proclaim 2016 keynote address

SB058On the 24 November, 1999, on a drizzly Wednesday evening, I was baptised in a parish in the north-western suburbs of Sydney. Heralding from a family of Buddhist and Taoist heritage, I entered the Church at the age of twenty, gathered with a priest, sponsor, fellow catechumens and a mixed group of close friends, mostly of no religious background. A small but powerful group had accompanied me through the process of initiation and I was fully conscious and grateful for the fact that in God and this community I had been granted something which I would spend the rest of my life learning to be faithful to, learning to enter into, learning to trust.

If a history of that parish were to be taken that date in November would not have stood out for any special recognition. I am sure it was for the most part an ordinary and customary year. However, beneath the everyday rhythm of this local parish it was for me a time of great consequence, of vital, spiritual breakthrough into the life of God to discover Christ as the total meaning of my life.

I share this to affirm that amidst 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.

However, as we take a wider view of the Australian parish we must admit that the possibility of personal spiritual breakthrough is not the same thing as the frequency of its happening.

This would be suggested by the challenges faced by our communities today, well known and rehearsed – declining weekly Mass attendance, now at a “critical moment” and leaning toward single digits across the nation; an ageing profile; the critical and chastening scrutiny of a Royal Commission; low morale in some quarters; low religious literacy among some of those we encounter; the pain of structural change and amalgamations directing energies inwards; and the by-product of diocesan decline, increasing managerialism within the culture of the Church that pulls towards the bureaucratisation of pastoral care.[1]

The Church in Australia can no longer rely on a ‘conveyer belt’ which was presumed to take Catholics from the cradle to the grave in faith, the assumption that a Catholic baptism and the mere fact of going to a Catholic school, for example, would secure a lifetime of committed discipleship. Historical circumstance and cultural momentum will no longer carry the Australian parish.

A new imagination is called forth and is demanded by the mission we have received, to make disciples and apostles of the baptised and the unbaptised, to be a leaven in the world as the sign and reality of the new freedom given in Jesus Christ. The flourishing of personal discipleship and apostolic outreach must become the motivating norm for our Church. For this to become a reality we are called to become more open and responsive to what God passionately desires to do through our parishes.

The Problematic


australia-allReflecting on the Australian Church, I would concur that the central challenge for parish life is this: we are 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 apostolic zeal, we can feel bound by layers of expectation that demand the continuation of the old even while new forms of parish life and mission long for expression.[2]

How do we address the culture of a local parish that may desire change but does not want to change, that desires to grow, be joyful and bear new fruit but contains within it organisational antibodies that tend to kill anything that is new? How do we move our communities towards radical, fervent outreach when a ‘convoy routine’ permits spiritual progress or cultural change only at the speed of the slowest ship? As intimated by Pope Francis, the insistence that “we have always done it this way” – less often said than expressed in passive resistance – reveals a complacency at odds with the urgency of disciple-making which has been tasked to this generation.[3]

What are the levers or the strategies of prophetic witness that can lead us into that future which God invites, that can embolden us to ‘step into’ this future that has not yet fully arrived? The future of the Australian parish and its redemptive mission in the world are tied up with the preparedness of our local communities to take a conscious step towards their own conversion.

The Need of Vision

Such a cultural shift within our parishes demands that we reclaim the ‘why’ of our existence as local communities of faith. While talk of parish evangelisation often leaps to the ‘what’ – to programs, tools and techniques, reflective perhaps of our hardy Australian pragmatism – the ‘why’ or rationale of our parishes cannot be taken for granted.

On the ground, we appreciate the significance of the ‘why’ for our people when they receive the sacraments, those of initiation and besides. We earnestly want their ‘why’ to be Jesus, not merely school enrolment or unthinking convention. We understand the difference this ‘why’ makes to their likely future participation in the life of faith and the Church. We know that this ‘why’ distinguishes the disciple from the ‘what’ of the consumer who arrives asking ‘what do I get here’ rather than ‘who am I called to be here’. If we seek to grow our parishes for mission, we need to clarify and communicate the ‘why’ of our total parish life and this is called vision.

baptism-adultFundamentally we are called to be a Church of the Great Commission. This is our vision, the ‘northern star’ guiding our resolve. “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, in our Catholic Church we have 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 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.[4] A local parish vision that reclaims the Great Commission as our primary calling clarifies the purpose of our community and makes it possible for others to become a part of that purpose.

It is worth noting that a parish vision for the making of disciples and of ongoing apostolic support for the laity can arise from our hopes as well as our laments. Our restlessness and frustrations too can be helpful signs pointing us beyond what we have in hand, acting as a mirror image of our deepest desires for our community. When a bold vision of spiritual vitality is discerned it supplies the energy and constant challenge to the ethos and practices of a parish as it journeys toward that goal.

Within our Catholic culture, some voices express resistance to the need of an articulate vision and pastoral planning for our parishes and dioceses on the basis that this is a bureaucratic exercise, more at home in the Business Review Weekly than in our Church. Others oppose talk of setting a ‘vision’ for our communities on the basis that it second-guesses the providence of God whose Spirit indeed leads where it will.

As a community of faith we certainly do not have a road map or certainty for our future, a future that belongs to God. However, we do have a story of the kind of people, the kind of disciples, and the kind of communities we want to be as we make our journey towards that unknown future.

14546210When we communicate a vision of 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. Conveniently, and not incidentally, a renewed vision provides the case for change.

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.

While no substitute for the parish, it must be acknowledged that the ecclesial movements in their charisms and narratives of holiness have shown us the power of a story to tell, as do the saints, those ‘bright patterns of holiness’ who image or supply a vision for the divine touching human lives.

I would like to suggest that in establishing its vision and promoting cultural change, a parish can gain much from imagining or visualising itself ten times better rather than only ten per cent better. This is because a small goal will tend to lead us to incremental changes that are based upon the existing rhythm, resources, programs and assumptions of the parish, leading to only slow or grinding progress.[5] Aiming for the sky, however, forces us to question our community assumptions and the fruit of our present culture, sheds bold and even new light on the taken-for-granted details of the everyday. Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom was so grand that it cast fresh light on who could eat at table. It was so immense that it gave meaning to tiny seeds. It was so extravagant it could sustain meaning in a Gethsemane night, even on the Cross.

It is no accident that the missionary determination of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel begins with a grand dream, by looking out, not looking down.[6] In any case, if we do not cast a vision for our parishes, the question will inevitably rise from the pews, ‘Are we going anywhere?’

Prayer 1_2It is worth noting that when a parish makes a commitment to a clear vision of personal discipleship and spiritual community, presenting this before its people, other good things begin to flow. With a vision pointing the parish beyond its own concerns and circumstance, the parish can begin to move from a culture that engages people to build up the Church to become a Church that builds up people.

When we routinely engage people to build up the Church, the focus inevitably falls on maintenance and functionalism. 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 of our people. As it has been said, ‘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.

When a community understands itself as existing not for its own preservation but for the spiritual and personal change of 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 disciples. We will begin to measure our 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.

Increase over Addition

In reflecting on the Church’s living tradition and the experience and best practices of growing Catholic communities, I would like to suggest four elements as being integral to the renewal of parish culture toward deeper discipleship and wider evangelisation.

In sharing these suggestions, I am mindful that when a community or group has a vision but no strategy 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’.

Indeed, 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.[7]

So, to four principles drawn from growing and evangelising communities that can take us beyond the comfort of routine and the opposite temptation of mere addition.

Foundations of an Evangelising Parish

1. Proclaiming Christ

Christ Mosaic Cefalu Sicily 12th CenturyFirst of all, at the heart of evangelising communities is the proclamation of the Good News, specifically the kergyma which is the basic truths of our Christian faith. This word kerygma, or keryssein in Greek, may not be very familiar to us but it in fact appears in the New Testament some nine times, and refers to the very heart of the Gospel, the core message of the Christian faith that all believers are called to believe and proclaim.

The words of Pope Paul VI still challenge us today, “There is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed”.[8] This is the kerygma. It is explicit and focused entirely on the person and saving message of Jesus Christ.

We note that this kerygma stands apart from the catechesis or instruction in the fuller doctrinal and moral teaching (didache) that the Church notes is to take place after someone has accepted the initial kerygma and been baptised. We can in fact school people in our parishes, in the RCIA for instance, about the Church, various themes of theology, the intricacies and rubrics of liturgy and so on but with slight reflection on the life and person of Jesus whom our people are first called to encounter, though our preaching, priorities and witness. The heart of our Gospel is Jesus, what he has done, and continues to bring about for us and within us.

As Pope Francis makes clear,

. . . we have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the centre of all evangelising activity and all efforts at Church renewal. This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.[9]

There is no sense that we ever graduate from hearing this Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the proclamation for which our Church exists and that calls to be preached in our liturgies, parent and children’s formation, in our youth ministries and initiatives of social outreach, in the development of our parish teams and staff, our talk of parish finance, structural change and carparks. We are constantly challenged to re-centre our parishes, our total life, on this central proclamation for it is the sole source of discipleship and evangelisation. There is no other.

Jesus Christ 2The heart of evangelisation is to announce who Jesus is, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the man who is God, who died for our sins and was raised on the third day. It is to announce the Good News of the Risen Christ who is with us even now and opens up for us the way to life without end. Evangelising parishes proclaim Jesus’ ascension, his seating at the right hand of the Father as King, and his sending forth of the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit which reveals Christ and even enables us to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and it is this Spirit who empowers the Church, who empowers us, to be faithful to Christ’s mission in our own lives and in this moment of the world’s history. Finally, this Good News of Christ calls us to conversion, to repent and believe in this Gospel, calling for a change of life in the light of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ whose life we share by baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, in communion with his mystical body, the Eucharist, and by our communion with His ecclesial body, the Church. In prioritising this proclamation, we seek to build up a culture in which Jesus is not swept into our parish story intermittently but our parishes and lives are swept into his.

As a former media buyer, I am conscious that corporations spend millions after millions of dollars each year, even each week, to get people into their shop. It is humbling, then, to recognise that each year thousands upon thousands of people come into our ‘shop’, walk through the front doors of our parishes, without always knowing why they are there or their stance towards the saving Gospel or proclamation which is the lifeblood of our communities.

And yet, whether entering the parish via the door of our sacramental programs or school enrolment, walking through our doors on account of baptisms, marriages or funerals, or for the sake of their children, these persons fully expect to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by our parishes whether they ultimately accept that saving message or otherwise.

It is essential to our future that our truth is proclaimed with courage and with faith, not as something but as someone to whom we owe our life and devotion, someone who calls not to be a part of our life but our very existence and the total shape of our living.

2. Growing Personal Discipleship

FootprintsHowever, the bold proclamation of Jesus’ name, life, promises, Kingdom and mystery, in itself is not sufficient for the growth of a missionary culture in our parishes. As a second foundation, evangelising parishes cultivate personal discipleship, create room and opportunity for a personal response to the Good News proclaimed. The call to be a disciple is a gift but it also involves a choice and personal decision that cannot be delegated to any other.

In its personal dimension, the heart of all evangelisation could be described as one person telling another person how the encounter with Jesus Christ has changed their life, one beggar telling another beggar how he found bread. This is indeed the living tradition of our Church, ‘hands clasping hands stretching back in time until they hold the hand of Jesus who holds the hand of God’.[10] Personal witness, testimony and exchange are at the heart of personal and spiritual change. It is our long and ancient experience as Church that programs do not make disciples; disciples make disciples.

In speaking of personal change, it is a sober reality that 60% of those who attend Mass in Australia reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[11] It is clear that we cannot adopt a mindset that assumes the sacraments, or the school RE program for that matter, will simply ‘take care of it’. While this emphasis on personal faith may seem obvious, it underlines the fact that we cannot assume that disciples just happen because we have a parish and people show up.

An effective process of evangelisation in our communities will need to recognise the various stages of personal growth through which people journey on their way to the Gospel. A parish of personal, realised faith is something different than the motions of a crowd that produces ‘conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises’.[12] While the conversion of our people always remains the work of the Holy Spirit, we can help or hinder that process depending on how we walk with people.

The people in our pews and those besides are at varying levels of faith and commitment. When we can recognise with honesty where our people are in the story of discipleship, we can begin to engage them in ways that are fitting to their disposition – building bridges of trust with those that do not yet have a basic positive association with Christ, the Church or ourselves as Christians; for the curious, asking questions to encourage their initial desire to know more and sharing with them our own story of faith as it has become central to our life; for those exhibiting spiritual openness, expressing our willingness to pray for them and asking questions to validate their openness though they may not yet be actively seeking to know God.[13]

The essence of evangelisation is to engage with others on the road to Emmaus as they ask their questions, leading them to an encounter with Christ who is, in fact, already present to them, already active in their lives awaiting the ‘yes’ of a spiritual awakening, an assent of faith.

jp11 version 2Bringing together these first principles of evangelising communities, we hear St John Paul II affirm, “Faith is born of preaching and every ecclesial community draws its origin and life from the personal response from every believer to that preaching”.[14] It is both the preaching of the kerygma and personal conversion that sustains and grows a missionary culture.

Parishes do not grow when their people do not. The call to spiritual growth challenges ourselves for each of us shapes the Church and its mission by our personal participation in it. The extent to which we grow in faith and holiness will be the extent to which the Church grows in faithfulness and holiness. 

As leaders we must realise that everything we do or say teaches people something about the Church. Ecclesial operators or ‘professionals’ can never replace the holiness of saints, managerialism the spirit of charity. As we have learned from painful history, it is entirely possible for parish leaders to ostensibly live a life for Christ without living a life in Christ. Personal conversion calls for change within us as much as others in the community of faith.

3. Discipleship in the Midst of the Church

sbPersonal discipleship also calls for the nourishment of an ecclesial community of faith. Evangelising parishes create disciples in the midst of the Church.

We know that discipleship is vulnerable without the ongoing, living support from other Catholic disciples. Significantly, a parish sustains personal faith not only through a shared life, mutual witness and spiritual support but by opening individual lives to more possibilities for the life of faith, vocation and holiness than we might otherwise recognise, to a vision that discipleship is possible even in this way.

In the same way as a number of first European settlers arrived in Australia assuming they were, if you like, dragging land and civilisation behind them, we can be tempted to consider our increasing diversity as Australian parishes as something which is being added ‘from the outside’ rather than a theological fact and principle of our life from its earliest beginnings at Pentecost. The challenge and companionship of fellow Christians, diverse in cultural expression of faith and piety, liberates and enables a faith richer and deeper than what we could gain on our own.

How might our parishes better integrate and express difference? Research and experience tells us that at the heart of all evangelising and growing communities are small groups as a vital instrument of ecclesial support and differentiated unity. I am not aware of any growing Christian community that does not have an economy of small groups in place to deepen at the same time its members’ experience of Jesus and the Church as encountered in fellow Christians. The experience of liturgy alone can render it difficult for persons to feel instantly at home or connect with others intimately in the context of faith. Most of us have come to the heart of the Church through a small group of some description, whether this was a youth group, a prayer group, a parent or family group.

The introduction of small groups within our parishes and an accompanying culture of invitation, one that communicates in effect that ‘we are incomplete without you’, will enable people to be brought into and nurtured by a supportive network of disciples.

While speaking intimately with one another about our lived experience and friendship with Jesus can be counter-cultural for many Catholics, I am heartened by the fact that no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. We are similarly challenged to offer our people the small group of discipleship and learning that they never knew they needed, an experience of personal relationship with Jesus and his Gospel in the midst of others.

baby_plant.28104733While our vision needs to be as large as the Kingdom, our implementation of that vision needs to begin small. With encouragement for us, it is worth noting that when large evangelical and Pentecostal communities are asked what they seek for their future it is to establish smaller, stable communities in the midst of a local neighbourhood, offering a consistency and intimacy of worship and local service in personal connection with the wider community. In other words, what many megachurches are seeking is a parish.

We have already in our Church the scale of community to foster powerful spiritual relationships with one another, by small groups and other means. It is not a matter of structure but our capacity for interrelationship and mutual trust in faith, our ability to grow together and also our capacity for collegiality.[15]

It may be news to some that a national ecclesial event, a Plenary Council, has been proposed by the bishops of Australia for 2020, a council to embrace not only the faith of the bishops but to take up the faith of the Australian Church, the collective vision, gifts and charisms for our common future. To be collegial is to be receptive of the faith with which Christ has already endowed the Church. As Australian Catholics we ought to place great hope in our collective ability to discern a future and are challenged not only to have faith in God but in our capacity to respond to God as his people.

To anchor this potential for collegiality, shared discernment and decision-making in our parishes, our capacity for co-responsibility for mission begins within the local parish team and the parish pastoral council as the most immediate opportunities for living the theology we profess.

The risk of not attending to the faith of the faithful as expressed in the local parish, as much as a national plenary council, is no less than turning away possibilities, the manifold charisms and vocations of lay men and women, which God continually offers to us. An Australian parish, and an Australian Church for that matter, that is not discerning God’s call cannot hope to grow because it cannot see what God has already given and deeply invites.

4. Missionary Orientation

Picture193Finally, we recognise that the proclamation of the Gospel, the call to personal discipleship and the life of the Christian community are not for their own sake but for the sake of the world. All that has gone before must bear fruit in our connection with others beyond our communities of faith, beyond the boundaries of the parish.

In his own way I think Pope Francis has reminded us time and again, with a certain cheek, that the parish is not an organised way to avoid the issues of the world. The parish is not a spiritual refuge or a hotel for the spiritually comfortable. Rather it is a hospital or wellspring open to all who bear wounds or thirst, who await a personal answer for their hope on the road of humanity.

A premier ecclesiologist in the English-speaking world, Joseph Komonchak, reminds us:

To enter the Church is not to leave the world, but to be in the world differently, so that the world itself is different because there are individuals and communities living their lives because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.[16]

To be a community of disciples is not to stand apart from the world or hover above it but to be within the space of the world differently. To be a Catholic parish, to be a community of believers, is not to withdraw into a ghetto of like-minded individuals but to speak, witness and inhabit this world, a world which is very much in our hands, with a perspective and a commitment to a person whom we believe illuminates its depths and heights.

I believe parishes will move to a missionary footing when they believe in their heart of hearts that there is a harvest, that Christ is preparing people for us to reach, and that we have been anointed by our baptism to speak, live and act by God’s Word in our world.

A missionary parish will prepare people for this assignment, preaching and teaching that the Christian life it is not about choosing between Christ and the world, as if they were utterly opposed. Rather, as the twentieth century spiritual master Thomas Merton observes, Christian life is about choosing Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him.[17] God’s mission calls us to a constant orientation beyond ourselves, so that the world can witness the spirit of Christ in action, can see and come to believe.

Summary

I suggest four lenses by which we might review and renew the evangelising mission of our parishes:

  • proclaim the name, teaching, promises, Kingdom, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God (the ‘kerygma’)
  • call forth a personal response to this Good News
  • foster discipleship in the midst of the Church
  • and send these disciples into the world in constant missionary outreach

I believe a parish requires all four elements without exemption, so as not to:

  • proclaim the Gospel without personal conversion (we can preach the Gospel and be entirely orthodox, proclaim a sound understanding of the faith, but as Pope Benedict XVI be merely ‘proper’ but ultimately loveless, bearing little actual fruit in the lives of our people);
  • we can experience personal conversion but minimise or castoff the influence of the Church (an erroneous sense that it would feel more like real worship if it was ‘me’ praying alone, or a sense that the parish community is something I could rather live without; a ‘private’ Christianity withdrawn from the varieties of discipleship that God offers us in others);
  • we can develop an ecclesial life and participate in the Church’s public life but without personal conversion and a living relationship with Jesus (merely ‘attending Mass’ out of custom or working within the Church or school without an attachment to the Gospel, working only for Christ but not working with him);
  • or we can proclaim the Gospel, foster personal conversion and a commitment to the Church without any implication for the wider world, displaying a forgetfulness of the fact that we are ‘sent’ as missionary disciples by our baptism to share the life of Christ we ourselves have received.

When our communities grow in these foundations, a culture of discipleship and evangelisation begins to thrive.

candlesIndeed, it can be seen that these foundations encourage and direct our efforts in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, in which the tenderness and compassion of God calls for announcement. An evangelising community proclaims the mercy of God whose face is Jesus Christ, nurtures our people to know themselves as personally forgiven by God and brought into the freedom of a new life, offers the experience of forgiveness and compassion within the life of the Church, sacramentally and in the companionship of fellow Christians; and equips and emboldens the forgiven to ‘go out’ to share mercy with others who too await someone to pour oil on their wounds, who await the Good News given in Jesus Christ, who is the promise and presence of God’s mercy.

Conclusion

SB012We cannot change that of which we are not aware. We must name and face head on the present challenges for our culture as Australian parishes, parishes that I believe desire to be missionary and in their heart of hearts wish to receive the grace of God who still desires much for our parish life.

However, receiving this grace entails movement on our part, a shift from where we stand and a constant reaching out beyond the complacency of routine or a simplistic ‘silver bullet’ mentality that holds only one way, one program or technique as the exclusive key to growth. We are called to cultural change, to change together and personally which is the perennial challenge of mission.

To build a preaching, discipling, gathering and missioning Church calls for a multidimensional approach filled with bold vision, personal faith, mutual support, and the resolve to be our deepest selves in Christ for the sake of the world.

Ultimately, it means responding with hope and trust in what God can do for us, with us and through us, even on a drizzly Wednesday night 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] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2014), 53.

[3] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 33.

[4] Mallon, Divine Renovation, 19-20.

[5] The fatalistic expression “that won’t work” commonly emerges from a perspective that measures new ideas by the life that we currently know.

[6] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 27.

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

[8] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.

[9] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 164.

[10] John Shea, An Experience Named Spirit as cited in Robert A. Ludwig, Reconstructing Catholicism: For a New Generation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 61.

[11] NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.

[12] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (London: Burns & Oates, 1961), 43.

[13] A helpful schema of various stages or ‘thresholds’ of discipleship is provided in Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 125-184.

[14] Pope Paul VI, Redemptoris Missio 44.

[15] The challenge of collegiality for our Church recalls the remarks of the late Ukranian Catholic Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk who dismissed Roman synods as nothing more than “international study days”.

[16] Joseph A. Komonchak, “Identity and Mission in Catholic Universities”, 12. Available at https://jakomonchak.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/hubbard-lecture.pdf. Accessed 25 August 2016.

[17] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 153.

proclaiming amoris laetitia

Amoris LaetitiaThe past months have seen numerous developments in the life of the universal Church and the national scene. Without doubt the most significant development has been the release of Pope Francis’ post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the joy of love in the family, Amoris Laetitia. The second is more parochial but, I hope, no less helpful towards our common mission, the Proclaim 2016 Conference to take place this September.

In certain ways Amoris Laetitia embodies the evangelical challenge for the Church in every age. It calls the Church to drink from the sources of its own faith, the Scriptures and holy tradition, as well as to attend to the concrete dimensions of contemporary life, of human suffering and graced overcoming which too can be a source of theological knowing for the Church.

This reception of God’s revelation amidst and not above the circumstances of real life is no simple art as Pope Francis recognises. In responding to the complexities of family life today, Pope Francis names two opposing dangers in Amoris Laetitia, “an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding” and “an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations” (AL 2). That is to say, an obsession with novelty or escape into the cold comfort of law (or an articulate tradition that often says more than it means) are not genuine responses to Christ or humanity. We are being called to eschew any form of utopianism which can be a particular danger for those of us with religious sensibilities – it is the impatient dismissal of that which is incomplete and blunt intolerance of those circumstances and complexities that actually prevail. It is to succumb to the wilful piety and ignorance of the Pharisee who forecloses the possibility of conversion and therefore is unable to understand or extend mercy.

On the level of pastoral practice, the concern of this blog, Amoris Laetitia challenges the whole Catholic community “to devise more practical and effective initiatives that respect both the Church’s teaching and local problems and needs” (AL 199). So what opportunities are laid bare by Pope Francis’ theology and how might this latest expression of the Church’s faith take root in the life of the local church, the culture of the parish and the family itself as the ‘way of the Church’ (AL).

The first step forwards is an understanding of the situations of marriage and family that are lived today, an understanding which is an inescapable requirement of the work of evangelisation. As Pope Francis has declared ‘reality is greater than ideas’. This challenges the parish to know and really encounter the families that form and surround them, not only in the pews but in the school communities and neighbourhoods for whom the parish is called to be the presence of Christ.

IMG_0917 palm sunday 2011 copyWith a dose of the same reality it is worth noting that it takes time and resources for this form of evangelical outreach and familiarity with our flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters. It has always struck me that while Pope Francis’ constant refrain to ‘go forth’ is both attractive and true to the spirit of the Gospel, it does in fact take organisation and resources to set out on mission. Any parish that has more than one community within it knows that it is difficult to be outreaching when, in the words of Sherry Weddell, you are ‘literally besieged at HQ’.

The good news is that families still come to our doors through the sacramental life of the Church, are there with us in worship, relate to our Catholic ethos or traditions through our school communities, and are encountered through our social support services, and works of charity and justice. To ‘go forth’ then does not only invite our outreach to others in the Gospel but calls for our own spiritual conversion as people who will in fact be encountered. In this vein Pope Francis can preach (and tweet), “Let us break open our sealed tombs to the Lord – each of us know what they are – so that he may enter and grant us life”. ‘Going out’ invites no less than a change of heart, the escape from our own closed doors, from a bounded way of loving and a selective form of care in our communities.

The joy of Amoris Laetitia is that it does not approach our families as a problem but as good news and as active agents of God’s evangelising mission. Hence the Pope’s document is not simply the preserve of moral theologians and commentators on conscience (AL 37) but can be understood through the lens of ecclesiology. The Apostolic Exhortation values the ecclesial mission proper to the family and the illumination and assistance of the family that is proper to the Church’s mission. The Church and the family are inseparable as Francis notes (AL 67; 87). The Church nourishes the family through word and sacrament, an economy of spiritual nourishment and outpouring of Christ’s mercy, and the family is, to borrow the language of its predecessor Familiaris Consortio, not only a “saved community” but a “saving community” in its love, schooling and embrace of others (FC 49), in its original and irreplaceable education of children (AL 84), and in its natural relationship to other families in the context of everyday life. One could go as far as to say that without the family there is no Church.

Among other practical challenges presented to us, Pope Francis calls for renewed accompaniment of couples preparing for marriage and living marriage. As a Church, “a family of families” (AL 87), this task does not fall only on a select few but is a common project that invites “a missionary conversion by everyone in the Church” (AL 201). Our clergy, lay men and women, dedicated singles, the young, and the elderly all have a role to play in nurturing a culture of self-giving love and commitment. Together as a family of faith we have the project of ‘domesticating’ the world by taking loving responsibility for one another, including our couples and families who embark on this path of life (AL 183).

untitledAmoris Laetitia exhorts us to encourage the young to aspire to marriage and family life all the while fostering realistic expectations that prepare them for mature relationships that inevitably experience change through time. It speaks of the need for married couples to be open to the prospect of new life, to educate children in virtue and to foster their natural inclination towards goodness (AL 264). It speaks of inclusion and affirms the Gospel as a word spoken to all people in every circumstance as a source of hope. Pope Francis also offers practical ideas to encourage husbands and wives in their journey of constant growth, and urges parishes and faith communities to be bearers of comfort and consolation for those who await mercy, who seek oil for their wounds (AL 309-310).

It has been widely observed that Chapter IV, with its extended reflection on St Paul’s hymn on love, is the heart and soul of Amoris Laetitia and forms a beautiful source of meditation and encouragement for couples and families as they live their vocation, not in a false utopia but in what a theologian has described as “the detailed texture of the foreground”.

Ultimately, Amoris Laetitia teaches us that by witnessing to love and fidelity, even amidst imperfections and struggle, the family brings hope to the world and inspires us to never stop seeking the fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us (AL 325).

Proclaim 2016

Picture193It has been a privilege to be involved in the organisation of the third turn of a national conference on parish evangelisation, Proclaim 2016 (www.proclaimconference.com.au). Registrations have opened online and parishes across Australia have now received promotional material sharing the good news of this much anticipated gathering!

With the Diocese of Broken Bay taking up the reins for this conference only in the last weeks of 2015 it has exciting to see the details come together with haste

Cardinal Wuerl will share his personal experience of and learnings from Pope Francis, while Dr Susan Timoney, also of the Archdiocese of Washington, will speak to the mission of parishes in our local neighbourhoods. Bishop Nicholas Hudson of Westminster will speak to the potential of parishes through the lens of Christ’s mercy while I am honoured to share a word on the prophetic capacity of the Church and parish, particularly in light of the faith with which Christ has already endowed it. Participants will also enjoy conference liturgies, panel discussions on evangelisation, social media initiatives, and a night of praise and worship open to youth and young adults.

proclaim_logo_2016_golddoveWorkshops are also offered across the three days of the conference and will canvass a range of topics that speak to the lived situation and evangelical mission of parishes today. For convenience I’ve listed the full range of workshops below. They encompass everything from the liturgical and sacramental life of the parish, personal discipleship and the discernment of gifts, social media and communicating the Gospel to youth and young adults, to the response of parishes to the sexual abuse crisis, the need of supervision and self-care in ministry, strategies for forming evangelisation teams, responding to Amoris Laetitia through parish based marriage preparation, engaging the multicultural face of the Church and incarnating Pope Francis’ vision of poverty in the local community of faith.

I hope to see you in September for this national gathering of the Church in mission and in the meantime wish you every blessing in your ministry and commitments, Daniel

  • My Story and the Great Story: Becoming an Everyday Evangeliser – Dr Susan Timoney
  • Developing Spiritual Gifts and Language for Evangelisation – Clara Geoghegan
  • Parishes of Mercy: Responding to the Sexual Abuse Crisis – Rev Dr David Ranson VG
  • Communicating the Gospel to a New Generation: Growing Youth Discipleship in the Parish – Patrick Keady
  • Self-Care and Supervision: Vital for the New Evangelisation – Marcel Koper
  • Connecting the Parish and School for Christ-Centred Mission – Fr John Pearce & Paige Bullen
  • Speaking the Faith and Forming Consciences for Parish Mission – Dr Daniel Fleming
  • Renewing Sacramental Preparation: Engaging Our Parents and Children in the Life of Faith – Marguerite Martin
  • Catholic Worship Book II: A New Resource for Parish Liturgy – Dr Paul Taylor & Sophy Morley
  • Parish Faith Formation for Personal Transformation – Cardinal Donald Wuerl
  • Forming Evangelisation Teams: Best Practice for Effective Mission – Bishop Nicholas Hudson
  • How We Do What We Do Matters: Practicing the ‘Art of Proper Celebration’ in Parish Liturgy – Professor Clare Johnson
  • The Joy of Love: Evangelising Parishes Through the Family and Couple – Francine & Byron Pirola
  • Who Do We Think We Are: Models of Parish that Help or Hinder Our Mission – Lorraine McCarthy
  • Fostering Vocations in the Heart of the Parish – Fr Morgan Batt
  • When Two Parishes Become One: Opportunities for Evangelisation when Parishes Merge – Fr Paul Monkerud
  • The RCIA as the Primary Means of Evangelisation for the Whole Parish – Rev Dr Elio Capra SDB
  • Let the Children Come: Evangelisation through Family-Friendly Liturgy – Michael Mangan & Anne Frawley-Mangan
  • Love & Mercy in the Loungeroom: Parish Based Marriage Preparation – Philipa & Luke Caulfield
  • Practical Evangelising Strategies: Successful Techniques from Vital Parishes – Dr Bob Dixon
  • Parishes of the Poor for the Poor: A Practical Response to Pope Francis’ Vision – Lana Turvey
  • A Multiethnic Church: Building Intercultural Mission in the Parish – Clyde Cosentino
  • Engaging People in Community Life and Baptismal Mission – Richard McMahon
  • ‘Who Do You Say I Am?’ Parishes Proclaiming Jesus Christ: Opportunities & Challenges – Director, National Office for Evangelisation
  • Lifting Your Game: Evangelising through Social Media and Parish Communications – Laura Bradley & Gelina Montierro

 

 

 

 

the RCIA, pilgrims and prospects

DBBMAPThe past few months have been a whirlwind as I’ve landed firmly within a new diocese. Much time has been invested in engaging with staff members, clergy and lay leaders, discerning and weighing a vision for mission that will be responsive as well as challenging to our context, and considering critical issues of governance, structure and resources.

The highlights of this time have included meeting the parish communities of the diocese who have offered tremendous hospitality and welcome, and the opportunity to speak with a number of ecclesial movements and other potential partner organisations that offer the kind of evangelical energy we want to see flourish in northern Sydney.

This weekend I’ll be delivering a keynote address at an RCIA conference held biennially and hosted by the Diocese of Broken Bay. It will be a great opportunity to discuss the ways in which we seek to accompany people in their encounter with Christ. It is a ministry of the Church for which I have great passion and respect for it is at the forefront of the Church’s outreach. I owe a great deal personally to my experience of the RCIA. Below are some thoughts that I will share and I hope they may spur your own thinking on the dynamics and helps of Christian initiation.

Evangelisation in a New Time: Pilgrims and Prospects

baptism-adultThere is nothing as joyous as the initiation or reception of adults into the life of Christ. I stand here as a beneficiary of that process when I was baptised and confirmed on a Wednesday night in November of 1999. Heralding from a family of Buddhist and Taoist heritage, I entered the Church on the eve of the new millennium at the age of twenty, gathered with a priest, sponsor, fellow catechumens and a mixed group of close friends, mostly of no religious background.

A small but powerful group had accompanied me through conversion and initiation and I was fully conscious and grateful for the fact that in God and this community I had been granted something which I would spend the rest of my life learning to be faithful to, learning to enter into, and learning to trust. In sharing this portion of my own story and in the following reflections on RCIA in the context of the new evangelisation I hope to affirm your dedication to the RCIA as a vital sign and mirror of the Church in its deepest identity as a community of evangelising disciples.

A Developing Faith

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, and the prophetic zeal of Pope Francis, it is today commonplace to speak of the Church and its need of development or reform, that is, change. From the laments and incitements of Evangelii Gaudium, to contemporary Catholic literature such as Rebuilt, Forming Intentional Disciples, and Divine Renovation there has been magisterial, critical and popular recognition that what is most needed at this stage of our history as Church is a re-appreciation of evangelisation, the making and maturing of disciples, as the essential mission of our Church.

A ‘new evangelisation’ is sought, ‘new’ not in message or substance as if we have somehow graduated from the one Gospel given in Jesus Christ, but an apostolic outreach that is fresh in energy, intent and method for we seek to evangelise in a context that is something other than a carbon copy of times past.

Certainly, there is continuity. Today adults, as ever, come forward to be initiated as an expression and consequence of their faith in Jesus Christ from a variety of personal and cultural backgrounds. Through their initiation, these pilgrims die to self and rise in Christ who is their new way of life and they enter into this new life socially, joining a community that professes Jesus to be the source of their life and salvation.

Baptême_Cathédrale_de_Troyes_290308However, the ways and practices of Christian initiation have varied throughout the history of the Church. We only have to recall the early second century when potential catechumens presented for baptism after two to three years of preparation, involving multiple exorcisms and even a dash of salt. The danger of persecution within an intolerant Roman Empire restricted exposure of catechumens to the sacred mysteries of faith while sponsors played the role of prudent guarantor for the trustworthiness of their initiates. We see the shape of Christian initiation evolve yet again with the penitential theology of the Church. Many a convert in the patristic age chose to remain a catechumen until the end of life in the hope that a quick baptism before death might erase all the more sin. Even the formula of baptism itself has undergone development and with it the catechesis that has accompanied preparation, with baptism first simply in the name of Jesus, then the more creedal, interrogative formula recorded in the Apostolic Tradition before the straightforward trinitarian formula we employ today, based upon Matthew 28:19. The catechumenate of adults and rites of initiation have developed with the life of the Church as it has confronted each stage of history.

What we learn from this rich history is that the potential and fruit of our catechumenate – restored at the direction of Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium 64) and now just four and a half decades old in the form of the RCIA (decreed in 1972) – is intimately bound up with the life and vicissitudes of our Catholic community as a whole. As affirmed by the Rite itself, there is an intimate and indispensable relationship between the initiation process and the total life of the parish, what could be described as ‘the community of initiation.’[1]

Initiation in a New Time

Baptismal FontAs it stands today the Church in Australia sees some 69,000 newly baptised each year, with approximately 5,000 of these adults.[2] (As an aside, it has been noted that the number of adult baptisms in the U.S. rose by 12% between Easter 2013 and Easter 2014, portents perhaps of a genuine ‘Francis effect’ encouraging initiation.)

In receiving the forgiveness of sins, union with Christ and incorporation into his body, the seal and sanctification of the Spirit, and Christ’s Eucharistic body, these twenty-first century neophytes personify and encourage our hope to be that transformative, mediating community that Christ calls us to be, a Church that is essentially ‘a life passed on’.

A more sobering characteristic of our time, highlighted by contemporary literature and recent papal teaching, is that personal conversion and ceaseless evangelisation in the Church can no longer be assumed. Indeed, diminishing rates of participation in weekly Eucharist and other sacraments of the Church present a serious challenge to our ecclesial and formative paradigms.

For one, the premise of a ‘conveyer belt’ which took Catholics from the cradle to grave in faith, passing through the way of the Catholic family, parish and school, no longer seems true-to-life, if it ever was. As Sherry Weddell notes, there is thin evidence to support the belief that Catholic identity simply migrates from infancy into adulthood, resulting in the slow but steady spiritual growth of Catholic adults over a lifetime.[3] There is little reason to suppose that Catholic converts will also be carried along by some seamless cultural momentum within the Church into lifelong discipleship.

Sadly, we know the stories of the newly initiated who have journeyed with us over months only to disappear from the active life of the worshipping community, some even before the Easter season has drawn to a close. The trust, encounter, and discipleship in Christ fostered by small groups such as the RCIA yearns to be sustained by the larger ecclesial body into which the newly initiated are incorporated.

In other words, we cannot consider the RCIA and its pilgrims apart from the prospects for their continued journey with Christ in the body of all the faithful. If we are inviting people to the Gospel we must offer them a community of life in which spiritual seeds can prosper.

Much of our magisterial teaching assumes the existence of this living, active and spiritually dynamic community of faith in our parishes, not out of naiveté or ignorance of what is a more mixed reality in our parishes, but so as to underline all the more the non-negotiable nature of a culture of discipleship as the building block of all other elements of parish life, including liturgy.

FootprintsVatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium declares that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people.[4] The Catechism of the Catholic Church underlines “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”.[5] For its part, the RCIA confirms the necessity of a pre-catechumenate prior to theological instruction and liturgical preparation, a “time of evangelisation and initial conversion” which is to unfold in the presence of parish families and other groups of Christians through whom those with faithful intent can see “evidence of the spirit of Christians that they are striving to understand and experience”, all this prior to the rite of acceptance into the order of catechumens.[6] Again, the RCIA and its pilgrims cannot be considered apart from the spiritual health of the whole body into which the newly initiated are grafted. The budding of the branches depends upon the vitality of the vine.

When we take the current temperature of ‘the vine’, the whole body of the faithful, the sober reality is that 60% of those who attend Mass reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[7] It is evident that many a parish culture does not nourish personal faith and a mindset 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 bear fruit.

The spiritual barrenness reported in our pews flows over to impact upon the ability and even the desire of Catholics to reach others for Christ with obvious consequences for the RCIA. Hence, some 72% of Australian Mass attenders reported that they would not or did not know if they would invite someone to their parish.[8] Without spiritual growth in their own lives, individuals are not able to be effective witnesses or apostles for Christ in the wider community.

All in all Fr James Mallon underlines the importance of addressing parish culture in its totality if  discipleship is to be lifelong, noting smaller groups and initiatives

. . . will be only as good as the culture of that parish. Even a very successful tool for evangelisation . . . will have a very limited impact if the values of a parish are vastly different from the values within a particular program . . . Running evangelistic, outreach or renewal programs without addressing the necessary cultural conversion of our parishes will only leave us open to charges of false advertising.[9]

The fruit of RCIA depends in no small part on a parish culture where the kerygma, the Great Story of Jesus, is clearly preached through substantial homilies, where the kerygma is made known through adult faith formation experiences that are a norm of community life rather than an exception, and through the testimony of those whose lives have been changed by entering into that living story of Jesus, providing witness to his Spirit alive and at work in human lives.

Indeed, in the light of the interdependency of RCIA with the community at large, I would suggest that there is an argument that catechumens and candidates, while keeping their unique identity as a group, could be a part of a spiritual and faith formation process that is open to anyone.[10] While recognising the stages of development that mark the particular experience of catechumens, all are called to be disciples, mathētēs in Greek, meaning those who learn. All are called to be students before the feet of Jesus Master and Teacher and we cannot in this new era assume that the great numbers of already baptised have indeed heard that initial proclamation of the Gospel which Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium reminds us “we must hear again and again in different ways”.[11] My observation from the pews is that people are grasping only fragments of the Gospel and from the outside. Furthermore, I know many veterans of faith, dedicated and regular attendees, who envy the deep learning and spiritual conversation that the RCIA makes possible but to which they ordinarily do not have access themselves.

Foundational formation involving both newcomers and more established Catholics would recollect for the community that new membership is as much a part of regular parish life as Sunday Mass. Mutual experiences of formation would allow candidates to be integrated into community life not simply during the rites of initiation but in its very life, understood as a common school of holiness and friendship with Jesus Christ. If prayer and discipleship are learned, as our tradition maintains, then all have much to gain through and with one another as common pilgrims on the Gospel way.

Spiritual Accompaniment

startplanning1Having underlined this morning the inseparability of converts and the spiritual vitality of the communities they enter, a further opportunity makes itself present in our capacity to tell the stories of conversion that emerge from our tradition, narratives of holiness and transformation that can assist today’s catechumens to clarify their own life as a spiritual way.

Our firsthand experience of RCIA tells us that so much depends not simply on theological instruction or liturgical preparation but on the communication and exchange of stories, the sharing of personal itineraries of call and conversion, rich testimonies of the ways in which human lives have become intertwined with God’s.

In such spiritual conversation we enumerate together the shape of holiness, we generate a living tradition of what it means to be a holy person, we affirm the very possibility of access to and relationship with God and the capacity of human beings to respond and flourish in cooperation with his gracious and divine life.

I propose that the RCIA can provide for catechumens in our time invaluable guidance on the basic tenets of our faith, the rhyme and reason of our liturgical rites but also, crucially, testify to the ways in which lasting conversion can actually come about under the influence of grace. Those entering a life of faith, not to mention those already in the pews, are in need of a clear sign or witness that the life of faith is indeed possible, worthwhile and of ultimate significance and value.

In reflecting on my own experience of conversion and that of others who have come into the Church as adults, I am mindful that the transition into Christian life is anything but abstract, whimsical or sugar-coated. It is oftentimes a formidable journey, not without loss, and quite literally world-changing in its consequence. Friends and relationships change as do priorities, lifestyles and life choices and directions.

Our rich spiritual tradition helpfully offers a multitude of concrete lives and trajectories that can affirm and nourish this transition from an old way of life to a new life in Christ. The great stories and holy witnesses of our faith provide, in their own way, “an assurance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1).

What are the most compelling narratives of holiness that the RCIA can bring forward to uphold and foster trust in the momentous ‘crossing over’ from the old self to the new, for twenty-first century pilgrims? What are those stories that we can tell to show that Christian faith indeed makes a human life coherent?

To offer classic examples, the itineraries of St Paul, St Augustine, and a St Francis delineate by different routes the way in which total Christian conversion is possible and how one can engage the world as a new creation in Christ. These are stories of our tradition worth telling. Their biographies and standing as models of holiness provide neophytes with a tangible vision of the way in which God promotes our flourishing in the particular circumstances of our life. 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.

Take the story of St Francis of Assisi as an outstanding paradigm of our tradition. We recall here a young man of excess and indulgence, one who lives a dissolute life bankrolled by the wealth of the family business. Knowing no limits and characterised by exorbitant passions and intemperance, we learn that God’s work of grace in Francis does not cut out or obliterate this trait of excessiveness, does not excise his tendency to wild abandon but rather transforms it from within. Francis remains a man of excess but now becomes excessive in his poverty, radical in his self-sacrifice, zealous in his self-abandonment and self-donation to others.

The ascetic friar of Assisi brings forward for us the journey of holiness as inclusive and transfigurative rather than severe or caustic as the spiritual writer John O’Donohue adeptly explains:

The Christian life has always been a struggle towards perfection. Yet the recommended models of change have been very damaging, either metamorphosis, where the old self was expected to graft onto a supernatural level and become abruptly sanctified, or moral surgery, whereby the undesired dimensions of one’s life were cut out. Such externalist violence is always resisted by the psyche’s organic and inclusive spiritual instinct. Transfiguration is in harmony with the deepest rhythm of the soul because nothing is denied, excluded or forced. Attention is focused reverently on the whole complex of one’s presence. In light of this reverence to one’s self the places of entanglement, limitation, blindness and damage gradually reveal themselves in ways that suggest and invite changes in the configuration of one’s heart.[12]

candleWe learn that authentic growth in holiness is not about ‘metamorphosis’, the idea that we can simply shed the past, our very personality and history, and become someone entirely new. This is illusory. Nor is growth in holiness about moral surgery in which we simply excise or cut off whatever is found to be undesirable within us. As witnessed in St Francis’ life, the image of transfiguration is more apt, a gradual process in which we enter into and are attentive to every aspect of who we are, even those inevitable dimensions of darkness within ourselves, ‘lifting them up to the Lord’ whose Holy Spirit brings about transformation within, and not despite, the conditions of our life and character.

By such great narratives I believe neophytes as much as the already baptised can find encouragement to acknowledge the all-too-human reality which is inescapably ours – light and shadow, wheat and tare – and open this mixed reality to God’s love and grace which heals, redirects and transforms our very weakness into God’s strength (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:10).

I suggest that the dynamics of Christian conversion are well carried by the stories of those who have gone before us in faith, in the restless interiority of a St Augustine, the passionate poverty of a St Francis, the change of heart worked within the religiosity of a St Paul. These models need not stereotype holiness but give shape and substance to the possibilities that are there for all of us. These holy lives open us to more than what we may have yet imagined for ourselves, and so hold powerful relevance to our spiritual accompaniment of the enquirer, catechumen and the newly baptised by way of the RCIA.

Conclusion

In the midst of a changing ecclesial landscape and by its privileged access and accompaniment of unique and varied lives touched by Christ, the RCIA remains a gift and mirror to the Church, expressing its identity and vocation to be evermore an evangelising community of faith. Noting the particular challenges of Christian outreach at this time of history, Pope Francis remarks,

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. When we adopt a pastoral goal and a missionary style which would actually reach everyone without exception or exclusion, the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.[13]

In the work of the RCIA may we continue to offer that which is beautiful, most grand, appealing and most necessary, the Good News of the Gospel given to us in Jesus Christ, and the spiritual accompaniment of those who have walked the way of faith before us.

References:

[1] Rite of Christian Initiation 9.

[2] Vatican Secretariat of State, Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2012.

[3] Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, Indiana, 2012), 67-70.

[4] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1079.

[6] Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, no. 36-37, 39.

[7] NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation (Twenty-Third Publications: New London, CT, 2014), 94.

[10] This approach is also recommended by Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation, 230.

[11] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 164.

[12] John O’Donohue, ‘The Priestliness of the Human Heart’, The Way 45.

[13] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 35.

learning from the Church abroad

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

forming the adult Church

Candle 4Next week I begin teaching a ten week course, an introduction to Catholic ministry, which forms part of a year-long course offered by the Institute for Mission, an adult education centre in the Diocese of Parramatta. Remarkably, the course has seen over 400 participants undertake studies in spirituality, Scripture, theology and ministry since its inception and includes spiritual direction, companioning groups as well as plenary days.

My particular component of the course attempts to situate ministry within the broader context of baptismal mission and the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, explores the ministry of Jesus as given witness in the New Testament, overviews the development of ministry from the Constantinian area until the present day, surveys the theologies of the ordained priesthood, the diaconate and lay ministry, relates ministry to Eucharist, before concluding with issues in pastoral practice and spiritual discernment.

Over the years I have tried to ground the course as much as possible in the touchstones of the ressourcement movement, and so the participants are exposed to the writings of the Church Fathers, the Scriptural testimony of early Christian life, and are invited to delve into the meaning of the Eucharistic prayers, including a nod to Eastern anaphora recognised by the Catholic Church (the most obscure of which is that of Addai and Mari, an Assyrian prayer distinguished for the absence of an institution narrative. See here for extended analysis of its use and context).

The growth in opportunities for such theological formation of lay men and women since the Second Vatican Council has been tremendous, meeting as these opportunities do the greater baptismal consciousness that flowed from the Council’s reception, and extending the possibility of theological learning and reflection beyond the seminary and religious houses of formation.

Foundational documents in the area of adult faith education include conciliar documents such as Lumen Gentium (1962), Apostolicam Actuositatem (1965), Gravissimum Educationis (1965), and post-conciliar monuments including Catechesi Tradendae (1979), the General Catechetical Directory (1997), and the pastoral plan for adult formation authored by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us (1999; available here). This last document offers as its model the Emmaus story as a paradigm of encounter and accompaniment on the road to faith in Jesus, in a way which aligns well with the pedagogy outlined by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium.

5382043It is worthwhile noting that the greater opportunities for theological formation of the laity in the contemporary Church reflects, in part, a shift in ecclesiastical culture over the last half century, away from a climate in which ‘religiosity’ was often identified with obeying the will of a superior as opposed to religious practice being the way to obtain our happiness and fulfilment. As the Canadian theologian John Lamont points out of that authoritarian atmosphere, one which extended well in the 1950s, ‘If faith is a matter of obeying orders, then asking questions about Catholic belief is insubordinate’.[1]

This climate also affected theological learning in general, producing an anti-intellectualism because asking questions about the faith was seen as smacking of disobedience rather than looking for new knowledge and a way of approaching God. The second opposite effect was that among the people who did ask questions, which were first the priest-scholars before the laity, there was a certain attitude of rebelliousness (e.g. Hans Kung, Herbert McCabe OP) which has been unhelpful at times to genuine theological development and for freedom of inquiry in other corners of the Church.

Today the possibilities for the faith education of lay men and women are much wider than available to previous generations and a commitment to critical research, historical studies and an awareness of how culture and a globalised context can illumine the mysteries of faith has provided Catholics ordained and lay with a richer theological horizon against which they can make sense of faith, if we are disposed to making use of the resources available to us.

In today’s Church, our Catholic universities continue to serve as the primary venue for formal theological education of lay men and women. However, it is also the case that many laity do not enrol in such accredited courses and degrees for at least two reasons. One is the expense of such courses which can be prohibitive, especially for those without recourse to student loan schemes; the other is that the spectre of rigorous assessments can also discourage participation at this tertiary level, especially for adults who have not studied for some time, even decades, and yet still seek some form of theological input and learning.

Participants at a recent Alpha Leaders Training Day held in our Diocese

Participants at a recent Alpha Leaders Training Day (c) Diocese of Parramatta 2014

Hence, diocesan centres of adult formation, and the occasional talks, retreats, lecture series and programs facilitated by them (Catholic Alpha, Life in the Spirit seminars, the Siena Institute’s Called and Gifted workshops come to mind) as well as opportunities provided by religious congregations, remain critical to the education and formation of Catholics for mission. Online courses and other new media also offer sources of spiritual nourishment and theological reflection for those stretched for time in a work-a-day world.

Sadly, even in these less formal and more accessible settings for adult faith education there has been a conspicuous decline in the number of people taking up such opportunities. The low participation numbers in many diocesan adult formation initiatives brings into question the ability of the Church (at least the Australian Church) to communicate and deepen its faith and prepare its people for discipleship and outreach now and into the future.

As noted in previous blogs, while homilies, parish bulletins and the liturgy itself are the primary forms of formation experienced in the parish, these are rarely sufficient in themselves for working out that relationship between the faith we have received and the contemporary culture in which we are called to live it. As Thomas Merton remarks, as Christians we do not choose between Christ and the world as if they were utterly opposed. We choose Christ by choosing the world as it really is in Him.[2] However, this ‘catholic’ choice requires formation and discernment lest we choose one to the neglect of the other – either a self-enclosed identity incapable of speaking to the world in the light of the Gospel, or a generalised humanism without Christian substance.

When Christian faith is not deepened through reflection on faith, it becomes difficult to live out that life commitment in both an integral and world-engaging manner. It is true, as Pope Francis has pointed out, that we do not need theological degrees to be Christian but it also the case that ignorance of our faith is not a virtue. As Clement of Alexandria wrote in the second century, of those who do not bother to pursue an understanding of the riches of their own calling as Christians, ‘They demand bare faith alone – as if they wanted to harvest grapes right away without putting any work into the vine’ (Chapter IX, Stromata).

In a more contemporary key, the English theologian, Nicholas Lash, describes well the stagnancy in our midst in his 2002 Prideaux Lectures at the University of Exeter,

I never cease to be astonished by the number of devout and highly educated Christians, experts on their own ‘turf’ as teachers, doctors, engineers, accountants, or whatever; regular readers of the broadsheet press . . .  occasional visitors to the theatre who usually read at least one of the novels on the Booker short-list; and who nevertheless, from one year to the next, never take up a serious work of Christian theology and probably suppose The Tablet to be something that you get from Boots the chemist (Lash, Holiness, Speech & Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, 4-5).

SB048On his part, Lash attributes the decline in adult formation to the ‘systematic failure of the Christian churches to understand themselves as schools of Christian wisdom: as richly endowed projects of lifelong education’ (Lash, Holiness, Speech & Silence, 5).

There is much truth to this. As we have noted, our parishes do not largely understand themselves in this way, as ‘schools’, and therefore depend too heavily on the ability of our people to make sense of their faith and give an account of their hope unaided, without the support of a community of kindred learners who sit at the feet of the kerygma and tease out together the implications for life in this world.

As Richard Lennan of Boston College has written, ‘A secure faith . . . does not merely tolerate questions and thought, but affirms their capacity to act as vehicles for an ever-deeper engagement with the God revealed in history’.[3] Without doubt, we need to grow the opportunities for adult faith education but we must first grow the appetite and desire of our people for such formation, so that they can fully realise their own vocation and make use of the gifts and capacities called forth in them.

To conclude, the tradition of the Church upholds that the ‘catechesis of adults must be regarded as a preferential option’, and that this ‘can bear fruit only within the overall pastoral plan of the local Church communities’. [4]  To form our adults to be constructive participants in the life and mission of these communities, we need to place adult faith education once again at the heart of our intent and pastoral practice. Without such a focus, lay Catholics will lack the confidence to bear witness to the Gospel in a complex world and so the mission of the Church will be impaired on account of the undeveloped faith of the majority.


References:

[1] John Lamont, ‘Why the Second Vatican Council was a Good Thing and is More Important than Ever’, New Oxford Review (July/August 2005), 35. You can read the text on this blog.

[2] Cunningham, Lawrence, ed., Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 387.

[3] Richard Lennan, ‘”Looking into the Sun”: Faith, Culture, and the Task of Theology in the Contemporary Church’, Australasian Catholic Record 84/4 (2007): 467.

[4] COINCAT, Adult Catechesis in the Christian Community: Some Principles and Guidelines, 29; available here. Accessed 30 September, 2014.

 

rebuilding our parishes for growth

logo2014Some 550 delegates from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea gathered at the Proclaim Conference 2014 this past week in Sydney to listen to leaders in parish ministry and evangelisation.

These practitioners included the authors of Rebuilt, Fr Michael White and Tom Corcoran, representatives of other Christian denominations, and Catholic lay men and women committed to transforming their local communities.

It was a whirlwind of three days, with almost forty workshops made available and addressing RCIA, faith support for families, the quality of parish leadership, ordained and lay, issues of disability and inclusion in our parishes, liturgical practice, and the use of new media in parishes, among others.

The best aspect of the conference for me was to connect with old and new friends, to experience the solidarity of so many others seeking to live the same mission, and to hear and weigh up the many complex issues that are involving in living what is, at least in principle, if not in practice, a simple and holy mission: to allow the life of the Gospel, the life of Jesus, to radiate within and flow out of the heart of our parish communities into the world that hungers and awaits a Word of life and hope.

I was also privileged to present a workshop at the conference which I share below in the hope it might trigger your own reflections on how you might best lead your parish community into a better future (for more regular readers of this blog, it contains many of the views expressed previously but not yet shared with a wider audience). A PDF of this presentation as well as a resource I handed out – the ideal parish pastoral plan (at least as I imagine it!) – is also available at the end of this blog if it is of help and interest to you.

The Pastoral Reality

Proclaim 3It is fair to say that the parish remains the primary experience of Church for many Catholics. There is much to celebrate – the commitment of our leaders, ordained and lay, various forms of pastoral activity and outreach, the living faith that makes these communities a true spiritual home.

However, we are also conscious of the many challenges that face our parishes. Among these is the decline in the number of those attending these communities on a weekly basis. Indeed, researchers have described the parish as having reached a ‘critical moment’ in the life of the Australian Church.[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 while of all Catholics aged between 20-34 in Australia, only 5-6% attend.[3] So we are witnessing an ageing congregation with fewer among younger generations to replace them as we move into the future.

Migrants, of course, account for over 40% of our Mass attenders.[4] We are indebted to and sustained by the participation of these 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.

Furthermore, 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 (a dis-identification of some 100,000 Catholics over the last five years).[5]

SB048As Dr Bob Dixon, among others, has recognised, 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 ongoing 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 the primary venue where faith is given shape and social support, fostered into discipleship and then enters the world, impelled by the Word and Eucharist. In all these ways, the future of the Australian Church relies on the vitality of the local Catholic parish.

The Call to Grow

It is challenging, then, to concede that many of our parishes have few or no plans to grow, have no explicit vision for making disciples, and can assume people are growing and disciples are being made despite evidence to the contrary.

baby_plant.28104733Indeed, it could be said that we do not often talk about ‘Church growth’ or ‘growing the Church’, apart from the occasional appeal for priestly vocations or in the context of planned giving campaigns. Some would regard talk of ‘Church growth’ as rather bureaucratic or managerial in tone, a language more at home in the Business Review Weekly than the Gospel of Jesus.

And yet . . . God calls our Church and our parishes to grow. From the commission given to us by Jesus himself, ‘Go . . . 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. 28:19-20) to Vatican II which exhorts the Church in Christ, to ‘pray and labour that the entire world may become the People of God’, the call to grow is an essential element of our identity and calling as a Catholic Church and as Catholic parishes.[7]

We have been given a mission of grace (baptising into the life of Christ) and a teaching mission (as 2 Peter 3:12 affirms, to assist our people ‘grow in the knowledge of the Lord’). In other words, we are being asked to go deep and wide.

While this may seem obvious, I propose that many parishes have not made growth in faith and the gaining of new members the explicit goal of their life and ministries, and dangerously only assumed them to be so. Without this clarity of purpose and a deliberate intent to expand, parishes can be resigned to a ‘decent minimum of religious conformity’ awash with verbal formula, exterior practices and too many undigested experiences of Mass and the Church among their members.[8] However, a ‘no growth’ mentality or complacency has its consequences.

When asked, 60% of Australian Mass attenders reported only some or no spiritual growth through their experience of parish life.[9] The very real danger is that when people don’t grow, they begin to question their commitment and some are even tempted to leave. Meanwhile, 72% of Australian Mass attenders reported that they would not or did not know if they would invite someone to their parish.[10] It tells us that not everything we do as parishes makes disciples and, furthermore, when people are not growing they are not able to be witnesses for Christ in the wider community.

So, as a first step towards renewing parish culture we need to reclaim the basic commission of the Gospel to create better disciples and more disciples, both at the same time, ‘adding to our number’ as the Acts of the Apostles would express it (Acts 2:47) and becoming ‘mature in Christ’ (Col. 1:28). If spiritual and numerical growth, growing in and as Church, does not shape the way we do what we do, our communities can become caught in directionless routine with much movement but very little progress. Moreover, without the goal and the expectancy of growth, our parish workers can be caught dangerously between dedication and despair.

candlesWithout the desire to grow and actual plans to bring it about, we end up drawing on the same, small pool of laypersons for parish ministry and service, we struggle with succession in ministries leading to burn out and fatigue of our existing members, we become trapped in a self-affirming culture that neglects our God-given purpose to evangelise, and even risk becoming communities that are content or resigned to grow old rather than move forwards.

Hence, growth matters. The point made by the ressourcement theologian Henri de Lubac of the life of the Church in general applies to the life of the parish and its members in particular – interiorisation (the process by which the Gospel penetrates ever more deeply in the Spirit) goes hand in hand with universalisation and evangelisation (an awareness, commitment and outreach to others in that same Spirit).[11] The deepening of our personal life in Christ leads to an expanding capacity to serve others. We are called to grow in both person and community.

Obstacles to Parish Growth

It is a great tradition of our life and liturgy that in seeking to grow we must first name those obstacles that prevent us from growing in discipleship and that limit our outreach to those beyond the pews. There are a number of contradictions that could be named.

Firstly, while our parishes are called to be ‘schools of prayer’ we often assume our people know how to pray when Romans 8:26 reminds us that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’.[12] The Gospel reminds us that prayer is taught and learned, just as Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray to the Father, and yet there can be few opportunities to learn the practices and traditions of prayer in everyday life for the people in our pews. There are few prayers for miscarriage, neonatal loss, parent-teen relationships, chronic sickness, life aspirations and personal crises. Parishes can support their people to express their faith and experience in words by teaching and guiding prayer, both personal and communal, support that is not always extended.

We can also assume our parishes are welcoming. However, we can measure this by the relationships between existing members of our communities rather than the experience of the newcomer. When a sense of welcome and belonging to parish is thin, people can fail to graduate from being ‘mere attenders’ to becoming active participants in the mission of God which this community seeks to serve in the world.

SB012Above all, we can assume that those coming for the sacraments are already, ipso facto, disciples. However, as Sherry Weddell estimates, as little as 5% of our Mass attenders could be described as ‘intentional disciples’, as having made the conscious and personal decision to live as a disciple of Christ as their saviour and Lord.[13] Not all of our Mass attenders have allowed the Gospel to become the overriding, internal authority of their lives.

It is a curiosity of Catholic culture, as Weddell goes on to note, that those who do openly talk about Jesus and live enthusiastically in relationship to him can be viewed with suspicion, as ‘Protestant’ in spirit or else pretenders to sanctity (as Weddell concludes ‘we don’t know what normal is’).[14]

In terms of fostering intentional discipleship, an obstacle that can stymie the personal growth of people in our pews is an almost exclusive emphasis on the sacraments which, ironically, can obscure the full life to discipleship for which the sacraments exist. Pope Francis notes in Evangelii Gaudium that in many of our parishes ‘an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelisation’.[15]

This aligns well with the insight of Michael White and Tom Corcoran in Rebuilt when they point out:

. . . 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.[16]

The point being made by Pope Francis and Rebuilt is that people in our parishes can be ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised. Sacraments only make sense in the context of a life of discipleship; they can never replace it. The problematic is that if the whole concept of ‘discipleship’ is reduced to liturgy or Mass attendance alone, then even the practice of attending Mass is likely to weaken over the long term as the very point of a sacramental life is lost on those participating.

Sacraments nourish a life of discipleship that already exists, they cannot substitute for it. The grace that the sacraments make present needs to be received by a life of faith, by a ‘positive disposition’ as the Church describes it, within the context of a personal relationship to Jesus that opens the heart and will to conversion in love (indeed, some have questioned whether the Catholic Mass while evangelising in principle is often so in practice on account of the uneven religious literacy of our people and the uneven quality of much liturgical music and preaching).

Proclaim 2On the level of formation, the teaching mission we have received from the Gospel, it is worth noting that the emphasis in parish communities has traditionally fallen on the catechesis of children and youth. Understandable we want young people in our parishes for their vibrancy and energy as well as the tangible hope that they bring. However, we need to acknowledge that young people will not be attracted to parishes or communities that show no energy or dynamism in themselves.

We need a parish focus on adult formation as adult Catholics witness to younger Catholics what a mature faith looks like and the formation of adults creates a context which supports the life of faith of everyone in the community (as they say ‘a rising tide floats all boats’).[17] If we want to raise the standard of discipleship in the Church then adults who are prayerful, steeped in Scripture, theologically literate, articulate and committed to justice must be the new norm. Only then, in fact, will the faith of young Catholics naturally aspire to more than intergenerational conformism.

When we consider our parishes, the sources of formation for the majority of those who attend can be limited to essentially the parish bulletin, a homily preached well or otherwise, and perhaps the sign value of the sacraments. We are, if we are honest with ourselves, often relying on the fact that new and established members of our Church are simply ‘putting it all together’ by themselves, an optimism that that is not supported by the reality of parish decline. From observation, people are grasping only fragments and from the outside.

Finally, there can be a predominance of insider thinking, ‘Church world’ as the authors of Rebuilt name it.[18] This rather skewed perspective can be signified by the simple practice of advertising Christmas Mass times in local newspapers. While this is a good and proactive endeavour, it is worth remembering that, in terms of evangelisation, people are not staying away from our Masses because they do not know what time they are on. People are not coming to Mass because they do not see any point in doing so, because they don’t see any connection between what the parish might be offering and their life that they are living or aspired to bring about. If we get caught in insider-thinking as parishes, we can fail to see that people are not going to come to our parishes if they have no idea why they should.

Practices of Growth

This leads us neatly from our challenges to our potential. In light of the trends impacting on our parishes with growing intensity, and the present dynamics of some parish cultures, it is evident that if we want to reach people we have never reached before, we have to be prepared to do things we have never done before, and have a new heart for the Great Commissioning to grow the community of God.

One certainty is that parishes do not grow if leaders and parish teams do not want them to. We cannot assume parish and ministry group leaders want to grow their community when there are no specific plans or intentions to do so. It is interesting to note that emotions in a parish can pour out over changes to buildings, Mass times or parish structure but rarely do they pour out over the absence of newcomers from our pews. Perhaps our hearts can be set on stability rather than growth.

Prayer 1_2

(c) Diocese of Parramatta 2014

I was once asked by a parish pastoral council to name the biggest obstacle to evangelisation. In my view it would be a lack of faith that the Gospel is worth sharing. Parish leaders and ministry groups must have the desire to grow, have a renewed belief in Jesus and his Church so that our parish programs and processes may bear fruit. After all, programs do not make disciples; disciples make disciples. As Paul VI intimated, only an evangelised Church evangelises.[19] Our parishes will grow when their leaders grow in faith, in the hope of possibilities unseen, and in a love that grows through the practice of love. A sign of a leader committed to parish growth will be one committed to their own growth in the spiritual life.

As intimated, few parishes have a clear direction for their life, a clear vision for making disciples. We need to work towards parishes, each with its own clarity of purpose. Without an overarching vision or purpose that is shared and owned by the whole community, it is difficult for groups, ministries and members to be united or collaborate, quite simply because no one has ever asked and no one has asked together ‘Where are we going?’

To make this concrete, we might ask ‘what is the vision of your parish for its life over the next three years?’ Catholic parishes do not often articulate such a vision and yet are surprised that the commitment level is so low. Commitment will always be low when there is no direction, no sense of purpose and aspiration for the community. Note also that a vision cannot simply be put on a noticeboard; a vision has to be explained, shared and talked about time and again, explaining ‘where we are going’ on the basis of where we are.

A vision also enables a community to evaluate itself on its performance. If a parish community clearly understands that ‘evangelisation of unchurched Catholics’ is its priority for the next three years, the parish can then ask questions when that doesn’t happen, and try and be more effective in that area. Without a parish vision or purpose, no questions are ever raised and there is no motivation to change and to grow.

In speaking of the need for inspired leadership and a compelling vision, it will come as no surprise that parish planning is a particular focus of mine and a recommendation in bringing about renewal.

While ‘pastoral planning’ sounds less glamorous than many other aspects of Church life, it is indispensable for communities to cultivate the type of discipleship which we seek as a Church in response to God.

All communities need to make plans because wanting to grow is not enough. We need to plan to grow and be explicitly organised to grow the faith of our members as well as to evangelise. Indeed, church research reveals that making no plans for growth results in little or no growth every time.[20] Without a commitment to planning, church communities and ministries do not grow and, in fact, risk decline. The alternative to a vision for growth, as we have said, is directionless and unresponsive routine.

plannerWhen a community has a clear plan, including a vision for where it wants to be in three years’ time, and actions, time frames, and owners of those actions to bring them about, it also becomes possible for parishes to let go of activities and groups that do not make disciples or help them to achieve their goals. Planning reminds a parish that its mission is not to preserve ashes but to keep a fire alive.

In terms of parish evangelisation out of the pews, to the 90% of self-identified Catholics on the margins of our parish life, a first step is to recognise that these ‘unchurched’ Catholics we seek to reach for Christ are not strangers ‘out there’ nor are they statistics without names or faces. The unchurched are in our homes, sitting at the dinner tables of practicing Catholics! They are our relatives, friends, and neighbours who identify as ‘Catholic’ in some way but do not participate in regular worship or intentional acts of Christian service.

It follows that reaching the unchurched is a matter of skilling and empowering practicing Catholics to start the conversation about faith with relatives, friends and neighbours. Unfortunately, as we have noted, resources and practical assistance to prepare our people for this task is rarely found in our parishes.

It is worth noting that some Baptist communities offer workshops to support wives in faith-filled conversations and relationships with their husbands who are often less likely to attend a weekend service. It recognises that evangelisation takes place via the relationships and via the bridges of credibility in our lives. Again, disciples make disciples. We need to form practicing members of our Church to have the confidence in faith, skills and relational sensitivity to reach out to those they know and love with the Good News of the Gospel.

SB054Another key strategy for growth is small groups and Rebuilt affirms this as a direction for all parishes to consider. It is interesting to note that the National Church Life Survey revealed that Australian Catholics, when asked, valued ‘community life’ as one of the most valued aspects of parish life.

However, at the very bottom of this scale was ‘small groups’ and ‘reaching out to others’.[21] And yet, it is precisely by small groups and the invitation of others that most Catholics find their way into the heart of the Church as a community of faith.

Our Catholic masses are often just too large for people to feel instantly at home. Most of us have come into the heart of the Church through a small group of some description, whether that was a youth group, prayer group or other association. Small groups are one way in which people can explore and grow in their faith in the context of a personal and supportive network of disciples.

To make the point a different way, no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. As a Church we are similarly challenged to offer our people the small group they never knew they needed, whether that be a group of prayer and reflection, Scripture study or missionary outreach which develops their personal relationship with Jesus in the midst of others.

Finally, another indispensable measure by which we can focus on the unchurched is to pray that the outreach of the parish will be effective. Prayer brings us to what is most important to us in our life of faith. Praying for the parish mission to be effective, praying that members will reach out to others with joy, praying that relationships will be transformative, places our efforts to evangelise in the heart and hands of God and in the heart and hands of the worshipping community. A parish that is not praying for new members, that does not explicitly name those who the parish is trying to reach for Christ, can be reasonably questioned on the seriousness of its intent.

We can be tempted to feel at times in ministry as if there was not enough time for prayer, but in fact the spiritual tradition tells us that a lack of prayer leads to a lack of time for the things that matter. We need to pray so our hearts desire growth. Once our hearts desire that goal, we will find the time and take the action needed to see our parishes grow in life and measure.

Conclusion

Liturgy 1We have surveyed the pastoral reality and underlined the need of our parishes to grow as the foundation of the Australian Church.

We have retrieved the need for parishes to set themselves the goal of actual growth in faith as well as numerical growth in response to Jesus’ commission to the Church. We have seen the consequences of a ‘no growth’ mentality and of assuming our people are becoming disciples by the sacraments alone.

We have affirmed the need for leaders with a heart and vision for growth, parish communities with an explicit and articulated purpose, formation that focuses on and talks about discipleship and conversion, small groups to create the bonds of faith that grow discipleship, and communities that pray for and implore the graces of God in this mission.

As Pope Francis remarks, ‘[God] always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve’.[22]

As parishes we need to look sincerely at our life and be willing to continue to grow, all the while imploring the graces of God. In the light of our reality and in the light of faith, we must desire to make disciples and proclaim boldly that in the face of human needs God has provided a response in the person of Jesus. May we live this mission well in the service of the Gospel and in the service of humankind.

* You can download a PDF of this workshop presentation here. As mentioned, I also offered some thoughts on the content of the ideal parish pastoral plan. You can download the sample parish plan here. With best wishes in your ministry and mission, Daniel

 

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] Dr 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] Lumen Gentium 17.

[8] Thomas Merton, Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (London: SPCK, 2003), 2.

[9] NCLS Research, Denominational Church Life Profile: The Catholic Church in Australia. A Report from the 2011 National Church Life Survey (Strathfield: NCLS Research, 2013), 10.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Henri de Lubac, ‘Christian Explanation of our Times’ in Theology in History, translated by Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 452.

[12] John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte 33.

[13] Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 62.

[14] Ibid., 49.

[15] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 63.

[16] Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: The Story of a Catholic Parish (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2013), 77.

[17] Cf. Jane Regan, Toward an Adult Church: A Vision of Faith Formation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002).

[18] White and Corcoran, Rebuilt, 43.

[19] Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 15.

[20] See Ed Stetzer and Mike Dobson, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 71–2.

[21] Dr Claudia Mollidor, ‘Parish Life – Who’s Involved and Why?’, Presentation at the Pastoral Research Office Conference: ‘Beliefs and Practices of Australian Catholics’, 20 February, 2014.

[22] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 153.

the church in a digital world

CDMC-webThis week brings two conferences of significance for the Australian Church and at which I am grateful to be sharing some thoughts. The first conference is CDMC, the Catholic Digital Media Conference (19-20 August, 2014) while the second event is Proclaim 2014 (21-23 August, 2014).

The potential to learn new skills, hear the collective wisdom of those practicing leadership in various Catholic fora, and gather with old and new online and real world friends makes these days a great source of personal and collective renewal.

The particular focus of CDMC is to offer insight from new media practitioners on how the Catholic Church and its agencies can use new media and social media to share the Gospel. While not prolific online or an expert in any sense, I shared the reflections below near the conclusion of this conference before joining a panel discussion to break open some of the contributions of the two days with fellow speakers. I hope these thoughts will be value to those wrestling with the nature and extent of the Church’s engagement with new technologies.

Digital technology represents a rich and challenging way of participating in God’s mission, and a frontier which can give new life to the Church. As a potential vehicle for evangelisation, digital media calls not simply on technical ability or ‘know how’ but invites our theological vision as Catholics of the possibilities that God offers us in this moment of ‘radiant ripeness’, when what is ancient and simple ‘[mingles] with what is new and strange’.[1]

Setting the Scene

As people of the Incarnation and the Cross we are bound to recognise that there is overwhelming promise in emerging technologies as well as a shadow side to these developments. The Church and its communicators enter this space aware of the ways in which digital media can reveal and share the joy of the Gospel, calling humanity to its deepest destiny, and the ways in which this same technology can erode a sense of self, human vocation and community.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out that in our cities in particular, where large numbers of people rub shoulders, are unknown to each other, do not have direct dealings but yet affect and influence one another in thought, behaviour and expression, people can be caught between loneliness and communication.[2]

checkingphoneThe use of social media perfectly manifests this swing between individualism and association with others for we can be alone with our digital devices and yet watch world events unfold, aware that hundreds or even millions of others are doing so at the same time. We can hover between a sense of isolation and a loose form of togetherness, vacillate between privacy and the spectacle of mutual display.

The danger of this situation is that personal identity can be reduced to a matter of ‘being seen’ rather than being known, to the desire for publicity rather than authenticity.[3] The notion of human community can also be emptied of its intimacy and personalism, reduced to the blips and squeaks of ‘a lonely crowd’. Even in matters religious, digital media can lead to superficiality, the ‘fortune cookie wisdom’ that fits neatly within 140 characters, as well as spiritual exhibitionism among even the committed, the virtual equivalent of wanting to watch oneself at prayer.[4]

But none of this is inevitable. While isolation and superficiality are risks of any human endeavour, we as the believing Church can bring real and lasting treasure to the myriad of human desires, experiences and quest for meaning that takes place online, playing our part in the humanisation and sanctification of digital culture and the wider world.

As Pope Benedict has shared in his reflection on Christian engagement of new media, we as ‘believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived.’[5] By keeping alive these eternal questions and engaging the concerns and events of the world in the light of faith, Catholic bloggers, commentators, and leaders can bring real depth and consequence to the digital continent.

Catholic communicators can place before these vast audiences the sacred origin and sacred destiny of all humanity, the intrinsic dignity of each person that is at the same time a calling or vocation to encounter the person of Jesus, the ‘Perfect Communicator’, the living Word who speaks not only by a message but through the totality of his life and Spirit.[6]

In the light of faith and in His example, Catholic media can advocate for the forgotten victims of history (many of them voiceless in a technological age) and be for the world even if at times it must be for it by standing against its deficiencies. In the light of faith, the lonely crowds and fragile networks can be opened to the witness of a real and embodied community of Christ whose worship and values are seen to shape the practices and commitments of its members. In the light of faith, the Church can reach out to those in isolation and stand for the poor in spirit and circumstance, bringing the rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching to bear on the needs of the present. In all of these ways, the Church can firmly take its place on the digital realm as a genuine locus of personal fulfilment and interpersonal communion.

Pope Benedict would conclude that while our Church does not ultimately bring technical solutions to the problems afflicting the world, what it does bring is a faith-filled realisation of the deepest needs of humanity which are not merely social but spiritual in nature.[7] It is by reading and responding to the world at these spiritual heights, or rather at these depths, that Catholic media can shape contemporary culture and its online participants in an active and ongoing way.

Communicating in the Gospel

digitalcrossOn a practical level, I would suggest that despite the potential for such Christian influence, new technologies can run ahead of our ability to communicate as Church. While social media supplies us with opportunities that could not have been envisaged even a short decade ago, there is nothing automatic about our ability as Church to use this media effectively and to proclaim the Gospel with influence and real effect. Like all other gifts of God, including the Eucharist, we have to learn and reflect over time on how best to put these gifts into practice, on how to make these gifts come to life in relationship to others. In this respect, there are no ‘experts’, only better or lesser learners.

One of the ongoing challenges for our Church in engaging social media is to recognise that it is indeed social media and not designed to be encyclopaedic, concerned with the delivery of a multitude of facts. Belonging to an articulate tradition as we do, a tradition which includes a body of sacred teaching, we can still be tempted to employ new media as a blunt instrument for the dissemination of information. This is no doubt where we started, when the documents of the Church and the catechism were first placed online, when Catholic encyclopaedias and patristic texts were uploaded and parish websites published their Mass times.

Certainly, this supply of online information is valuable and has enabled greater and unrivalled access to the Christian tradition – Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, the manifold prayers of the Church – resources not instantly or as readily available to previous generations. We can affirm without hesitation that Catholic faith has content, a creed and beliefs, ‘that which it believes’, which calls to be shared and made present in the digital arena.

However, what social media reminds our Church with some importance is that this creed, this faith, these beliefs, also need to be received, to be heard in a way that others can understand and enter into. Social media reminds the Church that evangelisation is more than the transmission of data, that it involves not only proclamation but dialogue, a dialogue with which proclamation has an ‘essential bond’.[8] Digital technologies must certainly be engaged by the Church from a standpoint of conviction, made use of in the unwavering, true light of the Gospel who is Christ, but that unfailing light, identity and conviction can only be brought to bear on actual human lives through discourse and exchange, persuasion and empathy, listening as well as speaking, receiving as well as offering, all those dimensions of human relationship and interpersonal dynamics that contribute to personal conversion.

churchpewsIn surveying the capacity of our social media to foster this sort of evangelising contact with others, it could be said that Catholic Twitter accounts, blogs and media can sometimes assume the religious literacy of their audiences, be prone to religious ‘shorthand’ or else address questions that are more germane to ‘insiders’ than ‘outsiders’. The danger of social media when it becomes self-referential, insular or rarefied in this way is that we can be essentially left talking to ourselves, conversation partners within a self-affirming Catholic subculture, while the wider culture moves on largely untouched and unmoved by the claims of Christian faith.

To highlight this risk of misaligning our communication to audience, note that our parish teams and ministries are now meeting second-generation unchurched families for whom the word ‘sacrament’ is foreign and strange, for whom the word ‘mission’ evokes only faraway places, for whom the meaning and implications of Eucharist would be barely known. As Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium,

We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness.[9]

If we confuse effective Church communication for ‘the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines’ our people will, as they already do in our pews, hear only fragments and, what is more, hear them from the outside rather than as participants in a conversation of eternal significance.[10]

A Church in the (Digital) World

So how might the Church best be present within this digital world which remains only in its infancy?

Liturgy 2It strikes me that when the Church has encountered new cultural terrain, enters new territory or encounters unexpected social conditions, one temptation to which it can fall victim is the instant desire to construct parallel infrastructure to secure Catholic identity in the public square. This form of Catholic replication of existing cultural forms has been a well tried strategy of the Church in times past but one that has its limitation in terms of evangelisation.

For example, the Catholic Church when founded in Australia quickly sought to develop a parallel school system to the State, established Catholic youth groups, Catholic debating societies, even Catholic tennis and bushwalking clubs aimed at the social and cultural reproduction of the Church. As the theologian Neil Ormerod points out, the aim was, in part, to ensure Catholics were held within the church from birth to death.[11] One could travel through life with limited contact with ‘others’, whoever these ‘others’ might be, usually Protestants. Today in the realm of media, it is already possible to watch an exclusively Catholic television channel if one chose to do so.

A similar strategy of mimicry could be attempted online, in which the Church seeks to replicate technologies and media channels to create Catholic-branded platforms which serve much the same purpose as existing secular media. However, I think this approach is misguided, not only because it is inevitably expensive to create a parallel Catholic world online but because it misunderstands the theological basis of evangelisation which is to interact with the world, not present a self-enclosed alternative to it.

To make the point, we can learn from the Jesuit theologian Walter Ong who recalls for us the essential role of the Church in society as a leaven,

Yeast acts on dough, but it does not convert all the dough into yeast, nor is it able to do so or meant to do so. Its primary effect is to interact, and this interaction results in ferment and growth for both yeast and dough.[12]

Like yeast, we do not have to sacrifice our own identity to interact and dialogue with others but it is a part of our identity to interact, not to remain isolated or take over the space of the world (the catholicity of dialogue and exchange is well captured in the ‘retweet’, in our ability as Catholics to share that which carries insight but that did not originate from us).

In a similar vein to Ong, the ecclesiologist Joseph Komonchak writes of the need for the Church to take its place within rather than above or in parallel to the drama of the world,

To enter the Church is not to leave the world, but to be in the world differently, so that the world itself is different because there are individuals and communities living their lives because of, in, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.[13]

Catholic media should not, then, aim at the creation of Catholic enclaves in the digital world but must develop the ability to express, represent and dialogue in the name of the Gospel in the midst of the various media in which the world already expresses itself and reflects upon its circumstances, meaning and destiny. Again, this calls on the ability of the Catholic communicators to dialogue in the faith as well as to proclaim it with conviction.

Conclusion

tmUltimately, our ability to evangelise online will reflect our ability to evangelise in the world. There is nothing magic or enchanted about technology; it will reflect what is in us. The Cistercian spiritual master Thomas Merton reminds us that a condition for meaningful relationships and genuine communion with others is a spiritual identity and life of our own. Without an inner life grounded in our own dialogue with God, mass communications can only be a dull and disorientating roar:

How tragic it is that they who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves, like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark where there is no enemy . . . They chatter themselves to death, fearing life as if it were death.[14]

There is only one thing that Catholic communicators are called to express – the life and spirit of Jesus who in revealing God reveals humanity to itself.[15] It is his message and life that bears upon every dimension of culture and progress, that is capable of making our world truly human and of our diverse and demanding lives and work a meaningful mission.

The task of communicators in the Church today is as wide as it is deep. They must make the case for digital technologies within the Church, by explaining and even, at times, defending their potential in a community that can grow slow. They must also educate or school themselves in the sources and insights of Catholic tradition while also standing at the window of the world, attending to the best practices in contemporary media and discerning how they might best serve the Gospel in a new time. Catholic media must even play a prophetic role for our Church, bringing the future into the present with the riches and insight of the past.

While all of this is demanding, our Catholic leaders in media can do all of this with the confidence and faith that to the ever evolving landscapes of the world, digital and otherwise, God has already addressed a living Word and that Word provides the light and promise to our path.

I hope to post my workshop from Proclaim 2014 in coming days which will focus on vision and practices for parish growth. Thank you for reading this blog and best wishes in your ministry and mission in the Church, Daniel.   

 

References:

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1932), 185.

[2] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 482.

[3] Cf. David Ranson, ‘To be Seen or to be Known’, The Faith Project, 27 August 2012. Available online at http://www.churchresources.info/missionspirit/0909/RANSON.pdf. Accessed 19 August, 2014.

[4] The Cistercian spiritual master Thomas Merton warns, with relevance to the digital realm, that for the sake of publicity we can forfeit our authenticity, ‘The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men. A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real’. Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain, 362.

[5] Benedict XVI, Message for the 45th World Communications Day. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/communications/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20110124_45th-world-communications-day_en.html. Accessed 19 August 2014.

[6] Pontifical Council for the Social Communication, Communio et Progressio 11. Available online at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/pccs/documents/rc_pc_pccs_doc_23051971_communio_en.html. Accessed 19 August, 2014.

[7] Benedict XVI, Address on 12 July, 2009. Available online at http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/church-is-an-expert-in-humanity-says-pope. Accessed 19 August, 2014.

[8] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 251.

[9] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 34.

[10] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 35.

[11] Neil Ormerod, ‘The Laity in the Australian Church’ in Neil Ormerod, et al., Vatican II: Reception and Implementation in the Australian Church (Mulgrave, VIC: Garratt Publishing, 2012), 68.

[12] Walter Ong, ‘Yeast as a Parable for Catholic Higher Education’, America (7 April 1990) as cited in Stephen J. McKinney and John Sullivan, Education in a Catholic Perspective (Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2013), 168. My emphasis.

[13] Joseph Komonchak, ‘Identity and Mission in Catholic Universities’, 12; available online at https://jakomonchak.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/hubbard-lecture.pdf. Accessed 19 August 2014.

[14] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (London: Hollis & Carter, 1955), 162.

[15] Gaudium et Spes 22. See also the thought of Henri de Lubac who writes, ‘In revealing to us the God who is the end of man, Jesus Christ, the Man-God, reveals us to ourselves, and without him the ultimate foundation of our being would remain an enigma to us’; in Henri de Lubac, ‘The total meaning of man and the world’, Communio 35 (2008: 4), 626-7.