goal: to enhance its mission of evangelisation.

By introducing ‘collaboratives’, Boston notes the following gains:

  • parishes can unite to work together in pastoral actions based on a common vision;
  • the resources of parishes can be shared for the mutual benefit of all;
  • a greater shared consciousness can be fostered of the need to bring people back to an active practice of the faith;
  • a renewed focus on outreach to others will be supported by resources and training in the theology and practice of evangelisation, training in parish leadership and sound management (for both priests and lay ministers who will now work in two-parish or multi-parish groups).

evangelizationIn my experience the greatest obstacle to this type of bold renewal of pastoral life is neither finance or facility but a failure to recognise the mission of evangelisation as the central purpose for which all of our communities exist.

In other words, a lack of focus on our Christian mission leads to complacency and the isolation of our ministries and communities, one from another. Communities that are settled in an ‘exclusive unity’ will not grow, spiritually or numerically. This is because they will have neglected the central Gospel imperative to ‘go and make disciples’, a mission that calls for the uniting of gifts and combined witness.

The urgent need to focus beyond what we have, beyond ourselves and beyond even our own preferences, could be put this way: ‘If your parish or community closed today, would anyone but its members notice?’

We must recognise our existence is not for ourselves and organise our life and our structures accordingly. We exist for mission, for the making of new disciples and promoting growth in all those who follow Jesus. We can all learn from Boston and be challenged by its bold renewal. If we do, we have the opportunity to offer stronger, combined witness in faith, better manifest our identity as a communion, and realise a more effective mission than that which could be achieved on our own.