the future of tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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why parishes are not churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

structural change

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Photo: Chris Ehler

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

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

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

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Photo: Chris Ehler

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

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

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

NPPN1303

Photo: Chris Ehler

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

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

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

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

Parramatta Diocese

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

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

Maitland-Newcastle Diocese

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

Broken Bay Diocese

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

Wollongong Diocese

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

Sydney Archdiocese

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

Brisbane Archdiocese

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

Wellington Archdiocese

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

Christchurch Diocese

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