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.

Advertisements

thoughts on a plenary council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

parish transformation by divine renovation

DRI recently returned from the Divine Renovation 2016 Conference which provided an opportunity to learn from and be immersed in the experience behind the book of the same name. For those who may not be familiar with this work, Divine Renovation tells the story of St Benedict’s Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a parish led by Fr James Mallon in collaboration with his senior leadership team, parish team, pastoral council and an army of lay leaders, that has become a genuinely evangelising community that brings people into encounter with Jesus through a well-developed discipleship process (you can view highlights of the Conference here).

I was privileged to attend the conference as a guest of Alpha Australia which has become a significant point of connection for Christian leaders in our country, not only from our own church but from non-Catholic communities equally committed to transformation and missionary outreach.

While no silver bullet and a steadily evolving reality, the way of Divine Renovation is among the best models of parish-based evangelisation I have seen and experienced firsthand. It provides a substantial model of the evangelising Catholic parish that complements its predecessors and contemporaries, including the Church of the Nativity, the focus of the book Rebuilt.

As shared elsewhere, the Church of the Nativity in Baltimore targets its weekend experience toward the nuclear family and the God-seeker, with as few barriers to participation of children and newcomers as possible. By its focus on the newcomer (embodied in the personified target market, ‘Timonium Tim’) Nativity tends to function as a ‘personal’ or oratory parish with a dedication to reaching unchurched Gen X parents and their children. Overall Nativity functions well as a parish-wide enquiry or pre-catechumenal process in the context of community. 

It remains a privileged time to learn from these various models of parish, acknowledging their range of contexts, and to take up the challenge of grounding the best of these growing Catholic communities in our own pastoral life.

The Vision of Divine Renovation

FJMSo where to start with Divine Renovation? First and foremost St Benedict’s has been driven by the desire for a model of a renewed parish. While many have looked to the ecclesial movements for discipleship, authentic community and evangelisation, Fr James is adamant and passionate about the fact that our Catholic parishes do not have to be centres of mediocrity or minimalism in which people come forward for the sacraments but little else. Parishes can yet be evangelising communities in which dynamic Christian life, conversion and discipleship can be born and raised.

Divine Renovation identifies a principle issue for our parishes as a forgetfulness of who we are, our identity, and this is significant for what we do is rooted in who we are. As underscored by Pope Francis among others, we have often lost sight of our identity as a missionary Church, a Church of the Great Commission that is called to ‘go and make disciples’, to baptise and to teach (Matt. 28:19-20).

While our customary focus in parish life has been on catechesis and a sacramental life, these have often presumed discipleship or otherwise not confronted head on the reality that many of our people have not encountered the Lord personally, made him the total meaning of their life or yet given their life to him. This vital, spiritual breakthrough is the purpose for which our parishes exist. What is most often lacking in the culture of our parishes is not first and foremost knowledge of the faith but the passion and desire for ongoing conversion and mission that emerges from a personal encounter with Jesus.

This initial realisation, which supports our movement toward cultural change, recalls a question that was once posed to me at a parish pastoral council meeting. What is the greatest stumbling block to the mission of evangelisation? It is a lack of faith and passion that the Gospel is worth sharing.

churchpewsThe confrontation of Divine Renovation, and much of the contemporary literature on evangelisation in the Catholic Church, is the suggestion that many of the people in our pews are not sufficiently converted, are not yet disciples or furthermore missionary disciples. As reiterated at the conference, while much energy can be dedicated in parishes on managing decline in our pews (or the limited number of our people actively involved in parish ministry and mission), our pews and mission will remain dormant or listless unless this first radical and personal conversion takes place (as it was shared mere “bums in pews are not going to change the world”).

In speaking of a change of parish culture, we find ourselves as Church caught between an experience of a call and desire for renewal and the weight of church culture towards maintaining the status quo (Divine Renovation 53). While many of our usual approaches to disciple-making are not as effective as we would like (e.g. the mixed results of our sacramental programs and low retention rates following RCIA), Church leaders and teams are so often bound by layers of expectation that demand the continuation of the old while new realities beg for expression. It was acknowledged that our parish cultures can also struggle with hope, which can be lost through hurt or disappointment. Our people can be fatigued, even exhausted, again by layers of expectations of the status quo and a system that wants change but refuses to change, and disillusionment and cynicism can set in when ministries and initiatives bear little or no fruit.

This time calls forth bold and passionate parish leadership and vision at this time, to see what is not yet, to create room for change (which involves a departure from the status quo), and then to move towards a new hope-filled possibility.

Divine Renovation in Practice

Below I have attempted to summarise the practical steps towards parish transformation as offered by St Benedict’s Parish, all of which can be found in the recently released Divine Renovation Guidebook. Happily, this guidebook reiterates many of the principles of pastoral planning that are the focus of this blog but brings great life, example and vitality to these principles.

1. Forming the right team. St Benedict’s values excellence and this informs their leadership team which operates on four key foundations: unanimity of vision, a balance of strengths, healthy conflict on the basis of mutual trust among members, and a great deal of vulnerability for leaders of parishes in maintenance mode are likely to be fairly competent in their routine but missionary leaders will soon be in unfamiliar territory, risking the unfamiliar and the untried for the sake of mission.

These principles also translate to the St Benedict’s parish pastoral council. All members have experienced Alpha themselves (the parish’s primary tool for evangelisation) and have read Divine Renovation so that all members share the same vision, a vision which is non-negotiable (however, how the parish might achieve that vision certainly is). It is also telling that the St Benedict’s parish pastoral council is not filled with ‘representatives’ from parish ministry groups, an approach taken by many communities, as this runs the risk of a focus on particular needs within the parish. Instead, the parish privileges passionate dreamers on their council who focus only on the ‘big picture’ of the parish and who have the practical skills to form, strategise and articulate plans to fulfil the parish vision.

IMG_1986In terms of team roles, it is worth noting that the parish pastoral council at St Benedict’s is dedicated solely to five year strategic planning, while the parish team dedicates itself to implementing those rolling plans through the laity they engage. Importantly, the parish team works on the organisation, not in it, are not “doers” of ministry but rather leaders who call forth and equip others who “do”.

It is a decentralised model of mission that carries implications for our priests. The pastors of St Benedict’s do not function as personal chaplains for every parishioner (as is often the case in our parishes or at least an expectation within communities) but as leaders out of team and champions of the parish vision for evangelisation, including by ‘preaching the announcements’. In seeking a balance of strengths with its teams, St Benedict’s uses the ‘Clifton Strengths Finder’ from Gallup to evaluate natural strengths among its leadership team. I would suggest that Sherry Weddell’s ‘Catholic Spiritual Gifts Inventory’ could also be used as a complementary resource to discern, develop and draw upon the gifts of the Spirit present among parish leaders in the most fitting areas of leadership. Other suggested tools for team evaluation recommended by the parish include the Birkman Method of evaluation and Myers Briggs.

2. As intimated, missionary parishes such as St Benedict’s Parish form and communicate a clear vision for their life and mission. To have a vision is to bring the hope of the future into the present. Where do we want to be in three or five years’ time? This vision can even emerge from our current frustrations in parish life for our recognised limits can be the mirror image of possibilities we would like to pursue into the future.

The parish vision at St Benedict’s is as follows, “Saint Benedict 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 grand vision for the parish provides the image of a preferred future that always remain a challenge for the community rather than an achievement or goal from which the parish will someday graduate. Complementing this grand vision is the purpose statement of the parish which makes concrete and drives the daily commitment of the parish to achieve the vision: “To form disciples who joyfully live out the mission of Jesus Christ”.

Again, it becomes the responsibility of the priest to constantly and continually communicate and preach this vision as the leader of the community and to ensure the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ of parish life and mission becomes transparent and compelling to staff and the parish at large. Of interest to pastoral planners, a large scale consultation process did not inform the formation of the parish vision at St Benedict’s though the parish team and ministry leaders contributed to its creation. With a large dose of reality, Fr James noted that while everyone wants a joyful and missionary Church, people can react badly when you begin implementing change to achieve this reality. It is a sober reminder that change for evangelisation demands leadership, not popularity or perfect agreement (indeed, it was an absolute democracy that delivered us Barabbas).

As a part of its vision, it is worth noting that St Benedict’s has described a disciple by the following qualities, again to establish the parameters of what they are seeking to achieve. A disciple in the vision of St Benedict’s Parish, and indeed for the Church, is one who:

  • has a personal relationship with Jesus
  • can and does share faith with others
  • is open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit
  • has knowledge and love of the Scriptures
  • knows basic Catholic theology
  • has a daily prayer life
  • experiences real Christian community
  • has a commitment to Sunday Eucharist
  • celebrates the Sacrament of Reconciliation
  • can pray spontaneously out loud when asked (this in fact presumes the practice of personal, daily prayer as aforementioned)
  • serves in ministry
  • and sees his or her life as a mission field (Divine Renovation Guidebook, p.59).

In forming a parish vision it is also necessary to have a clear understanding of where we are, as we can only responsibly plan for the future on the basis of an assessment of present reality. We cannot build houses on sand. From a pastoral planning perspective this is where demographics and other forms of data can be helpful as well as an inventory of the ministries and activities already present in the community of faith. Information and not anecdotes form the basis of rigorous parish assessment.

In explaining the need for an initial assessment of parish life, Fr James engages the analogy of a shopping mall – to find what we are looking for involves a clear vision of what we seek to attain. However, before we can walk towards our goal we need to find the “You are here” dot on the shopping mall map to determine our starting point.

In its parish assessment, St Benedict’s draws on five systems of a healthy church as articulated by the evangelical pastor and author Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, California. The parish assessment process can involve a leadership team or parish pastoral council categorising its current activities under these five categories to develop a self-understanding of where it is, where it needs to grow, and what may be missing from our parish life in the pursuit of health and missionary vitality. These five systems are:

  • Worship (including Eucharist, prayer meetings and times of praise experienced in small groups)
  • Evangelisation (involving proclamation of the kerygma, the basics of our Christian faith, and bring people beyond and within the community to a personal encounter with Jesus)
  • Discipleship (meaning the lifelong process of growing, maturing and learning, involving catechesis but also prayer life and discernments of gifts or charisms)
  • Fellowship (the experience and commitment to meaningful community in the body of Christ)
  • Ministry (meaning here service to others and so referring also, in this model of parish health, to what may be more particularly understood by theology as ‘mission’)

3. Planning with priorities. Planning can then takes place in each of these five areas, commencing with a SWOT analysis of each of the five areas, and then identifying goals, action steps, owners of each action, completion dates and forms of measurement to respond to each quadrant (e.g. a mini plan for the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for ‘worship’). As a further example in analysing their own efforts in the area of evangelisation, Alpha was identified as a strength at St Benedict’s while their weakness was ‘invitation’ and so this provided the basis for stronger promotion and invitation by the parish priest and team, supported by the overall communications efforts of the parish. In working with parishes over the years it is undoubted that this depth of planning requires significant leadership with the right skill set and experience in planning, underlining again the need for discernment of the parish pastoral council members who can effectively lead this work forwards. The Divine Renovation Guidebook provides a 6 month planning guide on pages 106-115 which parishes will find helpful, while a basic parish planning template I have used with local parishes is available here.

Given that all parish resources are limited, the planning exercise also needs to prioritise what gets done first and what is implemented later. Prioritising ensures the best use of constrained resources, improves the speed of decision making, brings order to chaos, and reduces parish stress. The conference affirmed that setting priorities is among the most important things that parish leadership can do. It will involve the decision to say ‘no’ to good things in order to choose the best things. People will be disappointed with the selection of particular priorities apart from others but this selectivity frees a parish to pursue its vision beyond the layers of expectation that tend to privilege the status quo (i.e. maintenance).

4. In its order of priority, St Benedict’s formed and follows a process of discipleship which it describes as its “Game Plan”. For me, this is the genius of the culture of St Benedict’s. There are seven ingredients of this process as seen in the diagram below:

The Game Plan B & W

As explained by the Divine Renovation Guidebook (p.164-165), ‘Invitational Church’ is not a program but an attitude and parish culture in which St Benedict’s continually seeks to grow. The parish measures ‘success’ not necessarily by the number that show up but the number of invitations that are made, recognising the responsibility of the parish lies with the offer not the response (it is encouraging to note that if a parish has some 1,000 people in church, and half of them invited one person each week, and one in five of all those asked said yes, it would bring some 100 new visitors to the parish on any given weekend).

The emphasis on ‘Alpha’ as a way of ‘on boarding’ people into the life of discipleship recognises that the Catholic Mass presumes so much, being as it is worship for the initiated. St Benedict’s encourages all who wish to be part of the parish to take Alpha. The Alpha process provides an experience of hospitality and community life, exposure to the kerygma and group discussion that is welcoming of both newcomers and more established Catholics, recognises that people seek to belong before they believe and behave, and forms the primary evangelising tool at St Benedict’s Parish.

splash-logoIn discussion with facilitators of Alpha in Australia, it has been recommended that Alpha be first piloted by your parish with a mix of parish staff, parish pastoral council members, committed parishioners who may not already be involved in a ministry, and new Catholics. It is notable that St Benedict’s engages Alpha not only to initiate the journey of discipleship but to develop lay leaders, as a part of their RCIA process, and as an element of marriage preparation for couples.

Following Alpha parishioners are invited to join a Connect Group (an economy of small groups in the parish, of around 25 to 35 people, led by two couples, that meet together fortnightly in the homes of parishioners for a shared meal, singing and prayer, a talk by a member and intercessory prayer with one another) or to be a leader in the next series of Alpha (the parish seeks to have first time members comprise half of their Alpha leadership teams and to move those who have already served on the Alpha team to other ministries, thereby creating a continuous leadership pipeline).

Next, the hope is that every parishioner will also be involved in a ministry, an involvement that is shepherded from within a Connect Group. On reflection, this formation of Connect Groups is vital to the success of the parish as it provides a more intimate or personal experience of Church, and people are brought to maturity and accompanied in these groups by an encouragement towards ministry and mission. This twinning of accompaniment and mission neatly aligns with Pope Francis’ teaching in Evangelii Gaudium when he notes,

Genuine spiritual accompaniment always begins and flourishes in the context of service to the mission of evangelisation. Paul’s relationship with Timothy and Titus provides an example of this accompaniment and formation which takes place in the midst of apostolic activity. Entrusting them with the mission of remaining in each city to “put in order what remains to be done” (Tit 1:5; cf. 1 Tim 1:3-5), Paul also gives them rules for their personal lives and their pastoral activity. This is clearly distinct from every kind of intrusive accompaniment or isolated self-realisation. Missionary disciples accompany missionary disciples (EG 173).

We learn from Connect Groups that healthy parishes make disciples that then make and accompany other disciples into mission.

As part of the St Benedict’s game plan, parishioners are also invited to involve themselves in a Discipleship Group that is focused on learning content (catechesis) and it is when the fullness of Christian life is being lived in the ways above that worship, especially the Mass, then comes to life, as the source and summit of a living faith. The parish offers a variety of styles of worship, including contemporary, traditional and contemporary choir.

The clear strength of the ‘Game Plan’, this process of discipleship, is that it provides pathways or an itinerary for personal growth rather than standalone programs that can run the risk of creating what Rebuilt well identified as a ‘Catholic consumer culture’ in which people expect but do not contribute, seek to be served rather than serve as missionary disciples.

It reminds us that programs without a larger context of process within a parish may provide an experience or consolation of a ‘quick fix’ but do not produce lasting or authentic renewal, as Fr James notes in Divine Renovation,

Any course run in a parish will be only as good as the culture of that parish. Even a very successful tool for evangelisation like Alpha will have a very limited impact if the values of a parish are vastly different from the values within a particular program” (p.94).

This same dynamic could be applied to large initiatives in the universal Church such as World Youth Day which risk being standalone events without address of the necessary cultural conversion of our local parishes to which our pilgrims return (it can, in the words of Fr James, “leave us open to charges of false advertising”).

Conclusion

IMG_1992While the processes of evangelisation and discipleship above are indeed impressive and can be overwhelming to consider for the parishes we know and love, it was assuring to learn that the parish of St Benedict’s has not achieved this clarity of vision and process overnight. The parish at the heart of Divine Renovation has arrived at this point after at least six years (if not more in the ministry of the pastor) of considerable trial and error, experimentation and ongoing refinement and reflection.

In a plenary session Fr James described to us three distinct phases of renewal that missionary parishes will undertake: the start of the journey, the middle phase in which we do not necessarily know where we are going, and our intended goal or landing point. We have in Divine Renovation great encouragement to begin the journey of renewal as parishes. For those communities that take the steps to form a vision, create the right team and start moving forwards, there will need to be an ongoing effort to uphold momentum (an initial momentum created at St Benedict’s by Alpha and that then led to the formation of Connect Groups). Momentum needs to be sustained during the middle phase of the renewal process for what works will eventually stop working without a renewed intent to grow and adapt (we know this to be the experience of many a youth group that begins with potential, builds a critical mass but eventually fades if change, further development, or a leadership pipeline is not inaugurated).

In its ongoing journey, the parish of St Benedict’s is married not to a method but to a mission, not to programs but a process of discipleship that creates opportunity and support for growth. This model challenges all of our parishes not simply to gauge their health by the number of groups within them, or by standalone events or programs, but to form a ‘game plan’ for active and missionary discipleship, the spiritual fruit of its members, which such programs might support (we seek not people to build up the Church but a Church that builds up our people).

The emphasis on a discipleship process challenges our parishes to move away from a habit of disconnected activity, a ‘spaghetti approach’ to pastoral life and events that might appease anxieties of leadership and a community looking for evidence of life. We know this approach eventually leads to burnout with little progress in cultural transformation. We need vision and coherency, to act out of a commitment to a defined mission. As was shared at the Divine Renovation conference, less is more and an overled but undermanaged environment will be ultimately unsustainable, with much activity but little progress.

Alive to the urgent need of missionary disciples in our age, Fr James and the parish of St Benedict have not only named but responded to what we are painfully conscious of as Church – the often poor health of our parishes reflected in declining participation and morale, a lack of growth and a clinging to ineffective routines, ministries that bear no or little fruit, an absence of bold and passionate proclamation of the saving Gospel, few genuine forms of evangelical outreach, and the result and reality that many of our people have never come to know Jesus personally.

St Benedict’s have responded by describing and dedicated themselves to being a healthy parish (drawing upon the five systems of vitality outlined), by inviting participation and expecting growth among its members and non-members, engaging Alpha as a practical tool for this purpose with an emphasis on the saving kerygma, nurturing community and involvement in ministry and mission through an experience of small group accompaniment, and underpinning all of this with a culture of invitation.

It is testament to the vitality of this parish that it recognises at all times that health, growth and conversion are the product of the Spirit of Christ who is the source of all holiness and mission. St Benedict’s Parish is an evangelising community that has learned, and is learning, to cooperate in the mission that belongs to God, to be a vine, heralding from the branch, that bears much fruit.

 

proclaiming amoris laetitia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proclaim 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

governing in faith

PX*7450626The conversion of the Church is essential to the mission of evangelisation. This fact is plain enough. Whether speaking of the universal Church, a diocese, local parish or of the individual Christian there is an obvious and intrinsic relationship between self-reform and the power and depth with which the Gospel is proclaimed and received.

In our own time Pope Francis has made clear by his charismatic witness and his courageous address of issues such as collegiality, subsidiarity, financial accountability and synodality that the growth of the Gospel in the world depends on no small part on the reform of the Church in both spirit and structure.

Pope Francis has emphatically underscored the need for a conversion of heart, a human heart which he describes as being in ‘crisis’ and at ill-ease with itself, with others, and indeed creation (cf. Laudato Si 210). However, the pontiff has not hesitated to inaugurate as well significant reform in ecclesial structure and forms of administration, understanding that the Church does not hover above history but is firmly earthed within it.

Analogous to Christ, the Church walks the streets of Jerusalem. Its temporal realities can serve eternal ends. Hence, we have witnessed under Francis an increase of oversight over the material resources entrusted to curial departments, the long awaited restructuring of the Vatican’s media channels earlier this year, and the reform of synodal processes to encourage discussion and even forceful debate amongst the world’s bishops on contentious issues.

While the upheavals of papal rule or the complexities of Vatican bureaucracies may seem somewhat aloof from the realities of the local parish pastoral council or the parish ministry group, any Christian leader seeking to grow the missionary outlook of a community will engage issues of governance in one form or another. Governance is a complex reality involving decision-making by authority and in the Church entails judgements about the faith, the discernment of those organisations, systems and resources that will best serve to promote and advance the Kingdom of God in a given context.

Understandably, governance in the Church is under close scrutiny, on account of not only scandal and abuse but in the light of the clarion call to a ‘new evangelisation’ which signals or beseeches a new way of exercising authority for the sake of the Gospel mission.

As ‘reform of the Church’ for the sake of mission can mean many things to many people (a return to an idealised past, a breakaway from all that has been, development in the midst of what is)  and this reform can be achieved in various ways by those who govern (the excision or suppression of current realities, reform by addition or the revival of past forms, by accommodation or adjustments to time and place) it is helpful for Christian leaders to reflect on the specific source and nature of governance responsibilities in the Church and to place that responsibility in its proper perspective.

Authorities in the Church

pentecostThe first place to start in considering governance within the Church is with the notion of ‘authority’. From the perspective of faith, all authority originates in God’s own life and power, for He alone is the author (auctor) of life as well as the source of its flourishing. Thus, to hold authority is to properly share in something that is not our own.

This anchoring of authority in God’s life accounts for the diverse forms in which authority finds expression. Take for instance the ‘authority of holiness’ manifested in the communion of saints which reflects the creativity and profundity of God’s self-disclosure, mediated through human participants. Then, as Pope Francis has brought to clear light, there is the ‘authority of the poor’, the anawim who disclose with urgency the divine bidding to human solidarity, inclusion and communion precisely because they are the ones to whom it is always denied.

It is notable that the charismatic authority manifested in the saints, can indeed – but does not necessarily – coincide with those who hold sacramental or ministerial authority within the Church. To this end, Aidan Nichols observes that while St Birgitta of Sweden stands below her contemporary Pope Gregory XI in the suborder of office, she stands above him in the suborder of charismatic holiness. Thus, the manifestations of authority in our Church can be said to be numerous.

To reflect on the issues of Church governance, then, is to turn with a greater degree of specificity to a distinct type or subset of authority. The power of governance, also known as the ‘power of jurisdiction,’ is reserved by the Church to the ordained with laity understood by the Code of Canon Law as ‘cooperating’ in the exercise of that power (cf. Canon 129).

It’s notable that in the development of the 1983 revision of the Code, the ‘Roman’ school of canonists favoured the language of lay ‘participation’ (partem habere) in the power of governance, however the ‘Munich’ school, which included the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, prevailed with the more restrictive term ‘cooperate.’ Thus, as it stands, laity do not possess the powers of governance in themselves but ‘cooperate’ in its exercise, with the practical upshot that the power to take legally binding decisions within the Church is limited to those with Holy Orders.

Laity 3This might surprise some and it is for this reason. The experience of the post-conciliar Church has been of lay persons engaging the powers of governance to such an extent that the distinction between the ‘possession’ of such powers by the ordained and mere ‘cooperation’ in them by the laity can appear rather abstract. As canonists have noted, lay persons can be effectively exercising the power of governance as judges, auditors, finance officers of dioceses and parishes, school principals, and directors of social services and health care facilities, with such persons exercising a role which is not simply consultative but, in fact, deliberative.

The recent application of the sturdier term ‘co-responsibility’ to lay persons may indicate a tacit recognition of this pastoral reality and, at the very least, has opened ground for renewed theological reflection on the question of laity and governance in the Church’s mission.

Decisions within a Hierarchical Communion

Of course, this question of lay participation in powers of governance engages a much broader theology of Church, one in which the baptismal identity and vocation of the one communion coincides with the hierarchical ordering that our Catholic faith maintains is a part of that communion’s nature as such.

While most appreciate the need for authority and order as a sociological given for any community if it is to function well and realise the purpose for which it exists, Catholic tradition goes much further in its understanding of order. For Catholic faith, the hierarchical structure of the Church is a dimension of God’s revelation, divinely revealed at the service of the apostolic proclamation from generation to generation.

SB010In this context, ordained ministry is understood in terms of identity rather than mere functionality and so any form of ‘congregationalism’ that relativises the ministry of clergy to functionaries within the worshipping community should be resisted. It is within a Catholic emphasis on ministerial identity, and not managerialism or functionalism, that the power of governance is seen as intrinsic to ordination for the priest is ‘so configured to Christ, the priest, that they can act in the person of Christ, the head’ (Presbyterorum Ordinis 2).

The power of the ordained to govern is neither an extrinsic function that ‘just so happens’ to be carried out by these members of the Church rather than others, nor is it an extension of the general ministry of the congregation but a responsibility derived from the act of ordination which bestows ‘a particular gift so that [the priest] can help the People of God to exercise faithfully and fully the common priesthood which it has received’ (John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis 17).

The quandary placed before contemporary theology is that the sacrament of order just outlined intersects with historical precedents that evidence lay participation in the governance of the Church in earlier ages, a role in effective decision-making that is precisely not tied to ordination. From lay scrutiny in the election of clergy and bishops in the third century – a practice well described by Cyprian of Carthage – to the role of the laity in the ‘handing on’ and development of Christian doctrine in the same epoch, there is sufficient evidence that the effective co-responsibility of laity in the governance of the Church cannot be, in itself, contradictory to the Church’s nature.

We can add to this the example of the governance of monastic communities by non-ordained monks, the insistence of the sixth-century Rule of St Benedict that ordination did not, in fact, confer any right of governance, and even the 1917 Code of Canon Law which required not ordination but only tonsure as a requirement for the exercise of jurisdiction.

In addition, while honouring the hierarchical structure of the Church and the distinctive vocation of the ordained, there is the perennial danger of ‘christomonism’ which would constrict the flow of the Spirit who, from a proper Trinitarian perspective, is never mediated exclusively through the ministry of clergy but is present throughout the whole body of Christ. As Lumen Gentium upholds with clarity, ‘It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but, “allotting his gifts to everyone according as He wills,” He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank . . . toward the renewal and building up of the Church’ (Lumen Gentium 12).

Conclusion

It can be seen from this brief treatment of governance in the Church and in addressing it in the light of various forms of authority and historical variation, that we are left as Church in the twenty-first century with questions and tensions in the exercise of authority for the sake of mission rather than one-dimensional results or prescriptions.

Those exercising leadership in the Church, both ordained and lay, are challenged now more than ever to reflect deeply on their responsibilities in the light of faith, to remain ever faithful to the questions that pastoral reality brings forth (the need for renewed evangelical vigour, the reality of limited resources, the enduring hunger for the joy that is the Gospel) while attending to the multidimensions of a tradition that remains, nevertheless, singular and a resource for leadership and evangelical reform into the future.

FullSizeRenderThank you for reading my blog throughout the year and sharing your own thoughts and questions on pastoral ministry and evangelisation. I wish you, your families and communities a merry Christmas and a blessed New Year. May the peace of the Christ-child reign in your hearts and fill you and your endeavours with the joy and mercy of God, and I look forward to sharing news of developments, conferences and activities in 2016. Daniel

laudato si

laudato siPope Francis’ encyclical on the environment has arrived, preceded by extraordinary anticipation and suspense on account of at least two factors – the extraordinary influence exercised by Francis as global leader as well as the highly politicised nature of the environmental debate, a politicisation of which Laudato Si is acutely aware and critical.

This new encyclical forms a part of Catholic Social Teaching, that body of doctrine stretching back to Pope Leo XXIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and more recently Pope Benedict XVI’S Caritas In Veritate (2009). This tradition affirms the scope of Catholic theology as embracing not only the God of Christ in the Holy Spirit but all things as they relate to God – the common good, human solidarity and dignity, the role of government, the work of peace, the preferential option for the poor and yes, ecological stewardship.

From its outset, Laudato Si reads as fresh and consequential, bringing together with deftness the two central concerns of Pope Francis’ papacy – care for the vulnerable and reverence for creation. Sure enough, this unity echoes the mysticism of Francis’ thirteenth century inspiration and forebear, the ascetic friar of Assisi.

After an initial reading I would propose the following: if Evangelii Gaudium implored Catholics to go out into the world in mission, it can be said that Laudato Si invites the whole world into a catholic view of things, to recover, quite literally, the organic unity of all that is under the love of one Father who is God (LS 238).

Hence, the encyclical relates without hesitation issues of environmental degradation to the destruction and marginalisation of the vulnerable, including the unborn; affirms the light of faith in dialogue with politics and philosophical reason; delineates lines of dialogue and action at both the international and domestic level; while it ultimately posits the need of deep ecological conversion expressed in the reform of structures (of food and energy production for instance) which will in turn be grounded in a deeper, radical conversion of understanding toward an appreciation of life, all life, not as self-constructed or an object to be used or controlled but in its fundamental character as gift (LS 11).

Other initial observations include the ecumenical spirit of the document, incorporating as it does the teachings of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the “Green Patriarch” who is spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church. As well, the document cites with noticeable regularity the teaching of episcopal conferences from around the world (even the Australian bishops rate a mention in article 153) and this expresses the collegial way in which Francis views and exercises his Petrine ministry. The degree of specificity with which ecological issues are treated is remarkable, extending from the implications of genetically modified foods to the situation of international governance and institutions in face of growing transnational corporations which prevail over the political (LS 133; 175).

As for the manner of the encyclical, Laudato Si does not simply assert but explains the causes and consequences of ecological crisis at length and in so doing educates rather than pronounces to its audience which extends well beyond the Catholic fold. Like Evangelii Gaudium, this new encyclical is not brief and demands repeated readings, however its language and structure is noticeably more refined and disciplined than its charismatic predecessor and so well suited for a broad audience.

An Overview of Francis’ ‘Green’ Encyclical

ecologicalcrisisLaudato Si is divided into six chapters, beginning with 1) an appraisal of the environmental crisis which we have brought upon ourselves, 2) an affirmation of the ways in which faith brings light and responsibility to this situation, and 3) a firm identification of the human origins of this crisis dominated by an emphasis on what Francis describes as a “technocratic paradigm” (to which we will return later). The second half of the encyclical promotes 4) a deeper, integral ecology which treats the environment not in an extrinsic way, as merely the backdrop to human activity, but as integral to the future of humanity, 5) advocates a global, authentic and practical response to ecological degradation before concluding with 6) an emphasis on the type of education, moral and spiritual formation required to overcome our self-imposed paralysis on the environmental issues of our time.

Inevitably this vast material will fall victim to selective readings, to narrow interpretations of which the encyclical itself warns, the pontiff noting with cognisance of post-modern culture, “the fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant” (LS 110).

The comprehensiveness of Pope Francis’ thinking in Laudato Si will certainly be lost to those who seek to bend his thought on the environment to serve political ends. His critique of the “deified market” (LS 56) and the “modern myth of unlimited material progress” will rile those who place their faith in unbridled capitalism. However, there is little sympathy for progressivist ideologies either, including the veneration of relativism, a disorder “which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests” (LS 122). For Francis, both the magical conception of the market as saviour and practical relativism lead to human irresponsibility, short-termism and a cult of unlimited power that has degraded the natural environment and human society with it. So, there is challenge here for everyone.

To summarise, the central thesis of Laudato Si is that natural conditions of constraint have been met by an insatiable human appetite for accumulation and reckless models of development, driven and underpinned by a technological mindset whose fundamental error is the idolisation of the self.

An “irrational confidence in progress and human abilities” (LS 19) has led to the destruction of the natural environment on a scale which is unprecedented (“things are now at breaking point” LS 61), and contemporary responses have ranged from denial or indifference, resignation or else naïve confidence in technical solutions to an ethical crisis which calls not for more technological application but a restoration of relationship with nature and one another as ecological citizens (LS 14).

Without apology, Pope Francis tackles the realities of climate change and its human causes which, as it carefully puts, “produce or aggravate it” (LS 23). In recognising anthropogenic causes of climate change and warning of worldwide vulnerability to locked in patterns of resource use, the plight of the poor are at the heart of the Pope’s concern. It is the most vulnerable on the planet, those who depend most of all on the earth for their life, culture and community, that are most immediately put at risk by ecological degradation. Hence, the pontiff concludes that a “true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 49).

It is in concert with the Pope’s emphasis on mercy, and his Latin American roots, that what is privileged in this outlook is the suffering subject who finds themself at the mercy of an instrumental view of nature and human history.

Proponents of ecological hermeneutics, a movement which has significant momentum in Oceania, will be glad to see the magisterium apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to a reading of Scripture that which would legitimise the exploitation of nature on the basis of man’s “dominion” over the earth (LS 67).  Instead, a relationship of mutuality between human beings and nature is affirmed as an integral dimension of the Judaeo-Christian tradition with reference to an array of biblical texts.

PX*7450626The third chapter of Laudato Si homes in on the human roots of the ecological crisis, and Francis here isolates the “globalisation of the technocratic paradigm” (LS 106) as the fundamental cause of the unsustainable predicament we face. This paradigm involves an ethic of possession, mastery and transformation that inevitably leads to a confrontational relationship between persons and between persons and nature with technology the means of our domination over each other and reality. This is seen no more clearly than in the destruction of the unborn, with the Pope asking the question, “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” Citing Benedict XVI, Francis concludes, “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (LS 120). Objective truth and universally valid principles are today swept aside by the arbitrary use of technology as the blunt tool of human control and possession, as a means of rejecting that which is not convenient, profit-making or of utility to our private whims. It is no wonder then that the environment falls victim to that same myth of “progress” that erases the most vulnerable from view and even from life itself.

It is worth noting the broader implications of the “integral ecology” that Pope Francis is urging us towards in Laudato Si. The Pope includes ourselves, humanity, firmly within and not outside an integral ecology and so issues such as work, the dignity of the body, a common good that extends to future generations, this total “human ecology” is relevant to our care of creation. It is an authentic anthropology, one that holds faith and hope in the capacity of humankind to rise above itself (LS 205), to transcend isolation and find communion in truth and love that will lead us to the renewal of our relationship with the environment and other living beings.

To conclude this initial overview of Laudato Si, Pope Francis suggests that at the core of the ecological crisis is the crisis of the human heart. The remedy for this disordered desire that shapes so many, a desire that feels “unable to give up what the market sets before them” (LS 209) is the formation of a new heart and the retrieval of an “ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God” (LS 210). As the pope reminds us “we have only one heart” (LS 92) and its conversion from self-interested pragmatism will have salvific consequence for the environment as well as for each other.

synod on the family 2014

synod2The Extraordinary Synod on the Family concluded over the weekend in Rome (5-19 October, 2014), bookended by the beatification of Pope Paul VI. It proved to be an eventful, even enthralling journey for the Church, two weeks of discussion, passionate debate and prayerful discernment about the way in which the Church can best bring the Gospel to bear on the lives of millions of families as diverse as they are complex.

Given the multidimensions of family life, the issues canvassed by the bishops and participants were also broad. They included the plight of refugees, the care of children with special needs, the situation of migrant workers and the unemployed, the impact of the internet on family bonds, and then there were the distinctive concerns of African bishops whose concerns differ in striking ways from those in the affluent West (e.g. the practice of polygamy and conditions of extreme poverty).

However, and perhaps inevitably, the focus of media and popular attention ultimately fell on two specific matters: the question of Eucharist for the divorced and remarried, and the Church’s pastoral response to homosexual persons.

Controversies of the Synod

synod3As the first synod of bishops to meet under the leadership of Pope Francis, and affirming as it did many diverse views on the way in which Catholic faith speaks to human lives, the synod attracted not only generous media coverage for a Catholic get-together but wide-ranging interpretations of what was said, by whom and for what intent.

Of course, the synod discussions were pre-empted and almost overshadowed by Cardinal Kasper of Germany who in February 2014 advocated for access to communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried. This was followed by a strong critique of his position by several other cardinals, including in the book-length reply, The Gospel of the Family, which contained a foreword by our own Australian prelate Cardinal Pell (the text of the Cardinal’s introduction is available here).

(For those interested in the pre-history of the synod, preparations began in earnest in November 2013, with a survey distributed by national bishops’ conferences to glean the opinions of Catholics on a number of Church teachings. The survey was a commendable initiative and expressed a sincere desire to be consultative though it clearly suffered from limitations, including the formulation of the questions which could be difficult for the Catholic in the street to say the least e.g. ‘How is the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman challenged in light of the formation of a family?’ This survey was followed in June 2014 by the lineamenta or preparatory document for the Synod which presented the results of the November consultation and set a platform for the synod discussions to begin in earnest).

midtermreportAs the synod officially got underway this month, one of the major causes of controversy was the mid-term or post-discussion report known as the relatio post disceptationem. This was intended as a provisional snapshot of the views of the bishops thus far. However, many bishops objected to the content of this summary, noting that it was not only insufficiently grounded in Scripture and Catholic tradition but that it seemed to present the views of one or two particular bishops as the consensus of the whole assembly, which they were not.

The most strident and vocal objector to this interim report was the American cardinal Raymond Burke who argued, ‘[this document], in fact, advances positions which many Synod Fathers do not accept and, I would say, as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept’. Controversially, the interim report had included praise for the ‘positive aspects’ of what the Church has long considered ‘irregular’ situations, including civil unions and cohabitation, and even spoke of ‘accepting and valuing’ people of homosexual orientation  (though with the notable disclaimer ‘without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony’).

Criticism was particularly focused on the General Secretariat of the Synod which handled the information flowing out of the bishops’ discussion, with accusations that its members, including Cardinal Baldisseri, had manipulated, or at the very least swayed considerably, the content of the relatio to reflect a personal and permissive agenda.

Interpretations of the Synod

synod4As is customary, and was the case following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the major media outlets interpreted the discussions and debates of the bishops through a political lens, with reports of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ camps pitted one against the other (of course, Pope Francis was read as ensconced within the latter and undermined by the former, taken to be the majority).

Without denying the political nature of all human discourse, including the ordinary desire to influence outcomes and press one’s case, the heart of a synod is not the political motivations that underlie the bishops’ views but the theological arguments that are raised in accounting for those positions. Of course, the media is generally not interested in actual arguments, only assertions, and for the most part lack a theological background or concern.

In cherry-picking lines from the disputed interim report we have mentioned, as well as Pope Francis’ powerful concluding address to the Synod Fathers, the Daily Mail and even the BBC were able to run histrionic headlines such as “Massive Vatican shift on gay sex” and “Pope Francis set back on gay policy”.

The BBC coverage focused on Francis’ critique of ‘hostile inflexibility’ among so-called traditionalists and intellectuals, and implied that these adversarial forces had undermined or ‘setback’ the Pope’s more ‘progressive’ agenda on homosexuals and the remarried. Conspicuously, the report made no mention whatsoever of the pontiff’s critique in the self-same address of those who have ‘come down from the cross’ to ‘bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God’ (you can read the complete address here).

More locally, broadcasters tapped into the local response to the synod, including SBS which while perpetuating the BBC caricature of a Pope Francis opposed by backward bishops, at least tried to seek out a Catholic view of things.

sbsIn my fifteen seconds in the spotlight, I shared the view that the synod represents a healthy and vital discussion for the global Catholic Church and that the Catholic bishops are mindful of the lived situations of people from across the world and mindful also of what the Gospel can bring to those contexts. I tried to underscore that the range of issues being discussed by the synod as they relate to the family were broad and that the synod represents the Church’s ongoing and sincere discernment of how best to accompany people in their life journeys, including divorcees, the civilly remarried, single parents, and gays and lesbians to whom the Gospel also speaks. (Other voices in the report included Paul Collins who can always be relied upon to express more than a healthy scepticism about Church matters).

Discernment is Not Division

The key to an interpretation of the synod and its events is given to us, I think, in Pope Francis’ closing address to the Synod Fathers which is a profound and striking statement (you can read it here). He provides us with ‘the eyes of faith’ to continue talking about these issues with confidence.

Firstly, Pope Francis is not at all unnerved by the differing views expressed in the preceding fortnight and accepts the rigorous debates in faith as an expression of the Church discerning how to enter ever more deeply into the heart of the Gospel by the sensus fidei, the sense of faith of the faithful. As he shared,

Many commentators . . . have imagined they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.

9954008What Francis is affirming by valuing debate over the silence of ‘a false and quietist peace’ is the capacity of the Church to receive God’s revelation faithfully and meaningfully by attending, together as people of faith in the Spirit, to tradition, including the teachings of the Magisterium, and the experience of Christian families in the world (I have written about the Church’s discernment of the Spirit here, in relation to the 2013 papal conclave).

To teach and evangelise the Church must first listen, receive time and again the deposit of faith which constitutes our living tradition and attend to the complex realities of contemporary family life which too can be a source of theological knowing.

The guarantor of the Church’s ongoing faithfulness to Christ in this multidimensional process is the Holy Spirit, as Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium affirms and which Pope Francis cited in as many words,

The universal body of the faithful who have received the anointing of the holy one cannot err in matters of belief. It displays this particular quality through a supernatural sense of the faith in the whole people when ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful laity’, it expresses the consent of all in matters of faith and morals (Lumen Gentium 12).

This discernment of the sensus fidei, a sense of the faith and the Church’s sense for the faith, should not be a ‘source of confusion and discord’, as Francis remarked in his address, but should be entered into with confidence, trust and utmost faith in the Holy Spirit’s capacity, through diverse and even imperfect people (like you and me) to lead God’s people to the truth and mercy of God (you can read more about this connection between the deepening of tradition and the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit in Dei Verbum 8 as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church n.892).

As well, in the process of spiritual discernment that will continue until the General Synod on the family in 2015, Francis warns of temptations or polarities. The first temptation is to be fossilised in our faith, exhibiting a ‘hostile inflexibility’ which would in fact impede the ability of the Church to bring the Gospel to new and developing circumstances. This kind of fundamentalism or rigorism can manifest a lack of faith and trust in the Spirit that guides the Church (the Marian dogmas of the 19th and 20th centuries standout as instances in which the Church has developed a deeper appreciation of her own faith). ‘Traditionalism’ is in fact not traditional at all for the pilgrim Catholic Church understands development as a perennial and necessary deepening of her self-understanding in light of the Gospel, and never a departure from it (“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life”; John 6:68)

Christ Mosaic Cefalu Sicily 12th CenturyThe other risk named by Francis, the one that media outlets were less enthusiastic to report, was the capitulation or accommodation of the Church, and the Gospel it bears, to ‘a worldly spirit instead of purifying [the world] and bending it to the spirit of God’.

The Church must engage the world, as Francis has so often stressed, but it engages the world and contemporary culture with a view of what the world really is in Christ, a world of men and women made in the image of God and called to conversion or ‘likeness’ in Christ in whom we find our origin and destiny. Thus, Pope Francis critiques outright in his concluding address,

a destructive tendency to do-gooding, which in the name of a false mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them, that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots

with the phrase ‘false mercy’ a nod to no less than St John Paul II. What does Francis mean by this? He means that we cannot truly serve people in their wounds and in their growth through crisis if we disregard the truth, if we cover over the truth with superficial or cheap dressings. As American Archbishop Kurtz put it, ‘Mercy without truth is not mercy’.

While the concrete solutions to the contemporary challenges that confront the family will be the subject of discussion over the next twelve months, the synodal process has already recalled two principles for our view of Church and mission. The first, that all people are called to Christ and the Church – as all are called to the King’s banquet in the parable of Matthew 22 – and second, that all people are called to conversion in Christ who is the source of true life  – as was the guest at the banquet called to change before approaching the table. The Church must both open wide its arms to the sinner and invite a new creation in each one of us, no matter what our state of life or circumstances may be. This is the universal hope and universal challenge of the Gospel.

Much more will be said on family and life issues in the coming year, by each of the local churches (dioceses), episcopal conferences and the observing media. As Catholics, we are being invited by Pope Francis explicitly and the debates of the synod implicitly to trust in the Spirit-filled capacity of the whole Church, all of us together, to know what the faith is and to better accompany all people in their journeys with the promise and joy of the Gospel.