learning from the Church abroad

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A secondary dome in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Baltimore, the first Catholic cathedral built in the United States

The past fortnight of a research tour here in the U.S. has provided valuable insight into the life of local churches and the social fabric of America as a nation, a fabric that is complex and strained as I write this blog. Here in Baltimore the sounds of sirens, demonstrations, the cries for justice and social equity can be heard on CNN or directly out my hotel window, as rallies continue two blocks west of my stay.

As I have spoken to local residents, taxi drivers, and even members of the National Guard over these days, the tensions seem symptomatic of a self-destructive alienation of human society from itself, of the insufficiency of social contract which only mediates conflict without addressing its causes, and of forces of dehumanisation (poverty and militarisation among them) that render genuine communion near impossible.

These tensions, saddled between ignorance and fear, cannot be overcome by force, by technological advancement, by politics, not even the economy, least of all what Merton describes as a “bright official confidence” that all will be well. Surely the profound wisdom of the Christian tradition has not simply something to say to this mess we are in (and we are all in it) but also brings a responsibility to act through solidarity with the poor in spirit and circumstance. And yet this wisdom and action seems largely absent or lost among the roar of the crowds and the rattle of tanks.

In conversation with pastoral leaders in the U.S. over this time, and with the expertise of Sherry Weddell and Mary Gautier, I’ve come to better appreciate the similarities and distinctions between the American and Australian contexts that influence approaches to mission, which includes the peace-making and spirit of reconciliation being called upon in this hour.

I have learnt of the urban, rural and regional variations thread throughout the American Church, many sharing constraints in resources and local priestly vocations as at home, and the distinctive and deep religious identity that builds upon the story of America’s foundation but that threatens to remain a legacy of the past without a renewed mission of evangelisation.

As settlements of religious asylum and religious freedom, states such as Maryland, Philadelphia and New England are indelibly marked by their spiritual origins and aspiration, whether they be Catholic, Puritan or otherwise. These origins have seen religion intertwined with American culture, government, and daily life and religious belonging maintain a civic respectability in the wider community to a degree not at all experienced in the Australian context. The waves of religious revival in the U.S., the five Great Awakenings for instance or the upsurge of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, are not our own story. As Chris McGillion reminds us,

Australia was always more a country of Christians than a Christian country. European settlement was not motivated by some noble cause, far less by any notion that it was part of God’s grand design. There is no foundational myth for Australia, let alone a religious one, no equivalent of America’s Pilgrim Fathers (McGillion, “O Ye of Little Faith”, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April, 1998).

However, like Australia, the Church in the U.S. confronts the necessity of not merely renewal but reform and this places varied demands on leadership. In listening to conversations I sense that when a diocese is in strife (e.g. the Archdiocese of Boston following the sexual abuse crisis), church leadership is able to impose or set out with a firm vision and priorities as this provides direction and confidence in a time when both are lacking. The community is then left with enough wiggle room to live out the set vision and apply it to local circumstances.

When a diocese is in good or better shape, however, I sense that church leadership can more easily invite the community to join in the discernment of the future vision and priorities, a process which is more time-consuming but better at fostering genuine ecclesial integration around missionary goals. Take Bishop Caggiano’s lead in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, for instance, a bishop who clearly has his eyes on the detail, is patiently engaging in an 18-month discernment process with his new flock, and deeply appreciative of the value of pastoral planning to build ownership and invite lay involvement following his tenure as bishop of Brooklyn. The situation in which the local church finds itself – the urgency of issues, history of the church, and culture of its people – ideally will impact upon the style and processes of change that are engaged.

For a variety of reasons, but almost always including financial limitations, I have learned that many pastoral planning roles in U.S. dioceses have been shed in the past decade, planning offices have been closed or otherwise devolved into part-time planning responsibilities among existing staff.

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Planning staff from the dioceses of Bridgeport and Brooklyn at the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development in April 2015

Notably though, and this is critical to recognise, the demise of local, diocesan planning resources and wisdom has not at all lessened the demand for what good planning offers but in many cases shifted the work and expertise from internal staff to external consultants who are engaged at significant cost and, I contend, can struggle to embed their plans within a proper theological framework and the local context in which they are working. From experience I would suggest that some in authority in the Australian scene would hesitate to engage outside consultants in this way for fear of what Pope Benedict XVI described as the ‘bureaucratisation of pastoral care’, particularly if planning is engaged merely as a way of managing scarcity rather than advancing mission and cultivating conversations about discipleship.

These trends in the U.S. pose questions to the Australian Church in regards to its commitment to building up its local planning expertise and resources as the challenge of change is ongoing and the need of unified pastoral outreach more urgent. The alternative to consultative, locally developed and communally owned processes of change and evangelisation, we know, is unilateral decision-making, a tinkering with structures with little impact on personal, spiritual growth, and a reliance on personalities rather than principles in decisions that effect entire communities of faith.

Very briefly, the pressing issues that I have gleaned from local dioceses here so far remain the shortage of priestly vocations (with responses varying from reliance on international priests, the practice of communion services, or exploring canonical options for pastoral leadership i.e. CCC #517.2), the growing migrant profile and strength of the Church (take the Diocese of Galveston-Houston which is becoming increasingly Hispanic in demographic and whose clergy includes more than half who were born outside of the U.S.), and the challenging necessity of greater shared responsibility and the implications of this for the ordained and laity.

Most change in the number and size of parishes is taking place in the north east of the country, where I am heading in the next two weeks, and the size of these communities certainly impacts on organisational complexity as more mega- or multi-parishes arise (these parishes are taken to consist generally of more than 10,000 registered parishioners).

Larger parishes demand well-honed administration or relational skills, operating budgets between $USD850,000 to $1.6 million and above, often include multiple, full-time paid staff, the priest having to act increasingly as an employer with related responsibilities, the hosting of multiple programs, consultation processes that are generally more formal, with complex decision-making and even formal, written policies of their own. Of course, it can be harder to build a sense of community in larger parishes, especially when small groups outside of liturgy are not nurtured or encouraged.

In contrast, smaller parishes can conduct informal consultation of key parishioners and families, engage fewer and part-time paid staff with a greater reliance on volunteers, and there are usually informal, unwritten operating norms. Without understanding these different variables of parish life, pastoral planners and diocesan leaders in evangelisation can seek to engage very different communities with rather generic activities or proposals that will not generate fruit without respect of their actual life.

I look forward to sharing the insights gathered here more systematically and moving from general observations to specific practices in future blogs as I prepare a report for sharing with dioceses in the Sydney region. This will include reflections on the Church of the Nativity at Timonium, in north Baltimore, the subject of the book Rebuilt, where I attended Mass this weekend.

On a more personal note, I also spent some days at Gethsemane Abbey in Louisville, Kentucky, a part of the U.S. where the Catholic Church established itself soon after Baltimore (which is the premier episcopal see of the American Church). After visiting the repository of Merton’s manuscripts, letters, journals, tapes, drawings, photographs, and memorabilia at Bellarmine University (and shaping a potential PhD question), the grounds and life of the Cistercian monastery brought the focus back to the heart of our faith which is Christ living within us.

I’ll simply conclude with this thought. When you get what you want – a diverse Church sharing responsibility for ministry and mission, engaging with the issues of the day with evangelical zeal, moving from what Pope Francis called this past night ‘a superficial and dry religiosity’ to a living house of prayer and deep discipleship – the Church becomes infinitely more complex. We should not be afraid or wearied by this prospective complexity but receive it as the gift of a stronger and more faithful future, calmly accepting the fact that renewal is always bought at the price of risk.

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One thought on “learning from the Church abroad

  1. That is a very informative post Daniel. Thanks so much for that. Definitely somethings to ponder there with Australia in sight.

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