the rural and regional church

BathurstEarlier this week I was privileged to join Bishop Michael McKenna, the clergy and lay leaders of the Diocese of Bathurst for a day focused on pastoral planning. More and more dioceses are recognising the opportunity that pastoral plans represent, not merely to address immediate challenges but also, and more fundamentally, to translate the life of our parishes and dioceses into a new missionary key. While offering no kitbag of ‘silver bullets’ it was good to share what we have learned through achievement and mistakes in developing a pastoral plan in our own urban context in Parramatta.

In examining the foundations of Church planning I sought to emphasise that planning processes that begin from a bureaucratic or purely administrative perspective may well produce a document but they will not generate life, they will not foster a greater sense of God’s mission, discipleship or belonging among its people.

Authentic planning in the Church cannot be primarily a question of the right structures for a diocese, the right mix of policies or administrative concerns because if flesh-and-blood people and parishes are not growing spiritually in their discipleship, then any structural change a diocese might make is merely a postponement of ongoing decline rather than representing a pro-active and new footing for a 21st century mission.

Pastoral plans must focus on generating life and discipleship for mission. Planning processes, through consultation and a sober and public assessment of the facts, are a way of fostering participation, conversation and ownership of a common vision and practical wisdom that will bring about change. A planning process is a way by which Church leadership can ignite a conversation about the things that matter, challenge views of the Church that are too narrow or complacent, and awaken all people, ordained and lay, to the responsibility to live the change and faith that they would like to see. This primary focus on discipleship and mission is vital because dioceses and parishes do not grow if people don’t.

bathurstAs an outsider I spent some time reflecting on the Diocese of Bathurst as known through research and observation. The diocese was formally established in 1865 and today comprises 19 parishes with other, smaller Eucharistic communities dotted across a vast terrain. There are some 67,877 Catholics in the Diocese (30.7% of the general population) and the average size of parishes is 3,572 Catholics with the sizes ranging from 339 (Eugowra) to 13,709 (Orange).

The average percentage Mass attendance rate across the Bathurst Diocese is about 10.5% which is on par with many other dioceses across the country. With those other dioceses, the Mass attendance rate in Bathurst is likely to fall under 10% by 2016 which only increases the need for good planning in the years ahead. Distance, of course, is a distinguishing feature of the Bathurst Diocese with its faith communities spread across some 103,600 square kilometres. This is 24 times the size of the Parramatta Diocese which takes in a mere 4,289 square kilometres!

Hence, one of the issues that I explored was the response of rural and regional dioceses in Australia and the U.S. to smaller numbers of clergy and parishes, vast distances and limited resources. While not exhaustive, the list below provides some sense of how rural and regional dioceses have led the way in reforming pastoral life and ministries for mission. As Pope Francis has underscored so many times in his pontificate, the prophetic will emerge from the peripheries not the centres which can, in comparison, be rather more complacent and comfortable in the status quo of ecclesial life.

  • Diocesan reconfiguration is the obvious response for rural and regional dioceses to assume in the face of challenging conditions. Amalgamations, twinning and clustering of parishes is a response known to all Australian dioceses (excluding the eparchies and extra-territorial dioceses) though the pastoral fallout of such structural change tends to be less affiliation with the Church among some members as people are simply not willing or even able to travel to identify with a faith community outside their immediate locality.
  • Sunday Worship in the Absence of a Priest is an increasing practice and a legitimate response for many regional and rural dioceses across the world. It is often exercised on alternative weekends when the local priest cannot be present. The Australian norms for this form of worship, promulgated in 2004, are available here in PDF.
  • Accompanying this worship in the absence of a priest is the phenomenon of lay preaching which has developed with vigour in the U.S. Take for instance the rural diocese of Great Falls-Billings in Montana, in the Western United States. Coincidentally, this diocese is about three times the geographic size of Bathurst and contains three times the number of parishes as Bathurst (54 in total) but with the same number of Catholics as Bathurst (around 60,000). Hence Great Falls-Billings has fewer Catholics per parish. I did not endeavour to explore the complexities of Canon 766 which permits lay preaching in certain circumstances other than to say that the U.S. Bishops’ Conference has authorised each diocesan bishop to decide if a lay person may preach in his or her own words when the Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest is used. The uneven history of instructions and decrees from Rome on this subject leaves lay preaching as an exception in the Church, as an instruction or testimony at Eucharistic liturgies that is not to be confused with the homily, and altogether more appropriate at non-Eucharistic liturgies. As far as I am aware, no provision exists for such preaching under the mandate of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and none is envisaged at this time.
  • Reliance on clergy from the developing world is increasingly common and well known in rural and urban contexts, though this brings with it theological, ethical and pastoral issues, including issues pertaining to the inculturation of international priests and justice for the dioceses from which these clergy originate.
  • Deployment of women religious as parish leaders is also a common response both here and the U.S. In Canberra-Goulburn a group of parishes known as the ‘Western Mission’ has seen a parish priest reside in one faith community but with canonical appointment in another four small communities. The priest then delegates that jurisdiction to four ‘community leaders’ which have included among them women religious.
  • Lay leadership within parishes has been explored in a number of ways here and in the U.S., expressed in multi-parish team structures, coordinating teams of three people (as has been practiced in the dioceses of Ballarat and Sandhurst), deanery communities and the formal appointment of non-ordained pastoral leaders. However, lay leadership of parishes on a day-to-day basis, with the overarching governance and sacramental ministry of clergy, has not yet been systematically or strategically explored by dioceses in Australia.
  • Finally but significantly, in some instances, given that many rural parishes would not be viable without the presence of the school, the absence of a resident priest has seen school leadership exercise a role of spiritual leadership in the local community, with more pastoral significance and recognition of this role than a relatively distant parish priest.

In concluding my time with the clergy and lay leaders of Bathurst, I conveyed that while many hours could be spent exploring the pros and cons of these models employed in other dioceses, it would be to a certain extent in vain for what is of greater importance than the actual solution or response that might be decided upon is the process by which such decisions might be arrived at in this local church at this time in its history.

consultationGood and effective pastoral plans come into being by a collective exploration of realities and potential, not by a process of map-reading. That is, a pastoral plan will never be truly owned, accepted or generate life among the people of a diocese if it is picked out of the handbook of another diocese or parish altogether different from our own. There is no map or pre-ordained model for the future of our dioceses, including Bathurst. A map can only be drawn or outlined after the local community of faith has wrestled with and chewed over the pastoral realities, personnel and unique features of its context.

Regional dioceses in Australia may well arrive at solutions similar to the ones outlined above but if there is a well-designed, consultative process at work, they will have arrived at those same solutions with the support, practical advice and commitment of all rather than the best conjectures of the few.

I concluded this privileged time with the Diocese of Bathurst with the encouragement that once people are fully engaged in a local sense of mission, once they have had a wide and unvarnished conversation about the changing needs of clergy and parishes, once there is inspired animation of practicing Catholics through a specific and targeted consultation process on core issues, and once a diocesan vision is agreed upon, then in fact the right or most fitting solutions will begin to suggest themselves.

I have no doubt that it is rural and regional dioceses such as Bathurst that will lead the rest of us into new ways of living the perennial Gospel. We will learn much from them and be evangelised by their missionary spirit.

 

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2 thoughts on “the rural and regional church

  1. A really interesting development happening in Bathurst and in country areas. As you say, the people on the spot know what works for them (Catholic Social Teaching) and some creativity may be needed. Thank you for a good post.

  2. Thanks Louise, yes I’ve found there is tremendous creativity among the smaller dioceses here and abroad, and the local genius of these communities will inform the larger dioceses over time as conditions for faith and parish life evolves. In the U.S. I know that the west and south have led the way in some of the pastoral structures outlined. Thanks again for your comments

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