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”.

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sydney clergy conference address – I

It was a great pleasure and privilege to speak at the recent clergy conference of the Archdiocese of Sydney, held at the Liverpool Catholic Club on 25 October, 2017. Thank you to Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, Bishop Randazzo, Bishop Umbers, Fr Paul Monkerud and Fr Kelvin Lovegrove for the generous invitation to share a few words on the nature of the ‘new evangelisation’ and ordained ministry within a changed landscape of faith.

A ‘Critical Moment’

Picture1Amidst the unfussy pews of the parishes we know and love the grace of Christ continues to move and mould hearts to his own. The local parish, even in its ordinariness, remains a privileged location of God’s transforming grace in the world.

It is also a perennial insight of our Catholic tradition that we cannot grow as persons by holding the door closed against reality. This is also true of the parish.

In this respect I’d like to begin with a few observations on the current situation of the Australian parish before suggesting implications for our pastoral practice as communities of faith and, following, to consider the implications for the ministry of the ordained.

Researchers have described the Catholic parish as having reached a ‘critical moment’ in the life of the Australian Church (and here I am indebted to the work of the Pastoral Research Office).[1]

We know that of our 5.4 million Catholics in Australia only 662,000 or 12.2 per cent join us for Eucharist on any given weekend.[2] Almost a third of these Mass attenders (some 220,000) are aged between 60 and 74 years of age while of all Catholics aged between 20 and 34 in Australia, only 5-6% attend.[3] So what we are seeing is an ageing congregation in our pews with fewer among younger generations to replace them as we move into the future. Interestingly, Mass attendance peaks in Australia at around the age of 75, proving the rule that ‘the closer you get to God, the closer you get to God’!

Migrants, of course, account for over 40% of our Mass attenders.[4] We are indebted to and sustained by the participation of diverse ethnic communities. However, we also know that second generation Australians, that is, the children of Catholic migrants, are far less likely to practice than their parents. In total, some 13,000 Catholics stop attending Mass each year, and across all age groups more than 20,000 Australians every year are ceasing to identify themselves as Catholic at all (a dis-identification of some 100,000 Catholics over the last five years).[5]

The prospect that this situation raises in our lifetime is that of ongoing Catholic institutions – including schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, nursing homes and aged care facilities – but fewer parishes where the worship of God enjoins a community of believers.[6] The related concern is that the Church in Australia will be reduced to a form of non-government organisation, a provider of services – including healthcare and education – but whose religious dimension is associated more strongly with their historical origins rather than their existing or continuing spirit.

It becomes clear that we need our Catholic parishes to grow because they are integral and indispensable to our spiritual identity as a Church. Together with the family, the local parish remains a primary venue where faith is given shape and social support, fostered into discipleship and then enters the world. In all these ways, the future of the Australian Church relies on the vitality of the Catholic parish. Indeed, if we did not have parishes we would have to create them – local communities gathered around the Word and Eucharist.

A New Landscape for Faith

churchpewsAs the mainstay of ecclesial life, the parish is, however, undergoing a process of undeniable change and has become an increasingly complex reality on account of a number of factors. Parishes are becoming geographically larger and yet numerically smaller with the practice of amalgamation and diminishing attendance. We experience growing multicultural diversity and new immigration in our pews and on the altar in our active clergy; we are impacted by a shortage and ageing of priests as we inevitably baptise more than we ordain; and we see the beginnings of more regional planning in the light of our resources and a desire for more creative ways of organising ourselves as Church.

On the level of faith, we know as well that we can no longer rely on a straightforward ‘conveyer belt’ which was presumed to take Catholics from the cradle to the grave in faith, the assumption that a Catholic baptism, having Catholic parents, mere attendance at a Catholic school or Catholic university, for example, would secure a lifetime of committed discipleship. Indeed in our pews, schools and agencies there is no ‘beige Catholicism’ or ‘cookie cutter Catholic’. Our experience tells us that we have in our communities people at various stages of faith, with varying relationships to the person and the message of the Gospel. Discipleship is never a given.

Our parishes are populated with the deeply committed, those who hold a vague or uncertain faith, those who affiliate out of family custom rather than conviction, and some engage with our Church for reasons other than religious motives (for the purpose of school enrolment for instance). As well our sharing of the same pews does not mean we believe the same things (for example, many older Catholics have stopped believing that pre-marital sex is always wrong, perhaps because many of their children are now cohabiting with their partners).[7]

Even among those most committed each Sunday there will be people at various stages of faith commitment, as Sherry Weddell notes in her decades’ long experience of discernment with laity and clergy. People find themselves passing through various thresholds of faith, in and out at times:

  • Initial trust (positive association with Jesus Christ, the Church, a Christian believer)
  • Curiosity (intrigued or initial desire to know more)
  • Openness (acknowledges themselves open to personal and spiritual change)
  • Spiritual seeking (move from being passive to actively seeking to know God)
  • Intentional discipleship (‘dropping their nets’ with a conscious commitment to follow Christ in the midst of the Church).[8]

So it is an increasingly complex scene for parish mission today. As Ed Murrow, a broadcast journalist of last century, pointed out in the face of complexity, “Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation”.

The Problematic

Crowd-People-Walking-Business-BlurryThe times have changed definitively. Some would say these times are not for us. However, and this is the pinch, while the surrounding culture and conditions of faith has changed our pastoral practice has remained much the same. I think it is for this reason that our efforts, our tireless and well-intended efforts, are not bearing the fruit of intentional and missionary discipleship we so desperately want to see. We are in a new landscape for faith but are still reading off the same maps. It is no wonder that people are lost along the way.

Take one recent example, the increased number of Australians now identifying as ‘no religion’. For the first time in our history we have more ‘nones’ than Catholics in our nation, with ‘nones’ now accounting for 30.1% of the population while 22.6% of Australians self-identify as Catholic. There might have been once a hope that those who were baptised and guided to the faith in youth and who then drifted away might eventually return to the Church at a later age, perhaps when they had children of their own. This might have been the story for some baby boomers who, once emancipated from their parents, became a ‘seeker’ and explored other options, before coming home to the Catholic fold or settling in a new church. However, today the figures are not showing that kind of return to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Disaffiliation is here to stay.

While scandal and poor experiences of Church and parish can be a part of this story, realistically some have shed the Catholic ‘brand’ as they have come to the plain and simple conclusion that their lives simply no longer reflect the religion they inherited. The result is many today feel comfortable in saying, ‘To be honest, I don’t belong anymore’.

In fact, a very basic analysis looking at ‘net’ changes between Censuses showed that between 2011 and 2016 every 5-year age group (from the age of 10 onwards) saw a net decrease of people identifying as Catholic, which was not the case in the five years prior. Catholics in almost all age groups are ceasing to nominate as such.

This shift challenges our parishes for, historically and habitually, our parish outreach programs are geared towards Mass attending Catholics or those still identifying as Catholic even if they are not practicing. We are not so comfortable reaching the ‘nones’ or secular people who do not attend or identify with us whatsoever. These ‘nones’ are not saying, ‘If only you had a better version of Church I would go to it’. They are not interested in ‘Church’ at all so our new coffee and contemporary Church music is not what they are looking for. It would be akin to trying to sell an upgraded car to someone who is not in the market for one. Evangelisation in this new time calls us to adjust our eyes and lengthen our arms to reach increasingly secular people where our relationships with them (rather than religious upgrades) will take priority.

Opportunities for Parish Renewal

Picture3Looking forwards and taking into account the complexity and variety of this new situation, I would suggest three principles or areas for consideration in the effort to renew and strengthen the evangelising mission of the local parish.

These three areas of focus include the need to take more seriously pre-evangelisation (what the Congregation for Clergy, describes as ‘Christian witness, dialogue and presence’ prior to proclamation), the recovery of discipleship as the fundamental basis of parish life and mission, and the setting of parish vision as essential to stimulating growth and motivating change.

Pre-evangelisation

An accessible way to underscore the critical importance of ‘pre-evangelisation’ (our witness, dialogue and presence in charity prior to any explicit proclamation of the Gospel) is to contrast it with a word and activity that we are more comfortable or familiar with as Catholics and that is ‘catechesis’. The word ‘catechesis’ means ‘to sound out’. It has been compared to standing at the entrance of a cave, and speaking out and hearing a voice coming back. When we catechise we are speaking into people’s lives, we are giving them faith and knowledge, and what we seek is for that faith and knowledge to resound back, echo back upon its reception. However, the only way we can hear an echo is if there is a ‘cave’, if there is a space to speak into. If we were to run out and shout at a brick wall we are not going to hear an echo as there is no space to absorb and reverberate what is being shared. This is why pre-evangelisation matters and must precede catechesis because there has to be an open space to speak into if we are going to hear faith resound back from one receiving the Gospel into their life.

In past attempts at evangelisation, we have not always been sufficiently attentive to where people are at in their lives and sought to convey the Gospel to them almost as a blunt tool without an appreciation of whom we are speaking, their lived situations and immediate concerns. These situations can be the ‘on ramp’ to the evangelisation, faith and conversion we want to see.

It could be added that past attempts at evangelisation have so often confused people’s indifference with ignorance. People’s hearts may not be engaged, they may be indifferent or hold little trust in the Church or ourselves as Christians, entertain little space or desire for dialogue, and yet we can seek to drown them in information in the hope that this might effect personal change. In short, we have sought to instruct the indifferent, catechise the unconcerned, and can, as Evangelii Gaudium notes, fall into the trap of providing answers to questions that nobody is asking (EG 155).

Picture4While Pope Francis represents neither the first nor the last word in the Church’s grappling with mission, we cannot miss the moment. His clear emphasis on accompaniment as fundamental to change of life and conversion is right for our times. Reaching the ‘nones’ and even the ‘nominals’ invites such relationship, marked by tenderness, especially at a time when established institutions, above all the Church, are subject to a cultural distrust that deafens the wider community to our claims. In Evangelii Gaudium the Holy Father clarifies, “Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation”[9]. “Spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God . . . to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father”.[10] In short, we are called not to be chaplains of secular humanism but to prepare and equip our people for the kind of courage in faith demonstrated by St Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 17:16-34).

In his apostolic enterprise, St Paul develops intentional relationships with the Gentiles who are utterly unfamiliar with the Christian revelation. He does so by:

  • Desiring the good of the other and holding a deep concern for them (“he was distressed that the city was full of idols”). Without that desire not much is possible.
  • He attends to the questions they are asking rather than providing uninvited answers (“May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means”)
  • He identifies shared values (“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way”)
  • In seeking to share the Gospel, he uses evidence and examples from the audience’s perspective (“As even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring. Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold’)
  • He avoids using ‘insider’ language so as not to create stumbling blocks too early in the relationship (e.g. he does not yet use the name of Jesus though he will go on to do so).
  • He begins to inspire curiosity, rather than providing pat answers (“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’”)
  • Ultimately some became believers, “including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them”.

Our own age also suggests a shift from thinking about evangelisation in terms of programs and showcase events to processes that accompany people to personal and spiritual change. This brings us to a second and related opportunity – the recovery of discipleship as the primary purpose of our parishes.

Reclaiming Discipleship

A focus on discipleship reclaims the Great Commission of Matthew’s Gospel as the foundational task of the church Catholic and of the parish as its local manifestation: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). As it has been pointed out, our Catholic Church has certainly learnt to “go” and can claim a presence at all corners of the earth. We “baptise” and confirm relentlessly. We “teach” and catechise great numbers in our Australian schools and sacramental programs. However, our ability as Church to “make disciples” remains in question, as raised by the pastoral realities for the Australian Church we have explored.[11]

SB011We must acknowledge that if we were to measure how many of those hundreds who receive the sacraments in our local parish each year, pass through our sacramental life in initiation or from week to week, and emerge on the other side as ‘missionary disciples’, we would have to admit that there is much less fruit than we might hope to see. Our pastoral experience tells us that we have in our communities no lack of those who have been ‘sacramentalised’ but not yet evangelised, those who are merely ‘done’ but not yet discipled.

I would suggest that one of the causes of our dilemma as Church is that we have tended to lift the sacraments, and indeed much else that the Church does, out of their proper context which is precisely discipleship, a living and fruitful faith. A pastoral approach that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ neglects our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually take root and bear fruit. To make the point,

baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . . For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it.[12]

This is not to discount the centrality of the sacraments or to deny the place that devotions have in the Catholic life. But it is to say that people can be ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised, that it is entirely possible to undertake a routine of religious custom and practice without a personal and responsive relationship to Jesus Christ.

In short, we cannot look at the sacraments or our pastoral practices in isolation from discipleship. Unless people come to faith, come to relationship with God, unless people become disciples, the likelihood that the sacraments will bear the fruit they are intended to bear is severely diminished. As the saying goes, gifts are given but fruits are grown.

To substantiate this view in tradition, Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people.[13] The Catechism of the Catholic Church which followed tells us explicitly, “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”.[14] As well, both the Council and the Catechism affirm the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life“.[15] When there is no Christian life, no trace or intention of Christian living, then the Eucharist can be neither source nor summit of anything (it remains so in fact but not in effect). Outside of the context of discipleship, the Eucharist can be reduced to an object of piety or mere consumption rather than a relationship that invites a Jesus-shaped life. We could say that the mission of the Church is not sacraments but disciples which the sacraments nourish.

Passive reception of a sacrament is not enough as the Catechism names without apology: “To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition”.[16] In other words, sacraments are not magic. The Church has consistently taught that a positive disposition is critical to the reception of grace. As St Augustine avers, God ‘did not will to save us without us’. Living faith is essential if the grace of the sacraments is not to be bound – merely valid but tied – within the life of the one who receives.

DSC_0137At the level of the parish, this gap between our presumptions (our unspoken ‘sacramentalism’ that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’) and the active faith and discipleship to which all the baptised are called is palpable. Time and again how often have we heard parents, good and faithful parents, lament that their grown children are now disconnected from the Church, that they are no longer going to Mass, and even now hold no faith at all. Yet they did all they were supposed to do, received all their sacraments, and their children served as altar servers and so on. There can also be a latent notion, and I think a false hope, that the grace of the sacraments might ‘kick in’ many years later, like a time release capsule, but there is very little evidence that this is true. Again, hear the laments of old generations of Catholics who did all they thought they had to do, received all the sacraments, were never encouraged to ask questions and carried out the practice of the Catholic religion but lament never experiencing a life-giving or transforming faith. Where is the fruit?

As an aside, we have traditionally been more focused on issues of validity – and validity of the minister’s celebration of the sacrament, tied up with the controversies of the Donatists and Reformation – rather than its fruitfulness. This is despite the biblical mandate of John 15:6 and magisterial teaching such as that of St John Paul II who remarked, and I quote, “Bearing fruit is an essential demand of life in Christ and life in the Church. The person who does not bear fruit does not remain in communion: ‘Each branch of mine that bears no fruit, he (my Father) takes away”. Without fruit, without active discipleship, there is no communion, only a crowd.[17]

To ground our discussion in practice, what would it look like if the commission to make disciples informed our sacramental preparation, moving away from what is generally an age-based reward system for many who will never darken the doors of our parishes again? Certainly we must commit to meeting people ‘where they are’ but we also have to love them enough not to leave them there. Pastoral care and accompaniment are not opposed to personal challenge and the expectation of spiritual growth. Pastoral care and accompaniment are fulfilled by the change of life that discipleship entails.

For the priest, this involves helping people understand what holiness requires as a teacher and helping them to realise this teaching in practice as a pastor. As such our first response to the mixed assembly of people who come forwards for the sacraments of initiation should never be a ‘no’ but at times the proper response in good faith could well be a ‘not yet’. ‘No’ should not be our first response but time may be needed to reflect on what a ‘yes’ means and to allow people to be prepared not simply for one sacrament or one liturgy but for a lifetime of discipleship.

SB048As an attempt to set discipleship at the heart of my home parish of St Bernadette’s Parish, Castle Hill, we introduced four weeks of parental preparation for entry into the sacramental program (the parish celebrated the sacraments of Reconciliation, Confirmation and Eucharist all in the one nine month period). This formation was focused not on children but on parents who were asked to attend four 2 hour sessions – on God and us, God and his Church, God and the sacraments, and living God’s way. Each session was offered three times a week to accommodate parents’ commitments, and completion of all four sessions was a requirement of entry into the sacramental program and preparation for the year.

Of course, in raising this expectation, focused as it was on parents, some did not take to this requirement and looked elsewhere for easier admission to the sacraments which the parishes next door were only too happy to provide. However, while some people walked away, it always has to be questioned if this is ever a real loss, for people to lament or kickback, saying in effect, ‘Well we’re going to go to another parish that we won’t go to’. It may well be that the neighbouring parishes accommodated more people in their sacramental program but none of these saw an increase in weekly attendance, more people living faith in the midst of the community, and only increased their administrative workload all the while being disconnected from the living discipleship which is our real and primary purpose.

Recall in respect of the sacraments that the Great Commission calls us to ‘go make disciples’ and then baptise and teach. In many ways, we are running our attempts at evangelisation in reverse order to the ancient Church. In the ancient Church, neophytes were evangelised, catechised, initiated and then given access to the sacred mysteries, namely the liturgy of the Eucharist. Today neophytes are introduced to the liturgical rites, initiated, and then those who remain in the pews may be lucky enough to be catechised, and perhaps a handful might come to be evangelised.

To grow our parishes we must reclaim discipleship as the ‘new norm’ and a starting point for evangelisation. We must recognise that the measure of parish vitality is not the number of ‘bums on seats’ but a matter of impact, the extent of personal and spiritual change the Spirit brings about through the environment and processes we install to support an encounter with Christ. To underscore our goal is discipleship and not mere scale, the Church was never more ‘catholic’ than in the Upper Room at Pentecost when all of its members could fit inside a tiny room. ‘Good church’ does not necessarily mean a large church, and faithfulness and fruitfulness is not measured in the size of a crowd. Large parishes can be spiritually dead, and small parishes can foster genuine discipleship like no other.

A missionary parish will be a parish dedicated to discipleship, raising up through welcome and expectation men, women and families who:

  • enter into a personal relationship with Jesus
  • can and do share faith with others
  • are open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • have knowledge and love of the Scriptures
  • know basic Catholic theology
  • have a daily prayer life
  • experience real Christian community
  • have a commitment to Sunday Eucharist
  • celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation
  • can pray spontaneously out loud when asked (this in fact presumes the practice of personal, daily prayer as aforementioned)
  • serve in ministry,
  • and see their lives as a mission field.[18]

This is the quality of Christian living we seek to bring about in God’s Church. This is the commission of discipleship that Jesus entrusts to his apostles.

Parish Vision

candlesWe turn now to consider how we might move our communities from a casual acceptance of sacramental minimalism to the apostolic zeal of an evangelising parish. A third key opportunity to move from maintenance to mission is the development of an articulate vision that goads, challenges and stimulates the parish toward change. Our parishes are often caught between a call and desire for renewal and the weight of our own church culture towards maintaining the status quo. In this moment which cries out for new energies, priests and people alike can feel bound by layers of expectation that demand the continuation of the old even while new forms of life and mission long for expression.[19]

However, a fresh vision admits of new possibilities and allows us to let go of what no longer serves our mission. When we communicate a vision for the parish, how we seek to respond to God in this context, in this time, in this local community, when we can articulate a vision of the kinds of spiritual growth we are seeking to raise up in our people, this passionate purpose becomes the heartbeat or pulse of a parish. As in our Eucharistic liturgies, ‘remembrance of our future’ in Christ provides the case for change and conversion in the present.

The alternative to a parish communicating vision is a community standing in the silence of an unquestioned routine. The lifeblood of the parish might occasionally receive a boost or uptick through the initiative of individuals or the occasional event but without a sustained vision to consistently stimulate a higher life, the pulse of the parish inevitably slows and returns to maintenance, to the pace of survival rather than growth.

Not only is a clear and galvanising vision the basis of every growing Christian community that I am aware of, whether Catholic or otherwise, it is clear that our people are hungry and seeking this clarity of purpose and direction. The recent 2016 NCLS survey tells us that around 30% of Mass attending Catholics are unaware of any vision, goal or direction in their local parish, while 18% of parishioners (including those in parishes of the Archdiocese) want to be more involved.[20] It is our task as leaders to answer the question, “Involvement in what?”

A parish vision that reclaims the Great Commission, that reclaims the making of disciples as our primary calling clarifies the purpose of the community and makes it possible for others to become a part of that purpose. It is not a stretch to assert that some of the spiritual stagnation in our pews may be attributable to the plain fact that many Catholics have no vision at all as to how the life of holiness could be pursued or ultimately take expression.

As an example, a sense of welcome and expectation is well captured in the vision of Saint Benedict Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, “Saint Benedict Parish is a healthy and growing faith community that brings people to Christ, forms disciples, and sends them out to transform the world. Our members commit to worship, to grow, to serve, to connect and to give”. This combines welcome and expectation, as Jesus does in John’s Gospel when he expects the vine to bear fruit, and even prunes and expects more from those vines already producing.[21] It underscores that healthy things grow and sets the expectation of growth for its members. If we do not cast such vision for our people in our Church, the question will inevitably arise from the pews, ‘Are we going anywhere?’

As Sherry Weddell notes with conviction, parishes that seriously and consistently set a vision for and make disciples will experience astonishing levels of growth in depth and number,

Disciples are hungry to pray and worship, so naturally Mass attendance goes up. Disciples want to serve, and often migrate into parish leadership. Disciples will fill every faith formation class in your parish and diocese, because they want to grow in their faith. They clamour to discern personal vocation and personal call . . . Disciples go to great lengths to pass on the faith to their children. They care about the poor and about justice. They take risks for the kingdom of God. Disciples give.[22]

As we will note, the teaching, liturgical and pastoral offices of the priest is in service of this process of evangelisation in which disciples are formed and sent into service of the Kingdom, that fullness of life in God, that Jesus himself embodies.

Conclusion

We have surveyed the state of the Australian parish, named the complexity of our local faith communities amidst a new landscape for faith. We have addressed the necessity of pre-evangelisation in the journey of faith, contrasting it with catechesis that has assumed a reality that is no more, and underlined discipleship as the context or lens through which to reclaim the evangelising mission of the parish, as the context for our sacramental life, our ministry and mission in the world. Finally, we have canvassed vision as critical to the revitalisation of the Church communities for mission, setting forth a definite purpose for our local communities with which people can engage.

Each of these elements contains implications for the ordained which we will enter into after our break. Whatever vocation we inhabit, as the baptised a reinvigorated mission ultimately means responding and having trust in what Christ in the Holy Spirit can do for us, with us and through us, even in the well-worn pews of the parishes we know and love.

References:

[1] Robert Dixon, Stephen Reid and Marilyn Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment. A Report Based on the National Count of Attendance, the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Census (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Research Office, 2013), 8.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 2-3.

[4] Pastoral Research Office E-News Bulletin, ‘Issue 18: Who goes to Mass? – First results from the 2011 NCLS – 2 December 2012’. Available online at http://www.pro.catholic.org.au/pdf/ACBC%20PRO%20E-News%20Bulletin%2018.pdf. Accessed 4 August, 2014.

[5] Dixon, Reid and Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment, 4; Robert Dixon and Stephen Reid, ‘The Contemporary Catholic Community: A View from the 2011 Census’, Australasian Catholic Record 90/2 (2013): 144-146.

[6] Robert Dixon, ‘The Catholic Community in Australia: Context and Challenges’, Presentation at the Pastoral Research Office Conference: ‘Beliefs and Practices of Australian Catholics’, 20 February, 2014.

[7] Robert Dixon, “What do Mass attenders believe? Contemporary cultural change and the acceptance of key Catholic beliefs and moral teachings by Australian Mass attenders” (Pastoral Research Office, February 2014), 8.

[8] Sherry Weddell, Forming International Disciples (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 125-184.

[9] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 173.

[10] Ibid; 170.

[11] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish from Maintenance to Mission (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2014), 19-20.

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

[13] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.

[14]Catechism of the Catholic Church #1072.

[15]Catechism of the Catholic Church #1324.

[16]Catechism of the Catholic Church #2111.

[17] John Paul II, Christifideles Laici 32. ‘Validity’ means that the sacrament was truly bestowed and the intended grace made truly present to the person receiving the sacrament. But validity does not guarantee that the grace made available has been actively received and is bearing fruit in that person’s life. See also Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 99-123.

[18] Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation Guidebook (Toronto, Ontario: Novalis Publishing, 2016), 59.

[19] Mallon, Divine Renovation, 53.

[20] NCLS Research, Church Life Profile for the Catholic Church in Australia: A Report on Vitality of Local Churches who took part in the 2016 National Church Life Survey (North Sydney, 2017), 10.

[21] Cf. John 15:1-2; Mallon, Divine Renovation, 155.

[22] Sherry Weddell, “Discipleship: The Key to Fruitfulness”, Chicago Studies 54:2 (Fall 2014): 24.

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.

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.