the RCIA, pilgrims and prospects

DBBMAPThe past few months have been a whirlwind as I’ve landed firmly within a new diocese. Much time has been invested in engaging with staff members, clergy and lay leaders, discerning and weighing a vision for mission that will be responsive as well as challenging to our context, and considering critical issues of governance, structure and resources.

The highlights of this time have included meeting the parish communities of the diocese who have offered tremendous hospitality and welcome, and the opportunity to speak with a number of ecclesial movements and other potential partner organisations that offer the kind of evangelical energy we want to see flourish in northern Sydney.

This weekend I’ll be delivering a keynote address at an RCIA conference held biennially and hosted by the Diocese of Broken Bay. It will be a great opportunity to discuss the ways in which we seek to accompany people in their encounter with Christ. It is a ministry of the Church for which I have great passion and respect for it is at the forefront of the Church’s outreach. I owe a great deal personally to my experience of the RCIA. Below are some thoughts that I will share and I hope they may spur your own thinking on the dynamics and helps of Christian initiation.

Evangelisation in a New Time: Pilgrims and Prospects

baptism-adultThere is nothing as joyous as the initiation or reception of adults into the life of Christ. I stand here as a beneficiary of that process when I was baptised and confirmed on a Wednesday night in November of 1999. Heralding from a family of Buddhist and Taoist heritage, I entered the Church on the eve of the new millennium at the age of twenty, gathered with a priest, sponsor, fellow catechumens and a mixed group of close friends, mostly of no religious background.

A small but powerful group had accompanied me through conversion and initiation and I was fully conscious and grateful for the fact that in God and this community I had been granted something which I would spend the rest of my life learning to be faithful to, learning to enter into, and learning to trust. In sharing this portion of my own story and in the following reflections on RCIA in the context of the new evangelisation I hope to affirm your dedication to the RCIA as a vital sign and mirror of the Church in its deepest identity as a community of evangelising disciples.

A Developing Faith

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and the prophetic zeal of Pope Francis, it is today commonplace to speak of the Church and its need of development or reform, that is, change. From the laments and incitements of Evangelii Gaudium, to contemporary Catholic literature such as Rebuilt, Forming Intentional Disciples, and Divine Renovation there has been magisterial, critical and popular recognition that what is most needed at this stage of our history as Church is a re-appreciation of evangelisation, the making and maturing of disciples, as the essential mission of our Church.

A ‘new evangelisation’ is sought, ‘new’ not in message or substance as if we have somehow graduated from the one Gospel given in Jesus Christ, but an apostolic outreach that is fresh in energy, intent and method for we seek to evangelise in a context that is something other than a carbon copy of times past.

Certainly, there is continuity. Today adults, as ever, come forward to be initiated as an expression and consequence of their faith in Jesus Christ from a variety of personal and cultural backgrounds. Through their initiation, these pilgrims die to self and rise in Christ who is their new way of life and they enter into this new life socially, joining a community that professes Jesus to be the source of their life and salvation.

Baptême_Cathédrale_de_Troyes_290308However, the ways and practices of Christian initiation have varied throughout the history of the Church. We only have to recall the early second century when potential catechumens presented for baptism after two to three years of preparation, involving multiple exorcisms and even a dash of salt. The danger of persecution within an intolerant Roman Empire restricted exposure of catechumens to the sacred mysteries of faith while sponsors played the role of prudent guarantor for the trustworthiness of their initiates. We see the shape of Christian initiation evolve yet again with the penitential theology of the Church. Many a convert in the patristic age chose to remain a catechumen until the end of life in the hope that a quick baptism before death might erase all the more sin. Even the formula of baptism itself has undergone development and with it the catechesis that has accompanied preparation, with baptism first simply in the name of Jesus, then the more creedal, interrogative formula recorded in the Apostolic Tradition before the straightforward trinitarian formula we employ today, based upon Matthew 28:19. The catechumenate of adults and rites of initiation have developed with the life of the Church as it has confronted each stage of history.

What we learn from this rich history is that the potential and fruit of our catechumenate – restored at the direction of Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium 64) and now just four and a half decades old in the form of the RCIA (decreed in 1972) – is intimately bound up with the life and vicissitudes of our Catholic community as a whole. As affirmed by the Rite itself, there is an intimate and indispensable relationship between the initiation process and the total life of the parish, what could be described as ‘the community of initiation.’[1]

Initiation in a New Time

Baptismal FontAs it stands today the Church in Australia sees some 69,000 newly baptised each year, with approximately 5,000 of these adults.[2] (As an aside, it has been noted that the number of adult baptisms in the U.S. rose by 12% between Easter 2013 and Easter 2014, portents perhaps of a genuine ‘Francis effect’ encouraging initiation.)

In receiving the forgiveness of sins, union with Christ and incorporation into his body, the seal and sanctification of the Spirit, and Christ’s Eucharistic body, these twenty-first century neophytes personify and encourage our hope to be that transformative, mediating community that Christ calls us to be, a Church that is essentially ‘a life passed on’.

A more sobering characteristic of our time, highlighted by contemporary literature and recent papal teaching, is that personal conversion and ceaseless evangelisation in the Church can no longer be assumed. Indeed, diminishing rates of participation in weekly Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church present a serious challenge to our ecclesial and formative paradigms.

For one, the premise of a ‘conveyer belt’ which took Catholics from the cradle to grave in faith, passing through the way of the Catholic family, parish and school, no longer seems true-to-life, if it ever was. As Sherry Weddell notes, there is thin evidence to support the belief that Catholic identity simply migrates from infancy into adulthood, resulting in the slow but steady spiritual growth of Catholic adults over a lifetime.[3] There is little reason to suppose that Catholic converts will also be carried along by some seamless cultural momentum within the Church into lifelong discipleship.

Sadly, we know the stories of the newly initiated who have journeyed with us over months only to disappear from the active life of the worshipping community, some even before the Easter season has drawn to a close. The trust, encounter, and discipleship in Christ fostered by small groups such as the RCIA yearns to be sustained by the larger ecclesial body into which the newly initiated are incorporated.

In other words, we cannot consider the RCIA and its pilgrims apart from the prospects for their continued journey with Christ in the body of all the faithful. If we are inviting people to the Gospel we must offer them a community of life in which spiritual seeds can prosper.

Much of our magisterial teaching assumes the existence of this living, active and spiritually dynamic community of faith in our parishes, not out of naiveté or ignorance of what is a more mixed reality in our parishes, but so as to underline all the more the non-negotiable nature of a culture of discipleship as the building block of all other elements of parish life, including liturgy.

FootprintsVatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium declares that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people.[4] The Catechism of the Catholic Church underlines “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”.[5] For its part, the RCIA confirms the necessity of a pre-catechumenate prior to theological instruction and liturgical preparation, a “time of evangelisation and initial conversion” which is to unfold in the presence of parish families and other groups of Christians through whom those with faithful intent can see “evidence of the spirit of Christians that they are striving to understand and experience”, all this prior to the rite of acceptance into the order of catechumens.[6] Again, the RCIA and its pilgrims cannot be considered apart from the spiritual health of the whole body into which the newly initiated are grafted. The budding of the branches depends upon the vitality of the vine.

When we take the current temperature of ‘the vine’, the whole body of the faithful, the sober reality is that 60% of those who attend Mass reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[7] It is evident that many a parish culture does not nourish personal faith and a mindset that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ neglects our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually bear fruit.

The spiritual barrenness reported in our pews flows over to impact upon the ability and even the desire of Catholics to reach others for Christ with obvious consequences for the RCIA. Hence, some 72% of Australian Mass attenders reported that they would not or did not know if they would invite someone to their parish.[8] Without spiritual growth in their own lives, individuals are not able to be effective witnesses or apostles for Christ in the wider community.

All in all Fr James Mallon underlines the importance of addressing parish culture in its totality if  discipleship is to be lifelong, noting smaller groups and initiatives

. . . will be only as good as the culture of that parish. Even a very successful tool for evangelisation . . . will have a very limited impact if the values of a parish are vastly different from the values within a particular program . . . Running evangelistic, outreach or renewal programs without addressing the necessary cultural conversion of our parishes will only leave us open to charges of false advertising.[9]

The fruit of RCIA depends in no small part on a parish culture where the kerygma, the Great Story of Jesus, is clearly preached through substantial homilies, where the kerygma is made known through adult faith formation experiences that are a norm of community life rather than an exception, and through the testimony of those whose lives have been changed by entering into that living story of Jesus, providing witness to his Spirit alive and at work in human lives.

Indeed, in the light of the interdependency of RCIA with the community at large, I would suggest that there is an argument that catechumens and candidates, while keeping their unique identity as a group, could be a part of a spiritual and faith formation process that is open to anyone.[10] While recognising the stages of development that mark the particular experience of catechumens, all are called to be disciples, mathētēs in Greek, meaning those who learn. All are called to be students before the feet of Jesus Master and Teacher and we cannot in this new era assume that the great numbers of already baptised have indeed heard that initial proclamation of the Gospel which Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium reminds us “we must hear again and again in different ways”.[11] My observation from the pews is that people are grasping only fragments of the Gospel and from the outside. Furthermore, I know many veterans of faith, dedicated and regular attendees, who envy the deep learning and spiritual conversation that the RCIA makes possible but to which they ordinarily do not have access themselves.

Foundational formation involving both newcomers and more established Catholics would recollect for the community that new membership is as much a part of regular parish life as Sunday Mass. Mutual experiences of formation would allow candidates to be integrated into community life not simply during the rites of initiation but in its very life, understood as a common school of holiness and friendship with Jesus Christ. If prayer and discipleship are learned, as our tradition maintains, then all have much to gain through and with one another as common pilgrims on the Gospel way.

Spiritual Accompaniment

startplanning1Having underlined this morning the inseparability of converts and the spiritual vitality of the communities they enter, a further opportunity makes itself present in our capacity to tell the stories of conversion that emerge from our tradition, narratives of holiness and transformation that can assist today’s catechumens to clarify their own life as a spiritual way.

Our firsthand experience of RCIA tells us that so much depends not simply on theological instruction or liturgical preparation but on the communication and exchange of stories, the sharing of personal itineraries of call and conversion, rich testimonies of the ways in which human lives have become intertwined with God’s.

In such spiritual conversation we enumerate together the shape of holiness, we generate a living tradition of what it means to be a holy person, we affirm the very possibility of access to and relationship with God and the capacity of human beings to respond and flourish in cooperation with his gracious and divine life.

I propose that the RCIA can provide for catechumens in our time invaluable guidance on the basic tenets of our faith, the rhyme and reason of our liturgical rites but also, crucially, testify to the ways in which lasting conversion can actually come about under the influence of grace. Those entering a life of faith, not to mention those already in the pews, are in need of a clear sign or witness that the life of faith is indeed possible, worthwhile and of ultimate significance and value.

In reflecting on my own experience of conversion and that of others who have come into the Church as adults, I am mindful that the transition into Christian life is anything but abstract, whimsical or sugar-coated. It is oftentimes a formidable journey, not without loss, and quite literally world-changing in its consequence. Friends and relationships change as do priorities, lifestyles and life choices and directions.

Our rich spiritual tradition helpfully offers a multitude of concrete lives and trajectories that can affirm and nourish this transition from an old way of life to a new life in Christ. The great stories and holy witnesses of our faith provide, in their own way, “an assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1).

What are the most compelling narratives of holiness that the RCIA can bring forward to uphold and foster trust in the momentous ‘crossing over’ from the old self to the new, for twenty-first century pilgrims? What are those stories that we can tell to show that Christian faith indeed makes a human life coherent?

To offer classic examples, the itineraries of St Paul, St Augustine, and a St Francis delineate by different routes the way in which total Christian conversion is possible and how one can engage the world as a new creation in Christ. These are stories of our tradition worth telling. Their biographies and standing as models of holiness provide neophytes with a tangible vision of the way in which God promotes our flourishing in the particular circumstances of our life. It is not a stretch to assert that some of the spiritual stagnation in our pews may be attributable to the plain fact that many Catholics have no vision at all as to how the life of holiness could be pursued or ultimately take expression.

Take the story of St Francis of Assisi as an outstanding paradigm of our tradition. We recall here a young man of excess and indulgence, one who lives a dissolute life bankrolled by the wealth of the family business. Knowing no limits and characterised by exorbitant passions and intemperance, we learn that God’s work of grace in Francis does not cut out or obliterate this trait of excessiveness, does not excise his tendency to wild abandon but rather transforms it from within. Francis remains a man of excess but now becomes excessive in his poverty, radical in his self-sacrifice, zealous in his self-abandonment and self-donation to others.

The ascetic friar of Assisi brings forward for us the journey of holiness as inclusive and transfigurative rather than severe or caustic as the spiritual writer John O’Donohue adeptly explains:

The Christian life has always been a struggle towards perfection. Yet the recommended models of change have been very damaging, either metamorphosis, where the old self was expected to graft onto a supernatural level and become abruptly sanctified, or moral surgery, whereby the undesired dimensions of one’s life were cut out. Such externalist violence is always resisted by the psyche’s organic and inclusive spiritual instinct. Transfiguration is in harmony with the deepest rhythm of the soul because nothing is denied, excluded or forced. Attention is focused reverently on the whole complex of one’s presence. In light of this reverence to one’s self the places of entanglement, limitation, blindness and damage gradually reveal themselves in ways that suggest and invite changes in the configuration of one’s heart.[12]

candleWe learn that authentic growth in holiness is not about ‘metamorphosis’, the idea that we can simply shed the past, our very personality and history, and become someone entirely new. This is illusory. Nor is growth in holiness about moral surgery in which we simply excise or cut off whatever is found to be undesirable within us. As witnessed in St Francis’ life, the image of transfiguration is more apt, a gradual process in which we enter into and are attentive to every aspect of who we are, even those inevitable dimensions of darkness within ourselves, ‘lifting them up to the Lord’ whose Holy Spirit brings about transformation within, and not despite, the conditions of our life and character.

By such great narratives I believe neophytes as much as the already baptised can find encouragement to acknowledge the all-too-human reality which is inescapably ours – light and shadow, wheat and tare – and open this mixed reality to God’s love and grace which heals, redirects and transforms our very weakness into God’s strength (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10).

I suggest that the dynamics of Christian conversion are well carried by the stories of those who have gone before us in faith, in the restless interiority of a St Augustine, the passionate poverty of a St Francis, the change of heart worked within the religiosity of a St Paul. These models need not stereotype holiness but give shape and substance to the possibilities that are there for all of us. These holy lives open us to more than what we may have yet imagined for ourselves, and so hold powerful relevance to our spiritual accompaniment of the enquirer, catechumen and the newly baptised by way of the RCIA.


In the midst of a changing ecclesial landscape and by its privileged access and accompaniment of unique and varied lives touched by Christ, the RCIA remains a gift and mirror to the Church, expressing its identity and vocation to be evermore an evangelising community of faith. Noting the particular challenges of Christian outreach at this time of history, Pope Francis remarks,

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.[13]

In the work of the RCIA may we continue to offer that which is beautiful, most grand, appealing and most necessary, the Good News of the Gospel given to us in Jesus Christ, and the spiritual accompaniment of those who have walked the way of faith before us.


[1] Rite of Christian Initiation 9.

[2] Vatican Secretariat of State, Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2012.

[3] Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, Indiana, 2012), 67-70.

[4] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1079.

[6] Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, no. 36-37, 39.

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

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation (Twenty-Third Publications: New London, CT, 2014), 94.

[10] This approach is also recommended by Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation, 230.

[11] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 164.

[12] John O’Donohue, ‘The Priestliness of the Human Heart’, The Way 45.

[13] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 35.

starting afresh in the new evangelisation

Meeting the pastoral support staff of the Diocese of Broken Bay

Meeting the pastoral support staff of the Diocese of Broken Bay earlier this week.

It has been a joy to take up my appointment as Director of Evangelisation for the Catholic Diocese of Broken Bay, working under the leadership of Bishop Peter A. Comensoli and together with the clergy, religious and laity of this region of NSW, Australia.

Encompassing some 3,000 square kilometres, the Diocese of Broken Bay stretches from the northwest of Sydney, in the suburbs of Arcadia and Pennant Hills, through the North Shore, east to Manly Freshwater, North Harbour and Pittwater, and as north as Toukley and Warnervale, taking in some forty plus communities gathered in twenty-six parishes.

Some 223,000 Catholics live in the diocese, including 85,000 Catholic families while almost one third of Catholics in the diocese are aged 19 years or under. There are some 17,000 students in its systemic schools with a high percentage of students Catholic. With all this in view, there are great possibilities to build upon the achievements of the past and carry forward the work of evangelisation in this new environment.

In speaking at a farewell in the Diocese of Parramatta, I chose to quote Thomas Merton having read him for some years and recently returned from a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane where he lived, wrote and is buried. Merton reflected on the unique character of Christian mission which I think is relevant to the project of evangelisation. He averred,

Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

While at first glance this may suggest a casual disinterest in pastoral outcomes, Merton in fact turns our attention towards the very centre of our mission as Catholic leaders, the ultimate end, and that is the heralding of a culture of deep personal faith and evangelisation born of relationships of faith and evangelical zeal.

The privilege of Christian leadership is affirming that all the baptised are agents of God’s evangelising mission because we are first personal subjects of that mission, because He has first sought us out, reached out to us with love and so we are called to reach out to others in His name with the intimacy and familial love that Pope Francis has so well embodied in his Petrine ministry.

Much of the contemporary literature on evangelisation suggests that since the Second Vatican Council we have taken a largely ‘programmatic’ or institutional approach to evangelisation without necessarily addressing personal faith as well as we ought, or taking into full account the reality that the ‘conveyer belt’ that was assumed to take people from childhood faith into adult discipleship has broken down, if it was ever as reliable as it was once thought to be. As mentioned in a previous blog, we have been tempted to ‘evangelise’ by providing external stimulus for people’s contact with our faith and parish communities (e.g. giving people ministries to keep them engaged) rather than addressing the interior conversion in Christ that is the source of all other commitment and ongoing practice.

Rebuilt and Other Observations

My time in the U.S. provided insights into how many dioceses, parishes and groups are seeking to reclaim this focus on personal faith and discipleship in challenging contexts which are not dissimilar to our Australian experience.

A scene from the Church of the Nativity, Maryland, last month.

A scene from the Church of the Nativity, Maryland, last month.

I can confirm that the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, is certainly as interesting as the book Rebuilt would suggest but not a template that could easily be transferred elsewhere. The church itself is a simple, unadorned one storey building with a large car park (perhaps their first achievement!). On the weekend I visited, a small marquee was planted out the front of the building with staff and volunteers sharing information about plans for a large new worship space, including renderings of a new church interior and exterior.

As for the liturgy, the music was contemporary as expected, with the nave of the church darkened to generate atmosphere and the technology savvy. Fr Michael White shared in his homily that the new exterior of the church would be plain, not much different from the glassed, contemporary style of modern airports or public buildings. That is, it will not be an unusual or alienating environment for first time visitor, ‘Timonium Tim’. Passing through a spacious foyer into the newly constructed sanctuary, Timonium Tim will discover he is in an intimate, semi-circular worship space. Tim will discover that he is, in fact, in church.

Such plans for the future manifest the fact that the Church of the Nativity is primarily dedicated to the newcomer while the parish’s commendable focus on small groups is the strategy that is engaged for a consequent deepening of faith in line with Fr Michael’s ‘message’ (i.e. homily) for that particular weekend.

There are many positives to be taken from the parish and the book Rebuilt. While it is too particular a community to serve as a blueprint – which it was never intended to be – it affirms the need of parish vision, creative leadership and commitment over the long term to think and rethink of Church in terms other than mere survival. It is the commitment to evangelise in the wider community that opens up possibilities within the life of the Church. Each community will have to wrestle with its own approach to evangelisation appropriate to context but the vision of growth, welcome and outreach found at Nativity is something that could be embraced by all.

The Archdiocese of Boston

Staff of the Pastoral Planning Office in the Archdiocese of Boston

Staff of the Pastoral Planning Office in the Archdiocese of Boston

For those planning on a diocesan or parish ministry level, you could do no better than sit at the feet of the Archdiocese of Boston which has transformed its life over recent years. The initial focus of the planning commission formed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley was the new evangelisation, understood as “the particular work of reaching out to Catholics who are not currently active in the Church”.

It was recognised that structural change alone would not sustain the life of the archdiocese, let alone grow it. The eventual pastoral plan, Disciples in Mission was decreed by Cardinal Sean after more than one year of development and consultation and is available here. At only eleven pages, it is a thorough and comprehensive guide for an archdiocese with momentum.

Part One of the plan is focused on the organisation of the archdiocese’s 289 parishes, fortifying their resources so they can more effectively evangelise. 289 parishes are to be organised into 135 “collaboratives” over the coming years. In this situation, each parish retains its name, assets, financial responsibilities and canonical independence (so these are not ‘amalgamations’ or extinctive unions), however, a single priest is assigned as parish priest of Parish X, as parish priest of Parish Y, and as parish priest of Parish Z with collaboration of the ministries and staff of the parishes a key priority for this priest. It’s worth noting that even after the completion of Part One of this plan, Boston will still be not as lean as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles which has five times the number of Catholics but the equivalent number of parishes (about 260 in total).

No parishes will be closed as a result of Disciples in Mission and so communities remain available to people as they are now. This enables members of the diocese to focus on what the pastoral plan and evangelisation means and invites for their personal living of the faith, not the structural question which so often dominates contemporary church agendas.

The collaboratives are to be created slowly across the archdiocese, over a period of four years. Boston is currently in Phase 2 of creating collaboratives right across the archdiocese with two more phases to go. Parishes involved are typically given a year’s notice of their collaboration, an announcement which is made following consultation with priests and people, nomination of suitable collaborations that are given to the Cardinal who makes the final decision. Remote preparation, through the reading and reflection of communities of such texts as Rebuilt, Forming Intentional Disciples, and Divine Renovation, has been key in introducing communities to common language, ideas and insights throughout the year prior to the formation of the collaboratives.

Priests are allocated to collaboratives based on their discerned ability to lead such a cluster of parishes and are also expected to form one pastoral team for the communities, a team which is expected to undertake diocesan training in collaboration and evangelisation.

Part Two focuses on strengthening the embrace of this new evangelisation in parishes, by “reenergising pastoral leadership” in parishes, the archdiocese, youth ministry and adult formation. This runs concurrently with the activity of Part One. To achieve a depth of missionary zeal and commitment in the collaboratives, training is made available by three bodies which provide expertise in distinct areas – the Episcopal Vicar for the New Evangelisation who leads the area of evangelisation, the Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI) that provides training in leadership and management skills, and the Pastoral Planning Office which, under Fr Paul Soper, provides unity in the midst of change and coordinates ongoing practical support to help make the collaboratives function and grow.

The archdiocese envisages that the pastoral plans of parishes unfold over a nine year period – one year to write a parish plan centred on the collaboration of disciples, with three years to implement it, a year of prayer and discernment, a further year to write a new or revised plan centred on disciple-making, and another three years to implement this second pastoral plan. This is long term parish planning to accompany the long range approach of the archdiocese.

The parish training provided by the Pastoral Planning Office is being implemented in six stages starting with archdiocesan staff, clergy, then parish pastoral councils, going on to focus on the training of parishes in the art of writing parish plans.

Dedicated to discipleship in the Archdiocese of New York. Dianne Davis and Daniel Fraschella.

Dedicated to discipleship in the Archdiocese of New York. Dianne Davis and Daniel Fraschella.

Gateway moments of conversion (e.g. Masses, baptisms, seasonal peaks, etc.) are discussed in the training sessions, prayer is discussed at length (only praying disciples make disciples) and all parish activities are understood not as programs but processes that develop discipleship over time. It was noted that if a parish gets hung up on just one approach (e.g. small groups), it is likely to lose all sorts of people who will not be attracted to those ways of community or evangelisation. There must be a variety of responses to people in a variety of situations of faith.

Apart from the trainers in parish evangelisation, the archdiocese engages a “consultant model” in its parish support, with each collaborative having a key contact in archdiocesan finance and accounting, human resources, and other services of the archdiocese. It is a strength of the process that all staff, including finance staff, are encouraged to be mission-oriented and speak the same language as staff dedicated to evangelisation in a more formal capacity. This “all in” approach is key to the priests, pastoral councils and parish teams feeling supported in the change agenda of the archdiocese. The CLI also provides mentors for priests in managing change, often consisting of lay persons of expertise.

New friends in the U.S. also include Dave Nodar of Baltimore, the founder of ChristLife, and Dianne Davis, a regional coordinator of this Alpha-type process in New York, both of whom point to the Catechism of the Catholic Church which notes, “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church; it must be preceded by evangelization, faith and conversion” (#1072). Evangelisation must lead us into the future as the foundation on which all else depends.


To learn from others in the field of pastoral planning and evangelisation is a delight. Back here at home, it is an enormously exciting time for the Church also with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP the ninth archbishop of Sydney, Bishop Peter Comensoli the third bishop of Broken Bay, and the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta anticipated in coming months.

Together there are great things that the Church can do in partnership with and for Greater Sydney. I believe significant renewal is taking place in metropolitan Sydney with a focus not merely on institutions and structures but on the life and mission of local communities of faith – parishes, youth, and movements – that will form the basis of mission in the twenty-first century.

learning from the Church abroad


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

forming the adult Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


recent news in the Australian Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


new ecclesial movements

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

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

(c) Diocese of Parramatta

(c) Diocese of Parramatta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.