a plenary council in practice

rawpixel-761491-unsplashIt is now eight months since the road to Plenary Council 2020 was formally opened at Pentecost 2018. It will be the first Plenary Council that the Church in Australia has held in over eighty years and comes at a time when the challenges for and to the Catholic faith – and so the allied possibilities for reform – are multiple. Consider parish decline, the shape of Catholic education, failures of governance, and the future of religious freedom alone.

There are many who have taken up the Plenary Council with great faith, enthusiasm and hopeful anticipation. Indeed, over 30,000 people have engaged with the Plenary Council process across the country to date. In my own Diocese of Broken Bay the local response from communities has been overwhelming and the Diocese has registered the fourth highest number of responses (exceeded only by the Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth archdioceses) and the highest number of responses in Australia in proportion to the number of its parishes.

It can be acknowledged that some have lent their voice and insights to the process with reserve, with a natural scepticism borne of experience or lingering questions regarding what, if anything, is truly possible. Others will choose to be bystanders on the road to 2020, content to watch the process unfold without contribution. This non-engagement can express reticence about the value of dialogue within the Church per se, unclarity as to the purpose or implications of the Plenary Council, or a detachment from the broader Church, perhaps in preference for local concerns or resignation to the status quo.

james-coleman-694177-unsplashUnderlining these reactions to the Plenary Council will be varying understandings of the Church itself and of the possibilities for reform. Contrasting ecclesiologies about the best way in which the Church can exercise its mission are certainly not new. Polarisation has been an increasing mark of Catholic exchange particularly since the Second Vatican Council and intensified in the ‘phase of disillusionment’ that followed. These divisions about the way forwards for the Church have been inflamed by the Church’s waning influence in the Australian community and the search for a response to a loss of credibility and public voice over past decades which risks for the Church what Greg Sheridan has described as ‘complete strategic irrelevance’ (‘Christian churches drifting too far from the marketplace of ideas’, The Australian, 4/6/2016). The resulting ecclesial tensions and ideological rifts will inevitably spill over to shape people’s expectations and engagement with the Plenary Council as an initiative of the Church, explicitly geared as it is towards reform.

However, it is because of these ecclesial divisions and differences, rather than despite them, that the Plenary Council matters. To be clear, the Plenary Council is not an ecumenical council that will define or determine articles of faith (what we are to believe) nor can it legislate on matters of discipline which the Holy See has reserved to itself. It will not deliver an entirely ‘new’ Church which has no connection to its past, nor should it seek to do so. It is an organ of governance that can assist the Church to live God’s mission more faithfully as “a sacrament or instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity” (Lumen Gentium 1).

PEC2Towards this end what the Plenary Council will do and is doing is generating a significant, even if for some unsettling, conversation about the way in which the Church can best practice its mission in Christ into the future. A Plenary Council can, for example, pass legislation regulating how doctrine is to be taught, how worship is to be regulated and how governance is to occur in practice. It is to these matters that diverse input is needed for the benefit of the Church’s missionary mandate.

The Plenary Council is a call to focus as a communion of faith on the ways in which we are summoned by God through the action of the Holy Spirit to live the life and mission of Christ in contemporary Australian society. This includes those ways in which the Church is called to be a sign of contradiction in the world, to collaborate towards the common good with others of good will, and to serve as a leaven transforming the world from within.

One of the chief reservations that has been expressed about the Plenary Council is that initiating dialogue about the future of the Church in Australia will encourage false or unrealistic expectations. As the saying goes, ‘expectations can be premeditated resentments’ when reality does not conform to our hope or our views have lost connection with our tradition. This makes it even more important to clarify the nature and procedure of a Plenary Council so there are good reasons for our hope, not magical thinking that will leave us disappointed.

As already noted, a Plenary Council is not a vehicle by which dogma or doctrines pertaining to faith and morals are reshaped or changed. The purpose of a Plenary Council is to ensure that provision is made for the pastoral needs of the people of God and so, with regard for the universal law of the Church, it is ‘to decide what seems opportune for the increase of faith, the organisation of common pastoral action, and the regulation of morals and of the common ecclesiastical discipline which is to be observed, promoted and protected’ (Canon 445).

dev-222588-unsplashUnder present canon law, the decisions of the Council are made by bishops by nature of their episcopal ordination as successors of the Apostles. However, it would be mistaken to read this exercise of authority as an isolated act for in casting their deliberative vote the bishops are required to be attentive to the counsel of the people in their dioceses and at the Council sessions themselves. The magisterium must sense with the Church as a whole where the Spirit’s inspiration is leading. Lay delegates at the Council will have a consultative vote, namely a real vote which will be written and tallied and is to be considered seriously by those with a deliberative vote. So it is that the bishops are obliged to make decisions on the basis of their careful discernment of the work of the Holy Spirit in the minds and hearts of the People of God, recognising that the sense of the faith of the faithful – what is known as the sensus fidelium – is a source of the Church’s life and learning as it pilgrims through history.

To elaborate, the sensus fidelium is that gift of the Holy Spirit which enables the whole Church to receive and to transmit the Catholic faith effectively and faithfully. The lay faithful as living and active members of the Church contribute to this instinct of faith and are not merely passive recipients of what the hierarchy teach and theologians explain. As such it is reasonable that appropriate dispensations may well be sought from the Holy See to ensure representation of laity at the Council sessions is maximised (this matter has been discussed by the Executive Committee and Bishops Commission for the Council). Following the sharing of a sense of faith and the weighing of the issues and viewpoints raised, it is to the magisterium of the bishops to judge with authority whether opinions which are present among the People of God, and which may seem to be the sensus fidelium, actually correspond to the truth of the tradition received from the Apostles.

It is theologically important to affirm that individual views and opinions shared through Plenary Council sessions across Australia bring real perspective and insight to the Church’s situation, borne of concrete contexts. As it has been remarked, given that dialogue within the Church is not an ingrained habit or cultural norm for many of us as Catholics, some ‘will probably speak clumsily, angrily or shallowly the first time around. It is only over time that we eventually learn what we most deeply want to say.’ It is also true that the views of individuals need to be brought into conversation with the whole Church as a body of the faithful – hence the need for mutual listening and shared dialogue in the formation of an agenda for the Plenary Council. This dialogue is a requirement because it is in the lives of the faithful that the Word of God is lived and expressed. In discerning and taking decisions at the Council, the bishops are called to be a listening and learning body of teachers as well as discharging an apostolic commission to authentically interpret what is true to and advantageous for the faith.

Considering what has been shared, the concern that a Plenary Council would change Catholic doctrine under pressure of populism is unfounded and does not align with the reality, purpose or mandate of such a Council.

paul-keiffer-789203-unsplashNor does it represent the intent of the listening process underway until Lent 2019. The thousands upon thousands of submissions and voices they represent will shape the major themes that will constitute the agenda of the Plenary Council. Naturally in the abundance of data received will be conflicting interpretations of what has been revealed in Jesus, the Scriptures and our Catholic tradition and varied proposals on how best to incarnate the Gospel in our present situation and our future. This interpretive maelstrom is not a new experience for the Church (think of the disputes of Saints Peter and Paul, and the divergences of the Pauline and Johannine communities).

However, what is new in the submissions toward Plenary Council 2020 are concrete situations and questions of this moment of history for which we need to invoke and involve the Spirit’s gift of understanding. The preparations for a Plenary Council in 2020 require a sounding of the lived experience of faith and the Church among people today because we cannot seek to grow the Church as the body of Christ by closing the door against reality, as messy or vexed as that reality can be. Dialogue as a means of ecclesial discernment expresses the intrinsic relationship between the magisterium as a teaching office and the sensus fidei as a grace of the present. It affirms our faith in the capacity of the whole Church to attend to the Spirit’s guidance into ‘all the truth’ (Jn 16:13).

As I see it we are compelled to engage at this time in rigorous conversation about the future of our parishes, where the percentage of participation is declining to single digits across the nation; the role of Catholic education in the mission of the Church as enrolment numbers decline in a number of jurisdictions; the effective proclamation of and witness to the faith in a pluralistic environment; the quality of leadership – ordained and lay – required for the exercise of the Church’s mission in a new era and in address of social and political developments; the charisms of all the baptised which remain largely inactive and are yet to be fully engaged, and our continued development of a healthy, safe and missionary ecclesial culture. It is no secret that it is our personal and shared discipleship that stands as the deepest source of renewal across these varied aspects of the Church’s life.

As such, the Plenary Council will not give rise to a ‘church of preferences’ but rather provides the opportunity, if we take it, to better equip the Church in Australia to proclaim the unchanging Gospel in new and vital ways. Our Catholic tradition is none other than the Church’s reception of Jesus through time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In this time of challenge and opportunity for the Church it is incumbent upon us to seek out, receive and then voice what this Spirit is saying to the churches (Rev 2:7).

 

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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.

 

making all things new

photoWe have arrived at the final days of the working year and there is much to give thanks for. Back in February, Faith in Our Future: Pastoral Plan for the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta was launched after two years of preparation and consultation. The months that followed have been dedicated to seeing through the implementation of initiatives in the diocese as well as offering support to parishes and a variety of groups to engage the plan as a vehicle to grow in identity and mission.

For me, planning for mission has never been a desperate attempt of the Church to pull itself out of an abyss; it is an expression of faith in God that there is more offered to us, more possibilities for growth in grace than we have yet to receive, discern and bring to life in our time. It is a way of listening and responding to the future that God really wants to bring about in our contemporary culture and actively walking towards that horizon, rather than remaining content to bemoan the setting of the sun.

st-praxedes-ceiling-of-st-zeno-chapelThis year has exceeded my expectations because there has been a sincere and common commitment to undertake the journey of renewal in the diocese. This commitment has been genuine and determined at all levels. All of us are asking the hard questions about parish life in the light of their challenges and to consider new ways of living this perennial mission we have received. If nothing else, the vision and direction of the plan has given people permission and the courage to reform their pastoral life, to make change in order to remain faithful.

Of course, in bringing forth the new or unfamiliar in the Church, there will always be elements of inertia, sometimes fuelled by pride or inflexibility. Sometimes change is resisted due to weariness, other times by a pessimism or low morale that obscures hope. However, even where such reticence exists, the experience of decline as Church or the lull in vocation among some eventually discloses the hidden, divine situation that lies in wait. The experience of diminishment can reveal what as individuals and communities we have taken for granted – whether that is the presumed sufficiency of our current pastoral practice or the depth of our vision – and also what we have overlooked, the capacity of our people for discipleship, for going beyond mere religious conformism and entering into a real, genuine and evangelical faith.

As Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges OP shares, in the spirit of the ressourcement, there is nothing contradictory about the interruption of the new and continuity in the life of the Church,

It is a rather widespread error, but an error all the same, to believe that continuity and transcendence are opposed to each other, as if in the analysis of a single phenomenon the one were exclusive of the other. The truth is that continuity and transcendence . . . do not impede each other in any way. A ray of sun that strikes water does not prevent it from running, and the current does not prevent the shining of the sun.

Most times the waters of the Church do carry the light of the sun. Other times, the waters can become sullied and the plenitude of the Gospel light is obscured or hidden from sight. The Church is never beyond reform or conversion and ‘the new evangelisation’, first of all and ultimately, is a call to enter more deeply into the life of God, and to bring all of creation, culture and the pilgrim Church with us.

© Diocese of Parramatta 2012

© Diocese of Parramatta 2012

When looking for signs of change and conversion, a shift in language can be a sign of a shifting ecclesial culture. When people and parishes talk about things they have not traditionally spoken about, ask questions when groups or ministries no longer grow and also when they bear unexpected fruit, when communities not only talk about mission, lay formation or evangelisation but actually do something about it or make room for the new, when parishes know with conviction that they do not have to fall into a sense of resignation, low morale or nostalgia for a time past, when parishes give up obsessing about the many red herrings in Catholic discourse and focus on worship, mission and disciple-making, you know that a Church is not merely moving but is being moved. He is making all things new (Rev. 21:5).

Looking beyond the border, this year also saw the privilege of offering formation at the Good Shepherd Seminary in Sydney (February), in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and in Townsville (March), at a Catholic Mission colloquium on Pope Francis (April), a clergy conference at Bathurst (April), at Australian Catholic University with chaplains, and with the priests and deacons of the Melkite Catholic Church (June). Then there were addresses to the ACBC Commission on Church Ministry, at an Augustinian chapter at Dee Why (July), at the Catholic Digital Media Conference in North Sydney and at the Proclaim Conference (August).

Next year brings a research trip to the U.S. where I’ll be attending the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development in San Antonio, Texas, followed by meetings with the archdioceses of Louisville, Kentucky (with a few days retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemane, the spiritual home of Thomas Merton, in the 100th anniversary year of his birth), the archdiocese of Baltimore, time at CARA in Washington, a premiere Catholic research body, then meetings with the directors and staff behind the significant planning projects currently unfolding in the archdioceses of Boston and New York.

© Diocese of Parramatta 2014

© Diocese of Parramatta 2014

Closer to home 2015 will see our team offer diocesan formation events for parish pastoral councils, an initiative that recognises that parish pastoral councils best plan for the future with a shared sense of Church and mission, additional parish-based resources similar to Welcome and Evangelise (3MB) released this year, pilot programs of Catholic Alpha at both ends of the diocese, and Lenten resources which have just been prepared to aid the ongoing spiritual renewal of the Diocese. So, much to look forward to even as we look back on the year that was.

Thank you for being a reader and every blessing on you and your loved ones this Advent and Christmas. I’ll be back online in February 2015 and look forward to sharing some learnings and travels with you in the New Year. With every good wish, Daniel.

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.

 

the rural and regional church

BathurstEarlier this week I was privileged to join Bishop Michael McKenna, the clergy and lay leaders of the Diocese of Bathurst for a day focused on pastoral planning. More and more dioceses are recognising the opportunity that pastoral plans represent, not merely to address immediate challenges but also, and more fundamentally, to translate the life of our parishes and dioceses into a new missionary key. While offering no kitbag of ‘silver bullets’ it was good to share what we have learned through achievement and mistakes in developing a pastoral plan in our own urban context in Parramatta.

In examining the foundations of Church planning I sought to emphasise that planning processes that begin from a bureaucratic or purely administrative perspective may well produce a document but they will not generate life, they will not foster a greater sense of God’s mission, discipleship or belonging among its people.

Authentic planning in the Church cannot be primarily a question of the right structures for a diocese, the right mix of policies or administrative concerns because if flesh-and-blood people and parishes are not growing spiritually in their discipleship, then any structural change a diocese might make is merely a postponement of ongoing decline rather than representing a pro-active and new footing for a 21st century mission.

Pastoral plans must focus on generating life and discipleship for mission. Planning processes, through consultation and a sober and public assessment of the facts, are a way of fostering participation, conversation and ownership of a common vision and practical wisdom that will bring about change. A planning process is a way by which Church leadership can ignite a conversation about the things that matter, challenge views of the Church that are too narrow or complacent, and awaken all people, ordained and lay, to the responsibility to live the change and faith that they would like to see. This primary focus on discipleship and mission is vital because dioceses and parishes do not grow if people don’t.

bathurstAs an outsider I spent some time reflecting on the Diocese of Bathurst as known through research and observation. The diocese was formally established in 1865 and today comprises 19 parishes with other, smaller Eucharistic communities dotted across a vast terrain. There are some 67,877 Catholics in the Diocese (30.7% of the general population) and the average size of parishes is 3,572 Catholics with the sizes ranging from 339 (Eugowra) to 13,709 (Orange).

The average percentage Mass attendance rate across the Bathurst Diocese is about 10.5% which is on par with many other dioceses across the country. With those other dioceses, the Mass attendance rate in Bathurst is likely to fall under 10% by 2016 which only increases the need for good planning in the years ahead. Distance, of course, is a distinguishing feature of the Bathurst Diocese with its faith communities spread across some 103,600 square kilometres. This is 24 times the size of the Parramatta Diocese which takes in a mere 4,289 square kilometres!

Hence, one of the issues that I explored was the response of rural and regional dioceses in Australia and the U.S. to smaller numbers of clergy and parishes, vast distances and limited resources. While not exhaustive, the list below provides some sense of how rural and regional dioceses have led the way in reforming pastoral life and ministries for mission. As Pope Francis has underscored so many times in his pontificate, the prophetic will emerge from the peripheries not the centres which can, in comparison, be rather more complacent and comfortable in the status quo of ecclesial life.

  • Diocesan reconfiguration is the obvious response for rural and regional dioceses to assume in the face of challenging conditions. Amalgamations, twinning and clustering of parishes is a response known to all Australian dioceses (excluding the eparchies and extra-territorial dioceses) though the pastoral fallout of such structural change tends to be less affiliation with the Church among some members as people are simply not willing or even able to travel to identify with a faith community outside their immediate locality.
  • Sunday Worship in the Absence of a Priest is an increasing practice and a legitimate response for many regional and rural dioceses across the world. It is often exercised on alternative weekends when the local priest cannot be present. The Australian norms for this form of worship, promulgated in 2004, are available here in PDF.
  • Accompanying this worship in the absence of a priest is the phenomenon of lay preaching which has developed with vigour in the U.S. Take for instance the rural diocese of Great Falls-Billings in Montana, in the Western United States. Coincidentally, this diocese is about three times the geographic size of Bathurst and contains three times the number of parishes as Bathurst (54 in total) but with the same number of Catholics as Bathurst (around 60,000). Hence Great Falls-Billings has fewer Catholics per parish. I did not endeavour to explore the complexities of Canon 766 which permits lay preaching in certain circumstances other than to say that the U.S. Bishops’ Conference has authorised each diocesan bishop to decide if a lay person may preach in his or her own words when the Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest is used. The uneven history of instructions and decrees from Rome on this subject leaves lay preaching as an exception in the Church, as an instruction or testimony at Eucharistic liturgies that is not to be confused with the homily, and altogether more appropriate at non-Eucharistic liturgies. As far as I am aware, no provision exists for such preaching under the mandate of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference and none is envisaged at this time.
  • Reliance on clergy from the developing world is increasingly common and well known in rural and urban contexts, though this brings with it theological, ethical and pastoral issues, including issues pertaining to the inculturation of international priests and justice for the dioceses from which these clergy originate.
  • Deployment of women religious as parish leaders is also a common response both here and the U.S. In Canberra-Goulburn a group of parishes known as the ‘Western Mission’ has seen a parish priest reside in one faith community but with canonical appointment in another four small communities. The priest then delegates that jurisdiction to four ‘community leaders’ which have included among them women religious.
  • Lay leadership within parishes has been explored in a number of ways here and in the U.S., expressed in multi-parish team structures, coordinating teams of three people (as has been practiced in the dioceses of Ballarat and Sandhurst), deanery communities and the formal appointment of non-ordained pastoral leaders. However, lay leadership of parishes on a day-to-day basis, with the overarching governance and sacramental ministry of clergy, has not yet been systematically or strategically explored by dioceses in Australia.
  • Finally but significantly, in some instances, given that many rural parishes would not be viable without the presence of the school, the absence of a resident priest has seen school leadership exercise a role of spiritual leadership in the local community, with more pastoral significance and recognition of this role than a relatively distant parish priest.

In concluding my time with the clergy and lay leaders of Bathurst, I conveyed that while many hours could be spent exploring the pros and cons of these models employed in other dioceses, it would be to a certain extent in vain for what is of greater importance than the actual solution or response that might be decided upon is the process by which such decisions might be arrived at in this local church at this time in its history.

consultationGood and effective pastoral plans come into being by a collective exploration of realities and potential, not by a process of map-reading. That is, a pastoral plan will never be truly owned, accepted or generate life among the people of a diocese if it is picked out of the handbook of another diocese or parish altogether different from our own. There is no map or pre-ordained model for the future of our dioceses, including Bathurst. A map can only be drawn or outlined after the local community of faith has wrestled with and chewed over the pastoral realities, personnel and unique features of its context.

Regional dioceses in Australia may well arrive at solutions similar to the ones outlined above but if there is a well-designed, consultative process at work, they will have arrived at those same solutions with the support, practical advice and commitment of all rather than the best conjectures of the few.

I concluded this privileged time with the Diocese of Bathurst with the encouragement that once people are fully engaged in a local sense of mission, once they have had a wide and unvarnished conversation about the changing needs of clergy and parishes, once there is inspired animation of practicing Catholics through a specific and targeted consultation process on core issues, and once a diocesan vision is agreed upon, then in fact the right or most fitting solutions will begin to suggest themselves.

I have no doubt that it is rural and regional dioceses such as Bathurst that will lead the rest of us into new ways of living the perennial Gospel. We will learn much from them and be evangelised by their missionary spirit.

 

evangelii gaudium

1385914493-evangelii_gaudiumThe first apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel”, was published late last month. It received an overwhelmingly positive reception in the Church and beyond (with the notable exception of some U.S. Republicans and Fox News commentators for its commentary on market economics). In my view, Evangelii Gaudium could emerge as a document more ‘programmatic’ for Church renewal than Novo Millennio Ineunte (2001) which has been a foundational document for those involved in Church planning and adult education. Summaries and analysis of Francis’ exhortation are available through various websites and blogs, including America, the National Catholic Reporter, and the ABC (Austin Ivereigh).

Rather than rehearse the content of Evangelii Gaudium, which others have done superbly, I will simply make a few comments on the document through the lens of pastoral planning for Catholic dioceses and parishes.

In providing a compelling vision for the contemporary Church Francis’ document is not intended to serve as a simple instruction manual or a blunt recipe for success but remains a work of theology proper, mediating the tradition in the present with a view to the future of the Church’s mission. Nevertheless, the implications for planning are striking.

Cardinals 5As background, the document represents Francis’ distillation and extension of themes surfaced at the October 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation for the Transmission of Christian Faith. It remains of note how much currency the word ‘evangelisation’ now holds in the Catholic Church in light of a historical reluctance to engage the term at all. While finding its origins in Scripture itself, Archbishop Rino Fisichella notes:

In all probability, it was Erasmus (a Catholic Dutch theologian) who first inserted into our language the derived term ‘to evangelise,’ to designate what he considered to be a form of Lutheran fanaticism (Fisichella, The New Evangelisation: Responding to the Challenge of Indifference, 17).

In other words, ‘evangelise’ was understood by Catholic minds in the wake of the Reformation in a largely pejorative sense, attracting disapproval for its Protestant overtones that included Luther’s exhortation to ‘preach the Gospel alone’. In contrast to ‘evangelise’ Catholics preferred to speak of ‘mission.’ It is only from the middle of the twentieth century, say the 1950s and onwards, that we see the word ‘evangelisation’ reemerge in Catholic idiom with any vigour.

If the ‘new evangelisation’ was a child of the pontificate of John Paul II, and gathered strength and stature as a concept or idea under Pope Benedict XVI, it has reached perhaps not yet maturity but certainly a living presence and tangible dynamism under the leadership of Pope Francis.

jp11 version 2On his part, John Paul II identified a ‘spirituality of communion’ as the basis of ecclesial renewal in Novo Millennio Ineunte as he shared his vision of the Church on the cusp of the third millennium. This letter was and remains exceptional for grounding reform in both the eternal life and relations of the Trinity as well as the temporal conditions in which the Church lives its mission:

. . . it is not a matter of inventing a ‘new programme’. The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem . . . But it must be translated into pastoral initiatives adapted to the circumstances of each community (Novo Millennio Ineunte 29)

The Church is called to manifest its permanent identity and mission as a sacrament of communion in the concrete and changeable conditions of human history. Novo Millennio Ineunte then went on to identify holiness as the abiding measure and goal of all of the Church’s planning and activity, asserting plainly but evocatively,

. . . to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness is a choice filled with consequences. It implies the conviction that, since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity (Novo Millennio Ineunte 31)

Pope FrancisTwelve years on, Evangelii Gaudium contains no such reference to pastoral planning per se though it does, in fact, express much of Pope Francis’ thought on the subject. This becomes clear when we take note of the pontiff’s address to CELAM (the Latin American Episcopal Council) earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro, at the tail end of World Youth Day. In that address he observed:

In Latin America and the Caribbean there are pastoral plans which are ‘distant’, disciplinary pastoral plans which give priority to principles, forms of conduct, organisational procedures… and clearly lack nearness, tenderness, a warm touch. They do not take into account the ‘revolution of tenderness’ brought by the incarnation of the Word. There are pastoral plans designed with such a dose of distance that they are incapable of sparking an encounter: an encounter with Jesus Christ, an encounter with our brothers and sisters.

Such pastoral plans can at best provide a dimension of proselytism, but they can never inspire people to feel part of or belong to the Church. Nearness creates communion and belonging; it makes room for encounter. Nearness takes the form of dialogue and creates a culture of encounter. One touchstone for measuring whether a pastoral plan embodies nearness and a capacity for encounter is the homily. What are our homilies like? Do we imitate the example of our Lord, who spoke ‘as one with authority’, or are they simply moralising, detached, abstract?        (You can read the full text here)

It is apparent that the same ‘revolution of tenderness’ commended to the Latin American bishops in planning for the Church is recapitulated with vigour in the style and letter of Francis’ first exhortation.

StonesApart from the continuing focus on the homily as a key vehicle of pastoral renewal, Evangelii Gaudium includes the same warning of a ‘distant’ and bureaucratic approach to Church reform and planning, ‘a spiritual worldliness’ which can ‘lead to a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God’s people but the Church as an institution’ (EG 95). As I read it, Francis intimates that an introverted, managerial and administrative approach to the Church’s life can bring about a neglect for the people of God as church processes end up replacing or even compromising the larger goal of holiness and mission. To draw from the language of Thomas Merton, without due care the ‘cause’ – even a ‘religious’ one – comes to replace concrete persons in their dignity and need of healing, interpersonal bonds and helps to holiness.

Further on in the exhortation, Francis guides the Church and pastoral workers between the Scylla of good intent without action and the Charybdis of practical proposals devoid of genuine spirituality. He writes,

Mystical notions without a solid social and missionary outreach are of no help to evangelisation, nor are dissertations or social or pastoral practices which lack a spirituality which can change hearts. These unilateral and incomplete proposals only reach a few groups and prove incapable of radiating beyond them because they curtail the Gospel
(EG 262).

Those planning for evangelisation and church renewal must, therefore, avoid a sociological reduction of the Church to the status of a commercial enterprise – one in which spiritual fruitfulness is replaced by a concern for ‘efficiency’ and missionary discipleship is reduced to the mere matter of the right ‘technique’. Also to be eschewed is that false elevation of the Church out of history, an abstract ecclesiology that is expressed in the fideistic hope that all will simply fall together and that the Church’s mission will be compelling without our best efforts.

candlesFrancis makes clear that the Gospel calls forth our human engagement and creativity in the work of God. It is a call to a renewed intent, zeal and commitment to mission that resists all self-satisfaction and smugness among dioceses and parishes. He can say, therefore, ‘pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way”. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelisation in their respective communities’ (EG 33).

Finally, in Evangelii Gaudium there is a call for prudence among pastoral workers who are prone to what Francis describes as ‘pastoral acedia’, a dimming of expectation and resolve on account of a variety of factors. These include the pursuit of ‘unrealistic projects’ where pride or ambition overtakes reason, a lack of patience for processes to mature in time, and the aforementioned depersonalisation of the work of the Church in a narrow focus on ‘the road map’ without a consciousness of the journey – those evolving landscapes and human situations to which we are being called to respond in faith.

While never speaking of pastoral planning as such, Francis’ exhortation, clearly informed by his experience of the local Church and the ecclesiology of the Aparecida Document (PDF), seeks to guide the Church toward a more intentional, explicitly missionary mode of existence. Evangelii Gaudium represents a significant addition to the developing tradition of planning within the Church, supporting as it does a ‘new chapter of evangelisation marked by joy’ (EG 1).

As the calendar year comes to a close, thank you to all those who have read my blog over the past first year of its life. I’ve deeply appreciated your comments, critiques and responses and wish you, your families and communities a peaceful and holy Advent and Christmas. Until the New Year, best wishes and every blessing, Daniel A.