new ecclesial movements

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

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

(c) Diocese of Parramatta

(c) Diocese of Parramatta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

the rural and regional church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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).

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(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.

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.

towards a planning culture in our church

plannerA fortnight ago I was in Brisbane for a meeting of the executive of the National Pastoral Planners Network (NPPN). It is a privilege to hear and share the concerns and aspirations that are shaping our dioceses around the country as well as in New Zealand. The network and its members offer a unique insight into the backstories shaping ecclesial culture and decision-making in our midst.

To put the network in context, the NPPN is a professional pastoral planning body that promotes and advocates a culture of planning within the Catholic Church in Oceania. It promotes consultation, facilitates the exchange of knowledge, provision of resources as well as training among pastoral planners. It is entering a new phase of life with a new executive and a developing focus on education and increased communication with the wider Church.

While the importance and rationale of pastoral planning is obvious to those of us involved – and indeed noticeable in dioceses when absent – there remains a need to promote with greater vigour a planning culture in our parish and diocesan communities. This advocacy is especially important at a time when the ecclesial, political and social landscape is more complex than ever, when there is division within the communion of faith, when the need for best practice in the Catholic Church is indisputable given our past and present, and when new generations await a compelling invitation from the Church to embrace the Gospel and the mission it entails.

collaborationWhile pastoral planners offer no ‘silver bullet’ for the many challenges of the Church (if we did, we would sell it to the world!), we provide advice to bishops and diocesan curia, collaborate with business managers, church agencies, clergy and local communities in a variety of circumstances. As pointed out in a previous post, dioceses in Australia are at varying phases of progress and idleness in terms of a more strategic approach to their pastoral life and this is not without consequence for their vitality.

In order to promote a culture of planning in our Church, an advocacy that I believe is critical to our future, it is important to name and address the scepticism and even resistance that can exist toward pastoral planning at a diocesan and parish level. If we truly believe planning is essential to the Church’s life, then we need to tackle objections to it for the good of our Church and its mission.

A central objection that can be expressed and calls for specific response is the view that pastoral planning takes a rather bureaucratic and functional approach to the Church. With talk of community engagement and stakeholders, strategic plans, policy development and the like, pastoral planning can appear to be driven by principles more commonly found in the Business Review Weekly than the Gospel. Some would view the enterprise of planning for the Church to be Pelagian in spirit for it suggests a lack of faith in the capacity of God to lead us to greener pastures.

336280_lowHowever, I believe that position not only misrepresents how pastoral planning is actually exercised in the Church (operating as it does from ecclesiological and missionary principles not management techniques) but it also tends to abstract the Church out of history with an opposite tendency toward fideism. It fails to appreciate that the Church’s mission is not only a gift but a task, a mission exercised in history and that calls for human decision and agency as well as the graces we implore from God. (At the time of the last conclave, I reflected on the interaction of the Spirit and human decision-making here).

Indeed, pastoral planning, properly understood, is a response of faith to the mission with which we have been entrusted. It recognises as well the very sacramental nature of the Church – Christ present in and through the community of those who believe in Him – and values practices of consultation, discernment and prioritisation as a means of making the most of the faith, gifts and resources given to us as stewards of the Kingdom.

As intimated previously, planning can take on a determinative or self-satisfied spirit but only when it fails to acknowledges its own limits within an ‘open’ system such as the community of the Church. It is worth repeating that addressing pastoral dilemmas within a diocese is not the same as a problem of mathematics, such as solving an equation, nor is it the same as playing a game of chess. In the latter cases, it is clear when the problem has been resolved – the equation is solved or checkmate is declared.

For Church planners, however, the dilemmas never end because there is always something more that could be done in the name of Christ and his mission. More realistically, church leaders and planners will say, ‘that’s good enough’ or ‘this is the best we can do for now’ before reassessing priorities and remedies and/or any adjustments that need be made in subsequent phases of ecclesial life.

This ever changing and fluid nature of our dioceses and our parishes is more of a reason to plan than an excuse not to. Planning is an appropriate response to change and takes a pro-active stance towards the future rather than letting the Church be shaped passively by external forces which has been the reality in past stages of its history.

consultationUltimately, a planning culture will be fostered in our Church by dioceses and church organisations witnessing to the benefits of planning and consultation, as well as serious reflection on the consequences of not doing either. A refrain of this blog and the project in my own Diocese of Parramatta is that a failure to plan does not leave communities where they are but can actually speed their decline. Churches and parishes that grow are communities that plan, that express an intentionality about their life, have a clear Gospel vision and commit themselves to actions appropriate to context. We cannot rely on the charismatic fact that things will simply fall together; organisation and planning is indispensable for persons to do things together.

Responses to pastoral planning will largely be determined by our expectations and understanding of its practice. While it has an undeserved reputation for being in the business of closing parishes and responding to diminishing numbers of clergy (again, both misapprehensions of a broader missionary reality), pastoral planning is a vital resource for the Church’s mission without which our dioceses can be left only with vague decision-making processes, a deficit of shared vision and with that a lack of common commitment. It is hoped that through witness and best practice there will be more pastoral planning in our Church in the years and indeed the generations to come.

on world youth day

wydrioWorld Youth Day has arrived. This time around it will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, between the 23-28th July, 2013, the 28th such event in the official count. It will see the first South American pontiff greet hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from around the world, bringing attention to the Church in the Americas and the surrounding social and political milieu to which Pope Francis will no doubt speak.

It is no revelation that opinions differ about the value of World Youth Day, both here in Australia and abroad. In my experience it tends to be fairly evenly split between those who uphold the event as a transforming experience for the young and the cities and nations which host them, while others dismiss World Youth Day as an expensive jamboree that proves of little lasting significance for the ordinary life of the Church.

I think it can be recognised that this triennial – or as it tends to be now, biennial – gathering does in fact shape young Catholic imaginations about the catholicity of the Church, understood as a reference not to the mere geographic reach of the Church but the inherent variety of expression or styles that it contains and embraces.

More fundamentally, it offers the young an experience of pilgrimage, a tradition reaching back to first centuries of the Church’s history (this practice has largely been rejected by Protestantism due to the devotions and relics often associated with such travel). What has been said of the life of the French theologian Yves Congar can be affirmed more generally, “a journey only becomes a pilgrimage through consciousness of the goal that gives meaning to the way”. Pilgrimage calls for interior work that brings together an outward practice with the person and message to which such an undertaking intends and World Youth Day provides just such an opportunity for such growth in faith.

A Mixed Picture

PIGLRIMS PRAY DURING EUCHARISTIC ADORATION AT WORLD YOUTH YOUTH DAY VIGIL IN MADRIDOf course, the real impact of World Youth Day – which epitomises on a grand scale the events-based approach to youth ministry which is becoming more popular in dioceses and even our parishes – depends largely on the receptivity of participants themselves.

As the American journalist John L. Allen noted some years ago, World Youth Day pilgrims can usually be divided up into three broad groups:

  • those attending with personal intent, commitment and fervour (described as a “gung-ho inner core”). These “evangelical Catholics” are devoted believers, often attend Mass more than once a week, accept Church teachings and have a strong sense of Catholic identity;
  • a more lukewarm cohort who are open, identify as Catholic but are not as zealous about the faith; are willing to agree with some Catholic teachings but don’t necessarily accept them all;
  • and then there are others who are just along for the ride, perhaps because friends are going or their parents were prepared to pay for World Youth Day but not a summer in the Bahamas. These are the kids you find playing handball or loitering outside during the catechetical sessions; they have a looser affiliation with the Church and low levels of religious practice.

As for the cities that host World Youth Days, the responses are now familiar. The initial announcement of the event is normally greeted with negativity (as it was in Sydney and has been the case for Rio which hosts two other world events in as many years), there are predictable fears of disorganisation and a cost blowout, but all this eventually gives way to a warmer reception as the prospect of a civic apocalypse recedes.

wydsydPope Benedict XVI himself recognised this gradual acceptance of World Youth Day in host cities, in remarks to a seminarian soon after the Sydney event (2008):

At first [Australians] looked at this World Youth Day with great scepticism because it would obviously cause a lot of bother and many inconveniences to daily life, such as traffic jams etc. However, in the end – as we also saw in the media whose prejudices crumbled, bit by bit – everyone felt involved in this atmosphere of joy and faith; they saw that young people come and do not create problems of security or of any other kind, but can be together joyfully. (L’Osservatore Romano, 13-20 August 2008).

Is It Worth It?

Catholics, too, can be tempted to take the line of scepticism or cynicism towards World Youth Day with the concerns being twofold: accessibility and impact.

SB050Given that for Australians World Youth Day involves a substantial airfare, insurances and accommodation, there can be concerns that the event is not only unsustainable for families, local churches (dioceses) and their parishes but that the expense involved restricts access to a privileged few unless participation is heavily subsidised. On average, the cost of attending World Youth Day from down here in the Antipodes ranges between $5,000-8,000 depending on destination and it is unlikely to get any cheaper in years to come. Hence the need for concerted fundraising to get people there.

The second concern is that World Youth Day has little impact or effect on the lives of young people let alone the dioceses and communities from which they come. The two polarised views we hear about the effect of World Youth Day – the conviction that absolutely each and every participant becomes a fully-fledged disciple of Jesus Christ following the event, and the opposite belief that no one is moved a jot – underscores the need for research in this area.

As a nod in that direction, study of World Youth Day Sydney has demonstrated that the impact of the event on a believer has much to do with their starting religious point. Those starting from a lower point of religiosity – there more for the social than the spiritual aspects of World Youth Day – tend to report some increase in confidence in their faith (“I’m not embarrassed now to let others see that I am a believer”, “I’m now more interesting in learning about my faith”). For those with a stronger religious starting point, World Youth Day often serves as a catalyst to make an even more decisive commitment to their faith (“To accept Jesus as Lord of my life”, “Now I want to live as a disciple of Jesus, a witness to Him”).

Notably, it is usually from among those in the second group that you’re likely to hear World Youth Day described as a “life-changing experience”. Perhaps it is because these young people are already devout that this large-scale, Spirit-filled event fires their energy and consolidates their identity in ways that just aren’t experienced by those of lesser conviction, hence the claims to its power of conversion.

You can read more about the impact of World Youth Days in this session of the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (2009), entitled “Shoring up the foundations:  the large-scale international youth festival as a strategy for the retention of Catholic youth”.

Most of us with involvement in youth ministry would view World Youth Day in positive terms while at the same time acknowledging it is no silver bullet for outreach to and engagement of youth.

Implications for youth ministry

wydsyd2For those close to the ground in ministry with youth, is the events-based approach – epitomised by World Youth Day – the way to go? As intimated, it has certainly become a dominant model in dioceses and some parishes, and the advantages are apparent.

Youth ministry programs and groups often fail or succeed on their ability to attract a “critical mass” of attenders. No young person wants to go to an event with only a handful of participants. In the youth ministry game, for better or worse, numbers matter. So, rather than the week-to-week youth program of old, some parishes and dioceses are favouring the occasional, bigger budget, showcase event.

The downside of this approach is that it can lead to a rather lazy form of youth ministry where one-off events are thrown on the parish or diocesan calendar without any thought to the faith development of young people over the medium to long term. Unfortunately, this is all too common today and the lack of continuity and personalisation of youth ministry can lead to a loss of potential young disciples who were open, maybe even seeking but who never quite found a place to land.

While large youth events make everyone feel good and may serve the youth minister well in terms of visible accountability (‘proving’ the position is justified), the capacity of such gatherings to bring about actual growth in faith can never be assumed. People turning up doesn’t mean people ‘turning on’ or people ‘turning around’. Holding an increasing number of youth events may actual divert energy from more intimate forms of ministry which may better generate disciples and help identify future leaders than the event-driven model.

SB051Whatever the preference, consistency in youth ministry is key because each generation deserves to hear the Gospel in the context of a community. Curiously, some would suggest there is too much emphasis on youth in our Church. Others would counter with humour, “Look around – everything we do seems to be for the elderly!”

While parishes do not hesitate in organising and funding services and outreach to the aged, primary school aged children and other distinct segments of the community, they often need real encouragement in responding to adolescents and young adults. One would have thought evangelisation and pastoral care admit of no exceptions.

As I’ve suggested in a previous blog, our parishes so often want these young people for their energy, witness and the hope that they bring to a greying Church but young people will not be attracted to communities that show no life, enthusiasm or generosity in themselves. I maintain that the absence or presence of young people in the life of the Church is, in part, a function of the vitality of its adult members whom they will one day become.

Conclusion

christtheredeemerAll in all, as a recurring feature of the Church’s outreach to youth, World Youth Days should be commended and supported. Of course, cynicism within and beyond the Church about this international event will continue to abound. However, cynicism is often a buffer against personal commitment and the folly of hacks and commentators who often make little effort themselves in this area of the Church’s life. An alternative to cynicism is hope and World Youth Day brings tonnes of it.

As for the next World Youth Day? The safe money is on Krakow, Poland, given John Paul II’s impending canonisation and his status as the originator of the World Youth Day events. 2015 also marks the 10th anniversary of the pontiff’s death so we could see the next World Youth Day a little sooner than expected. World Youth Day has been held in Poland just once before, in 1991, hosted by the southern city of Częstochowa.

As a local plug, you can read about the experiences of pilgrims in Rio from my own Diocese of Parramatta at their blog. Don’t hesitate to share your own views on World Youth Day and comment on how it might be better supported and integrated here in Australia.

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.