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.

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thoughts on a plenary council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

accompaniment in a ‘change of age’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change in the Wider Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change in our Church

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

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

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

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

Diversity in the Pews

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

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

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

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

Implications

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

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

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

Hence Pope Francis remarks:

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

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

The Example of St Paul

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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