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).

yobrek_021

(c) Diocese of Parramatta

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

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

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

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

    (c) Catholic Diocese of Parramatta

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

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

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

social media in the Church

social-mediaIn the light of two conferences of significance for the Australian Church this week – the inaugural Catholic New Media Conference and that of the Australasian Catholic Press Association – I thought I would offer a few remarks about the role of social media within the Church’s mission.

Many Catholics, including older generations, would readily agree that the Church’s embrace of social media is important, even necessary. Consulting 2,000 Catholics last year, there was a palpable enthusiasm and agreement that the Church as a whole commit itself to this technology. However, I suspect there is not always a great degree of clarity on why this is so other than reference to motives that are ambiguous to say the least (e.g. ‘relevance’).

It is important to articulate the reasons for social media as a normal part of the Church’s mission because diocesan bishops, parish priests, parish councils, heads of religious institutes, boards of management and other forms of Church leadership need to be convinced of its value if they are going to make an investment in that direction (our own Diocese of Parramatta has employed a Social Media Coordinator, @socialmediaparra, and I am aware that other dioceses are on the way to doing the same or similar).

And it is an investment. Consider your typical dioceses with its various church agencies – adult education centres, liturgical office, youth ministries and the like. While a Facebook page or a Twitter account is not difficult to establish with appropriate disclaimers, considerable thought needs to be given to message, audience and integration of that media within the ordinary work of that agency and the diocese or parish as a whole. This often requires the training of staff in the effective use of this media and time dedicated to the maintenance and driving of its message in public space. Unfortunately in the province of the profane, ‘time is money’ and so churches and agencies need to budget for that time and work if it is to be an ongoing concern. Helpfully, budgeting for the use of such media sends a signal to stewards of church finance that ‘this things matters’.

As well, my learning from a past life as a media buyer for Mitchell & Partners is that content is expensive to generate and it is important for the Church to recognise time and resources are needed to deliver this proclamation and foster dialogue in the digital realm.

542379_lowWhile the ‘content’ of Catholic media is perennial and freely given – the revelation of Jesus Christ made known by Scripture and Tradition and declared by Church teaching, liturgy, and the Church Fathers – it is not sufficient for Church media to tweet from Proverbs or even the Gospel alone. Social media in the Church, indeed communications more generally, consists not only in the confession of faith – that basic affirmation of St Peter at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29) – it also calls for testimony that communicates the witness of Christian lives.

The reason to consider the role of social media in the Church in the context of testimony is this. Most of people’s beliefs about the world depend on the testimony of others. For instance, I have never been to South America but trust that it exists on the basis of the testimony of others who have. In fact, most of our beliefs of the world are formed on the basis of testimony because our experience of the world is inevitably limited. However, it is testimony that may draw us to travel to Rio de Janeiro if we believe in the credibility of the pilgrim that has returned from that destination.

pewsThe testimony of discipleship is what social media offers the Church’s mission. As Sherry Weddell recognises in her fine work Forming Intentional Disciples, it is not merely a curiosity but truly frightening to acknowledge that Catholics have come to regard it as normal (even deeply Catholic!) not to talk about discipleship. Indeed, for too long the cultural pressure within our parishes and communities works against the overt expression of discipleship, including an account of a personal relationship with Jesus, which can be viewed, absurdly, as Protestant rather than the foundation stone of Catholic identity (see pages 56-70). For existing and new generations of Catholic believers, social media is one vehicle that provides for Christian testimony with credibility, an opportunity to give witness to a journey travelled.

While we have come some way in past decades – moved past the prayer card, sent by email and complete with kittens, butterflies and trivial uplifting thoughts – there is some way to go to embed social media within the ordinary life of the Church’s mission and outreach. The very fact of separate conferences in Melbourne this week – one for new media and one for press – speaks to the integration that still awaits to take place in the Church’s communications effort and its self-understanding and organisation as bearer of the Word.

Of course, there is a risk that individuals and organisations, in their embrace of new media, develop an obsession with novelty which distracts rather than deepens. In a populist and throwaway culture, and given the Church’s insecurity amid current challenges and a devastating loss of public credibility, we can risk becoming eccentric faddists who are in love with anything just because it is new.

gospel of markHowever, it is the work of those leaders in social media who are emerging in the Church to school themselves not only in algorithms of rank and filter but the theology of revelation, missiology, and ecclesiology that will underpin, extend and even challenge their work. Documents such as Dei Verbum (1965), Inter Mirifica (1963), Redemptoris Missio (1990), and Pope Benedict XVI’s messages for World Communications Day in 2010, 2011 and 2013 are good starting points in this direction, underscoring that the authentic development of humanity and human culture is not a technological achievement but one that stands in relation to what has been revealed, the one who, in revealing God, has revealed us to ourselves.

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.

the state of the Australian church (part II)

australia-allThe Catholic Church now takes in a quarter of the Australian population (25.3%). It includes parishes, religious institutes, ecclesial movements, schools, tertiary institutions, hospitals, aged care facilities, social support services and various other expressions of Catholic identity and mission. For those engaged in the day-to-day activities of the Church, it is obvious that there is much to celebrate about the contribution and mission of the Church in Australian society. However, as will be recognised below, it is not all good news (if it ever was) and each of us is left to engage with the work yet to be done.

As intimated in my last review of the Australian scene, while statistics should never alone determine pastoral initiatives they do provide a helpful context in which good decisions can be made for the future. Ignorance of the sociological realities of the Church can lead to planning and decision-making ‘in the air’, a choice which can exacerbate problems or else leave potential unrecognised and unfulfilled.

censusformIt won’t be a surprise that even the statistical realities of our Church can be contested. This is because there will be an element of selectivity in the data we choose to focus on and varying interpretations of that data depending even on our theological positions or presuppositions. These include the proper relation of the Church to the world, the meaning, purpose and expressions of Catholic mission, and the ultimate goal of Catholic education to name only a few.

For instance, we know from the most recent census that 52.8% of Catholic students attend Catholic schools. What does this say about ourselves, our schools and their role in the support of Catholic faith and families? What are the pastoral implications of the 10.8% of Catholics aged over 15 who are divorced or separated in our midst? Then, 35.3%, more than a third, of all Australian families have at least one Catholic within the family. Assessments about the potential or decline signalled by these statistics for our Church will be, in part, determined by our assumptions and priorities.

While some basic figures have already been outlined, below are further points of interest, some of which trace change within the Church over the past two decades or so (1991-2011). These might be of interest to priests and parishes, pastoral planners, adult educators, ministry groups and even students in their assessment of the scene here in Australia.

  • The Catholic population grew by 18.1% in the past 20 years. However, because the non-Catholic population grew even more in this period, Catholics fell from 27.3% of the general population in 1991 to 25.3% of the population in 2011.
  • Catholics are choosing to get married later. In 1991, 38% of all Catholics between 15-34 years of age were or had been married. In 2011, this had fallen to 22%.
  • In the past 20 years, the Philippines and India have risen to become major ‘source countries’ for the Catholic Church in Australia while migration from Italy and Malta has dried up almost completely. This must surely shape our activities and communication as a Church, now and in coming decades.
  • Now for the jaw-dropper of the 2011 census. Across all age groups it appears that more than 20,000 Australians every year are ceasing to identify themselves as Catholics. This growing ‘dis-identification’ in our midst is alarming and even takes into account that Catholics die, emigrate and travel overseas at about the same rate as Australians as a whole, that infants and newcomers are baptised and confirmed in the Church each year, and even compensates  for those young people at WYD Madrid at the time of the 2011 census. This dis-identification of 20,000 persons a year represents a net figure and a serious challenge for the Australian Church.
  • 61.2% of Australia’s Catholics live in NSW and Victoria (compared to 55.6% of the general population). This renders the pastoral life of dioceses and parishes within these states as vital to the future of the Church though inspiration may well come from elsewhere. (NB: for those looking for more census data and detailed analysis of the figures, see the April 2013 edition of the Australasian Catholic Record for a solid summary of the results).

SB004Effective planning in our Church can only begin with a plain recognition of the present reality and discussion about the implications of these statistics for our pastoral practice. While it is not uncommon to meet people with ‘the solution’ for all of the Church’s woes and the keys to its potential, the reality is far more complex than imagined. It follows from this that the appropriate responses will be anything but one-dimensional.

While an acknowledgement of the facts can be difficult to hear, as we know in this wintry season for the Church, they create a sense of urgency and open communities to accepting change. We cannot build a future and fulfil the mission God has given to us on the basis of illusions we hold about ourselves. As the English theologian Nicholas Lash would remark, “If you leave Calvary behind, you move, not into paradise, but fairyland.”

The contemporary statistics for the Australian Church are alarming but they are not a dead end. Instead, they invite the renewal and conversion that is the opportunity and challenge for disciples of every age.

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.

structural change

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Photo: Chris Ehler

A conference is always richer than the sum of its parts and the biennial gathering of the National Pastoral Planners’ Network proved the rule. Held on the Gold Coast, Queensland, in late May 2013, the conference brought together those working in the area of church planning across Australia as well as in New Zealand.

Also part of the mix were representatives of the Pastoral Research Office, a Catholic agency which assists Australian dioceses to make sense of internal and Census data, and a number of bishops, vicars general, laypersons and priests seeking to exchange ideas on various levels. (You can find a blog about the conference keynote addresses on the Parramatta pastoral planning website here).

What struck me was the emphasis on structural change that was thread throughout the conversations, most notably the workshops I attended. In many dioceses in Australia there has been the need to twin or cluster parishes (communities share a priest while retaining their identity as separate parishes) or even amalgamate parishes on account of various factors. These reasons include, but are not limited to, the financial realities of church life, shifting populations, the need to redistribute parish priests to serve in greater areas of need, and then there is the desire to minimise duplication and to make the most of opportunities for increased collaboration.

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Photo: Chris Ehler

The whole business of parish reconfiguration, amendments to parish boundaries, even changes in models of parish leadership, and the re-allocation of resources is complex business, far more complex than popular accounts and external commentary on these changes convey. Structural change is always a controversial issue because people, quite rightly, have a deep attachment to their parish which is more than an administrative unit but, indeed, a spiritual home.

Nonetheless, the responsibilities of dioceses go well beyond a single parish and, as communities of communities, they are challenged to take into account distinct parish needs and circumstances right across their region all at once. The tensions between the parts and ‘the whole’, the particular and the universal, the needs of the parish and that of the greater diocese, manifest themselves for all those involved in this important work. (I’ve discussed some of the responsibilities of dioceses in a previous post).

In my experience, one of the reasons that the planning of a diocese can seem confounding or rather abstract for the average parishioner (if there is one) is that very few parishes themselves have had an experience of planning at a parish level. Without this commitment in a local context, the rationale of planning for an entire diocese can appear foreign, be viewed with scepticism or even considered unnecessary.

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Photo: Chris Ehler

When parishes do plan, it tends to be rather piecemeal, initiated for a particular event or else confined to planning for liturgy or the raising of parish funds. Meanwhile, the broader life of the community and the totality of its ministries are left to unfold year after year without a clear direction or a unifying vision. As just one example, a lack of succession planning for parish ministries often leads these groups in a bind when long-established leaders move on or retire while a more concerted effort to plan for ministries over the long term might help a parish community meet such changes with confidence.

(A helpful example of a parish pastoral plan was shown to us at the NPPN Conference, in the form of Surfers Paradise Parish whose pastoral plan is available here in PDF; 540KB).

So . . .  as a parish or a ministry group it may be well worth having a look at what dioceses and parishes are doing right across Australia and abroad in the area of planning as a potential inspiration for your own community. There are varying approaches – some may be paradigms of good process while others may be models of what not to do!

At this most recent conference I was delighted to join the Executive of the National Pastoral Planners’ Network. One of the commitments of the network is to share and communicate news of church planning across Australia and across the Tasman as well. So as a nod in that direction, here are some links to planning initiatives from the Church in Australia and NZ that I’ve been able to find and that might inspire action in your part of the world:

Parramatta Diocese

My own diocese launched its planning process in February 2012. This was followed by eight months of in-person consultation across 49 parish communities, an interim report (PDF; 1.2MB) that shared the responses from that process, and, more recently, a further call for feedback on draft parish goals (PDF; 1MB) which have been developed.

The final pastoral plan, entitled Faith in Our Future, is due to be released in February 2014. It will outline the future directions of Parramatta’s church agencies (CatholicCare Social Services, Catholic Youth Parramatta, and the like) as well as practical or grassroots recommendations for parishes to take up in their communities. Click here for the website which contains more information and regular updates.

Maitland-Newcastle Diocese

A leadership forum was held by the bishop of the diocese, Bp Bill Wright, in January 2013. From this flowed fourteen key areas of priority for the Diocese as well as the assignment of strategic actions for the immediate future. Click here for the website which provides an overview. The Pastoral Plan launched by the previous Ordinary of the diocese, Bishop Michael Malone, was to extend to 2014, and can be found here (PDF; 2.21MB).

Broken Bay Diocese

This diocese has some history of pastoral planning, with the previous plan entitled Pastoral Care for Evangelisation (2006-2010). In 2011, a diocesan synod was held. Interestingly, much of the synodal process was facilitated by external consultants who specialise in the area of leadership and management services. The diocese approached the synod primarily through a survey (I remember sighting them in the pews while on retreat at the Benedictine Abbey at Arcadia). A timeline is available here (PDF; 8KB) which could be used as the basis of a parish planning process, albeit on a smaller scale. The final statements and resources flowing from the Synod are available at this website.

Wollongong Diocese

This diocese launched its impressive pastoral plan, Bearers of Christ’s Love, in 2011 and it extends to 2015. A summary version can be downloaded here (PDF; 1.8MB). Wollongong is currently working towards achieving one of its key goals contained in its plan, which is to ensure its community structures respond to current and emerging needs. This link contains some excellent resources for a diocesan conversation about community change, resources that could well be applied to your own parish planning with some adjustment.

Sydney Archdiocese

The pastoral plan of the Sydney Archdiocese, Starting Afresh with Christ, was launched in late 2007 and extended from 2008 to 2011. The document can be accessed here (PDF; 2.8MB). The reason I make mention of this older plan is that the May 2013 edition of the Catholic Weekly alluded to an ‘iteration’ of the Pastoral Plan in one of its articles though the meaning of this is not yet clear.

Brisbane Archdiocese

A decade ago, the Archdiocese of Brisbane held a diocesan synod. Following the synod, nine priorities were formally promulgated by Bishop John Bathersby and the pastoral plan, Let Your Light Shine, soon followed which set out how the archdiocese would realise these priorities from 2004-2011. Click here for more website information.

Wellington Archdiocese

This diocese has developed a plan that appears to be focused on structural change, under Archbishop John Dew. Consultation was conducted through a number of focus groups, and the archdiocese is currently inviting responses to a series of proposals by the diocese. You can find the ‘proposal document’ here (PDF; 1.6MB). The final pages of the proposal document include templates for the response of individuals and parishes to potential changes. This seems a reasonable approach of inviting feedback for a diocese, given its scope. However, parishes may prefer to hold  in-person consultations when developing a pastoral plan, given their relatively smaller scale which tends to make the amount of feedback gathered more manageable.

Christchurch Diocese

Following the devastating earthquakes of 2011, the Diocese of Christchurch has, understandably, been focused on planning for the repair and rebuilding of not only churches but presbyteries, halls and parish centres as well. The latest diocesan documents on these plans are available here on their website. We wish them well in this complex but essential work.

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.

the state of the Australian Catholic Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

These were the stats and trends that caught my attention:

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

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

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