bridging the gap: from youth ministry to adult discipleship

It was a privilege to present a workshop at the Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention 2018, held in the Diocese of Parramatta this past weekend. It was inspiring to be with youth ministers and leaders who are shaping the Church through their witness and initiative, from all sectors of the Church in Australia. Below is a summary of the workshop shared and I hope it’s of interest and encouragement in the ongoing work of renewal as we anticipate next month’s Synod on Youth.

This ACYMCworkshop will extend the theme of ‘missionary discipleship’ to consider how youth ministry can support young people to move and grow from participation in youth ministry to exercise their discipleship as adults in broader parish and community life. If youth ministry gathers for the purpose of sending out, how can our ministries best prepare young people for that future? One of the claims of this workshop is that if we can identify the issues of our moment, and we know the destination at which we want to arrive, then this will shape the steps we can take to get there. If our purpose is sending young people out into mission, into the full life of the Church and world, then how does our youth ministry best prepare them for that future?

The Discipleship Dilemma

As Pope Francis encourages, it is important to begin with a frank assessment of where we are as Church because “realities are more important than ideas” (EG 231-233; LS 110, 201). We cannot grow by holding the door closed against reality. A renewed future begins on the basis of the present. When we reflect on how best to lead young people into adult discipleship, we could reasonably ask how well our entire Church leads and makes disciples of all its members.

We know that the Church is called by God to work towards the transformation of the world so that it reflects more and more of God’s Kingdom or God’s reign. This Kingdom comes about when people encounter Jesus, surrender, and make the decision to follow – when they become his disciples and go out to transform the world.  However, if this is the purpose of the Church, bringing about the Kingdom and making and forming disciples, we have to admit that we are not bearing the fruit we would like to see. More and more of our people, both young and old, continue to disengage from the Church, and we acknowledge the confronting reality that in the current climate some will question if the Church has anything worthwhile to say or be less inclined to be explicit in their faith. Another challenge presents itself in our parishes. If we were to measure how many of the hundreds who receive the sacraments in our local parishes each year, pass through our sacramental life in initiation or from week to week, and emerge on the other side as missionary disciples, the result would be less than ideal. There is something amiss. Where is the fruit?

The reasons for our decline have become clearer over time. At heart, we have a discipleship dilemma. When it comes to a personal and active relationship with Jesus Christ, many Catholic communities have taken a pastoral approach that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ and that is simply not true. We have neglected our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually take root and bear fruit. To make the point, “baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . . For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it’”.[1] This is not to discount the centrality of the sacraments or to deny the place that devotions have in the Catholic life. But it is to say that people can be ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised. It is entirely possible to undertake a routine of religious custom and practice without a personal and responsive relationship to Jesus Christ.

The sacraments do indeed give us the capacity to believe – the virtue of faith – but without a personal ‘yes’ – an act of faith – it remains a ‘bound’ sacrament. Like a car full of fuel, if we never turn the key or press the accelerator, we do not move forwards and we are not changed. Our personal ‘yes’ is the spark which enables grace to bear real fruit in our lives. Writing of youth, John Paul II recognised this same dilemma, “A certain number of children baptised in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit.”[2] We know that children and youth who have no explicit personal attachment to Jesus are likely to grow up to be adults with no personal attachment to Jesus, unless that relationship is introduced into their life through a process of evangelisation.

Our Catholic tradition affirms this very point – that the sacraments do not replace personal discipleship. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people.[3] The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us explicitly, “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”.[4] The Second Vatican Council and the Catechism affirm the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). When there is no Christian life, no trace or intention of Christian living, then in fact the Eucharist can be neither source nor summit of anything. Outside of the context of discipleship, the Eucharist can be reduced to an object of piety or mere consumption rather than a relationship that invites a Jesus-shaped life. Finally, Jesus himself gives us a Great Commission “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, [and then] baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). We could say that the mission of the Church is not sacraments but disciples which the sacraments nourish. Unless people become disciples, the grace of the sacraments bears little fruit.

It is important to recognise that the young people in our care are already being shaped and formed by this culture of sacramental routine, marked by a lack of fruit and the gentle decline in living faith. To render this concrete, take the typical experience of a Church-attending youth. They might intuit from the pews that parish participation is declining (in fact, the total percentage of Mass attendance nears single digits across the country) and will gain a quick sense that very few of their peers attend Eucharist on any given weekend (about 5% of all aged 20-34 in fact).[5] They would know too well that few of their peers’ families are engaging with the Church, and they may not witness many or any new people coming into the Church at Easter (perhaps a handful each year, while dozens more walk out the back door at the same time). They might recognise that while many receive the sacraments they are not seeing the fruit of a change in lives, that there is something missing and church attendance doesn’t seem to make a great difference to people’s lives. They may hear a little about the Church, history, or even morality, but they may not hear much about Jesus or hear the story of Jesus’ life shared clearly (when preaching is poor or misaligned). They may never have witnessed an adult actually speak about how Jesus has changed their life or heard conversations among adults about Jesus (even though a culture of testimony lies at the heart of evangelisation, for consumer churches have preferences while missionary churches have stories of how Jesus has changed their life).

These are some of the basic experiences that young people may encounter in our faith communities. The risk is unless we are casting in our youth ministries an alternative vision for what adult discipleship looks like, our young people may not receive any other image of adult life in the Church and therefore be given little sense of a positive future. We have a deep sense that we are called to do more than lead young people into adult communities which show little life in themselves, repeat the outcomes or trends of decline we have experienced in past generations of Catholics in Australia.

If our adult community and the cultures of our parish communities have forgotten what ‘normal’ looks like, it is the prophetic role of youth ministry to recover a new norm by equipping young people to move from a faith that can be customary, inherited or barren to a faith which is intentional (not routine), personal (not merely the faith of my family but a faith truly my own), and fruitful (there are signs of concrete change in our life for discipleship is not an invisible phenomenon, it shows up in the pigment of our life). In looking at change from one culture to another, we note that it is not the cultural norm in Catholicism to even talk about Jesus, let alone his fruit or work in our life, and those who do are viewed as Protestant or a spiritual pretender.[6] We have forgotten what ‘normal’ looks like. Youth ministry can play a part in the gradual transformation of our Church culture, to place again a full and living discipleship to Jesus before young people, as the heart of what we do and who we are as Catholics.

We can consider the radical difference that youth ministry can make to the Church in this way – via the analogy of what makes a good school. We know that a lack of academic opportunity is passed on or transmitted from generation to generation and, as such, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often do not perform as well as they could. However, some education systems (e.g. those in Shanghai and Korea but sadly not Australia) are able to lift these students well beyond their statistical likelihood of poor academic performance, enabling these young people to perform and excel at their full potential. Quite simply, good schools and teachers make a difference to the capacities and lives of their students. They can break the cycle of ignorance and disadvantage. In a similar way, we know that ignorance of the faith is passed on or transmitted from generation to generation, and that many of our people start their journey in the Church ‘disadvantaged’ by low religious literacy and low or no commitment to practice, including little enthusiasm for sacrificial discipleship or evangelisation of others. The aim of good parishes, schools and youth ministries is to lift people out of this religious rut and support them to grow in faith and discipleship above and beyond what their background might have equipped them for. If our communities are not equipping our young people for living discipleship, then perhaps it is our ministry that can make that difference. I wanted to start on the note of realism, with recognition of what we are sending our young people into, and a note of possibility of what youth ministry can do within the wider life of the Church and within a Catholic culture desperately in need of renewal.

Youth Ministry

Having named the discipleship dilemma in our wider Church, which impacts upon the future of young people in faith, we now turn to focus on the reality of youth ministry itself. What is the status quo or state of play in youth ministry today?

Some of the significant dilemmas we are confronting include a ‘drop off’ after a time in parish groups and during senior high school among youth. For young adults, the decline in participation can set in during the post-school years, in the years of university or the first years of work. We sense that many of those aged between 25-35 years are being lost to the Church’s life, and other young adults are left hungry and even look back to youth ministry to serve their needs after the age of 30. These real experiences expose a gap and need in our approach to youth ministry, with many asking, ‘to whom shall we go?’ As it stands, we see young adults graduate from youth groups, a small number emerge as spiritual entrepreneurs who have learned to fend for themselves, but many more become ‘lost’ or drifters within the life of the Church, and a silent majority of young adults, I fear, slip into the routine culture of the crowd or disappear from the life of the Church altogether. Young people will continue to leave the scene as groups dwindle and their social support fades in the Church, or they will ‘hang on’ to their youth experience for dear life and risk a sort of extended adolescence well into their thirties with the crisis of vocation that can accompany being lost. If people are feeling lost in their thirties, it is saying something about how we are or are not preparing young people in youth ministry for a lasting life of faith.

The Causes of Decline

What is it about youth ministries that can lead to the disengaged, unchurched and the lost? We have an opportunity to make a real difference with those we do encounter but we do not always quite hit the mark. Some of the limited outcomes we see in youth ministry can be related to the purpose for which they exist. Take these four examples, keeping in view that a problem well recognised is a problem half solved.

The social but not spiritual group. There will be youth groups that exist for their own social value and are perhaps more an exercise in demography rather than discipleship. The parish decides it is good to have a youth group or a school a new youth team of sorts, so they establish one and the community feels better for it because we are ‘doing something for youth’. In short, the group exists for its own sake rather than for others. It will inevitably become insular, cliquey and decline, rather than outreach and grow, operating from a consumption model (‘this group is about me’) rather than of outreach and apostolic intent. It can often be marked by a sense that if the group gets any larger they will lose their intimate sense of community. The members do not intentionally reject ‘new’ people, but their present relationships are so intimate that any newcomer can find it difficult to break into the group. Especially when small, these social groups can stunt personal growth rather than enable it, especially if a group is populated with young people with nowhere else to go. Of course, the Church is there for all people, most especially the poor in spirit and circumstance, but if youth groups or ministries are not as broad and refective as the surrounding community, it can serve as a refuge from the world rather than a launching pad for faith in the world.

Youth groups as a retention strategy. Sometimes groups can be formed or used as a remedy for the declining participation that takes place after the sacraments of initiation. After all, who doesn’t want to ‘keep the kids in church’. However, such group can have short futures as they will tend to focus on behaviour modification (turning up to Mass or staying in Church) rather than discipleship. What they do not realise is that when people become disciples – encounter Jesus, surrender their life to him, and make the decision to follow – they will go to Mass for the rest of their lives. We want people to fall in love, not merely fall in line. If a group is simply about retaining members, then youth leaders will need to constantly come up with new and gimmicky ideas to retain the current membership and ‘get them to Mass’ but never address the deeper ‘why’ that might sustain them for a lifetime of faith. Groups that are established or see themselves merely as a retention strategy aim for the short-term but are unable to take the longer view with the usual outcomes of steady decline as the novelties and techniques wear thin.

Youth ministry as catechesis. Another reality for youth ministry can be an exclusive focus on catechesis, on teaching young people the facts about Catholicism and learning content, even when young people may not have a relationship with Jesus (i.e. have not even been evangelised). When we think about the word ‘catechesis’ itself (κατήχησις) as it is found in the Gospel of Luke 1:4, 1 Corinthians 14:19 and Galatians 6:6 it means ‘to sound out’ or to ‘echo the teaching’. It is like standing at the entrance of a cave and speaking out and hearing a voice coming back. When we catechise young people, we are speaking into their lives. We are giving them faith and knowledge, and what we seek is for that faith and knowledge to resound back, echo back upon its reception. However, the only way we can hear an echo is if there is a cave, if there is a space to speak into. If we were to run out and shout at a brick wall, we are not going to hear an echo as there is no space to absorb and reverberate what is being shared. So, we need to bring people to a living and transformative encounter with Jesus first, to create space within them for the Gospel, before we can teach or learning can take place. It has been pointed out that in the history of our Church, we have so often confused indifference with ignorance. People often do not care, have no space for the Gospel, but we think they simply do not have enough information so we catechise them and yet we wonder why nothing is sinking in. It is like trying to plant seeds in concrete! If we continue to prepare and form young people in this same way – only catechise – then we will continue to arrive at the same results, with young people unprepared for a life of adult faith because we never evangelised, made and formed them as disciples.

Finally, youth ministry as a process of duplicating groups. One other response to the disengagement of young adults from the Church we can see is the simple duplication of the same youth groups and structures for an older cohort. However, the question then is ‘where should that process end?’ Should we have groups for those aged 30-35 and then for those 40-45 years of age or would we presume and prepare at some stage their integration and leadership in the wider Christian community?

We can see how some of the outcomes we are seeing in youth ministry with drop off or disengagement can be shaped by our starting points or understanding of what our purpose is as a ministry of the Church. All these four models or tendencies within youth ministries miss the mark, which is to make disciples who have encountered, surrendered and made the decision of faith. More positively, if we do make disciples of young people, they will naturally yearn to be with other Christians (be social), they will live their life within the Church, even through thick and thin, because of their personal relationship and love of Jesus (they will be retained), they will be open to learning (catechesis) and be sustained as adults in older years with a genuine heart for Christ (experience spiritual conviction, not simply repeat behaviours). However, if we begin with other starting points, we cannot expect to see the fruit we are called to bring to life.

Toward Renewal

Moving forwards then, how might we make and form disciples, so they can graduate from youth groups and experience genuine personal and spiritual change that will last? Jesus invites us, through his command to Peter, “to go and bear fruit that will last” (John 15:16). As shared earlier, I think our youth ministries can create a new path and be the change and difference that our wider Church so sorely needs.

We can see the difference youth ministries can be through what are called ‘Berkana loops’ which are simply a helpful companion in thinking through how change and growth come about.

Berkana Loops

When our youth ministries first get off the ground, we can enjoy growth and excitement as the life cycle begins. Our group can be thriving, and we are good stewards of this growth. However, at some point things in the group can begin to plateau, perhaps because we have become comfortable and established, or we are not gaining new members or enthusiasm begins to wane. We start to lose significance or momentum.

When things begin to decline, we enter a ‘hospice’ stage where we are caring for a group in decline. However, as things plateau, there are some who see what is going on and what is not working, they might see what is lacking through a sort of ‘holy discontent’, and can begin to ask questions about impact or methods, and they begin to think of a new way forward. They recognise that God’s mission is greater than our existing methods which are no longer bearing fruit as they might have at other times.

These innovators might feel isolated in their hunger for a new form of engaging young people until they connect with others who have discerned a similar hunger, need or possibility. Now a network of innovators emerges, and they begin connecting on a regular basis. They begin to take action and become a community of practice, as a new possibility continues to emerge and build. With time, space, resources, expertise or by building new skills a new reality and a new way of mission or outreach comes into being.

There will be some stewards of youth ministry who are called to ‘sit by the bedside’ and accompany youth groups to their end, perhaps because that is their charism or they do not quite muster the courage or imagination to change and adapt. Sometimes youth ministries do have their time and naturally come to their end. However, others might make the transition from an old to a new way of doing things which has been led and created by others. When we recognise what is missing in our wider Church and some of our youth ministry – a focus on discipleship – we can put those missing pieces in place with the young people in our care.

Raising Discipleship

So, how do we raise discipleship among new generations that will last into adulthood? Firstly, our own witness is essential. Our witness demonstrates what a new life in Christ looks like. If our own Church attendance and involvement in the life of the Church does make a difference in how we live, if we are actively learning a style of life steered by love, it provokes a response from the young people in our care and opens a path of curiosity, trust and dialogue.

It is important to underscore that it is not our youth programs that make disciples; it is disciples that make disciples. Courses, programs and materials are only as good as the people using them. Without disciples to run a program, they do little good. It is not that we do not appreciate good materials. However, as it has been said, in the history of the life of the Church we did not have good materials. We had people. We had disciples making disciples. Right now, due to a lack of disciples, we may need the materials as a kind of crutch but we need to be careful about allowing them to replace the relationships.

Our witness enables us to then credibly proclaim the Gospel, most centrally the kerygma which is the kernel of the Gospel that centres on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The kerygma refers to the basic truths of our Christian faith, the core message of the Christian faith to which all believers are called to assent and proclaim. Pope Paul VI declared, “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”.[7] This is the kerygma. It is explicit and focused entirely on the person and saving message of Jesus Christ.

We have to tell this Great Story of Jesus if it is to be known. The heart of evangelisation in youth ministry 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 youth ministries 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. Ultimately, 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 in the Eucharist, and by our communion with His body, the Church.

We are called to bring young people to a transformational encounter with this Jesus, connecting his story with our life. Again, the power of our initial witness and then proclamation has a lot to do with our own transformation and encounter, our own conversion. Pope Francis notes, “A true missionary who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him, in the midst of his missionary enterprise… a person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain, and in love, will convince nobody”.[8] Hence, how are you telling the Great Story of Jesus in your ministry? We are called to share that Jesus’ mission was to bring about the Kingdom marked by abundance and that we, as his disciples, are called to do the same, bringing the world’s limitation to divine possibility, that is, to the fullness of life (John 10:10).

This is the kind of vision of discipleship we need to proclaim. The American author Sherry Weddell remarks that if nobody talks about what discipleship looks like, it becomes difficult for people to begin to walk on that road, “Unfortunately, most of us are not spiritual geniuses. If nobody around us ever talks about a given idea, we are no more likely to think of it spontaneously than we are to suddenly invent a new primary colour. To the extent we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship”.[9] It is difficult to believe in and live something that you have never heard anyone talk about or that you have seen very others, including older adults, live with joy. We must witness, tell the story of Jesus, and cast a vision of discipleship, of personal and spiritual change, as the ultimate fruit of all other gifts in the Church, including the sacraments and our ministries to the young.[10]

In casting that vision of discipleship we need to be committed and resolute because other understandings of youth ministry can be cast at us (e.g. youth ministry as the social group, the retention strategy, as catechesis or duplication). A great example of resoluteness in holding and living our vision is illustrated by SouthWest Airlines, a low-fare carrier in the U.S. that seeks to ‘democratise’ air travel. Humour is a core dimension of its vision (e.g. the on-board announcements, “Would someone put out the cat?”; “We will be serving dinner on this flight and dessert if everyone behaves themselves”). Nevertheless, the airline received a complaint about their style, from a customer who regarded it as unprofessional and improper for an airline company. On receipt of a complaint, we could probably assume the line of management that would follow (i.e. a letter comes into the central office, the director of customer service rings the branch manager and asks them to ‘tone it down’, before sending the customer some form of compensation e.g. a meal voucher or a free fare). However, Southwest Airlines did not do this. Instead, they sent this customer a short letter with just four words on it. It read: “We will miss you.” The airline does not compromise on its vision and stands by the fact that there are many other uninteresting and boring airlines that customers are well free to choose. So it is with us in our vision of discipleship – it is the very reason for which the entire Church exists, is non-negotiable, and is that image of life that will support the young to live their faith into adulthood, as they come to know themselves as witnesses to the reign or Kingdom of God.

A further step in accompaniment of the young must be to assist them to actually live in that direction. Take for example the rich young man who encounters Jesus. It is not enough for this young man to meet Jesus, but he is then invited to sell all that he has – in other words to start living in the right direction (Mk 10:17-31). We can learn this principle also from the gift of marriage. We can encounter another person, get to know them, and even develop a personal relationship with them. However, to be married someone has to make the decision to ask and a decision to say ‘yes’. It is the same for discipleship – we are called to assist young people to make decisions that set them in the right direction. After all, we are all going somewhere, whether we know it or not, and will arrive at a destination in life.

The road that we are currently on will lead to a destination, and we generally do not drift in good directions. There are physical paths that lead to predictable locations, and physical roads and physical highways that lead to predictable destinations. There is a dietary path that leads to a predictably physical destination. There are financial paths that lead to predictable financial destinations. There are relationship paths that lead to predictable relational destinations. In fact, parents often ask their children questions about who they are dating for this reason. They are not so interested in whether their child is happy in the relationship now (though they hope they are). They are more interested where that relationship will take their child, whether that relationship will take them in the right direction.

As you know for the young people in your care they can in fact be completely content and satisfied and still be heading in the wrong direction. It is akin to driving on the road. You can be perfectly content in the car but become lost and you never know the precise moment you became lost, otherwise you would not have taken that turn. You can be a hundred metres past where you need to be and by the time you realise it, it is too late. It can cost you ten minutes. In life, if you are content but headed in the wrong direction and don’t know it, it can cost you years. It is often our nature to think ‘now is now’ and ‘later is later’ but everything we do has a consequence and will be connected. Biblically speaking, we reap what we sow. All our steps lead somewhere, so what we do everyday matters more than what we do once in a while when it comes to our ultimate direction in life.

mapleleafThe poet Gerard Manly Hopkins developed this term ‘inscape’ for the individual structure of a living being (like a tree or a leaf), an inner structure which results from the history of this being, an inner design made by the tree through its life in the way it has responded to life. We are much the same, our life is a work of art and all the good and the bad, conflicts and sufferings, troubles and happiness in our life all add up to something, all produce this inner structure, and this is what we are judged on, our encounter with Jesus and the direction that we chose to live.  We are judged not on small incidentals (eating meat on Fridays) but rather the whole structure of our life – all that we wanted to do, tried to do, our relationships. This all adds up to our identity which God knows. Hence the value of youth ministers as spiritual guides who can help the next generation to be in touch with the whole direction and meaning of their life as a whole, what it is all adding up to and to encourage them to develop in this direction and not another.

We need, in fact, to develop an intentional culture of mentorship if young people are to grow and make decisions on the way to a lasting and adult faith. Why do young people need you as a mentor? Part of the reason is because experience is a rough teacher and it costs time. As shared by a Christian evangelist, Andy Stanley, ‘Perhaps you’ve heard someone make the argument that experience is the best teacher. That may be true, but that’s only half the truth. Experience is often a brutal teacher. Experience eats up your most valuable commodity: time. Learning from experience can eat up years. It can steal an entire stage of life. Experience can leave scars, inescapable memories, and regret. Sure, we all live and learn. But living and learning don’t erase regret. And regret is more than memory. It is more than cerebral. It’s emotional. Regret has the potential to create powerful emotions – emotions with the potential to drive a person right back to the behaviour that created the regret to begin with. If regret can be avoided, it should be’. Life will throw enough hardship at us by itself. We can avoid unnecessary pain and regret by learning from the experience of others. We need to reach back to those a stage of life behind us and make it easier for that next generation to encounter Christ and to live for him because people develop best when they see what their value being lived out in other Christians. We know hypocrisy discourages faith and good witness raises it up.

In creating that culture, I also want to invite youth ministers not to underestimate their capacity to be a spiritual mentor for others, regardless of their age or history. As a Carthusian monk once penned, our years of age tell us only this, “that the earth has gone around the sun so many times since I came into this world. That is the normal measure of what the world calls time.”[11] However, there is another ‘age’ which is measured by the time we have spent in the life of Christ, the spiritual growth and progress we have made in our time of faith. The mentorship of youth ministers for young people in their care honours our Christian faith as nothing less than a life being passed on, for our tradition of witness is ‘hand clasping hands stretching back in time until they hold the hand of Jesus who holds the hand of God’.[12]

The qualities youth leaders can develop as mentors to support and nourish the discipleship of the young are well spelt out by the preparatory document for the forthcoming Synod on Youth to be held in October 2018. It helpfully shares:

“The young people of the Pre-synodal Meeting accurately detail the profile of the mentor: ‘a faithful Christian who engages with the Church and the world; someone who constantly seeks holiness; is a confidant without judgement; actively listens to the needs of young people and responds in kind; is deeply loving and self-aware; acknowledges their limits and knows the joys and sorrows of the spiritual journey’. For young people, it is particularly important that mentors recognise their own humanity and fallibility: ‘Sometimes mentors are put on a pedestal, and when they fall, the devastation may impact young people’s abilities to continue to engage with the Church’. They also add that ‘mentors should not lead young people as passive followers, but walk alongside them, allowing them to be active participants in the journey. They should respect the freedom that comes with a young person’s process of discernment and equip them with tools to do so effectively. Mentors should believe wholeheartedly in a young person’s ability to participate in the life of the Church. They should nurture the seeds of faith in young people, without expecting to immediately see the fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit. This role is not and cannot be limited to priests and religious, but the laity should also be empowered to take on such a role. All such mentors should benefit from being well-formed, and engage in ongoing formation”.[13]

While it can appear that we are looking for ‘Jesus on a good day’, all of us can bring something of our imperfect selves and the treasure of our life and experiences of the world to those in our care. However, if we are going to support young people to healthily progress through youth groups and to become adult disciples, we will also need adult or older mentors in the lives of young people. As we shared, if a young person never sees or hears an adult talk about their relationship with Jesus, how would they know this relationship is even possible? As noted by Everett Fritz, we want young people to learn to participate in the world of adults, but our youth culture has largely removed adults from mentoring roles with teenagers. “As a result, teens are growing up in a peer-dominated culture. As they grow into adulthood, they have difficulty assimilating into the adult world and into the responsibilities and expectations that come with being an adult.”[14] While peer to peer ministry has its place, in clarifying our life direction, we should not only seek advice from people who share the same season of life, because it is akin to asking for directions of someone who has never been where you want to go.

We have a rich biblical tradition of older mentors investing in younger mentees including Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Timothy and Titus, and Jesus and his disciples. Adults bring a unique blend of experiences, insights, conflict, choices, health challenges, convictions, and even failures and struggles to believe. Having adult mentors and witnesses in the midst of youth ministry, and a variety of adults, is essential if talk of discipleship and the Church is going to be meaningful in real-life ways. As it has been said, our faith is ever one generation away from its silence if it is not passed on, from one generation to the next.

Conclusion

How might we better prepare young people for adult discipleship in our age? We can begin to acknowledge the discipleship dilemma we are experiencing as a Church, seek to create and innovate a new way with others that learns from these limitations, provide a living witness to a life in Christ wholly given over and surrendered, proclaim the Great Story of Jesus, cast a vision of the discipleship he asks of us, accompany young people to live in that direction, and include mentors, both peers and adults, in the normal practice of youth ministry. I propose that it is these foundations, applied to local contexts, that can resource young people to live a Christian life beyond the confines of youth ministry, to grow into adult disciples and agents of renewal in our Church.

References:

[1] Fr Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter (Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, Indiana, 2013), 77.

[2] John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae 19.

[3] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1072.

[5] 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), 2-3.

[6] Cf. Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, Indiana, 2012), 63.

[7] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.

[8] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 266.

[9] Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 56.

[10] A disciple can be defined as one who has encountered Jesus, surrendered their life, and made the decision to follow, or be understood by its expression as provided by Fr James Mallon, as one who has a personal relationship with Jesus, shares faith with others, is open to the gift of the Holy Spirit, has a daily prayer life, with commitment to Eucharist and Reconciliation, can pray spontaneously out loud when asked, and sees their life as a mission field. Cf. Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation Guidebook: A Step-by-Step Manual for Transforming Your Parish (Novalis: Toronto, Ontario, 2016), 159.

[11] A Carthusian, They Speak by Silences (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1955), 38-9.

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

[13] Instrumentum Laboris for Synod 2018, 132.

[14] Everett Fritz, The Art of Forming Young Disciples: Why Youth Ministries Aren’t Working and What to Do About It (Sophia Institute Press: Manchester, New Hampshire, 2018), 46.

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proclaim 2018: parishes for the unchurched and lost

IMG_6330Held in Brisbane for the first time in its short history, Proclaim Conference 2018 gathered more than 600 participants from 12-14 July to discuss parish evangelisation with its theme drawn from John’s Gospel, “Make your home in me”. Keynote speakers over the three days included Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Cardinal John Dew from Wellington, Ron Huntley of the Divine Renovation network, Karolina Gunsser from Citipointe Church in Redcliffe, and Lana Turvey-Collins from the national facilitation team for the Plenary Council.

With a renewed process for workshops that encouraged shorter inputs and extended dialogue, and discussion panels on each day, the conversations were broad and, for the most part, unguarded. From the urgency of God’s mission, to the inseparability of evangelisation from the person of Jesus, and of the parish from the unchurched, to the health or otherwise toxicity of our parish cultures, and the ongoing experience of the sexual abuse crisis, participants were given nourishment and challenge for their pastoral practice.

I was privileged to facilitate four workshops and participate in a panel on ‘culture change, parish renewal and evangelisation’ together with Sally Hood of ACU Campus Ministry, Ron Huntley, and Andrea Dean of the Office for the Participation of Women. Below is a summary of my brief workshop input which looked at the connection of parish life to the unchurched.

Horizons of Parish Renewal 

IMG_6316As a former ‘outsider’ to the Church it has taken some twenty years to learn to live as a baptised person and still the learning continues. Through my own faith experience I have come to believe that the parish is essential to Christian growth and discipleship. Indeed, if we did not have parishes we would have to invent them – local communities of faith gathered around the Word and Eucharist where faith is given shape and social support, fostered into discipleship and then enters the world through our living witness.

Together with the family and school, the parish is where the majority of people encounter the Church and it is where the vast majority of clergy will live out their life’s vocation. So the health and vitality of the parish matters to all of us, not only in respect of our common life but also for our personal faith.

However, part of the challenge is that when our parishes have not grown in roughly six or seven decades in Australia (since at least the 1950s), it is inevitable that there will be a small amount of people who love how we do things and a whole community who don’t.

In the face of this reality, this workshop addresses parish evangelisation through four horizons toward which I think our parishes and parish ministries are called to move. Perhaps we may never fully arrive in our own local community, but these horizon lines can orient us toward our mission. A horizon places everything in its foreground into a context or perspective, shedding light and offering clarity for the journey we are on. We may need to shift our stance or be alert to rocks in our own harbour stifling our way but we are assured of making progress if we have the courage “to appreciate small things inside large horizons” (Pope Francis). I offer here four horizons that I hope shed light on your current parish practice and supply steps toward an evangelising culture within parish life.

Clarity on the Mission of our Parish

The first horizon to which we can move is clarity on the mission of our parishes. Even as a brute fact of survival, we can affirm that the future of our parishes depends on those who currently do not believe. There is no future without the lost or unchurched.

Evangelisation is a necessity to maintain even what we have as local communities of faith. This is obvious enough in the struggle to maintain our ministries, our giving and even, in some parishes, our hope. More positively, when we bring others to Jesus and the Church it plants energy and life in our communities. We know this from the small trickle of people who enjoin our community through the RCIA, who come to personal faith in the midst of the Church.

More importantly, however, a focus on those who are unchurched neatly aligns with Jesus who comes not for the righteous but for sinners, who places the needs of the outcast and ailing before his own flock.

In the Gospel of Luke, we witness Jesus walking through the town of Jericho and reach out to Zacchaeus, a tax collector for the Roman establishment. Jesus steps into Zacchaeus’ house as a guest of a sinner, scandalises the watching crowd, and rejoices in Zacchaeus’ conversion, declaring “Today salvation has come to this house… for the Son of Man has come to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). We see this a pattern throughout his ministry – Jesus challenges the insiders and he comforts the outsiders.

The ecclesiology lesson we draw from Jesus’ ministry can be summarised in this way (from Sean Sears, pastor at Grace Church in Boston): the Church is not for Christians. The Church is Christians and it is for those who are not.

Crowd-People-Walking-Business-BlurryThe Church is not for ourselves. In Pope Francis’ language, our community is called to be a ‘field hospital’ serving those who most need help now, the wounded and the lost. This is the antithesis of the self-referential Church. We are called to leave the ninety-nine to find the one, or in our Australian reality, leave the one to find the ninety-nine.

The likely challenge we can feel is that as essential as this outward focus is to our survival, as faithful as it is to the mission of Jesus himself, as urgent as this mission is to our health and growth, when we start changing things in the parish to better reach out, accompany and actively welcome outsiders (whether that’s through our Mass times, our language, our carparks, or our own position in the pews), people start to become uneasy precisely because it is not about them.

Change always sound great until people start to experience it. We can call for reform but are not always open to our own conversion. The reality for our Church is that any change will tend to be a ‘big change’ because of the weight of our Church culture toward maintaining the status quo. In our ecclesial culture there tends to always be a reason not to change, and yet we experience so little fruit on the collective vine as parish participation rates in Australia decline to near 11%.

When we proclaim that our parish is not about us but about the unchurched, some of us in community can feel a little like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The older brother has been utterly loyal and committed and served his Father’s house all this time. However, when he realises it is not about him but the one who has been lost, the older brother struggles to rejoice at the one who had not earned his welcome but whom the Father nevertheless embraces and lavishes upon with love.

We know in the mind of Jesus that the older brother is just as lost because everything the Father has is for the older brother too. What the Father seeks from his first son is a largeness of heart to rejoice when the lost are saved, a heart for his youngest son who was dead but is now alive.

In the culture of our parishes it is all too easy for the people inside the church to become a higher priority than reaching those outside the church. This is understandable to some extent as the ‘insiders’ keep things running, they lead our ministries and yes they pay the bills. However, for fear of making these insiders unhappy, our parishes tend to hold on to programs even if these seeds are bearing no fruit on account of the toxicity of the soil or culture in which they are hosted. This can keep our house small and our family brooding or even bitter rather than welcoming and marked by the charity that the Gospel demands.

In contrast, if we do as Jesus invites us to do and seek out and reach the lost and the unchurched, the life of the ‘older brother’ is also renewed. So, it is for our parishes: outward focused churches create the healthiest insiders.

Picture1In fact, inward looking churches create consumers with preferences, while outward looking churches create missionaries with larger hearts and stories to tell, stories about how Jesus has changed their life. This is the heart of an evangelised parish culture – one beggar telling another beggar how he found bread.

What are the concrete signs that we have moved toward this first horizon, clarity on the mission of the parish? It is that we should expect to encounter more people who have made a mess of some aspect of their past. If we find ourselves working with these people in our parishes, it is a sign we are doing something right.

We sometimes think we need to go out and make people Christians and then bring them to Church. We often want to ‘clean’ the fish before we ‘catch’ them but that’s not how fishing works. What we want to do is to bring them into our community in the complexity of their situations, create environments which are compelling and faith filled, and offer accompaniment that treats their wounds with the balm of mercy, spiritual counsel and ecclesial belonging so they can begin to walk with Christ, experience in time his sacramental life and live out his apostolate as Christ’s disciples.

As the saying goes, we will be most like Jesus when we are spending increasing time with people farthest from him. In a word, if everyone in our parish is comfortable with who is showing up (if it is all ‘older brother’ and none of the lost) then our front doors are probably not wide enough.

Recognising God’s Mission is Greater than our Methods 

The second grand horizon or vista to which we can move is recognition that God’s mission is always greater than our methods, no matter how we currently do things. If we focus anew on the unchurched for health, growth and to be faithful to Jesus’ mission, then we will need to change our practices (e.g. if we preach to the unchurched we are likely to speak to everyone).

download-1A classic example of the need to prioritise our mission over method can be found in the story of Kodak, the photography business established at the turn of the twentieth century, with the expressed purpose of preserving memories which is a seemingly indestructible mission.

However, by the 1990s Kodak were sideline players in a growing digital market and by 2012 they had filed for bankruptcy. And yet, in 1975 they had every opportunity and capacity to change and grow. In fact, Kodak created the first digital camera but dropped the project for fear that it would threaten its existing film business. Kodak was more wedded to its method than its mission.

In a similar vein, in the U.S. 90% of heart patients who are told to change their lifestyle habits or die, choose death over change! (Fast Company Report, 2005)

Parishes that choose their current methods over their mission will die, as what got us here as communities will not always take us where we need to go. If the landscape of faith has changed, and our parishes are still reading off the same maps, our parishes are going to get lost along the way.

What, then, are the methods, programs and practices that no longer serve our parish life and growth? For example, it is clear that we have been catechising and sacramentalising the unevangelised. This practice has borne little fruit over the past decades. As well, we often focus on welcome in our parishes which is certainly important. However, without a practical strategy for invitation there may be less and less people to welcome.

We need to stop setting the bar too low for ministries that matter and nurture strengths based ministry rather than engage in desperate recruitment of anyone who might be available (e.g. a bulletin notice from my own parish for musicians noted, almost as an afterthought, “It does help if you can read music and/or sing in tune and in time”!)

We might have to preach without assuming too much (e.g. that our congregations understand the gift of the Eucharist or the context of Gospel readings) and preach purposely into people’s lives (e.g. our Trinity Sunday homilies almost never touch on the Great Commission and tend to deliver flimsy abstractions that leave people disoriented or disengaged).

What no longer serves the mission of the parish and needs to be set aside so we can redirect the hard labour of maintenance to the real promise of mission? What pathway might we need to put in place to accompany people from no or little faith into an encounter with the living Christ (whether it is a five-step process of Divine Renovation or the three-step method of the parish of Rebuilt)?

It is a truth of our life of faith that prior to conversion to God’s mission, it is behaviour which determines belief (‘Things have always been done this way’) and so mere habit becomes the reason to maintain our well-worn methods. However, after conversion to God’s mission, it is belief which determines our behaviour, resulting in better responses to change (‘What can we do to now reach them?). It is our mission which will drive our methods and constitute the criteria by which we assess our groups and our programs.

Structures to Support our Mission

old-vines-south-australia-wine-story-adelaide-review-800x567A third horizon we can move toward in forming evangelising parishes is structures that support the mission. We want to grow but many parishes are not necessarily structured to grow. There can be literally “no room in the inn” for change.

Take for example the ministry of the priest. A priest can certainly maintain a parish largely by himself, conscripting lay leaders to fulfil the basic functions of community and to keep the wheels turning. However, if the parish wants to go out in mission and reach the unchurched the priest will have to learn to lead with and alongside others. This is because one priest can only have so many meaningful relationships, perhaps a hundred at most. If a parish wants to go out and reach the lost and unchurched, then this realistically demands a team of lay leadership with whom the mission and methods are proclaimed, structured and taken forwards.

So, structure affects mission by default or design. Like a trellis, it will encourage growth and provide room for change and adaption, or like a small pot it will restrict the size to which a sapling can grow.

As a practical parish example, in walking alongside a priest in another diocese, he had inherited a well-resourced parish but also a structure of staff that made mission and outreach difficult.

The parish team consisted of a parish priest, two assistant priests, a three day a week secretary, a two day staff member for accounts, two days for a sacramental coordinator, two days for a pastoral care coordinator, two days liturgical preparation, and two days youth ministry (the equivalent of almost four full time staff).

You can guess how many of these staff reported directly to the parish priest – all eight. The structure of parish staff was keeping him somewhat boxed in, tied to the order of maintenance.

However, if we consider a structure with three teams – an operations team (with a secretary and a report of finance), a newly created evangelisation team (with a four day a week parish evangelisation coordinator working on Alpha, engagement and formation of ministers in the parish, with direct reports of a sacramental coordinator and the youth minister, and accompanied by an assistant priest) and a communications focus (actually integrated into the youth role, so not requiring a paid employee but remaining an area of focus) we could reduce his direct reports from eight to a more manageable five. The previous paid liturgical role was made voluntary and the pastoral care coordination role was integrated into the new evangelisation coordinator role.

This structure empowers lay leadership, and gives back time to the priest for the core work of setting parish vision through his weekly homilies, and to drive and support the evangelisation of adults from which all else flows.

We cannot address the renewal of parishes without looking under the hood or checking the fuel gauge, whether that is our staffing arrangements, our budgets or ministry structures. It is one of the hardest things to do but it is the right horizon or direction in which to move.

Mission in Action

FootprintsThe fourth horizon we can move towards is putting mission into action, perhaps the hardest pilgrimage of all. As a friend once shared, conferences can sometimes be a bit like this: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” and when we get home, it is more “… as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end”.

I want to acknowledge that in suggesting a comprehensive focus on the unchurched, methods and strategies to support this kind of evangelisation, and renewed structures to enable growth, we can be tempted to feel overwhelmed.

However, I believe we can make change at every level of the Church, even in our own individual parish ministry groups. Parishes need ‘lighthouse’ ministries that show the way, to show that evangelisation is urgent, possible and can bring about personal and spiritual change.

Whether it is a music ministry or a form of service like a St Vincent de Paul conference, it is possible to shift toward a dedicated outward focus, a culture welcoming of outsiders and challenging of insiders, with a commitment to elevating mission over old methods and to revisit current structures to support the goals we want to achieve. Ultimately, our plan is our people, not programs, and leadership is essential to our cultural transformation. What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while.

Conclusion

As Christians, people of the Incarnation in which the Word was made flesh, we know that the medium is the message. Jesus not only proclaims the Kingdom of God but embodies it in his person.

In that light, we can ask, ‘What image of God and God’s mission does your parish convey’? How does your parish vision, your parish method, your parish structure, and the action of your parish express the mission of Jesus who came to ‘seek out and save the lost?’ (Luke 19:10).

I believe every parish can grow in its outreach and move towards an evangelising culture but it demands our intent and conviction to bring it about. We are being called to reclaim our primary mission, to bring the nations to a living faith in Jesus who is, as the Church describes, “the light that knows no setting”.

accompaniment in a ‘change of age’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change in the Wider Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change in our Church

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

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

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

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

Diversity in the Pews

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

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

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

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

Implications

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

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

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

Hence Pope Francis remarks:

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

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

The Example of St Paul

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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