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.

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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.