rebuilding our parishes for growth

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

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

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

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

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

The Pastoral Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Call to Grow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obstacles to Parish Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practices of Growth

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

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

Prayer 1_2

(c) Diocese of Parramatta 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 2-3.

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

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

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

[7] Lumen Gentium 17.

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

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

[10] Ibid., 17.

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

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

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

[14] Ibid., 49.

[15] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 63.

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

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

[18] White and Corcoran, Rebuilt, 43.

[19] Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 15.

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

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

[22] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 153.

Faith in Our Future to launch!

FIOFForVideoCoverWelcome to the first blog of the New Year! 

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

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

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

yobrek_021

(c) Diocese of Parramatta

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

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

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

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

    (c) Catholic Diocese of Parramatta

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

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

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

from diplomacy to discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading the Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

[The Church of the Nativity] was a sacramental machine: Mass every day, twice a day in Advent and Lent, and eight times each weekend, baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . .

For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it. (White, Rebuilt, 77).

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

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

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

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

the communion of saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reforming our parishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the future of tradition

tradition‘Tradition’ is not a word that is greeted with much enthusiasm in our time. Whether used in a religious context or otherwise, ‘tradition’ can be taken to refer to all that is past and therefore obsolete, the residue of a life once lived as it’s been described. Talk of tradition can seem especially off-putting in an age in which innovation and spontaneity are prized above all else and in a culture which interprets itself, quite naively, as the fulfilment or highpoint of all that went before (despite much evidence to the contrary).

In today’s climate, to be ‘traditional’ is to be irrelevant, behind the times, and trapped in misguided nostalgia for a mythical ‘Golden Age’ (as an aside, it was the late American poet and critic Randall Jarrell who said that even in a Golden Age people would go around complaining how yellow everything looks).

In contrast to that view, Catholic faith has understood ‘tradition’ as a dynamic, necessary and even creative force. Indeed, tradition has much more to do with keeping a fire going than preserving ashes. The inheritance of the past, including sacred texts, signs and practices, is read by the Church not as an obstacle to creative living in the present but as the very medium of Christian identity, growth and even development in the here and now.

SB012Tradition continually shapes our self-understanding and identity as disciples of one who came before us and, what is more, provides almost limitless possibilities for thinking and living faithfully into the future. This is because the ‘handing on’ involved with tradition is not an object or artefact but God’s revelation in the living Christ and so it can take us into the future rather than restricting us to the past.

Given its centrality to culture and the Christian tradition, it is fitting that the theme of tradition is being addressed by the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, at a conference next week. I’ll be attending when I can, in between work commitments and a road trip south to a neighbouring diocese. You can read more about the UNDA Tradition Conference here.

Perhaps a point to make on this subject is that all of us, knowingly or otherwise, are immersed in tradition. This is because we are not the first human beings to have ever lived. Each of us is born into a universe of words, concepts, symbols, and narratives that is not of our making, that was there before us and that we did not invent (even those who claim to be atheist or ‘spiritual but not religious’ for that matter operate, to some degree, in relation to an existing religious tradition, if only to reject it).

Tradition reminds us no one ‘starts from scratch’ or escapes their historical conditioning no matter how ‘contemporary’ or in vogue one seeks to be. In the arts, science and technology, as in religion, there is an inheritance or bequest from those who came before us that shapes – without ever completely determining – our present thinking and future aspirations at the deepest levels. Rather than being a source of embarrassment or condemning us to aggressive backwardness, tradition can open up fresh ways of interpreting the business of being human in a new time. The theologian Aidan Nichols concludes that, ‘contact with tradition is vital to every human generation because of the need for keeping open all possible imaginative options.’

christpreachingIt goes without saying that tradition is essential to a Catholic understanding of faith. The point of reference for Christian disciples is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, an historical event unchangeable in itself, that continues to be received by believers through their communal interpretation and expression of this experience through the ages and into the present. As individual believers we do not receive this event of revelation into our lives unmediated but depend on the communal memory, testimony and practices of those generations of disciples that went before us, that is, the Spirit-guided communion which is the Church.

Drawing on the language of Henri de Lubac, the Church is at heart ‘a life being passed on’ and it is the Church’s manifold tradition – including texts, teachings, images, embodied practices, narratives, theological insights, characteristic ways of speaking and acting, forms of sociality, worship and beyond – that transmits and makes accessible that sacred life from generation to generation.

massFinally, given the tendency to think of tradition in static terms, it is also important to insist that each generation of believers must make this inheritance of faith truly their own, by receiving it, seeking to understand it and applying it in their own lives and in the circumstances of their time. It is only by this active and ongoing participation in tradition by disciples today, under the guidance of the Spirit, that what has been received can be passed on in a living condition and not as a museum piece or relic.

The Jesuit scholar Edward Yarnold reminds us of this living dimension of tradition when he writes,

. . . tradition is not the handing on of tablets of stone for the guidance of every age. In this process [of tradition] the act of applying the word to the situation becomes itself part of the tradition. What the Church proclaims today becomes in its turn part of the reservoir of memory on which tomorrow’s proclamation will draw.

So, as disciples of our time, we are not only inheritors of a tradition, ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) but participants and ‘extenders’ of it, called to pass on through witness, testimony, practices and signs that baptismal and eucharistic unity we ourselves have received. I’m looking forward to the Tradition Conference as an opportunity to learn more about this dynamic at the heart of the Church’s life, growth and mission.

the state of the Australian Catholic Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

These were the stats and trends that caught my attention:

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

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

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