evangelisation at the grassroots

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

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

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

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

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

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

dioceseThe first step toward renewal is to recognise that the unchurched we seek to reach for Christ are not strangers ‘out there’ nor are they statistics without names or faces. The unchurched are in our homes, sitting at the dinner tables of practicing Catholics! They are our relatives, friends, and neighbours who identify as ‘Catholic’ in some way but do not participate in regular worship or intentional acts of Christian service.

It follows that reaching the unchurched is a matter of skilling and empowering practicing Catholics to start the conversation about faith with relatives, friends and neighbours. Unfortunately, resources and practical assistance to prepare our people for this task is rarely found in our parishes. It is worth noting that some Baptist communities offer workshops to support wives in faith-filled conversations and relationships with their husbands who are often less likely to attend a weekend service. It recognises that evangelisation takes place via relationships and via the bridges of credibility in our lives. Parishes might also offer their parishioners personalised invitations, prayer cards and expressions of support to family members or connections at critical times in their lives. Prayer and faith resources that support people in times of distress, in times of life transition (e.g. retirement or new parenting) and times of joy can also form a bridge between faith and life. Welcome teams, ministry groups and others can be readied to offer particular hospitality and friendship to relatives and friends who take up the offer to join us this Easter or Christmas.

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

Ultimately, it is not good policy or strategies that make disciples. Disciples make disciples. We need to form practicing members of our Church to have the confidence in faith, skills and relational sensitivity to reach out to those they know and love with the Good News of the Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

parishes that make a difference

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

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

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

Parish leaders matter

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

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

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

Ministries exist for growth

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

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

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

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

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

Good parishes stop giving people what they want

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

sbTo provide a concrete example of this need to challenge rather than merely comfort our people, take these results from the National Church Life Survey, one of the best qualitative surveys on Catholic life not only in Australia but in the world. The NCLS revealed that Australian Catholics valued “community life” as one of the most valued aspects of parish life. However, at the very bottom of this scale was “small groups” and “reaching out to others”. And yet, it is precisely by small groups and the invitation of others that most Catholics find their way into the heart of the Church as a community of faith. In short, the results of the NCLS survey suggest to me the importance of changing perceptions of our people rather than simply feeding them what they want.

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

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

Conclusion

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

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.

why parishes are not churches

pewsIt goes without saying that many Catholics, including even Mass attenders, experience the Church as a weight to be carried rather than a life to be lived. There are many reasons for this dim perspective and many of them have to do with the concrete realities of parish life.

When a research project was conducted in Australia in late 2005 to identify why Catholics had stopped going to Mass, many of the reasons offered by respondents related to parish community. These included problems with the parish priest, a lack of intellectual stimulation, people did not feel welcomed or a sense of belonging to the community, others felt that a previously-existing community spirit had eroded, there was the experience of unkind gossip, and the belief that the people at Mass lacked sincerity in their worship. People also dropped out because of ‘structural factors’ in the parish, including changes in Mass times, a negative experience of parish amalgamation and the like.

While it would not be fair to place all responsibility for disengagement at the feet of the Catholic parish (respondents also cited personal reasons for their absence, including family or household-related issues, the experience of a crisis of faith or the plain fact that going to Mass was simply not a priority for them; then there are wider cultural influences to consider), it is necessary to admit that our parishes are in need of reform. This means there is a need to develop those areas of pastoral life that are weakest, consider those structures and small ‘t’ traditions that no longer serve the parish’s mission, and build on those areas of strength that continue to serve well.

StonesWhen addressing parish renewal it has been my experience that parish councils, parish teams and parishioners can tend to jump, quite quickly, to the issue of buildings and infrastructure. It is true that many parishes need to undertake capital works due to the age of their facilities and changing needs (the demand for more carparking space, for example). However, these kinds of investment rarely build community in themselves or respond to those issues that disengaged Catholics, such as those surveyed above, have cited as motivating their withdrawal from community life.

I suspect that the reason that buildings tend to dominate conversations about parish renewal is that people like to see results and there is nothing more satisfying in this regard than a renovation. What is more, it is much easier to put up a building than grow a community.

widows-mite1In the U.S., when the formerly ‘unchurched’ were asked about their priorities before they became Christians, it is true that they named among the desirable qualities of a parish – adequate parking, clean and modern facilities, a variety of quality programs, relevant and quality music, clean bathrooms, friendly people, outgoing greeters, comfortable pews and chairs, and attention-holding preaching.

As commentators have recognised, however, while many of these expectations are quite reasonable and should be provided by the parish, the underlying mindset driving these desires can be “What can the parish or Church do for me?” rather than “What can I do to serve?” or, even more foundationally, “Whom I called to be here?” A consumerist mindset can dominate people’s  approach of the parish with consequences for the prospects of building a communion that is for mission. Even the most pristine, beautiful, well-organised and comfortable parishes can be spiritually dead if they do nothing but cater for our creaturely comforts and convenience.

If we are to refocus our communities on evangelisation, the maturing of disciples and the making of new ones, then the agenda must move from the simplicity of a facility focus to centre on the witness of discipleship itself, through good preaching and pastoral care, a genuine sociality supported by strengthening the bonds of faith, and a shared commitment to, and belief in, Christian mission in the wider community. We do need good spaces where people can gather, and beautiful churches in which to worship, but these are never sufficient. Those who have left the Church or found it wanting have told us so.

The Church and its parishes must seek to move even their present members from ‘consumers of services’ to ‘disciples on mission’. Only then can the new evangelisation be effective, issuing from a spiritual house of ‘living stones’ not communities of cosiness and contentment. It may well be that our parishes as a whole do not demand too much of our people but offer, in fact, too little challenge.

our Catholic schools

It is conference season with a gathering in the Sydney Archdiocese on Vatican II, clergy formation days, and a meeting of the National Pastoral Planners Network on the Gold Coast, all in the next three weeks. I’ll be kicking it off by travelling to Canberra next week for a keynote address at a colloquium of Marist teachers and school leaders.

It will no doubt be a diverse audience with various experiences and understandings of the Church and the role of schools within its mission. After reading the documents of the Congregation of Catholic Education and bringing to mind the momentum of the new evangelisation, I entitled the address “The Evangelising School: Educating In and For Communion” and aim to present something accessible and personally evocative for the participants. Here are some excerpts from the address which may stir your own thoughts about the role, intentionality and influence of our Catholic schools with regards to faith:

dangLast year I travelled throughout the Diocese of Parramatta, which encompasses the Western suburbs of Sydney, and spoke with some 2,000 people about their hopes and aspirations for our Church. The role of our Catholic schools in the faith of our children was high on the agenda. What became apparent is that the rationale and expected outcomes of Catholic schools in regards to religion is anything but a settled question.

Is the Catholic school genuinely responsible for the spiritual lives of our children and to what extent? As participation in Catholic parishes continues to decline, how does this position schools as centres of evangelisation for young people and their families? What responsibility lies with school families themselves for the faith of the young, named as they are by the Church as the primary educators and nurturers of baptismal faith? Then there are the increasing numbers of non-Catholic students in our schools. What impact should this phenomenon have, if any, on our goals and self-understanding as Catholic schools, as avowedly Catholic institutions? One suspects that in the face of such questions and the variety of views that surround them that many Catholics, both the loosely affiliated and the deeply committed, are ambivalent about the school as a centre of faith and evangelisation. Indeed, it would be fair to suggest that for some observers the Catholic faith and schools appear a ‘forced fit’, partners that would be better off going their separate ways; still others argue that the divorce has already taken place – schools have left the faith or the faith has left our schools – and we are now left to bicker about the children.

While such a fatalistic reaction is easy, even tempting, demanding little effort or commitment to change, it is as deficient as the ‘spotless sunshine’ of the optimist – both attitudes are too certain of the outcome. The social and cultural context in which we live and teach has changed, irrevocably, and not always in a positive direction. However, the proper Christian response to changing circumstance is hope, recognising the past and present moment do not exhaust all possibilities and that all times and cultures can yet encounter Christ as the path of life. In that spirit, I would like to share a few comments on Catholic schools as centres of evangelisation in the twenty-first century. In particular, I bear in mind our many lay teachers who increasingly shape our Catholic schools once dominated by religious brothers and sisters, and their significant influence in the lives of not only students but school families and indeed colleagues within the learning community.

The Year of Faith and ‘The New Evangelisation’

PopeBenedictIn October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated a Year of Faith to bring the task of evangelisation to the fore. Commemorating fifty years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), the pontiff invited the universal Church to reflect anew on the meaning of faith and the mission that flows from faith – the mission to proclaim the Risen Jesus “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Pope Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, spoke often of ‘a new evangelisation’ that sought to be realised, including within our Catholic school communities which share the joys and demands of faith. To what does this term, ‘the new evangelisation,’ refer and what claim does it make on the life of our Catholic school communities?

While it is anticipated that Pope Francis will soon issue an encyclical on this very subject, we can already detect something of its meaning in the writings of previous popes, including Blessed John Paul II. In 1990, the polish pontiff remarked that the Church directs its missionary activity to basically three situations:

. . . peoples, human groups, socio-cultural contexts in which Christ and his Gospel are not known . . . Then there are Christian communities which have adequate and solid ecclesial structures, are fervent in faith and life . . . Finally, there exists an intermediate situation, often in countries of ancient Christian tradition, but at times also in younger Churches, where entire groups of the baptised have lost the living sense of the faith or even no longer recognise themselves as members of the Church, leading an existence which is far from Christ and from his Gospel. In this case there is a need for a ‘new evangelisation’ or a ‘re-evangelisation.’ (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio 33).

The ‘new evangelisation’ appeals to an ‘in between’ or intermediate group of people who have indeed heard the Gospel, and so are not new to its announcement, but who nevertheless do not participate actively or regularly in the Church’s life. That is, we could not yet describe this last group of Catholics as intentional disciples of Jesus. By ‘the new evangelisation,’ John Paul II sought to direct the Church toward missionary outreach in traditionally Christian nations to whom the Gospel is known but whose faith nevertheless lacks fervour and genuine witness in life. As the New Testament reminds us, not all those who encounter Jesus find him convincing or compelling as the face of God.

It would also be fair to suggest that this third group represents many of our school families and even teachers – baptised Catholics who no longer feel close to the Church, whose practice is perhaps occasional rather than continuous, and who have become distant from their faith. Australia has certainly been recognised on an official basis as one of those nations where Christian faith has played an integral part in the development of our culture, law and society and yet remains today on the sidelines rather than at the heart of the nation. Pope Benedict himself would aver,

This is certainly a form of suffering which, I would say, fits into our time in history, and in which we generally see that the so-called ‘great’ Churches seem to be dying. This is true particularly in Australia, also in Europe, but not so much in the United States. (Benedict XVI, “Address to the Diocesan Clergy of Aosta: On Critical Issues in the Life of the Church”)

If our Catholic schools are to become centres of a new evangelisation, reaching out to school families, students and staff with the vitality of the Gospel, then we need to acknowledge, with candour, the challenges that face us at this time, both within the Church and in the wider culture.

Challenges and Promise

pewsOf course, the most glaring challenge for ‘a new evangelisation,’ a renewed outreach to others in faith, whether in the school or the parish, is the sexual abuse crisis which has undermined the credibility of the Church not only in Australia but around the world. In an address delivered in Glasgow, Cardinal George Pell noted with realism, “It does not need to be said that this [the sexual abuse crisis] is the most important and powerful barrier to the New Evangelisation” (Address at St Andrew’s Conference, Glasgow).

In the light of terrible crimes committed by some clergy and maladministration on the part of some bishops and religious orders, many Catholics, including our school families, can feel less than inclined to engage with the larger Church or ‘institutional church’ as it is often put. Thus, the divide between what happens in the school and the wider Church can seem unbridgeable, even desirable in the wake of the false witness of a few. The Australian theologian Richard Lennan comments on this situation,

It is surely undeniable . . . that in its structures of authority that the church today seems to be for many people not simply ‘other,’ but alien. It is in its ordained leaders and their actions and decrees that the church seems particularly unattractive: prone to intolerance, authoritarian attitudes, and, most shockingly and tragically of all, even to abusive and corrupt behaviours. As a result it is common for Catholics to group such features together as the expression of the ‘institutional church,’ which tends to mean the church that I do not like and would not want to be a part of. It is, perhaps, a particular temptation for those in schools to think that way: our school community tries to live by Gospel values and to give students a positive experience of discipleship, but it is not our job to promote, to defend, or even to accept a connection with the ‘institutional church’ (Richard Lennan, “Holiness, ‘Otherness’ and the Catholic School,” 404).

Lennan goes on to suggest that the practical upshot of this situation is the neat division between the school and the Church expressed in the claim that “our kids are good kids even if they don’t go to Mass.”

While not denying the reality and scandal of abuse, it is important to underline, for one, that such crimes and violations of trust do not represent a fulfilment of the Church’s nature or mission as Christ’s body but the gravest contradiction of it, an utter rejection and betrayal of the Gospel which the Church has been entrusted to proclaim from generation to generation. It should also be recalled that such abuse does not represent the total sum of the Church’s life. The Church has always done and will continue to do good in the Australian community. Many people still meet Christ in our Church’s life and are supported by our parishes and schools, as well as by the Church’s many works of charity, especially in welfare, health and aged care.

Forgetfulness of this ‘bigger picture’ in the midst of the current crisis can lead to Catholic school families and even teachers to turn away from the wider Church and its worshipping life or to remain silent on, or disengage from, its social advocacy on important issues. However, it is precisely the engagement of everyday Catholics ‘from below’ in the liturgy and the active mission of the Church that is needed now more than ever. In the long-term effort to restore credible witness to the house of God, our schools are critical in fostering future generations of Catholic believers who are not only well-informed, intelligent and critical thinkers but also holy men and women, disciples who bring life to faith and faith to life. The Second Vatican Council well describes this potential of the Catholic school:

. . . its proper function is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and humanity is illumined by faith. (Vatican II, Gravissimum Educationis 8).

While some Catholics have not lived this faith well, it does not render the Gospel any less integral to the human flourishing of our young people, the formation of their whole person and, indeed, the building up, through them, of what has been described as “a civilisation of love.”

School communities and teachers are well placed to bring about this new creation for it is they who face, firsthand, the array of issues that impact our social fabric. This includes alarming rates of suicide among young people, brought on by depression, family crises and social isolation, and the cult of a dehumanising materialism in which people have never had more but remain deeply and even dangerously unfulfilled.

communionIn the midst of this fragmentation, which reveals a crisis in the idea of the human itself, Catholic schools stand to manifest before the wider community and before its own eyes the true meaning of the human person and the nature of authentic relationship. Grounded in the life of the Trinity, the divine unity of diverse persons, our schools can stand beside the family as a space of communion, characterised by mutual recognition and self-giving love, nowhere more so than in the primary school where young people are being socialised and grafted into concrete relationships with others, both their peers and the adults whom they trust. The stark reality is that for some of our young people the school community may provide a deeper experience of communion and unconditional love than the home, and these children can indeed be more valued here than in the marketplace where they are often regarded only for their status as consumers.

By educating in and for communion, Catholic schools can also serve as an evangelising centre for entire families who may never darken the door of a church or have any other experience of the Catholic faith beyond the walls of the school grounds. As I have proposed elsewhere, it is especially schools such as those of the Marists, filled with charism, an awareness of God’s Spirit manifest in human history, that can bring together the Church and the world. Marist schools can accomplish this by mediating or serving as a bridge between the traditional, mainstream Church and the lives of students and parents who may not be connected to parish or regular practice. As the theologian David Ranson has observed, religious institutes including the Marists are, in a sense, both ‘Church’ and ‘beyond Church,’ working at the margins with those who may never feel comfortable within the ordinary life and structures of the Church. On this note, a school principal once remarked to me that while some of his school families did not identify strongly as ‘Catholic’ they certainly felt ‘Marist.’ Such a sentiment points to the way in which schools can mediate the meaning of Catholic faith and a sense of belonging to a contemporary culture that remains hungry for a narrative by which to live and a community in which to live it.

The Practice of Evangelisation

While affirming all that our Catholic schools promise and already bring about through their care and nurturance of the young, our theme of evangelisation also presents forward challenges for each and all of us who represent the Church, whether we are conscious of this ecclesial witness or otherwise. The new evangelisation is not a phase or moment but the perennial mission of all the Catholic faithful, a deep and abiding responsibility to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). In terms of its practice, it has been my experience that among the first responses of schools, as it is for parishes and dioceses as well, is to create appropriate structures to support that goal. This is to be commended. The establishment of committees for evangelisation, dedicated personnel as well as practical resources remind us that wanting to evangelise is never enough. We have to be organised to do so and reveal the power of evangelisation as something other than a Platonic dream. The Great Commission given to us by the Gospel, to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 29:18), should shape all of who we are as Catholic communities, including our structures, budgets, professional development, and the organisation and priorities of our time.

StonesHowever, it must also be said that evangelisation should not be approached as yet another task of the school community, squeezed in between existing commitments, for such an approach inevitably leads to a rather bureaucratic response to the Church’s mission of outreach. Boxes are ticked and prayers are said, usually before and after meetings, but the deepest meaning of evangelisation can be missed, as a continuing conversion to the Gospel in all aspects of school and professional life. Of course, it is proper for schools and school systems to set benchmarks, to define goals and measures of evangelising activity, but these of themselves cannot ensure fruit without a conversion of heart on the part of teachers and school leaders.

While recognising the importance of structures in coordinating efforts and marshalling resources, the risk is that ‘evangelisation’ comes to be understood by the school community as the responsibility of one person, one group or one department rather than the entire body of students, teachers and parents that form the school community. The adult educator Jane Regan points out that it may be better to speak of the evangelising school or parish, noting,

When we use the [noun] evangelisation, there is the temptation to set it out as another activity the parish [or school] does – catechesis, liturgy, pastoral care, and evangelisation . . . Using the [verb] evangelising strengthens the commitment that who we are as Church – our mission and identity – is rooted in engaging in all activities through the lens of evangelisation (Jane Regan, Toward an Adult Church, 23-4).

Thus, for the evangelising school, the school sports day is not unconnected to the human flourishing which the Gospel promotes, social justice activities are not simply about good citizenship but involve recognising the dignity of others, and ourselves, made in the one image of God, and that the ‘faith of the school’ does not simply refer us to the school motto or point backwards to its origins but also points forwards to its aspiration, its witness of Gospel values as an ecclesial community, and its future commitment to ongoing conversion. The evangelising school will therefore relate all that it is and does to the evangelion, the Good News of the Gospel, which comes to us not only as a gift but an invitation to renewal, even change.

Conversion for each and for all

19238374Ultimately, all discussion of evangelisation is self-implicating in that it presses us to consider the quality of our own discipleship and the extent to which we manifest the holiness that we seek to awaken in others. As Pope Paul VI points out, “The Church is an evangeliser, but she begins by being evangelised herself” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 15). By this statement, the pontiff recognised that we can only share what we ourselves have received into our life, that our own passion for, or else disinterest in, evangelisation reflects the extent to which we have been convinced by the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God. The fruits that this self-conversion yields for others are manifold, as Paul VI would note, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” It is the quality of our Christian discipleship that is the most powerful form of evangelisation that we can offer students, their families and our colleagues, leaving an imprint in the experience and memories of others that can last a lifetime and shape their own discipleship, experience and perception of the Church.

Of course, conversion is never an easy business and demands of us an unvarnished reflection on any gap between who we profess to be as Catholic teachers, and as school communities, and who we really are. It could be suggested that too many of us are admirers of holiness but not enough of us seek to possess it for ourselves. The startling gift and project of ‘the new evangelisation’ is this – to realise that we are the Church we are waiting for.

In Season Four of the American political drama, the West Wing, a young man, Sam Seaborn, is running for a seat in the United States Congress. He returns backstage after an exuberant political rally organised to garner votes and complains to his campaign manager, “I’m preaching to the choir. You had me out there preaching to the choir. Why?!” The campaign manager replies with calm, “Because that’s how you get them to sing.” So it is for the Church – the first who need to hear the call of the new evangelisation are ourselves, those of us closest to the mission of our Church as it is lived in our parish and school communities. The depth of our listening to this call will express itself in the strength of our commitment to proclaim the Gospel to the young people in our care.

Our Catholic schools bear enormous potential as centres of evangelisation, bridging the gap between the traditional Church and those not embedded in parish or regular practice. The new evangelisation calls us to attend especially to those baptised Catholics among us who have lost a living sense of the beauty, goodness and truth of our faith, who no longer recognise the Gospel as the way of life. While structures and committees are a necessary part of this important work, the task of evangelisation ultimately demands something of each of us, our ongoing conversion and willingness to receive the Gospel as the heart of our identity and mission as Catholic disciples and the heart of our life and calling as Catholic schools.

getting started in ministry

planningLast week I met with a diocesan youth minister who was seeking advice on planning for parish communities and better coordinating their activities toward a unified mission. For me it was an opportunity to learn more about the organisation of other dioceses and their parishes which differ quite considerably across the country.

One of the recommendations that I made was that whether you are working within the context of a parish ministry, a religious order, or for a diocese it is essential to put aside some specific time for planning rather than jumping headfirst into frenetic activity.

Gregory of Nyssa, the fourth century Cappadocian Father, warned that the mere appearance of Christian activity and practice does not mean any genuine progress is being made. He likened directionless activity to

. . . those who toil endlessly as they climb uphill in sand. Even though they take long steps, their footing in the sand always slips downhill, so that, although there is much motion, no progress results from it. (The Life of Moses)

Genuine progress demands beginning on firm ground, including the effort to plan, otherwise we risk expending a lot of energy in ministries that make little progress or have little impact. As it has been put, without proper planning, direction and goals, we can be ‘paying people to be nice’.

Here are a few pointers which may be helpful for those just beginning in ministry as well as those further along in experience. These can assist both lay and ordained ministers to make the most of their opportunities and reduce the amount of energy lost to initiatives that are uncoordinated or ill-conceived from the start:

  • windowUnderstand the ecclesial context, history and organisational structure. One of the first things I did, and found helpful, was to request an organisational map of the diocese before all else. One of the advantages of working within the Catholic Church is that there will be a relatively firm structure, that is for sure! A map of these structures and relevant organisations within your diocese, parish, or religious network will help you identify who the stakeholders are, to identify those who link with your work and help you to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes! It is also important to quickly become familiar with the history of the context you are working in. This helps you understand people’s attitudes, opinions and actions in the present. All of this takes time, though after a year or so you should be picking up the ‘lay of the land’. If you don’t have a clear picture of the ecclesial landscape and dynamics you are working in it can be difficult to make genuine progress. After all, you can’t do it alone and need to collaborate with others.
  • Ensure ownership of your ministry by those you report to, as well as the provision of adequate resources to fulfil your ministry. This includes the need for your own ongoing formation. Accountability and governance are not only important dimensions of the Church as a human organisation but a part of the Church’s self-understanding as a theological reality. The Church is structured in such a way as to not only safeguard but to strengthen an apostolic proclamation from generation to generation. This means that those you report to, often an ordained minister, a vicar, a head of a religious institute or perhaps even a bishop, need to exercise oversight and take ownership of the work you have undertaken. Sometimes a helpful distinction is made between ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ – you may be responsible for a particular work but someone ‘higher up the chain’ will be ultimately accountable for it. So regular meetings with your superior are a must. Your overseer also has responsibilities and they should support you not only in rhetoric but also in practical resources. All church organisations should be resourcing their people to succeed, not to fail, so it is important to ask for a budget that allows you to get the job done. If they could have done it for less or without expense, they would not have employed you in the first place! Finally, securing resources for your ministry also means ensuring you are not working in isolation and that you have opportunities to network with others and receive formation and/or supervision of some kind. Working in the Church means working with people and there is nothing more rewarding and challenging than that. Good supervision, networking with others and ongoing formation are essential for your longevity as a leader.
  • Establish a coherent framework for your ministry. Take youth ministry in a diocese for example. Is your ministry going to be parish-based, diocesan events-based, or a combination of these and in what proportion? No one can ‘do it all’ so what will your approach be, your principle message for young people, and what are the three goals you seek to achieve in the first year? Clarifying these basic goals and approaches to your ministry are important. It strikes me that in speaking of a ‘framework’ for your ministry those who take up an existing role often feel an expectation to simply duplicate what was before. However, again, if what had gone before was so successful or sustainable, it is doubtful that your predecessor would have moved on or that the organisation would have employed you to take it up. Once you familiarise yourself with the context and history, have the courage to begin to shape the goals that you discern as critical to the life of your community. You, also, need to own the work if you are to carry it out not only with competence but personal passion.
  • Build a reliable team throughout the planning process yet still assert leadership. As I’ve mentioned before, often Church organisations have strategic plans that no one really cares about other than its authors. No one else feels invested in the plan and so few are likely to respond to its initiatives. When you start out in your ministry, start collecting names and remembering profiles of good people with a proven record for getting things done. Remember, these may not be the people recommended to you by predecessors or the people currently in place! Ask the skilled and capable people you have identified for their views as you plan for your ministry. Not only are you getting wise advice from a gifted cohort but they may also form a future team that can help you turn the vision of your ministry into a reality. By having their say, people become genuine owners of a plan and you are on your way to building and nurturing a reliable team. Keep in mind this does not mean handing everything over to committee – it remains important to lead from the front and it is indeed an old saying that ‘if you want to kill something off send it to committee’. Work towards a style of leadership that is genuinely consultative but is unafraid to make decisions and exercise leadership when called for.

There are many other dimensions of good planning in ministry and while few of us, including myself, manage to apply or appropriate them all, it is helpful to have them before us as a resource for future thinking.

greatgrace2013For those interested in further reflection on ministry, especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Sydney Archdiocese is hosting the “Great Grace” conference next month. It is well worth attending if you can. I’ll be there speaking on the subject of “co-responsibility” and you can read my abstract and those of others here.

As the landscape of ministry develops across our Church, I will be suggesting that it is indeed possible to affirm the integrity of ministry by the non-ordained and uphold the unique charism of the ordained without compromise or a diminishment of either. As so often happens in the Church, the practice of co-responsibility is outpacing the theology and Church policy in this area. Yet this does not necessarily mean a distortion is taking place. In fact, it can herald development that is authentic to our tradition, including our self-understanding as a ‘communion’.

I hope to share more reports on the Conference and reflections on ministry in posts to come.

the great hope of Pope Francis

popefrancisSome eight hundred years ago a young soldier reposed in prayer at a wayside chapel on the outskirts of Assisi. It was there that the young man, named Francis, heard and heeded the divine will of God, ‘Go, repair my house which as you see is falling into ruin.’ This moment of great faith and also of intense tribulation for the Church of Christ provides a fitting backdrop to the announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as the 266th Bishop of Rome, with the appellation of Pope Francis.

Bergoglio, until this morning the Jesuit Archbishop of Buenos Aires, presents as an ideal candidate to renew the Church in the present, beset as it is by the ongoing scandal of the sexual abuse crisis and an accompanying collapse of credibility in the public square, widespread persecution in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the challenge of rapid and aggressive secularisation in the West, and significant issues of church governance that, it must be admitted, have hindered the ability of the Church to respond effectively to these concerns as well as the broader needs of human culture and society.

archbergoglioOf course, it is naïve to assume that any one figure can bring about the conversion that remains the responsibility of the whole body of the Catholic faithful and it can be too easy to either acclaim or criticise those called to a service of leadership from afar while one sits comfortably on their hide. Naïve it would be, too, to assume a simply address of Church structures will provide the necessary medicine for the afflictions suffered by the Church on account of its members who, like the first disciples, know their poverty of spirit all too well.

Nevertheless, it is true that ‘leadership matters’ and it arrives with the responsibility to take up these great challenges with courage and the conviction that the current woes of the Catholic Church are not a fulfilment of its nature but a contradiction to its mission as the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’ (Lumen Gentium 48). In other words, leadership brings with it the demands and gift of hope, a hope that brings the future into the present and affirms that this moment of history, filled as it may be with trial and tribulation, does not exhaust all possibilities.

Doubtless much ink will be spilt about Pope Francis and his capacity to realise these possibilities in the years ahead. Already there has been a positive assessment for his acute concern for the poor, a virtue that is indeed evident throughout his episcopal career in Latin America, and for his prayerful acceptance of the responsibilities of the Petrine Office. The inspiration of Bergoglio’s papal name in the mendicant saint of Assisi augurs well for a pontificate marked by a focus on a renewed mission of evangelisation which responds to the poor, to poverty in its social and spiritual dimensions.

Who are these ‘poor’? There are those poor in spirit who have yet to hear the Good News of the Risen Jesus, sent from the Father and encountered in the Spirit; there are the poor in discipleship who have heard but not received this living Word within the depths of their life; there are the poor in circumstance who cry out for the bare necessities of life and who make a claim on the Church’s faith, and there is the poverty of the Church itself which remains ever incomplete in its human dimension, in need of conversion to the source of its life.

BergoglioThe credentials of Pope Francis to take on this missionary enterprise are certainly in evidence. In an interview with Vatican Insider, a media service run by the daily newspaper La Stampa, Bergoglio called the Church to return to its foundational ‘memory’, the memory of Christ and the urgency of his Gospel message. Reflecting on the current Year of Faith, the then-Archbishop reminded his audience that faith is not given to us for our own consolation or comfort but as a gift for others:

Benedict XVI has insisted on the renewal of faith being a priority and presents faith as a gift that must be passed on, a gift to be offered to others and to be shared as a gratuitous act. It is not a possession, but a mission. This priority indicated by the Pope has a commemorative purpose: through the Year of Faith we remember the gift we have received. And there are three pillars to this: the memory of having been chosen, the memory of the promise that was made to us and the alliance that God has forged with us. We are called to renew this alliance, our belonging to the community of God’s faithful.

It is memory of our election, the promises of God and our communion with Him that reminds us who we as Church. Like those who suffer amnesia, the Church, without this fundamental threefold memory, loses its sense of self, its very identity, and so its purpose. The Archbishop went on to remark,

We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first . . .

Bergoglio identifies the need of the Church to resist insularity, to move from ecclesiolatry to a new evangelisation, from fear of the world’s unknown dimensions to an embrace of Gospel life within its very domain. This is the path of conversion that will bring renewed vitality and hope to the Church catholic. It is ‘on the street’ and in the public square that the Church will regain its innocence and vigour; it is in world-engaging mission that the Church grows young.

conclave2013Finally, the election of a Latin American to the papacy, the first non-European pope for twelve centuries, recalls for the Church its essential universality, a ‘Pentecostal’ breadth and diversity that implies a universality of mission, a mission not only to the West but ad gentes, to the East and global south. While differing in specific contexts, there is a continuity of global need that must enliven the Church’s faith: pressing issues of social and economic injustice, including gross exploitation of women and children, the endangered rights of the unborn and the voiceless, the victims of war and poverty, the spiritual imprisonment of those without hope.

As shepherd and teacher, leader and servant of the Church’s faith, we pray that Pope Francis will be given the courage and succour of the Holy Spirit to fulfil his great responsibilities. As Easter approaches may he, like the first Peter, grow firmly in his role as witness and messenger of Easter faith and proclaim Christ as Risen in humble service of the Church and to the world.

religious life as narratives of holiness

waterOn the 6th March, 2013, around 150 leaders of Religious Institutes gathered at the Novotel, Parramatta, for the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (NSW) Conference 2013.

The theme of the conference was ‘religious life in the post-modern world’ and I was privileged to address leaders and leadership teams on the purpose and contribution of religious life today.

The conference took in a variety of themes centred on religious life: the Church as sacrament of God’s mission, the multidimensions of evangelisation and the living symbol that religious life remains today in a culture that, while often very secularised, remains sensitive to signs.

Prominent documents to consult on the varieties and purpose of religious life include the 1965 conciliar decree, Perfectae Caritatis, and John Paul II’s 1996 Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata.

These were my remarks at the gathering:

‘Narratives of Holiness’ for the Church and world

candleIn the first instance, religious communities, both apostolic and contemplative, tell a particular story about the way in which God’s Spirit has been manifest in history. Secondly, religious life tells as well a story about the human response to such divine irruption. The many varieties of religious life reveal that Christian discipleship is possible even in this way and recalls for the Church that diversity can be an expression of God’s life too.

By the narratives of holiness it provides, religious life nourishes not only the vocation of those called to live radically the evangelical counsels but nourishes the hope and imagination of the wider Church as to how holiness might be exercised. As bearers of charism and grounded in the original spirit of their founder(s), religious congregations show forth the accessibility and concrete shape of a life centred in God’s gifts; in turn, they invite all members of the Church to envisage what God is asking to be realised and hence what they might live for.

I consider religious life essential to the Church also in the way in which such life stretches beyond but is nevertheless active within the local church, that is, the diocese. Of course, my role as a pastoral planner for a local church has brought into focus the centrality of parishes as the ordinary experience of communion for the vast majority of Catholic people.

However, religious life complements this particular experience of communion with witness to the universal dimension of the church’s life. Religious life, as we know, as a response to the Spirit, cannot be completely merged or contained within traditional diocesan structures. Marked by an intense desire to live the Gospel fully and radically in genuine service to the world, religious life possesses the ability to keep individuals and communities open to the essential universality of the Church and its truly global concerns.

The presence of religious within a diocese, for one, can assist to ensure that local communities do not become inward or self-absorbed, focused on their parish facilities rather than their engagement in God’s mission. In their universal character and tensive ecclesial location in the midst of the local church, religious institutes work against the absolutisation of the parochial and so support the genuine ‘catholicity’ of the Church’s identity and mission.

Religious Life and the New Evangelisation

marymackillopI would further suggest that the apostolic character of many religious congregations will play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the ‘new evangelisation’ which continues to unfold on both a magisterial and local level.

I approach the contemporary situation in this way: since the Second Vatican Council, we are well aware how close to the surface questions of Catholic identity lie. The danger of course is that ‘the new evangelisation’ and its more apologetic tendencies foster a narrow focus on Catholic identity couched primarily in terms of opposition to the world.

This way of being Church – permeated as it is by a certain apocalyptic, dualistic sensibility – can result, unhelpfully, in self-affirming Catholic subcultures which are unable to engage or dialogue with the surrounding culture.

(Note that this danger was on show in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication – while the pope’s resignation unleashed wide ignorance and some anti-Catholic bigotry in the secular media it also produced an ample supply of Catholic triumphalism with little genuine conversation between the two opposed tendencies.)

As an alternative to this narrow politics of identity, religious life is well placed to offer the ‘new evangelisation’ a model of outreach characterised by genuine service to the world without the reactionary and oppositional spirit to which other emerging groups may be vulnerable. In other words, religious life can model a mature evangelism, a truly contextualised faith which engages the surrounding culture while losing nothing of its distinctive Christian identity.

Religious Life and Lay Discipleship

SB054Finally, religious life continues to nourish the discipleship of lay men and women in a variety of ways. In addition to the ‘narratives of holiness’ which religious life offers to the whole Body of Christ, we have also seen the emergence of formal collaborations including the creation of new juridic persons among religious institutes in which laity have assumed governance responsibilities while allowing religious to re-engage more immediate and original expressions of service.

Of course, laity and religious collaborate in many other ways, including through ‘associations’ that give expression to a more inclusive imagination of holiness, and therefore a more inclusive notion of Christian community, recovered by the Second Vatican Council.

Beyond structured initiatives, however, religious life can foster lay discipleship through its work at the margins with those who may never feel comfortable within the structures of the Church. As noted by Australian theologian David Ranson, religious life has shown a profound ability to mediate between a given social context and the wider Catholic community – in the case of schools, hospitals or works of justice, between the lives of students, parents, and families who may not be connected to parish or regular practice and the normal life of the Church which is the bearer of the Word and sacramental encounter. This mediating role of religious life, its carriage of the meaning and experience of Christian faith to contemporary culture, is precisely that work of evangelisation to which the entire Church is called.

Conclusion

By a life that animates the local church but stretches beyond it, religious life bears witness to the essential universality of the Church’s identity and mission. In its proven ability to engage the culture with a mature and discerning spirit, in its continued work with and support of lay men and women through its apostolates and associations, and in its variety of charismatic life, religious life is positioned well to awaken and support the Church in its mission of evangelisation which cannot be exhausted by any single historical form.

we can all learn from Boston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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