This week I am in the Lismore Diocese speaking at a clergy conference focused on parish renewal. This morning I will present on specific practices of parish renewal, followed by Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, formed in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Here are excerpts from my opening address, delivered last night:
It can be relatively easy to speak of ‘the Church’ in general terms and the last fifty years have certainly seen a great deal of such talk. The range of debate and literature concerning the Church is almost inexhaustible, including such subjects as the Second Vatican Council, the relative merits of post-conciliar reform, the proper form/s of the liturgy, the relationship of the Church and world, the exercise of governance and authority in the Church, the coresponsibilities of the ordained and lay, and more recently the meaning and implications of a ‘new evangelisation’.
It was conciliar peritus and ressourcement theologian Henri de Lubac SJ who pointed out that such talk of ‘the Church’ was relatively rare in the age of the Fathers. For the ancients, the Church was less a discrete body that existed outside of ourselves than it was a common atmosphere which formed our faith, our very life, from within. The Church was the ‘womb’ in which Christian life was born, the ambience in which the human spirit were raised to God and indeed, in a certain sense, it was our destiny as a communion, a people reconciled to God and one another.
The danger, as de Lubac saw it, was that constant talk, ever greater refinements, and systematic analysis of the Church would create a ‘gap’ as it were between ourselves and that of which we talked. He writes,
. . . some people find themselves tempted to say there is altogether too much talk [about the Church] . . . Would it not be better perhaps to try, quite simply, to live the Church, as so many have done before us? It seems that by considering her from outside in order to discuss her, we run the risk of growing apart from her, in our heart of hearts . . . And in addition to this . . . the Church is a mystery of faith and ‘surpasses the capacities and powers of our intellect no less than any other.’ (De Lubac, Splendour of the Church, 18-19).
However, even de Lubac, a lodestar of the ressourcement movement, would admit that circumstances arise in which the Church must proclaim a word about itself in order that its vocation and mission in Christ do not fall into disregard or forgetfulness. Here in Australia, in the midst of a Royal Commission, we know that this process of self-reflection, self-understanding and scrutiny is essential to our faithfulness into the future. Words need to be spoken and truths be told.
This need of self-reflection and scrutiny extends also to our parishes which, as local communities, are called to bring the Gospel into contact with the unvarnished reality of a particular people in a particular place. It is in the parish where ecclesiologies are tested and it is in the parish where our mission as Church begins, born of the Word and Eucharist. It is in the parish where the meaning of faith is mediated to contemporary culture, and it is the parish that remains the most important locus in which the mystery and contradictions of human life meet the healing company of God. For many, the parish simply is Church and they know no other.
However, with less than 10% of Catholics attending a parish Mass on any given Sunday in many Australian dioceses, Lismore included, it is clear that there is a significant disconnect between what is understood to be ‘going on’ in our parishes and people’s larger lives, struggles and aspirations.
Reading the Scene
In addressing areas of renewal for parish life, it is vital to retain some perspective about statistics concerning the Church. First of all, as least as far as I am aware, the Catholic Church has never experienced a Mass attendance rate of 100%. We know even at the Last Supper that at least one disciple was not convinced of what was offered. In speaking of the relative vitality or diminishment of our parishes, we should not measure our pastoral effectiveness or ‘success’ against a mythic Golden Age that has never existed. There have better times, yes, but not all churchgoers are disciples. We are where we have always been as Church – in the midst of the work yet to be done, gathering the harvest when the workers are few.
It is also worth noting as perspective that statistics are not the only measure of a Church’s vitality. Indeed, our Church was never more ‘catholic’ than in the Upper Room at Pentecost when all of its members could fit inside a tiny room. So ‘good church’ doesn’t not necessarily mean ‘big church’, and faithfulness is not measured in the size of a crowd, though we do want our parishes to grow, to make mature and more disciples in every generation.
Continuing on the level of diagnosis for the moment, a further point worth making is that the decline in commitment and participation in some of our Catholic parishes is not only or merely a product of what is ‘going on’ in our parishes but also deeply influenced as well by what is happening in the wider community and culture. In short, there are bigger factors at play and these need to be acknowledged when talking about the state of play in our parishes. (In the same way the legacy of Vatican II was shaped not merely by the Council itself but changes in the wider culture).
For our parishes, it is becoming clear to a number of commentators that a ‘consumerist’ mentality is shaping how many Catholics understand, relate and interact with the parish, and the parish priest, today to the detriment of their genuine discipleship.
The American priest Michael White makes this point well in a recently published work, Rebuilt. In telling the story of his own parish upon his arrival as parish priest, White notes that the people he met struck him not as disciples at all but quite simply consumers. It had become common for the parish to be treated as if it were ‘there for me’. It had become a mere provider of services, filled with programs and services to cater to ever increasing demands, but it was not a community of mature, convinced or missionary discipleship.
White’s experience and reflection on the parish he inherited are worth citing at length:
Little did we appreciate how detached the second and third generations of demanding consumers had grown. We now know they are perfectly comfortable maintaining a loose association with an institution whose organisation they do not like and whose teachings they do not accept or respect. They take what they want and ignore everything else. To their credit, our consumers are specific and consistent in their consumer demands. They want church for their kids – mainly Baptism, First Communion, and a part in the Christmas pageant; they want church as an adornment to their family calendar – Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday . . . they want Communion when they feel like showing up for Mass. They want the church building as a backdrop for funerals and perhaps for weddings – but only if the church is pretty (because weddings are destination driven). Beyond that, we’re mostly an annoying distraction.
But we were inconsistent in our ‘supplier demands’. Our system implicitly understood the ‘hook’ we had into their lives and essentially coerced them to do all the things they didn’t want to do; attend regularly, give us money, and keep their kids in religious education. We kept dreaming up new rules to try to make the system work for us while they kept figuring out new ways to circumvent our rules to make the system work for them. The result was the mutual cynicism to which a consumer mentality can easily lend itself. (White, Rebuilt, 17).
It is a challenge to consider that many of the people we are seeking to re-engage with the Church bring not the question “What can I do to serve?” or, even less likely, “Whom I called to be here?” but rather “What can the Church or parish do for me?” This rather pragmatic, utilitarian outlook can not only shape a lack of ongoing commitment among some of our people but it can distort our own pastoral responses to such ‘Catholics of convenience’, however good or hopeful our intentions may be.
We can see this at times in the urge to renovate parishes, to upgrade halls and carparks, for example, a facility focus which, I acknowledge, is often necessary but that can nevertheless only support a community of disciples and not attract, create or sustain one. We know that even the most pristine, beautiful, well-organised and comfortable parishes can be spiritually dead if they do nothing but cater for the comfort and convenience of a consumer mindset. Consider also Europe which houses some of the most majestic, beautiful churches in the world, churches that remain, nevertheless, idle and empty. It has always been much easier to renovate a building than grow a community of disciples.
From an internal perspective, the absurdity of the situation that White describes is that we, too, can play the game as we are wise enough to know what these ‘consumers’ want. We understand the ‘hook’ we have in their lives (whether its admission to our schools or a priest for a family wedding) and we can leverage on these desires to attempt to make them do what we want them to do which is to ‘attend more regularly’ or even ‘give us money’. The problem is that this entire scene remains fundamentally misguided, played out on the level of pharisaical diplomacy and has little if anything to do with making disciples which is the true goal and mission of our parish life.
The process of bargaining over the practice of faith in our parishes and in our schools only increases negative perceptions and resentment of the Church by ‘outsiders’, deflates a sense of hope and generates cynicism within ourselves as ‘insiders’, and ultimately does little to bring people to a living and open encounter with the person, message and mission of Jesus.
So what of the way forwards? In recent years, even decades, there has been a slow but steady call to reclaim the language and meaning of discipleship and for good reason. Not only is the concept of ‘discipleship’ biblically-grounded, rooted in tradition and accessible to the majority of people but it aptly names the purpose of the parish community: to foster and raise up disciples in the midst of the Church for the sake of the world.
Many of you may know the work of Sherry Weddell on this subject of discipleship and the primary insight of her work has been to acknowledge quite candidly how our parish cultures can work against discipleship by their almost complete silence on the subject. She writes,
Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey – their relationship with God – except in confession or spiritual direction. This attitude is so pervasive in Catholic communities that we have started to call it the culture of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Unfortunately, most of us aren’t 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 that we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship. (Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 56).
What Weddell seeks to recover is the fact that a personal, interior journey and encounter with Christ is at the heart of discipleship and at the heart of the Church’s mission as the sacrament of Christ. More strikingly, she will go on to claim that a majority of churched Catholics, even those who show up at Mass, may not yet be disciples in a fully conscious way. She notes that those Catholics who do talk openly about Jesus and their relationship to God, and with any enthusiasm, can be viewed with suspicion, as either ‘Protestant’ in spirit or as pretenders to sanctity.
While we are certainly not called to be spiritual exhibitionists, there is, I think, a challenge here – to revive the conversation and expectations of discipleship in our parish culture and to recognise the overt expression of discipleship as the ‘new norm’ for our parishes, or more accurately, the altogether traditional and abiding norm of Catholic life.
It is interesting to note that in some parish cultures the Mass, the sacraments in general and Catholic devotional practices in particular, given to us precisely for a life of discipleship, have come, for some, to substitute for that journey. Returning to White, he shares this experience:
[The Church of the Nativity] was a sacramental machine: Mass every day, twice a day in Advent and Lent, and eight times each weekend, 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. (White, Rebuilt, 77).
Of course, we want to underscore attendance at Mass as a core dimension of a life of faith, to receive Christ in the Eucharist and to hear his Word, and yet, in another sense, an almost exclusive emphasis on attendance can place into the shade a broader focus on discipleship within which the sacraments hold a central and inimitable place. The problematic as I view it is that if discipleship is reduced to liturgy alone then even the practice of attending Mass is likely to weaken over the long term as the very point of a sacramental life is lost on those participating. ‘Sacraments without discipleship’ only feeds the form of ‘consumer Catholicism’ or participation of convenience of which we spoke earlier.
Our contemporary context calls on priests, parishes and centres of adult formation alike to again place discipleship at the front and centre of our identity and mission as a Church. We must also seek to make explicit the link between the Eucharist and mission, for instance, so that it becomes clear that the point of the Eucharist is not simply the conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but our conversion by our reception of Him.
By reaffirming this role of the sacraments within a life of discipleship we not only recover the fullness of the call to holiness but renew an awareness of the sacraments as not merely a comfort but also a challenge, not as objects for consumption but a relationship in which we are invited to grow and develop over time. This recovery of the full view of Catholic discipleship stands at the heart of our mission as parishes and dioceses.