young in christ: thoughts on synod 2018

SynodI was grateful to be part of a workshop this week hosted by the Australian Catholic Youth Council in North Sydney. It drew together a select group of parish and diocesan youth leaders in conversation with Australia’s delegates for the October Synod on youth, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and Bishop Mark Edwards OMI, as well as Archbishop Comensoli.

It was a great source of learning and uplifting to meet young leaders who are exercising what can only be described as remarkable spiritual entrepreneurship within the Church in Australia. Amidst the polarisations that can mark our Church these are the young witnesses bringing fresh heart to our faith, with the bold humility well described by an ancient apologist – ‘we others, we speak little, but we live’.

The fifteenth ordinary general assembly will focus on young people, faith and vocational discernment between 3-28 October 2018. The Synod and its outcomes will provide a telling insight into the Church’s approach to evangelisation at this time. This is because our commitment to reach out to the young reflects our commitment to reach out to all those who are unchurched or weighing up if the Catholic faith might still be central or relevant to the everyday project of their lives.

The reality of disengagement and even disaffiliation from the Church on the part of young people will always be a confrontation as it suggests something about ourselves – about our capacity for relationships of discipleship with young people both personally and as a community of faith.

The conspicuous absence of young people from many of our communities, worshipping life and ordinary ministries says something about our ability to enter into their experience of life, to grasp their sensibilities, and recognise their questions and searching as filled with promise and as authentic, a way of approaching God rather than an affront or the hubris of disobedience. The uneven journey of young people within the Church throws light on our ability to dialogue with those unlike ourselves and on our capacity to suggest compelling and personal forms of holiness amid a host of unsatisfying cultural placebos. Fundamentally, the presence or otherwise of young people in our Christian community reflects our ability to witness to and proclaim the Gospel as a way of life, as an invitation to fall in love rather than an obligation to fall in line.

Recognising the Reality

Youth MassAs the Church in Australia considers its future, it is imperative to understand the interactions and experiences that comprise young people’s lives for these provide the building blocks for renewed mission with and to young people. While the Catholic faith may today occupy less surface space in Australian culture, the rise of dedicated disciples within promises to bring new depths to our Christian living and cultural impact, and encourage the whole Church in its mission to the concrete people of each generation.

While the national survey and report findings (‘Called to Fullness of Life and Love’) produced by the Australian Catholic bishops ahead of the Synod did tend to underrepresent young people weakly attached to the Church, and overrepresent young adults who are highly involved, it nevertheless stands as a valuable and significant window into the experience of young Australians with regards faith and the Church.

Affirmed by the survey is the primary influence on young people of family and friends. These two natural influences can nurture, support and raise up faith. Each can also lead young people toward disaffiliation. This phenomenon can occur, for instance, when young people feel forced to attend Church with family members, perceive hypocrisy in the lives of those closest to them, come forward from situations which may not mirror a Christian understanding of marriage and family (e.g. a third of all births in Australia are now ex-nuptial births[1]) or when they are not supported by peers who value faith or religious practice.

bishops_surveyChallengingly, among Australian Catholic youth the influence of Church or religious leaders in their key decisions and directions is thin, identified as significant by just 11% of those surveyed and aged between 16-18 years. This meek influence might be explained by a lack of personal relationship amongst some clergy and young people, the broader collapse of the Church’s credibility in the light of the sexual abuse crisis, and the real struggle of Church leaders to listen or ‘hold’ the questions that young people are asking of the Church. On this score, young Australian Catholics rated their experience of being listened at a modest 5.9 out of 10.[2]

A number of young people have expressed their weariness at being disregarded within our faith communities because of their youth or else being catechised without the opportunity to enter into genuine dialogue about the issues of faith and belief that are significant to them. It is certainly true that when the Church appears more concerned with behaviour modification than a personal encounter with the young in Christ, our ecclesial influence will wane and the potential for accompaniment will give way to alienation.

The reason that our influence – and therefore our listening – matters a great deal is because young Catholics are actively deciding whether faith and the Church will be a part of their life and future, and they are making these decisions from early adolescence. Disaffiliation is not a choice that is made with haste. As it has been suggested, it often mirrors the breakdown of any significant relationship – it happens one ‘chip’ at a time until one partner has had enough and ultimately decides it is ‘done’.[3] Provocations toward a final decision against the Church or Catholic faith can include a struggle with or disagreement with a particular Church teaching or teachings, a negative interaction with a Church leader or faith community, a process of steady emancipation from parents or grandparents committed to practice, and the accumulation of uninspired or wearisome experiences of the Church over time. Hence, the reported sense of relief for young people when they leave.[4]

Embracing the total picture of the reality of young people vis-à-vis the Church also means acknowledging those who remain engaged with the life and mission of the Church, of whom diversity remains a mark. Some young adults in the Australian survey passionately engage with traditional Catholic expressions of prayer and liturgy. Some want clarity of Church teaching amidst confusion and the cacophony of the blogosphere, while others seek less catechesis and dogmatism and more personal concern. Others shared their negative experiences when they have tried to promote Church teaching and practice in their own schools and parishes, and a lack of effective support in their practice of parish ministry, while others expressed their difficulty with the Church’s understanding of sexuality and relationships.[5]

Given the range of influences on young people, within and outside the Church, and their mixed experiences of faith, there is no one answer for the complexity of these situations, at least not without doing violence to the personal condition and circumstance of each young person which is the very subject of our evangelising mission.

Vocational Discernment

yobrek_021Positively, when Australian youth were asked how the Church can be of help to them, the responses actively invited our communities to provide guidance, to assist and counsel young people in their anxieties, personal challenges, understanding of sexuality and relationship issues.[6] As the meaning and direction of life is not uncovered in a single moment, it is incumbent upon the Church to journey with young lives in realising their own dignity and personal mission, both of which express a fundamental call to holiness.

The Synod’s preparatory document acknowledges that condescension and judgement are not exactly helpful in this project. It also insists that mutual encounter rather than one-sided prescription will be the way in which we discover a personal form of holy living, “No vocation, especially within the Church, can be placed outside [the] outgoing dynamism of dialogue”.[7] This is because our vocational horizon is not “a pre-determined fate, a task to be carried out, a ready-made script . . . God takes seriously the freedom He has given to human beings and responding to his call is a commitment that requires work, imagination, audacity, willingness to make progress also by trial and error”.[8] Accompaniment and an apprenticeship in the life of faith are essential to growth in holiness, pursued by a state of life and also in professional life.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has already advised “The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life”.[9] It demands patience but can be sustained with the assurance that it has an immediate purpose, “To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father . . .  Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation”.[10]

Picture4Frustratingly for many, the accompaniment urgently desired by young Australian Catholics and urged by Pope Francis cannot be found neatly contained within a package or program. It demands in fact an entire culture of ecclesial life in which discernment is a norm and in regular evidence. When genuine discernment is not practiced in our sacramental programs, leading to fruitless reception, when RCIA processes teach people about Catholicism but neglect to train them to live as disciples, when parish pastoral councils and parish groups are more focused on ‘who will do it?’ rather than ‘where are we going?’, the offer of accompaniment to young people will appear more like false advertising than the expression of a community fully open to what God wants for the Church. The preparatory document for the Synod minces no words, “We cannot expect our offer of pastoral accompaniment towards vocational discernment to be credible to young people, unless we show that we are able to practice discernment in the ordinary life of the Church”.[1]

Conclusion

If disaffiliation from Catholic faith and the Church is a process that unfolds over time, and the reasons that people leave contain the reasons they might return, then we must commit ourselves to the patient and thoroughgoing work of creating cultures in which accompaniment is not reserved for a select few or the ‘super spiritual’ but is the ordinary experience of young people in their contact with the Church.

As set out in the preparations for the Synod, it will demand of our communities mature disciples who are faithful Christians engaged with the Church and the wider world, who constantly seek holiness, can be a confidant without judgement, who actively listen to needs and respond in kind, are deeply loving and self-aware, and who can acknowledge their own limits and know the joy and sorrows of the spiritual journey.[12] In confronting the challenges and listening to the hopes of the young, we pray that the October Synod will prompt this depth of conversion in each of us as witnesses to God’s mission.

 

[1] Australian Institute of Family Studies, Snapshots of Family Relationships 2008.

[2] Dantis, Trudy and Reid, Stephen, Called to Fullness of Life and Love: National Report on the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Youth Survey 2017 (Pastoral Research Office, 2018), 30.

[3] McCarty, Robert J., and Vitek, John M. Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (2017), 11.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Dantis and Reid, 34-36.

[6] Dantis and Reid, 41.

[7] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 140.

[8] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 121.

[9] Evangelii Gaudium 169.

[10] Evangelii Gaudium 170;173.

[11] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 139.

[12] Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod 2018, 132.

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proclaim 2018: parishes for the unchurched and lost

IMG_6330Held in Brisbane for the first time in its short history, Proclaim Conference 2018 gathered more than 600 participants from 12-14 July to discuss parish evangelisation with its theme drawn from John’s Gospel, “Make your home in me”. Keynote speakers over the three days included Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Cardinal John Dew from Wellington, Ron Huntley of the Divine Renovation network, Karolina Gunsser from Citipointe Church in Redcliffe, and Lana Turvey-Collins from the national facilitation team for the Plenary Council.

With a renewed process for workshops that encouraged shorter inputs and extended dialogue, and discussion panels on each day, the conversations were broad and, for the most part, unguarded. From the urgency of God’s mission, to the inseparability of evangelisation from the person of Jesus, and of the parish from the unchurched, to the health or otherwise toxicity of our parish cultures, and the ongoing experience of the sexual abuse crisis, participants were given nourishment and challenge for their pastoral practice.

I was privileged to facilitate four workshops and participate in a panel on ‘culture change, parish renewal and evangelisation’ together with Sally Hood of ACU Campus Ministry, Ron Huntley, and Andrea Dean of the Office for the Participation of Women. Below is a summary of my brief workshop input which looked at the connection of parish life to the unchurched.

Horizons of Parish Renewal 

IMG_6316As a former ‘outsider’ to the Church it has taken some twenty years to learn to live as a baptised person and still the learning continues. Through my own faith experience I have come to believe that the parish is essential to Christian growth and discipleship. Indeed, if we did not have parishes we would have to invent them – local communities of faith gathered around the Word and Eucharist where faith is given shape and social support, fostered into discipleship and then enters the world through our living witness.

Together with the family and school, the parish is where the majority of people encounter the Church and it is where the vast majority of clergy will live out their life’s vocation. So the health and vitality of the parish matters to all of us, not only in respect of our common life but also for our personal faith.

However, part of the challenge is that when our parishes have not grown in roughly six or seven decades in Australia (since at least the 1950s), it is inevitable that there will be a small amount of people who love how we do things and a whole community who don’t.

In the face of this reality, this workshop addresses parish evangelisation through four horizons toward which I think our parishes and parish ministries are called to move. Perhaps we may never fully arrive in our own local community, but these horizon lines can orient us toward our mission. A horizon places everything in its foreground into a context or perspective, shedding light and offering clarity for the journey we are on. We may need to shift our stance or be alert to rocks in our own harbour stifling our way but we are assured of making progress if we have the courage “to appreciate small things inside large horizons” (Pope Francis). I offer here four horizons that I hope shed light on your current parish practice and supply steps toward an evangelising culture within parish life.

Clarity on the Mission of our Parish

The first horizon to which we can move is clarity on the mission of our parishes. Even as a brute fact of survival, we can affirm that the future of our parishes depends on those who currently do not believe. There is no future without the lost or unchurched.

Evangelisation is a necessity to maintain even what we have as local communities of faith. This is obvious enough in the struggle to maintain our ministries, our giving and even, in some parishes, our hope. More positively, when we bring others to Jesus and the Church it plants energy and life in our communities. We know this from the small trickle of people who enjoin our community through the RCIA, who come to personal faith in the midst of the Church.

More importantly, however, a focus on those who are unchurched neatly aligns with Jesus who comes not for the righteous but for sinners, who places the needs of the outcast and ailing before his own flock.

In the Gospel of Luke, we witness Jesus walking through the town of Jericho and reach out to Zacchaeus, a tax collector for the Roman establishment. Jesus steps into Zacchaeus’ house as a guest of a sinner, scandalises the watching crowd, and rejoices in Zacchaeus’ conversion, declaring “Today salvation has come to this house… for the Son of Man has come to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). We see this a pattern throughout his ministry – Jesus challenges the insiders and he comforts the outsiders.

The ecclesiology lesson we draw from Jesus’ ministry can be summarised in this way (from Sean Sears, pastor at Grace Church in Boston): the Church is not for Christians. The Church is Christians and it is for those who are not.

Crowd-People-Walking-Business-BlurryThe Church is not for ourselves. In Pope Francis’ language, our community is called to be a ‘field hospital’ serving those who most need help now, the wounded and the lost. This is the antithesis of the self-referential Church. We are called to leave the ninety-nine to find the one, or in our Australian reality, leave the one to find the ninety-nine.

The likely challenge we can feel is that as essential as this outward focus is to our survival, as faithful as it is to the mission of Jesus himself, as urgent as this mission is to our health and growth, when we start changing things in the parish to better reach out, accompany and actively welcome outsiders (whether that’s through our Mass times, our language, our carparks, or our own position in the pews), people start to become uneasy precisely because it is not about them.

Change always sound great until people start to experience it. We can call for reform but are not always open to our own conversion. The reality for our Church is that any change will tend to be a ‘big change’ because of the weight of our Church culture toward maintaining the status quo. In our ecclesial culture there tends to always be a reason not to change, and yet we experience so little fruit on the collective vine as parish participation rates in Australia decline to near 11%.

When we proclaim that our parish is not about us but about the unchurched, some of us in community can feel a little like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The older brother has been utterly loyal and committed and served his Father’s house all this time. However, when he realises it is not about him but the one who has been lost, the older brother struggles to rejoice at the one who had not earned his welcome but whom the Father nevertheless embraces and lavishes upon with love.

We know in the mind of Jesus that the older brother is just as lost because everything the Father has is for the older brother too. What the Father seeks from his first son is a largeness of heart to rejoice when the lost are saved, a heart for his youngest son who was dead but is now alive.

In the culture of our parishes it is all too easy for the people inside the church to become a higher priority than reaching those outside the church. This is understandable to some extent as the ‘insiders’ keep things running, they lead our ministries and yes they pay the bills. However, for fear of making these insiders unhappy, our parishes tend to hold on to programs even if these seeds are bearing no fruit on account of the toxicity of the soil or culture in which they are hosted. This can keep our house small and our family brooding or even bitter rather than welcoming and marked by the charity that the Gospel demands.

In contrast, if we do as Jesus invites us to do and seek out and reach the lost and the unchurched, the life of the ‘older brother’ is also renewed. So, it is for our parishes: outward focused churches create the healthiest insiders.

Picture1In fact, inward looking churches create consumers with preferences, while outward looking churches create missionaries with larger hearts and stories to tell, stories about how Jesus has changed their life. This is the heart of an evangelised parish culture – one beggar telling another beggar how he found bread.

What are the concrete signs that we have moved toward this first horizon, clarity on the mission of the parish? It is that we should expect to encounter more people who have made a mess of some aspect of their past. If we find ourselves working with these people in our parishes, it is a sign we are doing something right.

We sometimes think we need to go out and make people Christians and then bring them to Church. We often want to ‘clean’ the fish before we ‘catch’ them but that’s not how fishing works. What we want to do is to bring them into our community in the complexity of their situations, create environments which are compelling and faith filled, and offer accompaniment that treats their wounds with the balm of mercy, spiritual counsel and ecclesial belonging so they can begin to walk with Christ, experience in time his sacramental life and live out his apostolate as Christ’s disciples.

As the saying goes, we will be most like Jesus when we are spending increasing time with people farthest from him. In a word, if everyone in our parish is comfortable with who is showing up (if it is all ‘older brother’ and none of the lost) then our front doors are probably not wide enough.

Recognising God’s Mission is Greater than our Methods 

The second grand horizon or vista to which we can move is recognition that God’s mission is always greater than our methods, no matter how we currently do things. If we focus anew on the unchurched for health, growth and to be faithful to Jesus’ mission, then we will need to change our practices (e.g. if we preach to the unchurched we are likely to speak to everyone).

download-1A classic example of the need to prioritise our mission over method can be found in the story of Kodak, the photography business established at the turn of the twentieth century, with the expressed purpose of preserving memories which is a seemingly indestructible mission.

However, by the 1990s Kodak were sideline players in a growing digital market and by 2012 they had filed for bankruptcy. And yet, in 1975 they had every opportunity and capacity to change and grow. In fact, Kodak created the first digital camera but dropped the project for fear that it would threaten its existing film business. Kodak was more wedded to its method than its mission.

In a similar vein, in the U.S. 90% of heart patients who are told to change their lifestyle habits or die, choose death over change! (Fast Company Report, 2005)

Parishes that choose their current methods over their mission will die, as what got us here as communities will not always take us where we need to go. If the landscape of faith has changed, and our parishes are still reading off the same maps, our parishes are going to get lost along the way.

What, then, are the methods, programs and practices that no longer serve our parish life and growth? For example, it is clear that we have been catechising and sacramentalising the unevangelised. This practice has borne little fruit over the past decades. As well, we often focus on welcome in our parishes which is certainly important. However, without a practical strategy for invitation there may be less and less people to welcome.

We need to stop setting the bar too low for ministries that matter and nurture strengths based ministry rather than engage in desperate recruitment of anyone who might be available (e.g. a bulletin notice from my own parish for musicians noted, almost as an afterthought, “It does help if you can read music and/or sing in tune and in time”!)

We might have to preach without assuming too much (e.g. that our congregations understand the gift of the Eucharist or the context of Gospel readings) and preach purposely into people’s lives (e.g. our Trinity Sunday homilies almost never touch on the Great Commission and tend to deliver flimsy abstractions that leave people disoriented or disengaged).

What no longer serves the mission of the parish and needs to be set aside so we can redirect the hard labour of maintenance to the real promise of mission? What pathway might we need to put in place to accompany people from no or little faith into an encounter with the living Christ (whether it is a five-step process of Divine Renovation or the three-step method of the parish of Rebuilt)?

It is a truth of our life of faith that prior to conversion to God’s mission, it is behaviour which determines belief (‘Things have always been done this way’) and so mere habit becomes the reason to maintain our well-worn methods. However, after conversion to God’s mission, it is belief which determines our behaviour, resulting in better responses to change (‘What can we do to now reach them?). It is our mission which will drive our methods and constitute the criteria by which we assess our groups and our programs.

Structures to Support our Mission

old-vines-south-australia-wine-story-adelaide-review-800x567A third horizon we can move toward in forming evangelising parishes is structures that support the mission. We want to grow but many parishes are not necessarily structured to grow. There can be literally “no room in the inn” for change.

Take for example the ministry of the priest. A priest can certainly maintain a parish largely by himself, conscripting lay leaders to fulfil the basic functions of community and to keep the wheels turning. However, if the parish wants to go out in mission and reach the unchurched the priest will have to learn to lead with and alongside others. This is because one priest can only have so many meaningful relationships, perhaps a hundred at most. If a parish wants to go out and reach the lost and unchurched, then this realistically demands a team of lay leadership with whom the mission and methods are proclaimed, structured and taken forwards.

So, structure affects mission by default or design. Like a trellis, it will encourage growth and provide room for change and adaption, or like a small pot it will restrict the size to which a sapling can grow.

As a practical parish example, in walking alongside a priest in another diocese, he had inherited a well-resourced parish but also a structure of staff that made mission and outreach difficult.

The parish team consisted of a parish priest, two assistant priests, a three day a week secretary, a two day staff member for accounts, two days for a sacramental coordinator, two days for a pastoral care coordinator, two days liturgical preparation, and two days youth ministry (the equivalent of almost four full time staff).

You can guess how many of these staff reported directly to the parish priest – all eight. The structure of parish staff was keeping him somewhat boxed in, tied to the order of maintenance.

However, if we consider a structure with three teams – an operations team (with a secretary and a report of finance), a newly created evangelisation team (with a four day a week parish evangelisation coordinator working on Alpha, engagement and formation of ministers in the parish, with direct reports of a sacramental coordinator and the youth minister, and accompanied by an assistant priest) and a communications focus (actually integrated into the youth role, so not requiring a paid employee but remaining an area of focus) we could reduce his direct reports from eight to a more manageable five. The previous paid liturgical role was made voluntary and the pastoral care coordination role was integrated into the new evangelisation coordinator role.

This structure empowers lay leadership, and gives back time to the priest for the core work of setting parish vision through his weekly homilies, and to drive and support the evangelisation of adults from which all else flows.

We cannot address the renewal of parishes without looking under the hood or checking the fuel gauge, whether that is our staffing arrangements, our budgets or ministry structures. It is one of the hardest things to do but it is the right horizon or direction in which to move.

Mission in Action

FootprintsThe fourth horizon we can move towards is putting mission into action, perhaps the hardest pilgrimage of all. As a friend once shared, conferences can sometimes be a bit like this: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” and when we get home, it is more “… as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end”.

I want to acknowledge that in suggesting a comprehensive focus on the unchurched, methods and strategies to support this kind of evangelisation, and renewed structures to enable growth, we can be tempted to feel overwhelmed.

However, I believe we can make change at every level of the Church, even in our own individual parish ministry groups. Parishes need ‘lighthouse’ ministries that show the way, to show that evangelisation is urgent, possible and can bring about personal and spiritual change.

Whether it is a music ministry or a form of service like a St Vincent de Paul conference, it is possible to shift toward a dedicated outward focus, a culture welcoming of outsiders and challenging of insiders, with a commitment to elevating mission over old methods and to revisit current structures to support the goals we want to achieve. Ultimately, our plan is our people, not programs, and leadership is essential to our cultural transformation. What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while.

Conclusion

As Christians, people of the Incarnation in which the Word was made flesh, we know that the medium is the message. Jesus not only proclaims the Kingdom of God but embodies it in his person.

In that light, we can ask, ‘What image of God and God’s mission does your parish convey’? How does your parish vision, your parish method, your parish structure, and the action of your parish express the mission of Jesus who came to ‘seek out and save the lost?’ (Luke 19:10).

I believe every parish can grow in its outreach and move towards an evangelising culture but it demands our intent and conviction to bring it about. We are being called to reclaim our primary mission, to bring the nations to a living faith in Jesus who is, as the Church describes, “the light that knows no setting”.

a primer for plenary council 2020

With the commencement of a new year, one of the immediate priorities has been preparations and planning for Plenary Council 2020. It has been helpful in these early days to gather thoughts, recollect on where we have travelled to date, and look ahead.

PEC1

First face-to-face meeting of Bishops Commission & Executive Committee for Plenary Council 2020, St Joseph’s Retreat Centre, Baulkham Hills, 19-20 Oct., 2017.

In September 2017 an inaugural forum was hosted by the Broken Bay Institute at Mary MacKillop Place in North Sydney. It gathered leaders in Catholic education, social support services, and other agencies and religious institutes of the Church. The forum reflected on the meaning of ‘synodality’, a deepening of the Church’s communion as a means to faithfully interpret the living voice of God in this time and circumstance.

The first gathering was hopeful and matter-of-fact about the challenges that lie ahead for the Plenary Council, including the need to establish clarity on the appropriate structures and the agenda or themes of concern that might galvanise that journey. The need to make clear the parameters of the national conversation arises not only from the want to respect the expectations of those who involve themselves but also to bring transparency and coherence to the process. As Chesterton long ago remarked, “The finest thing about a free meadow is the hedge at the end of it. The moment the hedge is abolished it is no longer a meadow, but a waste”. Structure can stifle but it can also enable. So, many of these first days of the year have been dedicated to thinking through structure and process surrounding the national dialogue as well as for our Diocese of Broken Bay.

In my own view, with the cultural reform of the Australian Catholic Church on the table, a key task will be to identify those systemic or gravitational forces that move the tides if you will, that lift up or otherwise upend the boats in our exercise of Catholic life and mission. If a culture is constituted by behaviours and relationships, unspoken assumptions, a universe of ideas, a material reality and language, then it will be important to name the underlying issues raised or highlighted by particular concerns (for example, talk of renewing or eschewing parish pastoral councils invites us to confront the current limitations of lay-clergy relationships and of priestly formation for practical leadership). The process of dialogue with all of God’s people will be essential to discerning these fundamental themes and I have great hope that this coming year will present a first and significant step toward the task.

PEC2In October 2017 members of the Bishops Commission for the Plenary Council and the Executive Committee then gathered to learn and discuss the opportunity that this national ecclesial council presents for our Church. I have to say I left the gathering greatly encouraged and more hopeful than I had (admittedly) arrived. With planning meetings scheduled for the Executive Committee in the weeks ahead, there is still much yet to be clarified but the infrastructure and practical matters are fast becoming clearer and more concrete.

In the closing days of 2017 I was able to sketch some of the ways in which our own Broken Bay Diocese might meaningfully and substantially take part in the national process, for the benefit of the Australian discernment as well as for the vitality of our local diocese. Local processes and opportunities in Broken Bay will be announced at Pentecost 2018, providing enough time to organise the diocesan journey with formation, resources, training for dialogues and assemblies.

In the meantime, in order to make sense of Plenary Council 2020 I have gathered together an outline and reflections on the Council that might also be of help to you and your communities. I would be grateful for any feedback you might have on these initial thoughts and proposals!

As the year slowly gathers pace, I wish you and your communities a blessed and happy new year, Daniel.

Walking the Path of the Plenary Council

“Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 2:7). Since 2001, in the wake of St John Paul II’s apostolic letter from at the turn of the millennium, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has been giving consideration to a national ecclesial event, involving all Australian dioceses. St John Paul II’s 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte called for new energy and depth, what it called a genuine ‘spirituality of communion’ within the Church, a spirituality which ‘by prompting a trust and openness wholly in accord with the dignity and responsibility of every member of the People of God, supplies institutional reality with a soul’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte 45). It called for nothing less than the conversion of the Church in spirit and structure.

This call led to growing discussion within the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in 2006 about an event of ecclesial communion within the Australian Church, with Archbishop Philip Wilson (Archdiocese of Adelaide) a leading voice. In time this conversation developed into the decision to hold a Year of Grace which began in Pentecost of 2012 and was dedicated as a year of discernment and prayer, of ‘contemplating the face of Christ’ in order to renew our self-understanding as a Church of Gospel faith and mission.

PFThen in 2013 came the surprise election of Pope Francis. By his papal exhortations and by his convening of the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family, the Pope placed a clear emphasis on the Church’s need to journey in discernment together with closeness to the people unified in baptismal faith and informed by the Holy Spirit.

In the same year and month of Pope Francis’ election the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse commenced, following its announcement in November of 2012. A searing grace for the Catholic Church, the Royal Commission makes it clear that ‘business as usual’ is not possible nor even desirable for the Church whose culture has failed and even betrayed on a spiritual and institutional level the very Gospel for which it is intended to be a clear sign and witness.

It was these collective currents or combination of factors that I understand influenced and moved the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to announce a Plenary Council of the Church in Australia to be held in the year 2020. The Bishops Conference has formally sought the approval from Pope Francis for this Council, official endorsement which is expected in due course.

Put simply, a Plenary Council is the highest form of communion between the various local or particular churches of a nation. The Plenary Council will be, then, not simply a meeting of bishops as individuals but a meeting of local churches and a process that calls for the participation of the entire Catholic community. It invites the whole Church, through dialogue, to discern how its communities can live the Gospel with renewed vitality amidst new questions and challenges. The Plenary Council itself will feature representation from among the laity, religious and ordained ministers, together with the bishops of Australia, as the culmination of a sustained pilgrimage in faith.

Crowd-People-Walking-Business-BlurryAs such a Plenary Council is an expression of the ‘synodality’ of the Church, the nature of the Church as a communion of persons ‘walking together’ in faith as disciples of the Lord. The Plenary Council recognises that all the baptised have received a common vocation to be a ‘sacrament or instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity’ (Lumen Gentium 1) and upholds with faith that it is by our mutual listening to the Holy Spirit – who guides the Church ‘into all truth’ (John 16:13) – that we can realise our mission most deeply as a community of faith.

As set out in Canon Law, a Plenary Council has legislative power with the final decisions reserved to the bishops by nature of their episcopal ordination as successors of the Apostles. The bishops are obliged to make decisions on the basis of their careful discernment of the work of the Holy Spirit in the minds and hearts of all the People of God, recognising that the sense of the faith of the faithful – what is known as the sensus fidelium – is a source of the Church’s life and learning as it seeks to fulfil its Gospel mission.

This means that the Plenary Council is more than a single event to be held in the year 2020 but an extended process that invites the entire Catholic community, even now, to ‘walk the path of dialogue’ and interpret what God is doing today and how God is calling the Church to live the Gospel into the future. It calls the Church to undertake a pilgrimage of listening and learning, to be a synodal and receptive church that engages in honest speaking and mutual listening to the Holy Spirit, to share insights and also hear insights shared.

Throughout this process of listening, dialogue and prayer, the experiences of diverse lives will be invited to share their sense of faith, questions and hopes for the Catholic Church – from those who are attempting to live a committed and sacramental life in the Church, those baptised Catholics with lesser involvement in ecclesial life, to those who are vulnerable in Australian society, who may be more distant from the Church, or who have been hurt and who may or may not still regard themselves as Catholic in some way. From these voices there are questions and challenges that clarify the Church’s self-understanding in response to the Gospel and society, genuine ‘seeds of the Word’ that provide insight.

We are invited by the announcement of a Plenary Council to develop together a culture of dialogue and discernment to determine how best to ensure the pastoral needs of the people of God are provided for and with regard for the universal law of the Church, ‘to decide what seems opportune for the increase of faith, the organisation of common pastoral action, and the regulation of morals and of the common ecclesiastical discipline which is to be observed, promoted and protected’.[1]

Following their listening to and discernment with the whole Church the members of the Plenary Council will convene in 2020. This will include all active bishops, vicars general, episcopal vicars, some major superiors of religious institutes, rectors of major seminaries and Catholic universities, and deans of faculties of theology and canon law. Others that can also be called to the Plenary Council include lay persons, retired bishops, other priests, and religious. The bishops will have a deliberative vote (that is, cast a ballot to determine outcomes) while other council delegates will have a consultative vote (the right to speak about the issues under discussion). The Plenary Council will then enact laws which, subject to approval of the Holy See, will bind the Catholic Church in Australia.

In calling a Plenary Council the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has recognised that the patterns of change confronting the Church and the wider community impel the Australian Catholic Church to review, analyse and discern the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel (Gaudium et Spes 4). It has opened up a pathway for dialogue, for the exchange of faith and ideas, and to encounter the Holy Spirit and the Church in one another.

PA-24457503-800x500Pope Francis himself has encouraged the need to prayerfully discern together what the Spirit is saying to our Catholic community at this time, remarking “A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realises that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).”[2]

In addition to the call of Pope Francis for a synodal and discerning church, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has also raised the critical need for reform within the Church and its manner of governance, themes with which the Plenary Council will also wrestle. As a way of being Church ‘synodality’ promotes a form of governance that involves all the People of God, with governance referring to those processes for making and implementing decisions so that each of the baptised can fulfil their personal calling as well as our shared mission as a communion of faith.

Plenary Council 2020 will be the fifth plenary council in Australia’s history with the last plenary council held in 1937, some eighty years ago. There is likely to be more than one session, one for summative documents to be discussed which reflect the discernment of the Australian dioceses through dialogue, then a period of authoring pastoral decrees and legislation, and then a second session of the Council at which the Australian bishops will vote on these statutes. As such the Plenary Council will be a decision-making council and bear significant and lasting consequence for the life of Australian Catholics.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has now established a Bishops Commission to oversee, plan and prepare for the Plenary Council which will have three phases: preparation, celebration and implementation. The Chair of the Bishops Commission for the Plenary Council is Archbishop Mark Coleridge (Archdiocese of Brisbane). Other members of the Commission include Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB (Archdiocese of Perth), Archbishop Philip Wilson (Archdiocese of Adelaide), Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFMConv (Diocese of Parramatta), Bishop Michael Kennedy (Diocese of Armidale), and Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay OLM (Maronite Diocese of St Maroun).

PEC4

A Facilitation Team was appointed last year including Ms Lana Turvey-Collins, Fr Noel Connolly SSC, and Mr Peter Gates (Catholic Mission) together with an Executive Committee for the Plenary Council which includes people with particular expertise related to the holding of a Plenary Council. The Executive Committee members have a range of backgrounds, are diverse in their experience and will offer advice and guidance to the Facilitation Team and the Bishops Commission throughout the Plenary Council journey.

As a local Church, the Diocese of Broken Bay will enter into this national process of dialogue and discernment beginning with a year of listening in 2018, followed by discernment throughout 2019 and the sharing of proposals to the Plenary Council in 2020. This local dialogue will not only inform the national Plenary Council but also the discernment of our Bishop, parishes and local communities, our schools and agencies in the Broken Bay Diocese on how best to express the life and mission of Jesus at this critical juncture of our life as Church.

It will be an opportunity for us to name those issues that are important to our faith in charting a course for the future of the Catholic Church in Australia, and to share perspectives and practices that God can use to touch ordinary lives. Dialogue on the faith and mission of the Church will be encouraged across our Broken Bay parishes, school communities, migrant communities, and social outreach services, these constituting “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters” (Evangelii Gaudium 26). All people are welcome and invited to engage in this process locally. Support, guidance and resources for this process of dialogue will be provided by our Office for Evangelisation, our Catholic Schools Office and CatholicCare in collaboration with the national Facilitation Team. As intimated, means of participation, training and resources will be announced around Pentecost 2018. Still much work lies ahead.

Material Considerations

Picture4It is obviously a difficult time to be of Catholic faith and the Church has been rightly dislocated and unsettled on account of its own shameful past and yearnings of its present culture. With disappointment an experience for many Catholic people, for a variety of personal and ecclesial circumstances, cynicism toward a national ecclesial event such as a Plenary Council is understandable. Reactions point to what lies within. However, pessimism need not be our final post.

A Plenary Council might indeed call some of us to ‘hope against hope’ (Rom 4:18). It will certainly call Catholics to engage in conversation about the Church and world with the eyes of faith, with patience and forgiveness, with openness and boldness, and above all the Spirit-filled expectation that more is possible than the current experience of limitation.

The Plenary Council demands above all, then, a spiritual conversion of the whole Church as it moves through history striving to perceive how the Gospel calls to be applied to new situations. As shared in Novo Millennio Ineunte in 2001, ‘Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, ‘masks’ of communion rather than its means of expression and growth’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte 43)

This conversion will not be an easy task as it will ask of us – all of us – a genuine change of heart, outlook and witness or behaviour. We can intuit the difficulties in implementing synodality in the Church from our everyday experience of parish and diocesan life as well as from the difficulties that all human communities encounter in the desire to walk and change together. When authority is exercised in local communities without accountability to the people it serves, when local empowerment is sought but problems and issues are habitually bounced upwards, when clericalisation is rightly condemned but passivity among the laity endures, we are confronted with the concrete challenges of becoming the ‘church of churches’ that the Catholic Church is in principle but not always in expression.

Prayer 1_2While we have in hand a rich theological heritage and can, for instance, affirm the sensus fidelium as an active capacity by which all the faithful are able to receive and understand what God has revealed, or similarly uphold ‘co-responsibility’ of the laity as a gift to the Church’s life, our experience tells us that these theological principles are not so easily translated into pastoral practice, even at the level of the local parish. Our ability to listen to one another, to stretch our imaginations beyond our own enclave, to propose with charity and not aggravation, to resist colonisation by secular political models and to be genuinely open to what the Spirit ‘says to the churches’ (even if this is not to our own preference!) – these are the real world challenges which our communities will experience through the Plenary process.

In truth, the gap between our theology and practice is never completely overcome but it is my hope that the national Council will encourage and challenge local communities to look to the Gospel and then to their own life to discern the change that needs to be brought about in their particular context for the sake of a more effective evangelisation.

In considering the potential for a synodal Church, I note Pope Francis’ consistent call for a healthy and sound ‘decentralisation’. By itself, this term makes clear what the pontiff seeks to move our Church away from (Evangelii Gaudium 16). What Pope Francis is prompting the Church towards is subsidiarity, well described by the theologian Richard Gaillardetz as the principle that ‘the primary responsibility for the realisation of the individual Christian vocation and the fulfilment of the mission of local communities lies with those individuals and local communities themselves.’[3]

The Pope has expressed his commitment to subsidiarity in a number of ways, from retrieving the Second Vatican Council’s theology of the local church (of the diocese, shepherded by a local bishop, and not a branch office of the Holy See) and by encouraging their local initiative, his convening of synods and exercise of collegiality in discernment on the family in 2014 and 2015, and in his motu propio Magnum Principum which effectively shifted the responsibility of liturgical translations to episcopal conferences. Pope Francis’ regard for these national ecclesial structures, established after the Second Vatican Council, has already been evident in his frequent citation of the teaching of episcopal conferences in his magisterial documents to date (e.g. Laudato Si’), a habit which expresses the collegial way in which Pope Francis views and exercises his Petrine ministry.

In the Pope’s repeated emphasis on a ‘sound’ and ‘healthy’ decentralisation there is an awareness that increased agency and responsibility at a local level can lead to division if communities cut themselves off from the larger or universal, mistake agency as unaccountable autonomy. Hence, even in the reform of processes regarding liturgical translations there remains a role for the Apostolic See, which will review and evaluate the adaptations put forward “in order to safeguard the substantial unity of the Roman Rite”. It could be said that Pope Francis is encouraging the Church to be increasingly episcopal without being ‘Episcopal’. Our own Australian Plenary Council will in the same way call forward the voices of the faithful in response to the Gospel experienced and lived in our context but with regard for the universality of the Church, to recognise that we are a part of a universal Catholic communion and called to be ‘a church of churches’ in unity.

FootprintsAhead of our Plenary Council, I also think we learn from Pope Francis that ecclesial leadership and subsidiarity of local communities need not contradict one another. Indeed, he shows forth subsidiarity as a way or manner of exercising leadership. It is a well-recognised fact that Pope Francis has strengthened the influence of the papacy as a global authority while at the same time promoting its decentralisation. What he has sought to do, in alignment with his magisterial teaching, is to ‘initiate processes’ rather than to ‘occupy or possess spaces’, to enable initiatives without the need to control their outcome (Evangelii Gaudium 222-223; Laudato Si’ 178; Amoris Laetitia 3, 261). Pope Francis exhibits genuine trust in the speaking and guidance of the Spirit and intervenes only when the realisation of goals appears unattainable or if proposals threaten the faith and unity of the Church universal. He governs in such a way that involves the many. I think this is the gift and challenge of the Plenary Council not only for the bishops of Australia but also all those who exercise leadership or ministry within the Church, from parish pastoral councils to ministry leaders in service of others. A synodal Church is precisely a growth in the capacity of local communities and baptised persons to practice faith in fruitful dialogue with others, by listening, and as a communion reach out to humanity in Jesus Christ through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.

This shift in culture should be the underlying, or even better the overriding, goal for the Plenary Council. Again, we know through experience that while articulating sound structures and processes within the life of the Church is paramount, these cannot alone secure the health and vitality of Catholic communities. As Pope Francis has noted, ‘even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling”, any new structure will soon prove ineffective’ (Evangelii Gaudium 26). It is with this hope of new life and a reformed culture that we enter into a new year and take steps toward a Plenary Council, all so that we together might better live the life and mission of Jesus in contemporary Australian society now and for generations to come.

References:

[1]Code of Canon Law, c.445.

[2] Address of His Holiness Pope Francis Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, 17 October, 2015. The full text is available online at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/ speeches/2015/october/documents/papa-francesco_20151017_50-anniversario-sinodo.html.

[3] Richard R. Gaillardetz, An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis, and the Renewal of Catholicism (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 126.

sydney clergy conference address – II

Picture1In the previous session, we acknowledged those factors impacting upon parish life today – a new and unchartered context for faith, the presumptions of our pastoral practices and questions of fruitfulness that invite change, as well as the biblical and magisterial foundations for reclaiming discipleship as our central commission.

It is clear that the missionary conversion of our parishes to which we have been speaking bears implications for the ministry of the ordained, in particular the priesthood which is that Order most commonly lived within the parish and which remains the most familiar to the ordinary Catholic Christian. There is no need to rehearse at great length the way in which ordained ministry is situated within the context of the Church. Suffice to say that the ‘communion ecclesiology’ of the Second Vatican Council recovered baptism as the primal sacrament of Christian life and brought about a renewed appreciation of the Church as an icon of the Trinity, a relationship that promotes a mutuality of exchange between believers in their various charisms, vocations and office as an expression of the unity-in-diversity of God’s own life. It is by our baptism into this Triune life that we are brought into communion not only with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit but also into communion with our fellow believers and the worldwide community of the faithful, into communion with those who have gone before in faith, and with the generations of the faithful yet to come.

In regrounding the life of the Church, including the ordained, in shared baptismal faith, the Council also promoted the mission of the Church as the responsibility of all, a task to which each of the baptised is commissioned, and I quote from Lumen Gentium, ‘by the Lord himself’. The source of apostolic courage for this project as Christians is our common regeneration and anointing by the Holy Spirit, our consecration into a spiritual house and into the one priesthood of Christ, in its priestly, prophetic and royal dimensions.[1]

What, then, of the unique charism of the ordained set within this baptised and missionary people? It is first important to acknowledge that the understanding and practice of ordained ministry has undergone significant development and refinement – from the apostolic ministry found in the New Testament, through the age of the Church Fathers, the impact of the medieval theology of order (the effects of the eleventh and twelfth century Gregorian Reforms e.g. shift from patristic emphasis in Holy Order on God’s action upon the believer to its definition in terms of the sacred character imparted), and the baroque theology which followed the Reformation, to the insights of the Catholic revival (cf. John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement), leading to the eventual ressourcement achieved at Vatican II.

Picture2It is enough to trace the various emphases that have shaped the theology and practice of the ordained ministry through this history to appreciate that, in speaking of the ordained vocation, ‘God-given’ is not the same thing as ‘set in stone’. There are a variety of ways in which the priestly life can and has been lived. To borrow from the thought of Fr Aidan Nichols, the ‘pattern’ of the presbyterate has in fact a variety of key elements that open themselves to the evangelisation and disciple-making we have discussed.[2] Within this ‘pattern’ of priestly life, developed and clarified over centuries, we find at least nine elements, each of which informs the other:

  • Evangelising those who do not believe
  • Teaching sound doctrine in faith and morals to those who do
  • Forming others to be apostolic

These constitute dimensions of the prophetic office, the exercise of teaching that leads the faithful to God in the Spirit and truth.

  • Celebrating sacraments and other rites of the Church
  • By the celebration of Penance and Eucharist in particular bringing the Paschal Mystery to bear on the lives of the faithful (to die to sin and live with Christ)
  • In the Mass, acting as intercessor for the Church and for all creation

These are aspects of the priestly office, the cultic or liturgical work of the presbyter.

  • In union with the bishop to build up, as pastor, the communion of the Church, gathering the faithful and opening them to the fullness of the Church’s life
  • Visiting, and so counselling and encouraging, individual members of the Church community, especially the sick and the poor
  • Overseeing the community’s wider attempt to meet the needs of its members, and of the wider realm in which their lives are set

Last but not least the royal dimension of the presbyter, his pastoral government of the local community of faith.

We see here in these prophetic, priestly and pastoral offices distinct elements that nevertheless inform one another in a unity. For example, the pastoral government that the priest exercises over the whole community – a form of rule that can never be exercised by the non-ordained in the sense of which a cleric does – supplies his teaching mandate with its proper form or modality, while his teaching is to be undertaken in such a way that the people committed to his charge (under his pastoral government) live ever more deeply in communion with the Church, with one another and with holiness in the wider communities and contexts in which their lives are set.

Needless to say, the sacramental and liturgical assignment of the priest informs all other aspects. As Cardinal Henri de Lubac observed, the gift of the Eucharist in the hands of the priest is not merely the conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but, ultimately, the conversion of God’s people by its reception.[3] Here we see the connection between the liturgical presidency of the priest and the responsibility to form others for the apostolic life, enabling the faithful to live Eucharistic lives in self-donation to others.

We see in this broad outline the ecclesial nature of ordained ministry, in service of the Church’s communion and its mission. In the language of the Letter to the Hebrews, the priest is in Christ a ‘pioneer and perfecter of faith’, shepherd of the faithful and is to equip the saints, particularly by his teaching, for building up the body of Christ in the midst of the world (Heb. 12:2; 13:20; Eph. 4:11).

Key Opportunities

9954008I would like to focus in particular on how the priest’s teaching office and his responsibility for pastoral government can best be lived today in order to serve the growth of discipleship in our parishes and evangelisation beyond the pews (sets one and three of that tripartite pattern of priestly life).

Evangelising Those Who Do Not Believe

It is sufficient to note that by ordination the priest does not cease to have a commitment to the evangelisation of those who are not gathered in Christ. The priest, as for the bishop and deacon, is included in the orientation of the entire Church toward mission in the world and so is called to reach out to not only those who might present with faith or form part of the existing parish but all those in their neighbourhood who do not yet know their home is with us. When priestly ministry becomes disconnected from the real experience of meeting and ‘breaking bread’ with the poor in spirit and circumstance – those without faith, those who those are existentially homeless and even those who oppose – then the call and instruction of the laity to reach beyond their boundaries of the parochial and the familiar can lack transparency and relevance. Acting in Christ the Head, the priest is called to be a pioneer in finding the lost, shepherding even those who are not yet part of the flock, and bearing his own dedicated witness to Christ in the unvarnished circumstances of people’s lives and dilemmas. We know that the future of our Church is always connected to those who are not yet believers. This calls the labour of the priest to extend to the harvest field, well beyond the confines of the ecclesiastical ‘barn’.

Teaching Sound Doctrine in Faith and Morals to Those Who Do

In teaching sound doctrine for the ongoing conversion of the faithful, the priesthood demands not only disciplined training in the content of faith, but also an acute recognition that teaching, to be effective, implies that there is in fact some learning taking place. In the terse words of Richard Gaillardetz, a mere “commitment to the epistemic objectivity of Church doctrines” does not mean subjective appropriation has followed.[4] In other words, much like the sacraments, teaching is not magic, a blunt tool applied without regard for the disposition of those who are being taught. When there is little or no understanding of the faith, we are challenged to do more than just say the same thing a little louder.

As the lives of laity can change at a pace (their lifestyles, social and material circumstances), the act of teaching on the part of the priest will also mean receiving into one’s own faith and knowledge that insight of ordinary believers as they attempt to apply doctrine or practice belief in the concrete conditions of their life. In short, I would suggest that the priest teaches best by drawing not only from doctrine, as an abiding expression of faith, but also by attending to and learning from the narratives and daily practices of Christian men, women and families, which supplies genuine theological insight for the art of teaching a perennial faith in new times. The Church is not faithful to its apostolic roots merely by presenting doctrinal statements, as if there the matter rests. Effective teaching leads people to a Jesus-shaped life by connecting the meaning of doctrine, which is the Gospel, with the hopes and trials of the learner. The primary challenge for the homily, as a primary form of teaching, is not poor oratory or exegesis but the need to bring the insight of Scripture and tradition into conversation with the deepest experiences of daily life, especially for post-modern people who are intimately aware of the pain of their own past but struggling towards a coherent future. Expressed in Evangelii Gaudium as the need for synthesis, not detached ideas, this form of inculturated teaching and preaching is the work which our era demands of us and is the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries.[5]

Forming Others to Be Apostolic

parishOf course, even in the case of sound and effective preaching, the priest cannot be expected to carry the responsibility for the missionary conversion of our parishes alone. As we have acknowledged, it is not obvious in our day that the hearts of laity are burning with the fire of Jesus’ mission in the Church and the world, as evidenced by our gentle decline and the culture of maintenance or immobility we can sometimes encounter in our parishes.

How can we best move people beyond a closed culture towards a culture of apostolicity, from a routine of comfort to the boldness of mission? As leaders it first demands a shift in our own outlook and approach, from engaging our people to build up the Church to becoming a Church that builds up people. When we routinely engage people to build up the Church, the focus inevitably falls on our structures, maintenance and functionalism. For example, a parish calls people forward to maintain its own life, its ministries, functions and tasks for which there is never enough human labour. We engage people, in other words, to ‘fill the gaps’ and out of a mindset of deficiency, with the best of our energy, dedication and resources flowing into the upkeep of our established groups, ministries and schedules. However, our parishes are not called to be factories, to keep the cogs turning over at any cost. We cannot confuse our means with our end which is the abundant spiritual life and personal change of our people. As it has been expressed, ‘If you build the Church, you rarely get disciples. If you make disciples, you always get the Church.’ Parishes begin to change their culture towards mission when all forms of its preaching shift from a focus on what it wants from people to what it wants for them.

In experience, our tendency to focus on deficiency and ecclesial need rather than vocation and personal calling can stymie our work, including in the raising up of young leaders. When youth leadership is recognised as the call to equip young people to lead within their life, in the context of their personal and professional relationships, this opportunity takes on a different hue that goes well beyond our parish need for more ministers. The model of a youth leader for a parish group on a Sunday night is one reality, the model of young Christian leaders in our culture is quite another.

In sum, when a community understands itself as existing not for its own preservation but for the invitation of spiritual and personal change among its members and non-members, then all that the parish undertakes, its programs, groups, structures, and finance, will be seen and considered in the light of its mission to make and send disciples. We will begin to measure our parish life not by the standards of conservation – the managing of internal concerns, the parish patrimony, nest egg or tranquillity – but by the standards of our outwards mission. We will begin to gauge our life not only by our seating capacity but also by our sending capacity, and the extent of the spiritual fruit and personal change we nurture into life.

Pastoral Government

IMG_5083In turning to the pastoral governance of the priest as whole – including building up the communion of the Church and overseeing the parish’s attempts to meet the needs of its members – there are practical steps that can be taken to lead parish renewal in a focused and also a sustainable way. To bring these practices and principles to real life, I will engage the parish of Saint Benedict in Halifax, Canada, as an example of best practice.

While no parish can serve as a strict blueprint for another, and every parish differs in demographic, resources, history, leadership and personality, there are basic principles that can be shared and that are transferable from one context to another. The Parish of Saint Benedict has, over some six years of experience, missteps and learning, developed a ‘Game Plan’ that has been put into practice with great commitment over the past three years, and that has assisted this parish to become an authentic school of discipleship. The focus of the community’s leadership is on cultural change and not a mere change in mood music. Last year, I was privileged to travel to this parish and to experience the community for myself in the context of a conference. In the first instance, what was most striking about the parish of Saint Benedict is its familiarity. While the discipleship process that has developed there is exceptional, the parish building, its context, and equipment are not unfamiliar or exotic in anyway. The process of developing disciples at Saint Benedict, in other words, does not lean on its facilities.

Exemplified by this example of Saint Benedict Parish, are four practical steps that we can take forwards to nourish a culture of discipleship and evangelisation in our own parishes, steps that are scalable for communities of different circumstance. Even if a community is not prepared to undertake such a process as a whole, it can be taken up by a parish ministry group, movement or association seeking direction and to focus its outreach. The four steps include:

Vision – Why
Priorities – What
Strategies – How
Actions – Who, When and So What?

As we have said, a first point of renewal for growing parishes is to clarify vision, the why or purpose of community life. We have seen the vision cast by Saint Benedict Parish, the image of a preferred future which the parish seeks to pursue at every turn: “Saint Benedict Parish is a healthy and growing faith community that brings people to Christ, forms disciples, and sends them out to transform the world. Our members commit to worship, to grow, to serve, to connect and to give”. Again, this ecclesiological vision helpfully combines welcome with expectation, as Jesus did in John’s Gospel when he expects the vine to bear fruit, and even prunes and expects more from those vines already producing. In working with parishes, some helpful prompts to prayerfully discern and form community vision can include the following questions:

  1. What does our parish exist for?
  2. What do we hope and dream to be as a community of faith?
  3. What spiritual fruit do we want to see in our people?
  4. What kind of disciples do we want our parish to make?

Ideally, the parish vision will focus in some way or another on discipleship. It will in some way cast a vision that centres itself on the spiritual change of its members.

Priorities, Strategies and Actions

StonesHaving established a parish vision, a parish can then identify the priority areas where it intends to live that vision most immediately within a given time frame, say three to five years. Returning to the ‘Game Plan’ of Saint Benedict Parish, there were five priorities discerned by the community as areas for focus. The parish proceeded to identify those core systems of a church, which like the systems of a body, are essential to the growth of the ecclesial body.

Saint Benedict Parish arrived at the five priority areas of evangelisation, community, ministry, discipleship and worship. It was these priorities that then informed the development of the ‘Game Plan’. Special interest groups such as youth or family are noticeably absent from this list of priorities, as it is trusted that if the core systems of the parish are renewed, this rising tide in the parish will float all boats.

For the ministry in the priest in particular, I am mindful that when a community has a vision but no particular priority areas in which to achieve it, it will tend to simply ‘add on’ new programs and activities to an already busy routine hoping this will affect a difference. Yet we know, even implicitly, that addition is not synonymous with increase; that ‘more’ is not always tantamount to ‘better’. We are learning on a national, diocesan and parish level that a ‘spaghetti’ approach to Church life, over-programmed with a splattering of disconnected activity, tends to encourage silos rather than unity or strength of mission. This is because events, programs and groups compete for space on the common calendar, rivalling one another for the same pool of finite resources, increasingly busy people and limited attention. If we become content with the unrolling of copious activity, without heed of the fruit these initiatives bear or otherwise, we in fact succumb to the “spiritual worldliness”, or busyness for its own sake, of which Pope Francis warns.[6]

Given that all parishes have limited resources – time, energy and personnel – there is a need for the priest to discern those priority areas which will best serve its local mission for discipleship, naming what gets done first and what is done later. Prioritising ensures the best use of constrained resources, improves the speed of decision-making as we have something to assess any new initiatives against, it can bring order to the chaos of a ‘spaghetti’ approach when there is a lot of activity but it is disconnected or not relating to a bigger vision, and reduces parish stress.

We know from experience, even if it is not always named, that no one parish can ‘do it all’ and so we must choose the best things to do even over good things to do, recognising that whenever you set some priorities in a parish some people will be disappointed with our choices. We need to resist the temptation to try and meet every possible need as this will not only be impossible and impractical, or lead to burn out for your own ministry, parish pastoral council or parish staff, but responding to particular ‘needs’ does not necessarily serve the greater vision of the parish, especially when the loudest voices tend to dominate and are not necessarily the most important.

How can we best determine our own parish priorities in prayer and reflection? We can examine the current life of the parish. Our local demographics and observations can reveal urgent and significant areas that call for our response as a parish. We have tools for this self-understanding including the National Church Life Surveys conducted by many Australian dioceses. We can also consult our people for these priorities, though it is worth noting from experience that consultation processes typically surface similar and predictable priorities including youth, family life, adult faith formation, and outreach. This approach can help grow engagement within the community though it demands time. Alternatively, like Saint Benedict Parish we can examine core systems of a healthy church, systems which like those of the body contribute to the working of the whole.

Picture4Once parish priorities are identified, the parish can then conduct a simple SWOT analysis – identifying its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in each area of priority. This assists a parish identify its areas of strategic action. We can narrow these strengths and limitations that call for a response to a limited and workable number, by asking questions such as:

  1. What strength in this area can your parish most easily build upon?
  2. What weakness in this area would be the easiest one to fix?
  3. What is the greatest opportunity in this area we could seize upon with the least amount of time and resources?
  4. What is the most immediate or greatest threat we need to address, and how?

The result is that a parish has a manageable number of focus areas to address, enabling it to move forwards in areas of priority. Finally, having established a vision, prayerfully discerned key areas of priority, and identified specific strategies through a look at its strengths and weaknesses, we can then select appropriate actions to bring our strategies to real life.

Awakening the Priestly Charism

This form of intentional planning in priestly governance has been shown to be essential to growth and cultural change in a parish, and requires dedication, the holding of nerve and apostolic courage. However, I believe it is no more demanding than the labour of maintenance which, to draw from the imagery of the Cappadocian Fathers, can resemble toiling up sand dunes with much movement but very little progress. The often disheartening alternative in the parish is to ask ‘What should we do next?’ without the clarity and motivation of a coherent purpose or vision for ourselves in ministry and for the people in our care.

In this context, it is important to say that casting vision and discerning strategies for the growth of discipleship are not meant to be undertaken alone. Christian governance in its deepest sense does not imply leading alone but leading out of a team, in relationship to others. Indeed, the unique charism of the priest, who acts in Christ the Head, is to discern those of the laity with whom the baptismal, Eucharistic and missionary unity of the parish can best be advanced.

Crowd-People-Walking-Business-BlurryWhat is more, the flourishing of the laity and their involvement in the pastoral plan or initiatives of evangelisation and mission is critical to the vitality of the ordained. When discipleship and conversion are unleashed in Christian community through vision, priorities, and strategies that support cultural change, this rich spiritual life will organically evoke or call forward the governance of the priest. Such flourishing of the People of God will draw out the fullness of teaching, sanctifying and governing from the ordained. When community faith and charisms abound, it demands the office of pastoral government, expressed in the priest’s cooperation with laity in mission to the world, listening to and recognition of lay expertise, awakening and deepening the priest’s call to co-responsibility, to entrust to and invite initiative of the lay faithful, and for the priest to explore and discern with them lay vocations and apostolates.[7]

In the absence of active discipleship in the parish, little governance needs in fact to be exercised by the priest. The parish routine does not invite laity to discern and actively live their call and so the priesthood itself does not flourish as God intends it to. In contrast, Lumen Gentium announces the type of pastoral governance that the Church wills for its priests,

It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but, “allotting his gifts to everyone according as He wills,” He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank . . . Those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and orderly use of these gifts and it is especially their office not indeed to extinguish the Spirit but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good.[8]

We have here the legacy of Congar and the school of ressourcement at the Council, the firm insistence that the Spirit is not monopolised by hierarchical office as though it were a kind of reservoir dispensing gifts from above. The laity too are subjects of the Spirit’s action as persons of baptismal faith and that this calls forward the unique pastoral government of the priest to order those gifts toward mission. As affirmed at that same Council:

While testing the spirits to discover if they be of God, they [the presbyters] must discover with faith, recognise with joy, and foster diligently, the many and varied charismatic gifts of the laity, whether these be of a humble or more exalted kind . . . Priests should confidently entrust to the laity duties in the service of the Church, giving them freedom and opportunity for activity and even inviting them, when opportunity offers, to undertake projects on their own initiative.[9]

In total, this sets forth a vision of the Church in which the priest exercises his ministry in service of the gifts and charisms of the laity, given for God’s mission in the world, and through this exercise of governance fulfils the pastoral dimension of his office. It is worth sharing the reflection of Fr Michael Fones OP, cited by Sherry Weddell, on this often untapped potential of the priesthood,

I often wonder what it would look like if a pastor intentionally focused on this aspect of his priesthood; how would parishioners respond if they were challenged to consciously discern their gifts and call (and given help to do so), and then intentionally supported by the parish in living that call? I also wonder if a whole set of young men aren’t being drawn to the priesthood because their call is most closely associated with the royal (or governing) aspect of a priest’s office. I know priests whose priesthood is most deeply felt when they’re celebrating the sacraments, and others for whom teaching and preaching are the cornerstone of their lives. Might there not be men who would respond to an invitation from Christ to be a priest if they saw the royal function expressed more clearly and powerfully?[10]

The priest exercises leadership in parish evangelisation by forming and ruling the priestly people through his discernment and empowering of God’s gratuitous gifts, given to the whole Church for the sake of God’s mission.

Conclusion

Whether proclaiming and teaching the Word of God, sanctifying through the sacraments and acts of worship, or building up the Church and calling out the gifts of the laity through his pastoral governance, the priest is a privileged presence of Christ’s life and mission. The riches of the priesthood are needed now more than ever, to call and awaken the charisms and gifts of the faithful through a teaching office in tune to the lived experience of those who learn, through a sanctifying office that mediates grace, a grace that calls to be received and bear real fruit among active disciples, and through a royal office or pastoral government that marshals those gifts and charisms of disciples to bear witness to Christ in the Church and the world. Divinely ordained and living in history, graced and building upon the gifts of nature, God-given and yet not set in stone, the priesthood, as much as the episcopacy and diaconate, will flourish to the extent it is expressed in faithful and effective living. Thank you for your dedication to Christ’s priesthood and mission here in the Archdiocese and in a wider world that cries out for God.

References:

[1] Lumen Gentium 10, 31-33.

[2] Aidan Nichols, Holy Order: Apostolic Priesthood from the New Testament to the Second Vatican Council (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1990), 142-143.

[3] Cf. Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church, translated by Michael Mason (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999). There are echoes of de Lubac’s thought in St John Paul II’s 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia.

[4] Richard Gaillardetz, “Power and Authority in the Church: Emerging Issues”, A Church with Open Doors (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015): 93-94.

[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 143.

[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 93-97.

[7] Sherry Weddell, Forming International Disciples (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 84.

[8] Lumen Gentium 12.

[9] Presbyterorum Ordinis 9.

[10] Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 85-86.

sydney clergy conference address – I

It was a great pleasure and privilege to speak at the recent clergy conference of the Archdiocese of Sydney, held at the Liverpool Catholic Club on 25 October, 2017. Thank you to Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, Bishop Randazzo, Bishop Umbers, Fr Paul Monkerud and Fr Kelvin Lovegrove for the generous invitation to share a few words on the nature of the ‘new evangelisation’ and ordained ministry within a changed landscape of faith.

A ‘Critical Moment’

Picture1Amidst the unfussy pews of the parishes we know and love the grace of Christ continues to move and mould hearts to his own. The local parish, even in its ordinariness, remains a privileged location of God’s transforming grace in the world.

It is also a perennial insight of our Catholic tradition that we cannot grow as persons by holding the door closed against reality. This is also true of the parish.

In this respect I’d like to begin with a few observations on the current situation of the Australian parish before suggesting implications for our pastoral practice as communities of faith and, following, to consider the implications for the ministry of the ordained.

Researchers have described the Catholic parish as having reached a ‘critical moment’ in the life of the Australian Church (and here I am indebted to the work of the Pastoral Research Office).[1]

We know that of our 5.4 million Catholics in Australia only 662,000 or 12.2 per cent join us for Eucharist on any given weekend.[2] Almost a third of these Mass attenders (some 220,000) are aged between 60 and 74 years of age while of all Catholics aged between 20 and 34 in Australia, only 5-6% attend.[3] So what we are seeing is an ageing congregation in our pews with fewer among younger generations to replace them as we move into the future. Interestingly, Mass attendance peaks in Australia at around the age of 75, proving the rule that ‘the closer you get to God, the closer you get to God’!

Migrants, of course, account for over 40% of our Mass attenders.[4] We are indebted to and sustained by the participation of diverse ethnic communities. However, we also know that second generation Australians, that is, the children of Catholic migrants, are far less likely to practice than their parents. In total, some 13,000 Catholics stop attending Mass each year, and across all age groups more than 20,000 Australians every year are ceasing to identify themselves as Catholic at all (a dis-identification of some 100,000 Catholics over the last five years).[5]

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

It becomes clear that we need our Catholic parishes to grow because they are integral and indispensable to our spiritual identity as a Church. Together with the family, the local parish remains a primary venue where faith is given shape and social support, fostered into discipleship and then enters the world. In all these ways, the future of the Australian Church relies on the vitality of the Catholic parish. Indeed, if we did not have parishes we would have to create them – local communities gathered around the Word and Eucharist.

A New Landscape for Faith

churchpewsAs the mainstay of ecclesial life, the parish is, however, undergoing a process of undeniable change and has become an increasingly complex reality on account of a number of factors. Parishes are becoming geographically larger and yet numerically smaller with the practice of amalgamation and diminishing attendance. We experience growing multicultural diversity and new immigration in our pews and on the altar in our active clergy; we are impacted by a shortage and ageing of priests as we inevitably baptise more than we ordain; and we see the beginnings of more regional planning in the light of our resources and a desire for more creative ways of organising ourselves as Church.

On the level of faith, we know as well that we can no longer rely on a straightforward ‘conveyer belt’ which was presumed to take Catholics from the cradle to the grave in faith, the assumption that a Catholic baptism, having Catholic parents, mere attendance at a Catholic school or Catholic university, for example, would secure a lifetime of committed discipleship. Indeed in our pews, schools and agencies there is no ‘beige Catholicism’ or ‘cookie cutter Catholic’. Our experience tells us that we have in our communities people at various stages of faith, with varying relationships to the person and the message of the Gospel. Discipleship is never a given.

Our parishes are populated with the deeply committed, those who hold a vague or uncertain faith, those who affiliate out of family custom rather than conviction, and some engage with our Church for reasons other than religious motives (for the purpose of school enrolment for instance). As well our sharing of the same pews does not mean we believe the same things (for example, many older Catholics have stopped believing that pre-marital sex is always wrong, perhaps because many of their children are now cohabiting with their partners).[7]

Even among those most committed each Sunday there will be people at various stages of faith commitment, as Sherry Weddell notes in her decades’ long experience of discernment with laity and clergy. People find themselves passing through various thresholds of faith, in and out at times:

  • Initial trust (positive association with Jesus Christ, the Church, a Christian believer)
  • Curiosity (intrigued or initial desire to know more)
  • Openness (acknowledges themselves open to personal and spiritual change)
  • Spiritual seeking (move from being passive to actively seeking to know God)
  • Intentional discipleship (‘dropping their nets’ with a conscious commitment to follow Christ in the midst of the Church).[8]

So it is an increasingly complex scene for parish mission today. As Ed Murrow, a broadcast journalist of last century, pointed out in the face of complexity, “Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation”.

The Problematic

Crowd-People-Walking-Business-BlurryThe times have changed definitively. Some would say these times are not for us. However, and this is the pinch, while the surrounding culture and conditions of faith has changed our pastoral practice has remained much the same. I think it is for this reason that our efforts, our tireless and well-intended efforts, are not bearing the fruit of intentional and missionary discipleship we so desperately want to see. We are in a new landscape for faith but are still reading off the same maps. It is no wonder that people are lost along the way.

Take one recent example, the increased number of Australians now identifying as ‘no religion’. For the first time in our history we have more ‘nones’ than Catholics in our nation, with ‘nones’ now accounting for 30.1% of the population while 22.6% of Australians self-identify as Catholic. There might have been once a hope that those who were baptised and guided to the faith in youth and who then drifted away might eventually return to the Church at a later age, perhaps when they had children of their own. This might have been the story for some baby boomers who, once emancipated from their parents, became a ‘seeker’ and explored other options, before coming home to the Catholic fold or settling in a new church. However, today the figures are not showing that kind of return to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Disaffiliation is here to stay.

While scandal and poor experiences of Church and parish can be a part of this story, realistically some have shed the Catholic ‘brand’ as they have come to the plain and simple conclusion that their lives simply no longer reflect the religion they inherited. The result is many today feel comfortable in saying, ‘To be honest, I don’t belong anymore’.

In fact, a very basic analysis looking at ‘net’ changes between Censuses showed that between 2011 and 2016 every 5-year age group (from the age of 10 onwards) saw a net decrease of people identifying as Catholic, which was not the case in the five years prior. Catholics in almost all age groups are ceasing to nominate as such.

This shift challenges our parishes for, historically and habitually, our parish outreach programs are geared towards Mass attending Catholics or those still identifying as Catholic even if they are not practicing. We are not so comfortable reaching the ‘nones’ or secular people who do not attend or identify with us whatsoever. These ‘nones’ are not saying, ‘If only you had a better version of Church I would go to it’. They are not interested in ‘Church’ at all so our new coffee and contemporary Church music is not what they are looking for. It would be akin to trying to sell an upgraded car to someone who is not in the market for one. Evangelisation in this new time calls us to adjust our eyes and lengthen our arms to reach increasingly secular people where our relationships with them (rather than religious upgrades) will take priority.

Opportunities for Parish Renewal

Picture3Looking forwards and taking into account the complexity and variety of this new situation, I would suggest three principles or areas for consideration in the effort to renew and strengthen the evangelising mission of the local parish.

These three areas of focus include the need to take more seriously pre-evangelisation (what the Congregation for Clergy, describes as ‘Christian witness, dialogue and presence’ prior to proclamation), the recovery of discipleship as the fundamental basis of parish life and mission, and the setting of parish vision as essential to stimulating growth and motivating change.

Pre-evangelisation

An accessible way to underscore the critical importance of ‘pre-evangelisation’ (our witness, dialogue and presence in charity prior to any explicit proclamation of the Gospel) is to contrast it with a word and activity that we are more comfortable or familiar with as Catholics and that is ‘catechesis’. The word ‘catechesis’ means ‘to sound out’. It has been compared to standing at the entrance of a cave, and speaking out and hearing a voice coming back. When we catechise we are speaking into people’s lives, we are giving them faith and knowledge, and what we seek is for that faith and knowledge to resound back, echo back upon its reception. However, the only way we can hear an echo is if there is a ‘cave’, if there is a space to speak into. If we were to run out and shout at a brick wall we are not going to hear an echo as there is no space to absorb and reverberate what is being shared. This is why pre-evangelisation matters and must precede catechesis because there has to be an open space to speak into if we are going to hear faith resound back from one receiving the Gospel into their life.

In past attempts at evangelisation, we have not always been sufficiently attentive to where people are at in their lives and sought to convey the Gospel to them almost as a blunt tool without an appreciation of whom we are speaking, their lived situations and immediate concerns. These situations can be the ‘on ramp’ to the evangelisation, faith and conversion we want to see.

It could be added that past attempts at evangelisation have so often confused people’s indifference with ignorance. People’s hearts may not be engaged, they may be indifferent or hold little trust in the Church or ourselves as Christians, entertain little space or desire for dialogue, and yet we can seek to drown them in information in the hope that this might effect personal change. In short, we have sought to instruct the indifferent, catechise the unconcerned, and can, as Evangelii Gaudium notes, fall into the trap of providing answers to questions that nobody is asking (EG 155).

Picture4While Pope Francis represents neither the first nor the last word in the Church’s grappling with mission, we cannot miss the moment. His clear emphasis on accompaniment as fundamental to change of life and conversion is right for our times. Reaching the ‘nones’ and even the ‘nominals’ invites such relationship, marked by tenderness, especially at a time when established institutions, above all the Church, are subject to a cultural distrust that deafens the wider community to our claims. In Evangelii Gaudium the Holy Father clarifies, “Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation”[9]. “Spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God . . . to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father”.[10] In short, we are called not to be chaplains of secular humanism but to prepare and equip our people for the kind of courage in faith demonstrated by St Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 17:16-34).

In his apostolic enterprise, St Paul develops intentional relationships with the Gentiles who are utterly unfamiliar with the Christian revelation. He does so by:

  • Desiring the good of the other and holding a deep concern for them (“he was distressed that the city was full of idols”). Without that desire not much is possible.
  • He attends to the questions they are asking rather than providing uninvited answers (“May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means”)
  • He identifies shared values (“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way”)
  • In seeking to share the Gospel, he uses evidence and examples from the audience’s perspective (“As even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring. Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold’)
  • He avoids using ‘insider’ language so as not to create stumbling blocks too early in the relationship (e.g. he does not yet use the name of Jesus though he will go on to do so).
  • He begins to inspire curiosity, rather than providing pat answers (“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’”)
  • Ultimately some became believers, “including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them”.

Our own age also suggests a shift from thinking about evangelisation in terms of programs and showcase events to processes that accompany people to personal and spiritual change. This brings us to a second and related opportunity – the recovery of discipleship as the primary purpose of our parishes.

Reclaiming Discipleship

A focus on discipleship reclaims the Great Commission of Matthew’s Gospel as the foundational task of the church Catholic and of the parish as its local manifestation: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). As it has been pointed out, our Catholic Church has certainly learnt to “go” and can claim a presence at all corners of the earth. We “baptise” and confirm relentlessly. We “teach” and catechise great numbers in our Australian schools and sacramental programs. However, our ability as Church to “make disciples” remains in question, as raised by the pastoral realities for the Australian Church we have explored.[11]

SB011We must acknowledge that if we were to measure how many of those hundreds who receive the sacraments in our local parish each year, pass through our sacramental life in initiation or from week to week, and emerge on the other side as ‘missionary disciples’, we would have to admit that there is much less fruit than we might hope to see. Our pastoral experience tells us that we have in our communities no lack of those who have been ‘sacramentalised’ but not yet evangelised, those who are merely ‘done’ but not yet discipled.

I would suggest that one of the causes of our dilemma as Church is that we have tended to lift the sacraments, and indeed much else that the Church does, out of their proper context which is precisely discipleship, a living and fruitful faith. A pastoral approach that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ neglects our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually take root and bear fruit. To make the point,

baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . . For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it.[12]

This is not to discount the centrality of the sacraments or to deny the place that devotions have in the Catholic life. But it is to say that people can be ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised, that it is entirely possible to undertake a routine of religious custom and practice without a personal and responsive relationship to Jesus Christ.

In short, we cannot look at the sacraments or our pastoral practices in isolation from discipleship. Unless people come to faith, come to relationship with God, unless people become disciples, the likelihood that the sacraments will bear the fruit they are intended to bear is severely diminished. As the saying goes, gifts are given but fruits are grown.

To substantiate this view in tradition, Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people.[13] The Catechism of the Catholic Church which followed tells us explicitly, “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”.[14] As well, both the Council and the Catechism affirm the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life“.[15] When there is no Christian life, no trace or intention of Christian living, then the Eucharist can be neither source nor summit of anything (it remains so in fact but not in effect). Outside of the context of discipleship, the Eucharist can be reduced to an object of piety or mere consumption rather than a relationship that invites a Jesus-shaped life. We could say that the mission of the Church is not sacraments but disciples which the sacraments nourish.

Passive reception of a sacrament is not enough as the Catechism names without apology: “To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition”.[16] In other words, sacraments are not magic. The Church has consistently taught that a positive disposition is critical to the reception of grace. As St Augustine avers, God ‘did not will to save us without us’. Living faith is essential if the grace of the sacraments is not to be bound – merely valid but tied – within the life of the one who receives.

DSC_0137At the level of the parish, this gap between our presumptions (our unspoken ‘sacramentalism’ that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’) and the active faith and discipleship to which all the baptised are called is palpable. Time and again how often have we heard parents, good and faithful parents, lament that their grown children are now disconnected from the Church, that they are no longer going to Mass, and even now hold no faith at all. Yet they did all they were supposed to do, received all their sacraments, and their children served as altar servers and so on. There can also be a latent notion, and I think a false hope, that the grace of the sacraments might ‘kick in’ many years later, like a time release capsule, but there is very little evidence that this is true. Again, hear the laments of old generations of Catholics who did all they thought they had to do, received all the sacraments, were never encouraged to ask questions and carried out the practice of the Catholic religion but lament never experiencing a life-giving or transforming faith. Where is the fruit?

As an aside, we have traditionally been more focused on issues of validity – and validity of the minister’s celebration of the sacrament, tied up with the controversies of the Donatists and Reformation – rather than its fruitfulness. This is despite the biblical mandate of John 15:6 and magisterial teaching such as that of St John Paul II who remarked, and I quote, “Bearing fruit is an essential demand of life in Christ and life in the Church. The person who does not bear fruit does not remain in communion: ‘Each branch of mine that bears no fruit, he (my Father) takes away”. Without fruit, without active discipleship, there is no communion, only a crowd.[17]

To ground our discussion in practice, what would it look like if the commission to make disciples informed our sacramental preparation, moving away from what is generally an age-based reward system for many who will never darken the doors of our parishes again? Certainly we must commit to meeting people ‘where they are’ but we also have to love them enough not to leave them there. Pastoral care and accompaniment are not opposed to personal challenge and the expectation of spiritual growth. Pastoral care and accompaniment are fulfilled by the change of life that discipleship entails.

For the priest, this involves helping people understand what holiness requires as a teacher and helping them to realise this teaching in practice as a pastor. As such our first response to the mixed assembly of people who come forwards for the sacraments of initiation should never be a ‘no’ but at times the proper response in good faith could well be a ‘not yet’. ‘No’ should not be our first response but time may be needed to reflect on what a ‘yes’ means and to allow people to be prepared not simply for one sacrament or one liturgy but for a lifetime of discipleship.

SB048As an attempt to set discipleship at the heart of my home parish of St Bernadette’s Parish, Castle Hill, we introduced four weeks of parental preparation for entry into the sacramental program (the parish celebrated the sacraments of Reconciliation, Confirmation and Eucharist all in the one nine month period). This formation was focused not on children but on parents who were asked to attend four 2 hour sessions – on God and us, God and his Church, God and the sacraments, and living God’s way. Each session was offered three times a week to accommodate parents’ commitments, and completion of all four sessions was a requirement of entry into the sacramental program and preparation for the year.

Of course, in raising this expectation, focused as it was on parents, some did not take to this requirement and looked elsewhere for easier admission to the sacraments which the parishes next door were only too happy to provide. However, while some people walked away, it always has to be questioned if this is ever a real loss, for people to lament or kickback, saying in effect, ‘Well we’re going to go to another parish that we won’t go to’. It may well be that the neighbouring parishes accommodated more people in their sacramental program but none of these saw an increase in weekly attendance, more people living faith in the midst of the community, and only increased their administrative workload all the while being disconnected from the living discipleship which is our real and primary purpose.

Recall in respect of the sacraments that the Great Commission calls us to ‘go make disciples’ and then baptise and teach. In many ways, we are running our attempts at evangelisation in reverse order to the ancient Church. In the ancient Church, neophytes were evangelised, catechised, initiated and then given access to the sacred mysteries, namely the liturgy of the Eucharist. Today neophytes are introduced to the liturgical rites, initiated, and then those who remain in the pews may be lucky enough to be catechised, and perhaps a handful might come to be evangelised.

To grow our parishes we must reclaim discipleship as the ‘new norm’ and a starting point for evangelisation. We must recognise that the measure of parish vitality is not the number of ‘bums on seats’ but a matter of impact, the extent of personal and spiritual change the Spirit brings about through the environment and processes we install to support an encounter with Christ. To underscore our goal is discipleship and not mere scale, the Church was never more ‘catholic’ than in the Upper Room at Pentecost when all of its members could fit inside a tiny room. ‘Good church’ does not necessarily mean a large church, and faithfulness and fruitfulness is not measured in the size of a crowd. Large parishes can be spiritually dead, and small parishes can foster genuine discipleship like no other.

A missionary parish will be a parish dedicated to discipleship, raising up through welcome and expectation men, women and families who:

  • enter into a personal relationship with Jesus
  • can and do share faith with others
  • are open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • have knowledge and love of the Scriptures
  • know basic Catholic theology
  • have a daily prayer life
  • experience real Christian community
  • have a commitment to Sunday Eucharist
  • celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation
  • can pray spontaneously out loud when asked (this in fact presumes the practice of personal, daily prayer as aforementioned)
  • serve in ministry,
  • and see their lives as a mission field.[18]

This is the quality of Christian living we seek to bring about in God’s Church. This is the commission of discipleship that Jesus entrusts to his apostles.

Parish Vision

candlesWe turn now to consider how we might move our communities from a casual acceptance of sacramental minimalism to the apostolic zeal of an evangelising parish. A third key opportunity to move from maintenance to mission is the development of an articulate vision that goads, challenges and stimulates the parish toward change. Our parishes are often caught between a call and desire for renewal and the weight of our own church culture towards maintaining the status quo. In this moment which cries out for new energies, priests and people alike can feel bound by layers of expectation that demand the continuation of the old even while new forms of life and mission long for expression.[19]

However, a fresh vision admits of new possibilities and allows us to let go of what no longer serves our mission. When we communicate a vision for the parish, how we seek to respond to God in this context, in this time, in this local community, when we can articulate a vision of the kinds of spiritual growth we are seeking to raise up in our people, this passionate purpose becomes the heartbeat or pulse of a parish. As in our Eucharistic liturgies, ‘remembrance of our future’ in Christ provides the case for change and conversion in the present.

The alternative to a parish communicating vision is a community standing in the silence of an unquestioned routine. The lifeblood of the parish might occasionally receive a boost or uptick through the initiative of individuals or the occasional event but without a sustained vision to consistently stimulate a higher life, the pulse of the parish inevitably slows and returns to maintenance, to the pace of survival rather than growth.

Not only is a clear and galvanising vision the basis of every growing Christian community that I am aware of, whether Catholic or otherwise, it is clear that our people are hungry and seeking this clarity of purpose and direction. The recent 2016 NCLS survey tells us that around 30% of Mass attending Catholics are unaware of any vision, goal or direction in their local parish, while 18% of parishioners (including those in parishes of the Archdiocese) want to be more involved.[20] It is our task as leaders to answer the question, “Involvement in what?”

A parish vision that reclaims the Great Commission, that reclaims the making of disciples as our primary calling clarifies the purpose of the community and makes it possible for others to become a part of that purpose. It is not a stretch to assert that some of the spiritual stagnation in our pews may be attributable to the plain fact that many Catholics have no vision at all as to how the life of holiness could be pursued or ultimately take expression.

As an example, a sense of welcome and expectation is well captured in the vision of Saint Benedict Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, “Saint Benedict Parish is a healthy and growing faith community that brings people to Christ, forms disciples, and sends them out to transform the world. Our members commit to worship, to grow, to serve, to connect and to give”. This combines welcome and expectation, as Jesus does in John’s Gospel when he expects the vine to bear fruit, and even prunes and expects more from those vines already producing.[21] It underscores that healthy things grow and sets the expectation of growth for its members. If we do not cast such vision for our people in our Church, the question will inevitably arise from the pews, ‘Are we going anywhere?’

As Sherry Weddell notes with conviction, parishes that seriously and consistently set a vision for and make disciples will experience astonishing levels of growth in depth and number,

Disciples are hungry to pray and worship, so naturally Mass attendance goes up. Disciples want to serve, and often migrate into parish leadership. Disciples will fill every faith formation class in your parish and diocese, because they want to grow in their faith. They clamour to discern personal vocation and personal call . . . Disciples go to great lengths to pass on the faith to their children. They care about the poor and about justice. They take risks for the kingdom of God. Disciples give.[22]

As we will note, the teaching, liturgical and pastoral offices of the priest is in service of this process of evangelisation in which disciples are formed and sent into service of the Kingdom, that fullness of life in God, that Jesus himself embodies.

Conclusion

We have surveyed the state of the Australian parish, named the complexity of our local faith communities amidst a new landscape for faith. We have addressed the necessity of pre-evangelisation in the journey of faith, contrasting it with catechesis that has assumed a reality that is no more, and underlined discipleship as the context or lens through which to reclaim the evangelising mission of the parish, as the context for our sacramental life, our ministry and mission in the world. Finally, we have canvassed vision as critical to the revitalisation of the Church communities for mission, setting forth a definite purpose for our local communities with which people can engage.

Each of these elements contains implications for the ordained which we will enter into after our break. Whatever vocation we inhabit, as the baptised a reinvigorated mission ultimately means responding and having trust in what Christ in the Holy Spirit can do for us, with us and through us, even in the well-worn pews of the parishes we know and love.

References:

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

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 2-3.

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

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

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

[7] Robert Dixon, “What do Mass attenders believe? Contemporary cultural change and the acceptance of key Catholic beliefs and moral teachings by Australian Mass attenders” (Pastoral Research Office, February 2014), 8.

[8] Sherry Weddell, Forming International Disciples (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 125-184.

[9] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 173.

[10] Ibid; 170.

[11] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2014), 19-20.

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

[13] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.

[14]Catechism of the Catholic Church #1072.

[15]Catechism of the Catholic Church #1324.

[16]Catechism of the Catholic Church #2111.

[17] John Paul II, Christifideles Laici 32. ‘Validity’ means that the sacrament was truly bestowed and the intended grace made truly present to the person receiving the sacrament. But validity does not guarantee that the grace made available has been actively received and is bearing fruit in that person’s life. See also Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 99-123.

[18] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation Guidebook (Toronto, Ontario: Novalis Publishing, 2016), 59.

[19] Mallon, Divine Renovation, 53.

[20] NCLS Research, Church Life Profile for the Catholic Church in Australia: A Report on Vitality of Local Churches who took part in the 2016 National Church Life Survey (North Sydney, 2017), 10.

[21] Cf. John 15:1-2; Mallon, Divine Renovation, 155.

[22] Sherry Weddell, “Discipleship: The Key to Fruitfulness”, Chicago Studies 54:2 (Fall 2014): 24.

thoughts on a plenary council

Vatican FamilyIt is a great honour to join other Catholics from a diverse range of backgrounds, experience and perspectives on the Executive Committee for the Plenary Council of the Church in Australia marked for 2020. The role of the Executive Committee will be to provide advice to the Bishops Commission for the Plenary, with details of membership here.

While the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference awaits for approval from Pope Francis for the Plenary Council, the pontiff’s placement of synodality and instalment of discernment at the heart of the Church encourages the Church in Australia to grasp this once-in-a-century opportunity to integrate the varieties of Catholic expression, spiritual experience and faith of the faithful, the pressing challenges and urgent opportunities toward a renewed missionary impulse.

On a personal note the assisting Committee will be a tremendous experience of conversation and collaboration with leaders of ecclesial movements, religious, theologians, lay leaders with experience in local parishes and dioceses, as well as those in education, in service of the national dialogue about a course for the future.

The potential scope of a Plenary Council, to the best of my knowledge, is as broad as the Church itself, with the stated purpose to ensure the pastoral needs of the people of God are provided for, to determine whatever seems opportune for the increase of faith, to order common pastoral action, and for the direction of morality and the preservation, introduction and defense of common ecclesiastical discipline. These categories, generously abstract in canon law, furnish room for an immeasurable array of themes both ad intra and ad extra, from the emboldening of the baptised to live as missionary disciples, the leitmotif of Pope Francis and the process that delivered the Aparecida document, to the need of the Church to engage the world in faith, as it really is in Him.

In the wake of Pope Francis whose evangelical thrust has expressed itself not narrowly through the culture wars but through the peripheries and by his ability to personalise the Church, through to the searing grace of the Royal Commission whose recommendations must enter deeply into the Plenary deliberations, the conditions are ripe for the reform of the Australian Church.

Of course the word ‘reform’ is not ecclesiologically innocent. One only has to consult the work of historian Fr John O’Malley to be awakened to the varieties of ways in which the word can be engaged.[1] For some it will refer to a process whereby something is corrected which was in error. For others reform has the character of growth or development, which assumes an underlying continuity or unfolding of providence. Ecclesiologies shape the understanding of change within the Church, and each ecclesiology informs a historical consciousness – the classicist sees the Church as a doctrinal society moving through history largely unaffected; primitivists see the pattern of history as cyclic and look for norms in the past that will enable rejuvenation or revival in the present; or those with an ‘organic’ consciousness see the present as a reflection of where the past naturally tended, and so development is ahead of us without rejection of what has gone before. Church reform, then, can be practically engaged by excision, by addition, by revival, accommodation, development or a combination of these approaches.

VIIIn deliberations over reform, Vatican II will and must be a touchstone for the Plenary Council in style and substance. The trials and tribulations of the post-conciliar era are in part a consequence of the absence of operating paradigms of reform at the time of the Council. In contrast, the Plenary will be able to benefit from and indeed extend the example, insights and challenges of Vatican II as an instance of reform in recent memory. The varying loci receptionis, or various contexts of reception, is but just one lesson we have learned from Vatican II, the recognition that we are as a community of communities extraordinarily diverse and that this will impact upon the translation of deliberations into real life.

With the encouragement of that Council, now fifty years young, it is hoped that new participative models of ecclesial life and modes of discourse will emerge that engage the sensus fidelium here in Australia. The meaning and implication of Lumen Gentium 12 and that active capacity or sensibility by which all the faithful are able to receive and understand the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3)’ calls for reflection and then concretisation in the processes and structures of the Church into the future. Hence, the Plenary Council and its processes will need to engage the continuum of a great tradition in which the Holy Spirit has spoken as well as the living faith of the pilgrim people, the ‘universality of all believers’ as Bellarmine put it, that has a capacity to discern the truth of faith.[2] This is no small task.

It is only together that we will have the best view of things, including an intelligible account of where we are and how we have arrived at this juncture as a Church, naming those antecedents that have shaped and misshaped the mission and culture of Australian Catholicism. Reflection on this past does not always provide pat answers or easy solutions but it does put the Church in a better position to make decisions for the present and future. Synodality is a mode of governance, as Pope Francis intimates, which involves listening to each other and also to the Spirit in our past and present to discern what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7). Synodality has the potential to connect tradition with fresh questions, expresses the journeying of the whole Church through human history, its dynamism of communion, and a practice that can inspire decision through the fidelity of the entire people.[3]

pastplan_097On the point of process, which I anticipate to be the foundational consideration of the Executive Committee, there is much to imbibe from Pope Francis’ well-worn expression, ‘time is greater than space’ (EG 222-223; LS 178; AL 3, 261). While seemingly obscure, the point Pope Francis seeks to make, with direct relevance to the Plenary, is that it is more important to initiate processes than to occupy positions or possess spaces. Pope Francis notes that we can often be dominated by short-term goals which result in ‘madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion’ (EG 223) without due attention to longer term processes for the development of the Church’s life. This ‘life’, to draw from the Pope’s theology, is found not in ideas but in the faith that really dwells in the hearts and hands of God’s people, a faith that grace wishes to bring forth and keep alive as a sign and reality in the world.

As a result, processes of dialogue and development will not be marked by human ‘neatness’. However, the messiness of discernment can enable a deeper penetration of our faith than would otherwise be possible. Take the two phases, those of 2014 and 2015, that comprised the Synod on marriage and family for example, phases which encouraged the ferment of ideas and the maturity of proposals, even if the process opened up difficulties that we as a Church must continue to wrestle with rather than ignore in the pursuit of meaningful, and not merely cosmetic, answers.

On a sociological plain, it’s worth acknowledging that ‘process’ can suffer both from the critique of impatient detractors and the obsession of nit-picking devotees. On one hand, process can be experienced as an unnecessary impediment to progress, a devourer of already-meagre time and a redundant obstacle that holds us up from achieving our objectives. Forestalling everything from home renovations, bank loans to public infrastructure, process can appear too much like the grinding wheels of bureaucracy that turn too slow. With numerous demands already making claims on our resources and commitment, process can be suffered as a mechanised and impersonal series of practices that most often serve an agenda and timing other than our own. In other words, process can seem to stifle rather than enable, to smother rather than energise.

On the other hand, individuals and communities can at times be fixated with process at the expense of larger goals, ensconced in the kind of hair-splitting that destroys the vitality of pursuits. No doubt we have all endured an unproductive meeting or two. ‘If you want to kill an idea, send it to committee’. This facetious one-liner well captures the reputation that process can attract.

A A A A Priest-1052933Paradoxically, however, I would suggest that these misgivings about process sit alongside another experience, which is that process is essential to our identity and life together. In various spheres of human activity – including but not limited to education, politics, economics and religion – we recognise, even implicitly, that the way things are done matters at least as much as what is achieved, if not more. Indeed, for the Church a synodal and collegial mode is not simply a means or technique for a particular outcome but a deepening of the Church’s own nature as a communion. Hence Pope Francis’ citation of Saint John Chrysostom who avers, “Church and Synod are synonymous”.[4]

In considering the way of ecclesial development ahead, I think again of Vatican II as it planted seeds that enabled the post-conciliar developments from which we benefit today. An obvious example is ‘lay ministry’ which was never defined or discussed by the Council itself. Indeed, when we consult ‘ministry’ in the index of the Council documents we find only ‘see Clergy, Priests; etc.’ However, in giving rise to a renewed baptismal consciousness within the Church, Vatican II did enable and embolden lay participation and eventual leadership that would then gain explicit papal support in 1972 when Pope Paul VI established the lay ministries of lector and acolyte (cf. Ministeria Quaedam). The rest is ongoing history. While the participation of the laity in the life and decision-making of the Church is far from settled and calls for address, the development of lay ministry following the Council did underscore that the occasion of ‘Vatican II’ extended beyond the four years of its sessions but includes as well the history of its effects. This may well prove true for the Plenary Council as well.

Much remains to be clarified in these early days of the journey. What I am sure of is that the prayerful, impassioned and earnest conversations about the Church and its mission sparked by the Plenary Council will bear enormous fruit for our life and mission. It will involve a Church both learning and teaching, engaging with the wider culture as the occasion for Christians to become aware of the totality of our mission, and the politics of dialogue in a very healthy and fruitful sense, involving the exercise of compromise, the juxtaposition of often-conflicting viewpoints, the naming of ambiguities, the formulation of resolute proposals and above all trust in the Holy Spirit as the abiding counsel of our Church in twenty-first century Australia. The whole Church will be presented with new demands and prospects for our time and future, most essentially a new interior spirit and an outward commitment to a total opening up to the world in bold, catholic and apostolic faith.

References:

[1] John O’Malley, “Reform, Historical Consciousness and Vatican II’s Aggiornamento”, Theological Studies 32 (1971): 573-601.

[2] International Theological Commission, Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church (2014), n.32.

[3] Pope Francis, Address of His Holiness Pope Francis Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops (17 October, 2015).

[4] Pope Francis, Address of His Holiness Pope Francis Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops (17 October, 2015).

accompaniment in a ‘change of age’

Crowd-People-Walking-Business-BlurryOne of the catchcries of Pope Francis’ vision for a renewed missionary outreach by Christians is the concept of ‘accompaniment’. It is a word that might be familiar to us in the context of music, in which one part adds, supports or complements another, or else in the sphere of gastronomy where wine is said to ‘accompany’ cheese. In fact, a quick Google search reveals the third highest query for the term ‘accompaniment’ relates to the most suitable garnishes for fish!

However, what does Pope Francis mean when he refers to accompaniment in the life of faith? Complementing his role as shepherd, Pope Francis has served the Church well as spiritual director, diagnosing our condition as Christians and as a Church, preaching as a cure of souls. He does so by instruction, sermons and admonitions, fraternal correction, by his sanctifying deeds and constant invitations to recognise God’s mercy and involvement in our life.

Significantly, I think what Pope Francis is doing is subjecting our concepts of mission and evangelisation to empirical scrutiny, drawing the Church’s attentiveness to the untutored and unscripted experiences of human life to which the Church is called by Christ to respond. This is not a neat process by any means and does not yield results that predictably fit in to our ideas.

As Fr Thomas Rosica points out when he reflects on the implications of Pope Francis’ papacy, at times our zeal and deep desire for others for their change, repentance and conversion overshadow the necessity that people have to be accompanied through the deep valleys and darks nights of the human journey. We cannot get away from this form of personal accompaniment as an integral dimension of evangelisation, even if our culture as a Church is not altogether well practiced at or versed in this ‘art’.

synod4We find a few scant references to accompaniment in Pope Francis’ exhortation on marriage and family Amoris Laetitia, especially in relation to those in the early years of marriage and those who have experienced relationship breakdown or divorce (AL 223, 241-244). The concept is most fully elaborated, however, in Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (‘The Joy of the Gospel’) where we find four articles dedicated to what he describes as the “art of accompaniment” (EG 169-173). These references are in the third chapter of the Exhortation, under the fourth section entitled “Evangelization and the deeper understanding of the kerygma”.

Pope Francis rightfully suggests that exercising accompaniment is more difficult today than in previous generations. Journeying with others in the life of faith is a delicate task but it is made particularly challenging because we are part of a contemporary culture that “[suffers] from anonymity and at the same time [is] obsessed with the details of others people’s lives” (EG 169). As Fr David Ranson has observed, we can yearn to be seen but perhaps do not want to be truly known. It is the Facebook phenomenon of living publically though with the fear of somehow being exposed. Individuals in our culture can feel radically unaccompanied but too estranged from one another to walk together through life. This disconnectedness from each other expresses itself in crises of personal meaning.

If accompanying others towards the Gospel is a priority, then it will be helpful to further name the ways that the wider culture is changing and how the people in our pews are changing, how the overall context for our mission as Church is different from previous generations, and to chew over the implications for our pastoral practice and planning.

Change in the Wider Community

Social media icons on smartphonePope Francis has commented that we in the twenty-first century live not simply in an ‘age of change’ but in a ‘change of age’. He sees, as we do, the shifting ground of global politics, the movements of people around the world, including a disastrous refugee crisis, and the changing nature of how people communicate and relate to one another (to make the point, each day the equivalent of 110 years of live content is watched online while development such as OTT apps have essentially turned messaging services into a new form of communications infrastructure).

The winds of change have also been felt in the increasing disillusionment with traditional institutions in the West. We only have to bring to mind ‘Brexit’ to see the change in notion of where and how people belong. There is widespread alienation from political parties, financial systems, as well as the Church. Today there is wide scepticism of authority, especially authority that has not been earned but simply ascribed. Additionally, there is a craving for personal and national security that ironically has only caused a rise in uncertainty and anxiety. All of this suggests the passing of an old situation into a new.

Closer to home, we are experiencing change in our Australian community with implications for our Church and outreach. This includes our increasing diversity. Almost half of Sydney’s population has been born overseas with increasing migration coming from China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The situation of families is radically different. Ex-nuptial births (the birth of children outside of marriage) now account for more than a third of all births – 34% – compared to just 3-4% in the 1960s. This is a trend we can expect will continue to rise, especially as marriage itself comes under threat as an institution and comes to mean effectively everything and nothing at the same time.

A ‘sign of the times’ includes the rates of domestic violence. Domestic violence contributes to more death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 than any other preventable risk factor. Violence against women is the single largest driver of homelessness for women and results in a police call-out on average once every two minutes across the country.

Cohabitation is becoming a social norm, with 76% of marriages now preceded by couples living together, and 75% of Australian marriages are civil celebrations (and only about 8% are Catholic marriages, involving at least one partner who is Catholic).

There is also a greater degree of mobility among households. For example, in my own Diocese of Broken Bay, in parishes such as Manly-Freshwater, Lower North Shore, Warringah, and the Hornsby Cathedral Parish less than 50% of Catholics in these communities lived at the same residential address five years ago. ‘Preaching to the parade’ can become more frequent as people come in and out of our communities of faith. On the Central Coast as well we are seeing increasing development and shifting needs as well, reshaping the life and planning of local communities.

Change in our Church

SB048Turning from the wider community to our Church, our own community of faith is also changing and this can felt at the front doors of our parishes – in the variety of people we now encounter with different situations, questions and expectations than in the past.

The plain fact is that Mass attendance and identification with the Catholic faith are in seemingly interminable decline. And yet we know almost 60% of Australians still believe in a personal God or some sort of spirit or life force. In fact, over a quarter (28%) of Australians reported having had some sort of mystical, supernatural or transcendent experience (Local Churches in Australia: Research Findings from NCLS Research).

So while fewer Catholics today are engaging with Church and some indeed choose to disassociate completely from the Catholic ‘brand’, a majority of Australians still hold some sort of belief or spiritual sense or experience. They are, as it is said, “spiritual but not religious”. It has been noted that the ‘spiritual but not religious’ are not really looking for a better version of Church or parish; the institution or Church programs can be far from their mind or interest.

In this context, personal relationships with people of faith become increasingly important. Our relationships and conversations can encourage spiritual journeys and build trust. Usually this will be in our personal lives and fields of influence as the ‘spiritual but not religious’ are not often in our pews.

Diversity in the Pews

Liturgy 6Moving from those who no longer engage with us to those who are still present in our churches, there is no longer a ‘cookie cutter Catholic profile’ if there ever was one. Many of the only-affiliated Catholics can be found in our sacramental programs. Many self-identifying Catholics do not believe in God at all but send their children to our Catholic schools in any case, and many more would pick and mix among various traditions – Eastern meditation over here, the occasional Easter Vigil over there.

It would be no surprise that some engage with our Church for reasons other than religious motives (for the pure purpose of Catholic school enrolment for instance), and others attend occasionally out of family custom or tradition, exercising a habitual Christianity rather than a personal faith of conviction.

As well, we know that sharing the same pews does not mean people share the same beliefs. In particular today there is a wide variety of acceptance of Catholic beliefs and moral teachings. For example, many older Catholics have stopped believing that pre-marital sex is always wrong, perhaps because many of their children are now cohabiting with their partners (cf. R. Dixon, “Contemporary cultural change and the acceptance of key Catholic beliefs and moral teachings by Australian Mass attenders”, Pastoral Research Office).

So it is an increasingly complex scene today. As Ed Murrow, a broadcast journalist of last century, pointed out, “Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation”. It is a confrontation to recognise that there are people in our pews who may well not believe in God, and people who are not with us that do.

Implications

rosaryWhat is the upshot of this complexity for our outreach and accompaniment? Prior to any proclamation of the Church being heard, today’s missionary outlook will begin with building trust and authentic personal relationships (from which consequent invitations and participation might then come about).

Particularly today in the midst of an Australian Royal Commission, we are aware that trust in the Church is low. Research from the U.S. tells us that scandal causes a persistent decline in Catholic affiliation and church attendance. Many join other denominations during the first three years following a scandal but then typically end up with no religious affiliation at all.

As Sherry Weddell identifies, most non-practicing and ‘former’ Catholics do not often have a bridge of trust in place. Some feel pre-judged by the Church. They do not trust ‘the Church’ and ‘the Church’ can be represented by those of us who serve or represent the Church in various capacities or exercise a personal commitment to religious practice.

Hence Pope Francis remarks:

[Today] we need a church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a church that accompanies them on their journey; a church able to make sense of the ‘night’ contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a church that realises that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture. Jesus warmed the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus (Pope Francis to bishops of Brazil, 2013).

This accompanying spirit is not reserved to ‘specialists’ but expressed in the welcome of our community life, our generous assistance with enquiries, how we meet people coming through the parish doors or sacramental programs. All of these are opportunities for genuine accompaniment to the Gospel, if we are willing to be open to the difficult questions or diverse experiences of the people we encounter and have the tact and generosity to walk patiently with people through the ‘nights’ of their life.

The Example of St Paul

StPaulTo make this opportunity concrete and practical, the outreach of St Paul, perhaps the greatest evangeliser in the history of the Church after Jesus himself, can be a resource for our thinking on this ‘art of accompaniment’.

As Colleen Vermeulen has observed, we find in the Acts of the Apostles a description of how St Paul welcomes and leads people to faith, in this case the Gentiles in Athens.

  • St Paul first desires the good of the other and holds a deep concern for them (“he was distressed that the city was full of idols”). Without that desire not much is possible. In our own time, this might be recognising the courage and good intent it can take for people to come forwards, to pick up the phone and to call a community, or write an email enquiring about the sacraments for their children. Speaking to a sacramental coordinator earlier in the week, she shared that many parents are humbly aware of their own ignorance and so hesitant about engaging with the Church but are still looking to do the best by their children. If we do not engage with those who might hold a vague or even a warped faith then as a Church there will be a thin future for us.
  • St Paul then listens to the questions they are asking (the Gentiles ask “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means”)
  • He identifies shared values and some positive aspect of their situation (“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way”)
  • In seeking to share the Gospel, he uses examples from their perspective (“As even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring. Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold’”). This means entering into the world of others, including those who don’t believe and drawing parallels between their story and the Gospel story we are seeking to share
  • He avoids using ‘insider’ language so not too create stumbling blocks too early in the relationship (e.g. he does not yet use the name of Jesus though he will go on to do so). Some may be ready to hear that name, while for others it may not be the first place to start (it might be to confronting or perceived as ‘Church talk’; it may take trust and relationship before the kerygma can be heard; others might be ready and expecting that from the outset, all depending on the person we are accompanying)
  • St Paul then inspires curiosity, rather than giving pat answers, and as we learn, in the end some became believers, “including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them”.

Whether applied to the people we meet through the doors of our parishes, people enquiring in parishes with little faith or Church background, or evangelising in the form of connecting and starting conversations of people in our personal lives, these principles from St Paul offer a helpful guide for the art to which we are called.

Conclusion

To underline the importance of personal witness and trust, even prior to proclamation, a great testimony comes from another Catholic blogger who wrote:

“I am not a Christian because it ‘makes sense’ or because someone sat down and diagrammed it for me. I am a Christian because I have been loved deeply and unconditionally by Christians . . . all of them loved me when I did not love them”

This also speaks to the importance of initiatives like Alpha which many parishes are engaging as it provides an opportunity to develop those relationships and walk with people. If many people still hold a spiritual sense but are not religious, the welcome and hospitality that is at the heart of Alpha is critical to the seeking and asking that can eventually lead people to deeper discipleship in the midst of the Church.

dioceseWhen we consider how many people receive the sacraments in our Church, whether the sacraments of initiation or each weekend, and how many come out the other side as disciples on mission sharing faith with others, we can see the need for accompaniment to support that journey. We have learnt that the sacraments simply won’t ‘take care of it’, that discipleship needs the support of relationships via a process such as Alpha that builds trust and encourages sharing in faith.

As shared at Proclaim 2016, it is not programs that will make disciples but disciples that make disciples. That is the gift and opportunity of ministry as a parish team or any other form of outreach – to greet people in this ‘change of age’, to welcome them, meet people where they are and love them enough not to leave them there, gently leading them into the possibilities of faith as a relationship with Jesus Christ.