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.

from diplomacy to discipleship

CathedralLismoreThis week I am in the Lismore Diocese speaking at a clergy conference focused on parish renewal. This morning I will present on specific practices of parish renewal, followed by Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, formed in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Here are excerpts from my opening address, delivered last night:

It can be relatively easy to speak of ‘the Church’ in general terms and the last fifty years have certainly seen a great deal of such talk. The range of debate and literature concerning the Church is almost inexhaustible, including such subjects as the Second Vatican Council, the relative merits of post-conciliar reform, the proper form/s of the liturgy, the relationship of the Church and world, the exercise of governance and authority in the Church, the coresponsibilities of the ordained and lay, and more recently the meaning and implications of a ‘new evangelisation’.

It was conciliar peritus and ressourcement theologian Henri de Lubac SJ who pointed out that such talk of ‘the Church’ was relatively rare in the age of the Fathers. For the ancients, the Church was less a discrete body that existed outside of ourselves than it was a common atmosphere which formed our faith, our very life, from within. The Church was the ‘womb’ in which Christian life was born, the ambience in which the human spirit were raised to God and indeed, in a certain sense, it was our destiny as a communion, a people reconciled to God and one another.

The danger, as de Lubac saw it, was that constant talk, ever greater refinements, and systematic analysis of the Church would create a ‘gap’ as it were between ourselves and that of which we talked. He writes,

 . . . some people find themselves tempted to say there is altogether too much talk [about the Church] . . . Would it not be better perhaps to try, quite simply, to live the Church, as so many have done before us? It seems that by considering her from outside in order to discuss her, we run the risk of growing apart from her, in our heart of hearts . . . And in addition to this . . . the Church is a mystery of faith and ‘surpasses the capacities and powers of our intellect no less than any other.’ (De Lubac, Splendour of the Church, 18-19).

886335_lowHowever, even de Lubac, a lodestar of the ressourcement movement, would admit that circumstances arise in which the Church must proclaim a word about itself in order that its vocation and mission in Christ do not fall into disregard or forgetfulness. Here in Australia, in the midst of a Royal Commission, we know that this process of self-reflection, self-understanding and scrutiny is essential to our faithfulness into the future. Words need to be spoken and truths be told.

This need of self-reflection and scrutiny extends also to our parishes which, as local communities, are called to bring the Gospel into contact with the unvarnished reality of a particular people in a particular place. It is in the parish where ecclesiologies are tested and it is in the parish where our mission as Church begins, born of the Word and Eucharist. It is in the parish where the meaning of faith is mediated to contemporary culture, and it is the parish that remains the most important locus in which the mystery and contradictions of human life meet the healing company of God. For many, the parish simply is Church and they know no other.

However, with less than 10% of Catholics attending a parish Mass on any given Sunday in many Australian dioceses, Lismore included, it is clear that there is a significant disconnect between what is understood to be ‘going on’ in our parishes and people’s larger lives, struggles and aspirations.

Reading the Scene

In addressing areas of renewal for parish life, it is vital to retain some perspective about statistics concerning the Church. First of all, as least as far as I am aware, the Catholic Church has never experienced a Mass attendance rate of 100%. We know even at the Last Supper that at least one disciple was not convinced of what was offered. In speaking of the relative vitality or diminishment of our parishes, we should not measure our pastoral effectiveness or ‘success’ against a mythic Golden Age that has never existed. There have better times, yes, but not all churchgoers are disciples. We are where we have always been as Church – in the midst of the work yet to be done, gathering the harvest when the workers are few.

It is also worth noting as perspective that statistics are not the only measure of a Church’s vitality. Indeed, our Church was never more ‘catholic’ than in the Upper Room at Pentecost when all of its members could fit inside a tiny room. So ‘good church’ doesn’t not necessarily mean ‘big church’, and faithfulness is not measured in the size of a crowd, though we do want our parishes to grow, to make mature and more disciples in every generation.

Continuing on the level of diagnosis for the moment, a further point worth making is that the decline in commitment and participation in some of our Catholic parishes is not only or merely a product of what is ‘going on’ in our parishes but also deeply influenced as well by what is happening in the wider community and culture. In short, there are bigger factors at play and these need to be acknowledged when talking about the state of play in our parishes. (In the same way the legacy of Vatican II was shaped not merely by the Council itself but changes in the wider culture).   

For our parishes, it is becoming clear to a number of commentators that a ‘consumerist’ mentality is shaping how many Catholics understand, relate and interact with the parish, and the parish priest, today to the detriment of their genuine discipleship.

Baptism 4The American priest Michael White makes this point well in a recently published work, Rebuilt. In telling the story of his own parish upon his arrival as parish priest, White notes that the people he met struck him not as disciples at all but quite simply consumers. It had become common for the parish to be treated as if it were ‘there for me’. It had become a mere provider of services, filled with programs and services to cater to ever increasing demands, but it was not a community of mature, convinced or missionary discipleship.

White’s experience and reflection on the parish he inherited are worth citing at length:

Little did we appreciate how detached the second and third generations of demanding consumers had grown. We now know they are perfectly comfortable maintaining a loose association with an institution whose organisation they do not like and whose teachings they do not accept or respect. They take what they want and ignore everything else. To their credit, our consumers are specific and consistent in their consumer demands. They want church for their kids – mainly Baptism, First Communion, and a part in the Christmas pageant; they want church as an adornment to their family calendar – Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday . . . they want Communion when they feel like showing up for Mass. They want the church building as a backdrop for funerals and perhaps for weddings – but only if the church is pretty (because weddings are destination driven). Beyond that, we’re mostly an annoying distraction.

But we were inconsistent in our ‘supplier demands’. Our system implicitly understood the ‘hook’ we had into their lives and essentially coerced them to do all the things they didn’t want to do; attend regularly, give us money, and keep their kids in religious education. We kept dreaming up new rules to try to make the system work for us while they kept figuring out new ways to circumvent our rules to make the system work for them. The result was the mutual cynicism to which a consumer mentality can easily lend itself. (White, Rebuilt, 17).

It is a challenge to consider that many of the people we are seeking to re-engage with the Church bring not the question “What can I do to serve?” or, even less likely, “Whom I called to be here?” but rather “What can the Church or parish do for me?” This rather pragmatic, utilitarian outlook can not only shape a lack of ongoing commitment among some of our people but it can distort our own pastoral responses to such ‘Catholics of convenience’, however good or hopeful our intentions may be.

SB004We can see this at times in the urge to renovate parishes, to upgrade halls and carparks, for example, a facility focus which, I acknowledge, is often necessary but that can nevertheless only support a community of disciples and not attract, create or sustain one. We know that even the most pristine, beautiful, well-organised and comfortable parishes can be spiritually dead if they do nothing but cater for the comfort and convenience of a consumer mindset. Consider also Europe which houses some of the most majestic, beautiful churches in the world, churches that remain, nevertheless, idle and empty. It has always been much easier to renovate a building than grow a community of disciples.

From an internal perspective, the absurdity of the situation that White describes is that we, too, can play the game as we are wise enough to know what these ‘consumers’ want. We understand the ‘hook’ we have in their lives (whether its admission to our schools or a priest for a family wedding) and we can leverage on these desires to attempt to make them do what we want them to do which is to ‘attend more regularly’ or even ‘give us money’. The problem is that this entire scene remains fundamentally misguided, played out on the level of pharisaical diplomacy and has little if anything to do with making disciples which is the true goal and mission of our parish life.

The process of bargaining over the practice of faith in our parishes and in our schools only increases negative perceptions and resentment of the Church by ‘outsiders’, deflates a sense of hope and generates cynicism within ourselves as ‘insiders’, and ultimately does little to bring people to a living and open encounter with the person, message and mission of Jesus.

Discipleship

credoSo what of the way forwards? In recent years, even decades, there has been a slow but steady call to reclaim the language and meaning of discipleship and for good reason. Not only is the concept of ‘discipleship’ biblically-grounded, rooted in tradition and accessible to the majority of people but it aptly names the purpose of the parish community: to foster and raise up disciples in the midst of the Church for the sake of the world.

Many of you may know the work of Sherry Weddell on this subject of discipleship and the primary insight of her work has been to acknowledge quite candidly how our parish cultures can work against discipleship by their almost complete silence on the subject.  She writes,

Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey – their relationship with God – except in confession or spiritual direction. This attitude is so pervasive in Catholic communities that we have started to call it the culture of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Unfortunately, most of us aren’t spiritual geniuses. If nobody around us ever talks about a given idea, we are no more likely to think of it spontaneously than we are to suddenly invent a new primary colour. To the extent that we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship. (Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 56).

What Weddell seeks to recover is the fact that a personal, interior journey and encounter with Christ is at the heart of discipleship and at the heart of the Church’s mission as the sacrament of Christ. More strikingly, she will go on to claim that a majority of churched Catholics, even those who show up at Mass, may not yet be disciples in a fully conscious way. She notes that those Catholics who do talk openly about Jesus and their relationship to God, and with any enthusiasm, can be viewed with suspicion, as either ‘Protestant’ in spirit or as pretenders to sanctity.

While we are certainly not called to be spiritual exhibitionists, there is, I think, a challenge here – to revive the conversation and expectations of discipleship in our parish culture and to recognise the overt expression of discipleship as the ‘new norm’ for our parishes, or more accurately, the altogether traditional and abiding norm of Catholic life.

It is interesting to note that in some parish cultures the Mass, the sacraments in general and Catholic devotional practices in particular, given to us precisely for a life of discipleship, have come, for some, to substitute for that journey. Returning to White, he shares this experience:

[The Church of the Nativity] was a sacramental machine: Mass every day, twice a day in Advent and Lent, and eight times each weekend, baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . .

For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it. (White, Rebuilt, 77).

SB011It has been said, often of our families progressing through the rites of initiation, that people can be ‘sacramentalised’ without ever having been evangelised.

Of course, we want to underscore attendance at Mass as a core dimension of a life of faith, to receive Christ in the Eucharist and to hear his Word, and yet, in another sense, an almost exclusive emphasis on attendance can place into the shade a broader focus on discipleship within which the sacraments hold a central and inimitable place. The problematic as I view it is that if discipleship is reduced to liturgy alone then even the practice of attending Mass is likely to weaken over the long term as the very point of a sacramental life is lost on those participating. ‘Sacraments without discipleship’ only feeds the form of ‘consumer Catholicism’ or participation of convenience of which we spoke earlier.

Our contemporary context calls on priests, parishes and centres of adult formation alike to again place discipleship at the front and centre of our identity and mission as a Church. We must also seek to make explicit the link between the Eucharist and mission, for instance, so that it becomes clear that the point of the Eucharist is not simply the conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ but our conversion by our reception of Him.

By reaffirming this role of the sacraments within a life of discipleship we not only recover the fullness of the call to holiness but renew an awareness of the sacraments as not merely a comfort but also a challenge, not as objects for consumption but a relationship in which we are invited to grow and develop over time. This recovery of the full view of Catholic discipleship stands at the heart of our mission as parishes and dioceses.

why parishes are not churches

pewsIt goes without saying that many Catholics, including even Mass attenders, experience the Church as a weight to be carried rather than a life to be lived. There are many reasons for this dim perspective and many of them have to do with the concrete realities of parish life.

When a research project was conducted in Australia in late 2005 to identify why Catholics had stopped going to Mass, many of the reasons offered by respondents related to parish community. These included problems with the parish priest, a lack of intellectual stimulation, people did not feel welcomed or a sense of belonging to the community, others felt that a previously-existing community spirit had eroded, there was the experience of unkind gossip, and the belief that the people at Mass lacked sincerity in their worship. People also dropped out because of ‘structural factors’ in the parish, including changes in Mass times, a negative experience of parish amalgamation and the like.

While it would not be fair to place all responsibility for disengagement at the feet of the Catholic parish (respondents also cited personal reasons for their absence, including family or household-related issues, the experience of a crisis of faith or the plain fact that going to Mass was simply not a priority for them; then there are wider cultural influences to consider), it is necessary to admit that our parishes are in need of reform. This means there is a need to develop those areas of pastoral life that are weakest, consider those structures and small ‘t’ traditions that no longer serve the parish’s mission, and build on those areas of strength that continue to serve well.

StonesWhen addressing parish renewal it has been my experience that parish councils, parish teams and parishioners can tend to jump, quite quickly, to the issue of buildings and infrastructure. It is true that many parishes need to undertake capital works due to the age of their facilities and changing needs (the demand for more carparking space, for example). However, these kinds of investment rarely build community in themselves or respond to those issues that disengaged Catholics, such as those surveyed above, have cited as motivating their withdrawal from community life.

I suspect that the reason that buildings tend to dominate conversations about parish renewal is that people like to see results and there is nothing more satisfying in this regard than a renovation. What is more, it is much easier to put up a building than grow a community.

widows-mite1In the U.S., when the formerly ‘unchurched’ were asked about their priorities before they became Christians, it is true that they named among the desirable qualities of a parish – adequate parking, clean and modern facilities, a variety of quality programs, relevant and quality music, clean bathrooms, friendly people, outgoing greeters, comfortable pews and chairs, and attention-holding preaching.

As commentators have recognised, however, while many of these expectations are quite reasonable and should be provided by the parish, the underlying mindset driving these desires can be “What can the parish or Church do for me?” rather than “What can I do to serve?” or, even more foundationally, “Whom I called to be here?” A consumerist mindset can dominate people’s  approach of the parish with consequences for the prospects of building a communion that is for mission. Even the most pristine, beautiful, well-organised and comfortable parishes can be spiritually dead if they do nothing but cater for our creaturely comforts and convenience.

If we are to refocus our communities on evangelisation, the maturing of disciples and the making of new ones, then the agenda must move from the simplicity of a facility focus to centre on the witness of discipleship itself, through good preaching and pastoral care, a genuine sociality supported by strengthening the bonds of faith, and a shared commitment to, and belief in, Christian mission in the wider community. We do need good spaces where people can gather, and beautiful churches in which to worship, but these are never sufficient. Those who have left the Church or found it wanting have told us so.

The Church and its parishes must seek to move even their present members from ‘consumers of services’ to ‘disciples on mission’. Only then can the new evangelisation be effective, issuing from a spiritual house of ‘living stones’ not communities of cosiness and contentment. It may well be that our parishes as a whole do not demand too much of our people but offer, in fact, too little challenge.