bridging the gap: from youth ministry to adult discipleship

It was a privilege to present a workshop at the Australian Catholic Youth Ministry Convention 2018, held in the Diocese of Parramatta this past weekend. It was inspiring to be with youth ministers and leaders who are shaping the Church through their witness and initiative, from all sectors of the Church in Australia. Below is a summary of the workshop shared and I hope it’s of interest and encouragement in the ongoing work of renewal as we anticipate next month’s Synod on Youth.

This ACYMCworkshop will extend the theme of ‘missionary discipleship’ to consider how youth ministry can support young people to move and grow from participation in youth ministry to exercise their discipleship as adults in broader parish and community life. If youth ministry gathers for the purpose of sending out, how can our ministries best prepare young people for that future? One of the claims of this workshop is that if we can identify the issues of our moment, and we know the destination at which we want to arrive, then this will shape the steps we can take to get there. If our purpose is sending young people out into mission, into the full life of the Church and world, then how does our youth ministry best prepare them for that future?

The Discipleship Dilemma

As Pope Francis encourages, it is important to begin with a frank assessment of where we are as Church because “realities are more important than ideas” (EG 231-233; LS 110, 201). We cannot grow by holding the door closed against reality. A renewed future begins on the basis of the present. When we reflect on how best to lead young people into adult discipleship, we could reasonably ask how well our entire Church leads and makes disciples of all its members.

We know that the Church is called by God to work towards the transformation of the world so that it reflects more and more of God’s Kingdom or God’s reign. This Kingdom comes about when people encounter Jesus, surrender, and make the decision to follow – when they become his disciples and go out to transform the world.  However, if this is the purpose of the Church, bringing about the Kingdom and making and forming disciples, we have to admit that we are not bearing the fruit we would like to see. More and more of our people, both young and old, continue to disengage from the Church, and we acknowledge the confronting reality that in the current climate some will question if the Church has anything worthwhile to say or be less inclined to be explicit in their faith. Another challenge presents itself in our parishes. If we were to measure how many of the hundreds who receive the sacraments in our local parishes each year, pass through our sacramental life in initiation or from week to week, and emerge on the other side as missionary disciples, the result would be less than ideal. There is something amiss. Where is the fruit?

The reasons for our decline have become clearer over time. At heart, we have a discipleship dilemma. When it comes to a personal and active relationship with Jesus Christ, many Catholic communities have taken a pastoral approach that assumes the sacraments will simply ‘take care of it’ and that is simply not true. We have neglected our duty to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually take root and bear fruit. To make the point, “baptisms, confessions, weddings, funerals, daily devotions, anointing, and adoration. It’s all good stuff, it’s how some Catholics grow spiritually. For others, it’s what they do instead of grow . . . For certain, the sacraments give us grace to put us in right relationship to God and his life in our soul, nourishing and strengthening us for our discipleship walk. But they’re not mean to replace it’”.[1] This is not to discount the centrality of the sacraments or to deny the place that devotions have in the Catholic life. But it is to say that people can be ‘sacramentalised’ without being evangelised. It is entirely possible to undertake a routine of religious custom and practice without a personal and responsive relationship to Jesus Christ.

The sacraments do indeed give us the capacity to believe – the virtue of faith – but without a personal ‘yes’ – an act of faith – it remains a ‘bound’ sacrament. Like a car full of fuel, if we never turn the key or press the accelerator, we do not move forwards and we are not changed. Our personal ‘yes’ is the spark which enables grace to bear real fruit in our lives. Writing of youth, John Paul II recognised this same dilemma, “A certain number of children baptised in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit.”[2] We know that children and youth who have no explicit personal attachment to Jesus are likely to grow up to be adults with no personal attachment to Jesus, unless that relationship is introduced into their life through a process of evangelisation.

Our Catholic tradition affirms this very point – that the sacraments do not replace personal discipleship. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms that the sacraments presume a living faith amidst its people.[3] The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us explicitly, “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be preceded by evangelisation, faith, and conversion”.[4] The Second Vatican Council and the Catechism affirm the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). When there is no Christian life, no trace or intention of Christian living, then in fact the Eucharist can be neither source nor summit of anything. Outside of the context of discipleship, the Eucharist can be reduced to an object of piety or mere consumption rather than a relationship that invites a Jesus-shaped life. Finally, Jesus himself gives us a Great Commission “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, [and then] baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). We could say that the mission of the Church is not sacraments but disciples which the sacraments nourish. Unless people become disciples, the grace of the sacraments bears little fruit.

It is important to recognise that the young people in our care are already being shaped and formed by this culture of sacramental routine, marked by a lack of fruit and the gentle decline in living faith. To render this concrete, take the typical experience of a Church-attending youth. They might intuit from the pews that parish participation is declining (in fact, the total percentage of Mass attendance nears single digits across the country) and will gain a quick sense that very few of their peers attend Eucharist on any given weekend (about 5% of all aged 20-34 in fact).[5] They would know too well that few of their peers’ families are engaging with the Church, and they may not witness many or any new people coming into the Church at Easter (perhaps a handful each year, while dozens more walk out the back door at the same time). They might recognise that while many receive the sacraments they are not seeing the fruit of a change in lives, that there is something missing and church attendance doesn’t seem to make a great difference to people’s lives. They may hear a little about the Church, history, or even morality, but they may not hear much about Jesus or hear the story of Jesus’ life shared clearly (when preaching is poor or misaligned). They may never have witnessed an adult actually speak about how Jesus has changed their life or heard conversations among adults about Jesus (even though a culture of testimony lies at the heart of evangelisation, for consumer churches have preferences while missionary churches have stories of how Jesus has changed their life).

These are some of the basic experiences that young people may encounter in our faith communities. The risk is unless we are casting in our youth ministries an alternative vision for what adult discipleship looks like, our young people may not receive any other image of adult life in the Church and therefore be given little sense of a positive future. We have a deep sense that we are called to do more than lead young people into adult communities which show little life in themselves, repeat the outcomes or trends of decline we have experienced in past generations of Catholics in Australia.

If our adult community and the cultures of our parish communities have forgotten what ‘normal’ looks like, it is the prophetic role of youth ministry to recover a new norm by equipping young people to move from a faith that can be customary, inherited or barren to a faith which is intentional (not routine), personal (not merely the faith of my family but a faith truly my own), and fruitful (there are signs of concrete change in our life for discipleship is not an invisible phenomenon, it shows up in the pigment of our life). In looking at change from one culture to another, we note that it is not the cultural norm in Catholicism to even talk about Jesus, let alone his fruit or work in our life, and those who do are viewed as Protestant or a spiritual pretender.[6] We have forgotten what ‘normal’ looks like. Youth ministry can play a part in the gradual transformation of our Church culture, to place again a full and living discipleship to Jesus before young people, as the heart of what we do and who we are as Catholics.

We can consider the radical difference that youth ministry can make to the Church in this way – via the analogy of what makes a good school. We know that a lack of academic opportunity is passed on or transmitted from generation to generation and, as such, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often do not perform as well as they could. However, some education systems (e.g. those in Shanghai and Korea but sadly not Australia) are able to lift these students well beyond their statistical likelihood of poor academic performance, enabling these young people to perform and excel at their full potential. Quite simply, good schools and teachers make a difference to the capacities and lives of their students. They can break the cycle of ignorance and disadvantage. In a similar way, we know that ignorance of the faith is passed on or transmitted from generation to generation, and that many of our people start their journey in the Church ‘disadvantaged’ by low religious literacy and low or no commitment to practice, including little enthusiasm for sacrificial discipleship or evangelisation of others. The aim of good parishes, schools and youth ministries is to lift people out of this religious rut and support them to grow in faith and discipleship above and beyond what their background might have equipped them for. If our communities are not equipping our young people for living discipleship, then perhaps it is our ministry that can make that difference. I wanted to start on the note of realism, with recognition of what we are sending our young people into, and a note of possibility of what youth ministry can do within the wider life of the Church and within a Catholic culture desperately in need of renewal.

Youth Ministry

Having named the discipleship dilemma in our wider Church, which impacts upon the future of young people in faith, we now turn to focus on the reality of youth ministry itself. What is the status quo or state of play in youth ministry today?

Some of the significant dilemmas we are confronting include a ‘drop off’ after a time in parish groups and during senior high school among youth. For young adults, the decline in participation can set in during the post-school years, in the years of university or the first years of work. We sense that many of those aged between 25-35 years are being lost to the Church’s life, and other young adults are left hungry and even look back to youth ministry to serve their needs after the age of 30. These real experiences expose a gap and need in our approach to youth ministry, with many asking, ‘to whom shall we go?’ As it stands, we see young adults graduate from youth groups, a small number emerge as spiritual entrepreneurs who have learned to fend for themselves, but many more become ‘lost’ or drifters within the life of the Church, and a silent majority of young adults, I fear, slip into the routine culture of the crowd or disappear from the life of the Church altogether. Young people will continue to leave the scene as groups dwindle and their social support fades in the Church, or they will ‘hang on’ to their youth experience for dear life and risk a sort of extended adolescence well into their thirties with the crisis of vocation that can accompany being lost. If people are feeling lost in their thirties, it is saying something about how we are or are not preparing young people in youth ministry for a lasting life of faith.

The Causes of Decline

What is it about youth ministries that can lead to the disengaged, unchurched and the lost? We have an opportunity to make a real difference with those we do encounter but we do not always quite hit the mark. Some of the limited outcomes we see in youth ministry can be related to the purpose for which they exist. Take these four examples, keeping in view that a problem well recognised is a problem half solved.

The social but not spiritual group. There will be youth groups that exist for their own social value and are perhaps more an exercise in demography rather than discipleship. The parish decides it is good to have a youth group or a school a new youth team of sorts, so they establish one and the community feels better for it because we are ‘doing something for youth’. In short, the group exists for its own sake rather than for others. It will inevitably become insular, cliquey and decline, rather than outreach and grow, operating from a consumption model (‘this group is about me’) rather than of outreach and apostolic intent. It can often be marked by a sense that if the group gets any larger they will lose their intimate sense of community. The members do not intentionally reject ‘new’ people, but their present relationships are so intimate that any newcomer can find it difficult to break into the group. Especially when small, these social groups can stunt personal growth rather than enable it, especially if a group is populated with young people with nowhere else to go. Of course, the Church is there for all people, most especially the poor in spirit and circumstance, but if youth groups or ministries are not as broad and refective as the surrounding community, it can serve as a refuge from the world rather than a launching pad for faith in the world.

Youth groups as a retention strategy. Sometimes groups can be formed or used as a remedy for the declining participation that takes place after the sacraments of initiation. After all, who doesn’t want to ‘keep the kids in church’. However, such group can have short futures as they will tend to focus on behaviour modification (turning up to Mass or staying in Church) rather than discipleship. What they do not realise is that when people become disciples – encounter Jesus, surrender their life to him, and make the decision to follow – they will go to Mass for the rest of their lives. We want people to fall in love, not merely fall in line. If a group is simply about retaining members, then youth leaders will need to constantly come up with new and gimmicky ideas to retain the current membership and ‘get them to Mass’ but never address the deeper ‘why’ that might sustain them for a lifetime of faith. Groups that are established or see themselves merely as a retention strategy aim for the short-term but are unable to take the longer view with the usual outcomes of steady decline as the novelties and techniques wear thin.

Youth ministry as catechesis. Another reality for youth ministry can be an exclusive focus on catechesis, on teaching young people the facts about Catholicism and learning content, even when young people may not have a relationship with Jesus (i.e. have not even been evangelised). When we think about the word ‘catechesis’ itself (κατήχησις) as it is found in the Gospel of Luke 1:4, 1 Corinthians 14:19 and Galatians 6:6 it means ‘to sound out’ or to ‘echo the teaching’. It is like standing at the entrance of a cave and speaking out and hearing a voice coming back. When we catechise young people, we are speaking into their lives. We are giving them faith and knowledge, and what we seek is for that faith and knowledge to resound back, echo back upon its reception. However, the only way we can hear an echo is if there is a cave, if there is a space to speak into. If we were to run out and shout at a brick wall, we are not going to hear an echo as there is no space to absorb and reverberate what is being shared. So, we need to bring people to a living and transformative encounter with Jesus first, to create space within them for the Gospel, before we can teach or learning can take place. It has been pointed out that in the history of our Church, we have so often confused indifference with ignorance. People often do not care, have no space for the Gospel, but we think they simply do not have enough information so we catechise them and yet we wonder why nothing is sinking in. It is like trying to plant seeds in concrete! If we continue to prepare and form young people in this same way – only catechise – then we will continue to arrive at the same results, with young people unprepared for a life of adult faith because we never evangelised, made and formed them as disciples.

Finally, youth ministry as a process of duplicating groups. One other response to the disengagement of young adults from the Church we can see is the simple duplication of the same youth groups and structures for an older cohort. However, the question then is ‘where should that process end?’ Should we have groups for those aged 30-35 and then for those 40-45 years of age or would we presume and prepare at some stage their integration and leadership in the wider Christian community?

We can see how some of the outcomes we are seeing in youth ministry with drop off or disengagement can be shaped by our starting points or understanding of what our purpose is as a ministry of the Church. All these four models or tendencies within youth ministries miss the mark, which is to make disciples who have encountered, surrendered and made the decision of faith. More positively, if we do make disciples of young people, they will naturally yearn to be with other Christians (be social), they will live their life within the Church, even through thick and thin, because of their personal relationship and love of Jesus (they will be retained), they will be open to learning (catechesis) and be sustained as adults in older years with a genuine heart for Christ (experience spiritual conviction, not simply repeat behaviours). However, if we begin with other starting points, we cannot expect to see the fruit we are called to bring to life.

Toward Renewal

Moving forwards then, how might we make and form disciples, so they can graduate from youth groups and experience genuine personal and spiritual change that will last? Jesus invites us, through his command to Peter, “to go and bear fruit that will last” (John 15:16). As shared earlier, I think our youth ministries can create a new path and be the change and difference that our wider Church so sorely needs.

We can see the difference youth ministries can be through what are called ‘Berkana loops’ which are simply a helpful companion in thinking through how change and growth come about.

Berkana Loops

When our youth ministries first get off the ground, we can enjoy growth and excitement as the life cycle begins. Our group can be thriving, and we are good stewards of this growth. However, at some point things in the group can begin to plateau, perhaps because we have become comfortable and established, or we are not gaining new members or enthusiasm begins to wane. We start to lose significance or momentum.

When things begin to decline, we enter a ‘hospice’ stage where we are caring for a group in decline. However, as things plateau, there are some who see what is going on and what is not working, they might see what is lacking through a sort of ‘holy discontent’, and can begin to ask questions about impact or methods, and they begin to think of a new way forward. They recognise that God’s mission is greater than our existing methods which are no longer bearing fruit as they might have at other times.

These innovators might feel isolated in their hunger for a new form of engaging young people until they connect with others who have discerned a similar hunger, need or possibility. Now a network of innovators emerges, and they begin connecting on a regular basis. They begin to take action and become a community of practice, as a new possibility continues to emerge and build. With time, space, resources, expertise or by building new skills a new reality and a new way of mission or outreach comes into being.

There will be some stewards of youth ministry who are called to ‘sit by the bedside’ and accompany youth groups to their end, perhaps because that is their charism or they do not quite muster the courage or imagination to change and adapt. Sometimes youth ministries do have their time and naturally come to their end. However, others might make the transition from an old to a new way of doing things which has been led and created by others. When we recognise what is missing in our wider Church and some of our youth ministry – a focus on discipleship – we can put those missing pieces in place with the young people in our care.

Raising Discipleship

So, how do we raise discipleship among new generations that will last into adulthood? Firstly, our own witness is essential. Our witness demonstrates what a new life in Christ looks like. If our own Church attendance and involvement in the life of the Church does make a difference in how we live, if we are actively learning a style of life steered by love, it provokes a response from the young people in our care and opens a path of curiosity, trust and dialogue.

It is important to underscore that it is not our youth programs that make disciples; it is disciples that make disciples. Courses, programs and materials are only as good as the people using them. Without disciples to run a program, they do little good. It is not that we do not appreciate good materials. However, as it has been said, in the history of the life of the Church we did not have good materials. We had people. We had disciples making disciples. Right now, due to a lack of disciples, we may need the materials as a kind of crutch but we need to be careful about allowing them to replace the relationships.

Our witness enables us to then credibly proclaim the Gospel, most centrally the kerygma which is the kernel of the Gospel that centres on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The kerygma refers to the basic truths of our Christian faith, the core message of the Christian faith to which all believers are called to assent and proclaim. Pope Paul VI declared, “There is no true evangelisation if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed”.[7] This is the kerygma. It is explicit and focused entirely on the person and saving message of Jesus Christ.

We have to tell this Great Story of Jesus if it is to be known. The heart of evangelisation in youth ministry is to announce who Jesus is, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the man who is God, who died for our sins and was raised on the third day. It is to announce the Good News of the Risen Christ who is with us even now and opens up for us the way to life without end. Evangelising youth ministries proclaim Jesus’ ascension, his seating at the right hand of the Father as King, and his sending forth of the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit which reveals Christ and even enables us to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and it is this Spirit who empowers the Church, who empowers us, to be faithful to Christ’s mission in our own lives and in this moment of the world’s history. Ultimately, this Good News of Christ calls us to conversion, to repent and believe in this Gospel, calling for a change of life in the light of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ whose life we share by baptism, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, in communion with his mystical body in the Eucharist, and by our communion with His body, the Church.

We are called to bring young people to a transformational encounter with this Jesus, connecting his story with our life. Again, the power of our initial witness and then proclamation has a lot to do with our own transformation and encounter, our own conversion. Pope Francis notes, “A true missionary who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him, in the midst of his missionary enterprise… a person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain, and in love, will convince nobody”.[8] Hence, how are you telling the Great Story of Jesus in your ministry? We are called to share that Jesus’ mission was to bring about the Kingdom marked by abundance and that we, as his disciples, are called to do the same, bringing the world’s limitation to divine possibility, that is, to the fullness of life (John 10:10).

This is the kind of vision of discipleship we need to proclaim. The American author Sherry Weddell remarks that if nobody talks about what discipleship looks like, it becomes difficult for people to begin to walk on that road, “Unfortunately, most of us are not 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 we don’t talk explicitly with one another about discipleship, we make it very, very difficult for most Catholics to think about discipleship”.[9] It is difficult to believe in and live something that you have never heard anyone talk about or that you have seen very others, including older adults, live with joy. We must witness, tell the story of Jesus, and cast a vision of discipleship, of personal and spiritual change, as the ultimate fruit of all other gifts in the Church, including the sacraments and our ministries to the young.[10]

In casting that vision of discipleship we need to be committed and resolute because other understandings of youth ministry can be cast at us (e.g. youth ministry as the social group, the retention strategy, as catechesis or duplication). A great example of resoluteness in holding and living our vision is illustrated by SouthWest Airlines, a low-fare carrier in the U.S. that seeks to ‘democratise’ air travel. Humour is a core dimension of its vision (e.g. the on-board announcements, “Would someone put out the cat?”; “We will be serving dinner on this flight and dessert if everyone behaves themselves”). Nevertheless, the airline received a complaint about their style, from a customer who regarded it as unprofessional and improper for an airline company. On receipt of a complaint, we could probably assume the line of management that would follow (i.e. a letter comes into the central office, the director of customer service rings the branch manager and asks them to ‘tone it down’, before sending the customer some form of compensation e.g. a meal voucher or a free fare). However, Southwest Airlines did not do this. Instead, they sent this customer a short letter with just four words on it. It read: “We will miss you.” The airline does not compromise on its vision and stands by the fact that there are many other uninteresting and boring airlines that customers are well free to choose. So it is with us in our vision of discipleship – it is the very reason for which the entire Church exists, is non-negotiable, and is that image of life that will support the young to live their faith into adulthood, as they come to know themselves as witnesses to the reign or Kingdom of God.

A further step in accompaniment of the young must be to assist them to actually live in that direction. Take for example the rich young man who encounters Jesus. It is not enough for this young man to meet Jesus, but he is then invited to sell all that he has – in other words to start living in the right direction (Mk 10:17-31). We can learn this principle also from the gift of marriage. We can encounter another person, get to know them, and even develop a personal relationship with them. However, to be married someone has to make the decision to ask and a decision to say ‘yes’. It is the same for discipleship – we are called to assist young people to make decisions that set them in the right direction. After all, we are all going somewhere, whether we know it or not, and will arrive at a destination in life.

The road that we are currently on will lead to a destination, and we generally do not drift in good directions. There are physical paths that lead to predictable locations, and physical roads and physical highways that lead to predictable destinations. There is a dietary path that leads to a predictably physical destination. There are financial paths that lead to predictable financial destinations. There are relationship paths that lead to predictable relational destinations. In fact, parents often ask their children questions about who they are dating for this reason. They are not so interested in whether their child is happy in the relationship now (though they hope they are). They are more interested where that relationship will take their child, whether that relationship will take them in the right direction.

As you know for the young people in your care they can in fact be completely content and satisfied and still be heading in the wrong direction. It is akin to driving on the road. You can be perfectly content in the car but become lost and you never know the precise moment you became lost, otherwise you would not have taken that turn. You can be a hundred metres past where you need to be and by the time you realise it, it is too late. It can cost you ten minutes. In life, if you are content but headed in the wrong direction and don’t know it, it can cost you years. It is often our nature to think ‘now is now’ and ‘later is later’ but everything we do has a consequence and will be connected. Biblically speaking, we reap what we sow. All our steps lead somewhere, so what we do everyday matters more than what we do once in a while when it comes to our ultimate direction in life.

mapleleafThe poet Gerard Manly Hopkins developed this term ‘inscape’ for the individual structure of a living being (like a tree or a leaf), an inner structure which results from the history of this being, an inner design made by the tree through its life in the way it has responded to life. We are much the same, our life is a work of art and all the good and the bad, conflicts and sufferings, troubles and happiness in our life all add up to something, all produce this inner structure, and this is what we are judged on, our encounter with Jesus and the direction that we chose to live.  We are judged not on small incidentals (eating meat on Fridays) but rather the whole structure of our life – all that we wanted to do, tried to do, our relationships. This all adds up to our identity which God knows. Hence the value of youth ministers as spiritual guides who can help the next generation to be in touch with the whole direction and meaning of their life as a whole, what it is all adding up to and to encourage them to develop in this direction and not another.

We need, in fact, to develop an intentional culture of mentorship if young people are to grow and make decisions on the way to a lasting and adult faith. Why do young people need you as a mentor? Part of the reason is because experience is a rough teacher and it costs time. As shared by a Christian evangelist, Andy Stanley, ‘Perhaps you’ve heard someone make the argument that experience is the best teacher. That may be true, but that’s only half the truth. Experience is often a brutal teacher. Experience eats up your most valuable commodity: time. Learning from experience can eat up years. It can steal an entire stage of life. Experience can leave scars, inescapable memories, and regret. Sure, we all live and learn. But living and learning don’t erase regret. And regret is more than memory. It is more than cerebral. It’s emotional. Regret has the potential to create powerful emotions – emotions with the potential to drive a person right back to the behaviour that created the regret to begin with. If regret can be avoided, it should be’. Life will throw enough hardship at us by itself. We can avoid unnecessary pain and regret by learning from the experience of others. We need to reach back to those a stage of life behind us and make it easier for that next generation to encounter Christ and to live for him because people develop best when they see what their value being lived out in other Christians. We know hypocrisy discourages faith and good witness raises it up.

In creating that culture, I also want to invite youth ministers not to underestimate their capacity to be a spiritual mentor for others, regardless of their age or history. As a Carthusian monk once penned, our years of age tell us only this, “that the earth has gone around the sun so many times since I came into this world. That is the normal measure of what the world calls time.”[11] However, there is another ‘age’ which is measured by the time we have spent in the life of Christ, the spiritual growth and progress we have made in our time of faith. The mentorship of youth ministers for young people in their care honours our Christian faith as nothing less than a life being passed on, for our tradition of witness is ‘hand clasping hands stretching back in time until they hold the hand of Jesus who holds the hand of God’.[12]

The qualities youth leaders can develop as mentors to support and nourish the discipleship of the young are well spelt out by the preparatory document for the forthcoming Synod on Youth to be held in October 2018. It helpfully shares:

“The young people of the Pre-synodal Meeting accurately detail the profile of the mentor: ‘a faithful Christian who engages with the Church and the world; someone who constantly seeks holiness; is a confidant without judgement; actively listens to the needs of young people and responds in kind; is deeply loving and self-aware; acknowledges their limits and knows the joys and sorrows of the spiritual journey’. For young people, it is particularly important that mentors recognise their own humanity and fallibility: ‘Sometimes mentors are put on a pedestal, and when they fall, the devastation may impact young people’s abilities to continue to engage with the Church’. They also add that ‘mentors should not lead young people as passive followers, but walk alongside them, allowing them to be active participants in the journey. They should respect the freedom that comes with a young person’s process of discernment and equip them with tools to do so effectively. Mentors should believe wholeheartedly in a young person’s ability to participate in the life of the Church. They should nurture the seeds of faith in young people, without expecting to immediately see the fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit. This role is not and cannot be limited to priests and religious, but the laity should also be empowered to take on such a role. All such mentors should benefit from being well-formed, and engage in ongoing formation”.[13]

While it can appear that we are looking for ‘Jesus on a good day’, all of us can bring something of our imperfect selves and the treasure of our life and experiences of the world to those in our care. However, if we are going to support young people to healthily progress through youth groups and to become adult disciples, we will also need adult or older mentors in the lives of young people. As we shared, if a young person never sees or hears an adult talk about their relationship with Jesus, how would they know this relationship is even possible? As noted by Everett Fritz, we want young people to learn to participate in the world of adults, but our youth culture has largely removed adults from mentoring roles with teenagers. “As a result, teens are growing up in a peer-dominated culture. As they grow into adulthood, they have difficulty assimilating into the adult world and into the responsibilities and expectations that come with being an adult.”[14] While peer to peer ministry has its place, in clarifying our life direction, we should not only seek advice from people who share the same season of life, because it is akin to asking for directions of someone who has never been where you want to go.

We have a rich biblical tradition of older mentors investing in younger mentees including Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Timothy and Titus, and Jesus and his disciples. Adults bring a unique blend of experiences, insights, conflict, choices, health challenges, convictions, and even failures and struggles to believe. Having adult mentors and witnesses in the midst of youth ministry, and a variety of adults, is essential if talk of discipleship and the Church is going to be meaningful in real-life ways. As it has been said, our faith is ever one generation away from its silence if it is not passed on, from one generation to the next.

Conclusion

How might we better prepare young people for adult discipleship in our age? We can begin to acknowledge the discipleship dilemma we are experiencing as a Church, seek to create and innovate a new way with others that learns from these limitations, provide a living witness to a life in Christ wholly given over and surrendered, proclaim the Great Story of Jesus, cast a vision of the discipleship he asks of us, accompany young people to live in that direction, and include mentors, both peers and adults, in the normal practice of youth ministry. I propose that it is these foundations, applied to local contexts, that can resource young people to live a Christian life beyond the confines of youth ministry, to grow into adult disciples and agents of renewal in our Church.

References:

[1] Fr Michael White and Tom Corcoran, Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter (Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame, Indiana, 2013), 77.

[2] John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae 19.

[3] Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 59.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church #1072.

[5] Robert Dixon, Stephen Reid and Marilyn Chee, Mass Attendance in Australia: A Critical Moment. A Report Based on the National Count of Attendance, the National Church Life Survey and the Australian Census (Melbourne: ACBC Pastoral Research Office, 2013), 2-3.

[6] Cf. Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntington, Indiana, 2012), 63.

[7] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 22.

[8] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 266.

[9] Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, 56.

[10] A disciple can be defined as one who has encountered Jesus, surrendered their life, and made the decision to follow, or be understood by its expression as provided by Fr James Mallon, as one who has a personal relationship with Jesus, shares faith with others, is open to the gift of the Holy Spirit, has a daily prayer life, with commitment to Eucharist and Reconciliation, can pray spontaneously out loud when asked, and sees their life as a mission field. Cf. Fr James Mallon, Divine Renovation Guidebook: A Step-by-Step Manual for Transforming Your Parish (Novalis: Toronto, Ontario, 2016), 159.

[11] A Carthusian, They Speak by Silences (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1955), 38-9.

[12] John Shea, An Experience Named Spirit as cited in Robert A. Ludwig, Reconstructing Catholicism: For a New Generation (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 61.

[13] Instrumentum Laboris for Synod 2018, 132.

[14] Everett Fritz, The Art of Forming Young Disciples: Why Youth Ministries Aren’t Working and What to Do About It (Sophia Institute Press: Manchester, New Hampshire, 2018), 46.

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parishes that make a difference

blktwn_p_059The last month has been tremendously rewarding with the launch of the Parramatta pastoral plan, Faith in Our Future, and meetings with parish pastoral councils, welcome teams, parish ministry groups and other faith groups across the Diocese and beyond who have begun using the plan as the basis of their pastoral life. The Spirit and Bride are truly at work.

It has been a deep joy to see two years’ worth of work come to life in local communities of faith though it has demanded some quick learning and flexibility as each parish is unique in its potential and needs. What our parishes share, however, is a common recognition that planning for evangelisation and renewal is a part of the ‘new norm’ for our Church. It is a delight to support parishes in that effort.

Several insights have surfaced these past weeks which I hope will be of interest to anyone involved in ministry, planning or leadership within the Church. I’ll be elaborating on many of these in the Dioceses of Townsville and Bathurst in coming weeks, dioceses which, like Parramatta, are exploring not only the ingredients of evangelising parishes but Catholic schools as partners in this common mission.

Parish leaders matter

If a parish is to grow and not simply subsist, the leadership of the parish must be capable of leading others towards a goal. This not only assumes that parish leadership has a vision of growth for the community (not always a given I’m afraid) but that others are willing to follow that leader towards a preferred future. As they say, if no one is prepared to follow you, you are not leading – you are just a taking a walk! Parish leaders have to be people of vision and credibility, people who bring the future of a community into the present in such a way that others want to be part of it, passionately and prayerfully.

bibleIn facilitating the process of change within parishes, it has also become clear that while leaders must set a vision for the community, go out in front to provide direction and hope, they must always and constantly ‘double back’ and collect the rest of the group, taking others with them on the journey. If this does not happen, the risk is that leaders can be so far ahead from the rest of the community that the majority simply do not feel engaged or a part of the new direction at all!

To make this concrete, in meeting with parish pastoral councils and encouraging them to articulate a vision for their communities, I have underlined that the conversation must certainly start with them but then go beyond this select group to include collect others and invite their engagement. A parish council might set three goals for the next year, but then these three goals have to be taken to ministry group leaders for their feedback, and then ultimately shared with the whole community to invite their thoughts about the communal vision in development. It is only by this ever-expanding circle of discernment and conversation that the whole community will take ownership of the parish plan and its priorities. So leading change demands both determination and patience. There is little point in writing even the best parish plan overnight if no one is with you the next day to put it into practice.

Ministries exist for growth

God calls the Church and our parishes to grow. However, today many of our parishes assume that their current members are growing and new disciples are being made, despite much evidence to the contrary (e.g. diminishing Mass attendance, complacency among parishioners, a lack of missionary outreach, falling contributions). In other words, our parishes can be more hopeful than honest.

In seeking renewal, parishes can ask of their ministry groups, ‘Are you making disciples and what evidence is there that people are actually growing in their faith?’

baby_plant.28104733To highlight the importance of growth, consider the education sector which exists to grow student performance. We know that a lack of academic opportunity is transmitted from generation to generation and, as such, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds often do not perform as well as they could. However, some education systems (e.g. those in Shanghai and Korea but sadly not Australia) are able to lift these students well beyond their statistical likelihood of poor academic performance, enabling these young people to perform and excel at their full potential. Quite simply, good schools and teachers make a difference.

In a similar way, we know that ignorance of the faith is transmitted from generation to generation, and that many of our people start their journey in the Church ‘disadvantaged’ by low religious literacy and low or no commitment to practice, including little enthusiasm for proclamation or evangelisation. The aim of good parishes and ministries is to lift people out of this religious rut, and support them to grow in faith and discipleship above and beyond what their religious background might have equipped them for. Parishes must make a difference and be recognised for this potential – as schools of holiness and understanding in which disciples can flourish beyond all expectation.

How well are our parishes and ministry groups equipped to be a ‘circuit breaker’ in the story of low religious literacy, practice and understanding of faith that marks our Church and world? How do they imprint the living Gospel and urgent mission of God in the hearts of those whom they serve?

Good parishes stop giving people what they want

While the above headline might defy the logic of market economics – which suggests we should keep the customer happy for the right price – the economy of the Church is rather different for the Church and its parishes have always been about more than comfort or self-satisfaction.

sbTo provide a concrete example of this need to challenge rather than merely comfort our people, take these results from the National Church Life Survey, one of the best qualitative surveys on Catholic life not only in Australia but in the world. The NCLS revealed that Australian Catholics valued “community life” as one of the most valued aspects of parish life. However, at the very bottom of this scale was “small groups” and “reaching out to others”. And yet, it is precisely by small groups and the invitation of others that most Catholics find their way into the heart of the Church as a community of faith. In short, the results of the NCLS survey suggest to me the importance of changing perceptions of our people rather than simply feeding them what they want.

Our parishes need small groups whether they think they do or not because the weekly Mass rarely provides sufficient intimacy or a sense of belonging nor has it proved convincing or supportive enough for people to stay (and then there is just the plain size of our Catholic congregations which are behemoths compared to Protestant communities such as the Baptists). I do think it is true for us that whereas once small groups (study groups, meditation groups or even pilgrimage groups) were ‘optional extras’ for those already entrenched in Catholic life, now it is frequently the reverse: people are now first drawn to a small group, perhaps a pilgrimage, a meditation group or prayer circle and then later, if they move along the appropriate course, find themselves embedded in ordinary practice. Small groups provide a way of people enjoining the community life that we all value with the practical support of others.

To make the point a different way, no one knew they needed an iPhone until Steve Jobs invented one. Parishes are similarly challenged to give and offer a hungry people what they never knew they needed, whether that be a small group of prayer and reflection, Scripture study or missionary outreach which develops their personal relationship with Jesus in the midst of others. We are not artisans of our own holiness – we come imprinted with the marks of all those who have nurtured and sustained our faith in a variety of ways. We need the support of fellow disciples to grow in faith and yet small groups remain strangely anathema in the mind of the average Catholic parish.

Conclusion

There is nothing harder than institutionalising vision, whether that is across a diocese or in the local parish. To make a vision come to life there is a need for effective leadership and bold witnesses to hope, ministries that seek to grow and not simply sustain their people, and small groups and other entryways into the heart of the Church. Our parishes can still make a difference but they can only do so if they refuse to remain the same.

our Catholic schools

It is conference season with a gathering in the Sydney Archdiocese on Vatican II, clergy formation days, and a meeting of the National Pastoral Planners Network on the Gold Coast, all in the next three weeks. I’ll be kicking it off by travelling to Canberra next week for a keynote address at a colloquium of Marist teachers and school leaders.

It will no doubt be a diverse audience with various experiences and understandings of the Church and the role of schools within its mission. After reading the documents of the Congregation of Catholic Education and bringing to mind the momentum of the new evangelisation, I entitled the address “The Evangelising School: Educating In and For Communion” and aim to present something accessible and personally evocative for the participants. Here are some excerpts from the address which may stir your own thoughts about the role, intentionality and influence of our Catholic schools with regards to faith:

dangLast year I travelled throughout the Diocese of Parramatta, which encompasses the Western suburbs of Sydney, and spoke with some 2,000 people about their hopes and aspirations for our Church. The role of our Catholic schools in the faith of our children was high on the agenda. What became apparent is that the rationale and expected outcomes of Catholic schools in regards to religion is anything but a settled question.

Is the Catholic school genuinely responsible for the spiritual lives of our children and to what extent? As participation in Catholic parishes continues to decline, how does this position schools as centres of evangelisation for young people and their families? What responsibility lies with school families themselves for the faith of the young, named as they are by the Church as the primary educators and nurturers of baptismal faith? Then there are the increasing numbers of non-Catholic students in our schools. What impact should this phenomenon have, if any, on our goals and self-understanding as Catholic schools, as avowedly Catholic institutions? One suspects that in the face of such questions and the variety of views that surround them that many Catholics, both the loosely affiliated and the deeply committed, are ambivalent about the school as a centre of faith and evangelisation. Indeed, it would be fair to suggest that for some observers the Catholic faith and schools appear a ‘forced fit’, partners that would be better off going their separate ways; still others argue that the divorce has already taken place – schools have left the faith or the faith has left our schools – and we are now left to bicker about the children.

While such a fatalistic reaction is easy, even tempting, demanding little effort or commitment to change, it is as deficient as the ‘spotless sunshine’ of the optimist – both attitudes are too certain of the outcome. The social and cultural context in which we live and teach has changed, irrevocably, and not always in a positive direction. However, the proper Christian response to changing circumstance is hope, recognising the past and present moment do not exhaust all possibilities and that all times and cultures can yet encounter Christ as the path of life. In that spirit, I would like to share a few comments on Catholic schools as centres of evangelisation in the twenty-first century. In particular, I bear in mind our many lay teachers who increasingly shape our Catholic schools once dominated by religious brothers and sisters, and their significant influence in the lives of not only students but school families and indeed colleagues within the learning community.

The Year of Faith and ‘The New Evangelisation’

PopeBenedictIn October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated a Year of Faith to bring the task of evangelisation to the fore. Commemorating fifty years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), the pontiff invited the universal Church to reflect anew on the meaning of faith and the mission that flows from faith – the mission to proclaim the Risen Jesus “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Pope Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, spoke often of ‘a new evangelisation’ that sought to be realised, including within our Catholic school communities which share the joys and demands of faith. To what does this term, ‘the new evangelisation,’ refer and what claim does it make on the life of our Catholic school communities?

While it is anticipated that Pope Francis will soon issue an encyclical on this very subject, we can already detect something of its meaning in the writings of previous popes, including Blessed John Paul II. In 1990, the polish pontiff remarked that the Church directs its missionary activity to basically three situations:

. . . peoples, human groups, socio-cultural contexts in which Christ and his Gospel are not known . . . Then there are Christian communities which have adequate and solid ecclesial structures, are fervent in faith and life . . . Finally, there exists an intermediate situation, often in countries of ancient Christian tradition, but at times also in younger Churches, where entire groups of the baptised have lost the living sense of the faith or even no longer recognise themselves as members of the Church, leading an existence which is far from Christ and from his Gospel. In this case there is a need for a ‘new evangelisation’ or a ‘re-evangelisation.’ (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio 33).

The ‘new evangelisation’ appeals to an ‘in between’ or intermediate group of people who have indeed heard the Gospel, and so are not new to its announcement, but who nevertheless do not participate actively or regularly in the Church’s life. That is, we could not yet describe this last group of Catholics as intentional disciples of Jesus. By ‘the new evangelisation,’ John Paul II sought to direct the Church toward missionary outreach in traditionally Christian nations to whom the Gospel is known but whose faith nevertheless lacks fervour and genuine witness in life. As the New Testament reminds us, not all those who encounter Jesus find him convincing or compelling as the face of God.

It would also be fair to suggest that this third group represents many of our school families and even teachers – baptised Catholics who no longer feel close to the Church, whose practice is perhaps occasional rather than continuous, and who have become distant from their faith. Australia has certainly been recognised on an official basis as one of those nations where Christian faith has played an integral part in the development of our culture, law and society and yet remains today on the sidelines rather than at the heart of the nation. Pope Benedict himself would aver,

This is certainly a form of suffering which, I would say, fits into our time in history, and in which we generally see that the so-called ‘great’ Churches seem to be dying. This is true particularly in Australia, also in Europe, but not so much in the United States. (Benedict XVI, “Address to the Diocesan Clergy of Aosta: On Critical Issues in the Life of the Church”)

If our Catholic schools are to become centres of a new evangelisation, reaching out to school families, students and staff with the vitality of the Gospel, then we need to acknowledge, with candour, the challenges that face us at this time, both within the Church and in the wider culture.

Challenges and Promise

pewsOf course, the most glaring challenge for ‘a new evangelisation,’ a renewed outreach to others in faith, whether in the school or the parish, is the sexual abuse crisis which has undermined the credibility of the Church not only in Australia but around the world. In an address delivered in Glasgow, Cardinal George Pell noted with realism, “It does not need to be said that this [the sexual abuse crisis] is the most important and powerful barrier to the New Evangelisation” (Address at St Andrew’s Conference, Glasgow).

In the light of terrible crimes committed by some clergy and maladministration on the part of some bishops and religious orders, many Catholics, including our school families, can feel less than inclined to engage with the larger Church or ‘institutional church’ as it is often put. Thus, the divide between what happens in the school and the wider Church can seem unbridgeable, even desirable in the wake of the false witness of a few. The Australian theologian Richard Lennan comments on this situation,

It is surely undeniable . . . that in its structures of authority that the church today seems to be for many people not simply ‘other,’ but alien. It is in its ordained leaders and their actions and decrees that the church seems particularly unattractive: prone to intolerance, authoritarian attitudes, and, most shockingly and tragically of all, even to abusive and corrupt behaviours. As a result it is common for Catholics to group such features together as the expression of the ‘institutional church,’ which tends to mean the church that I do not like and would not want to be a part of. It is, perhaps, a particular temptation for those in schools to think that way: our school community tries to live by Gospel values and to give students a positive experience of discipleship, but it is not our job to promote, to defend, or even to accept a connection with the ‘institutional church’ (Richard Lennan, “Holiness, ‘Otherness’ and the Catholic School,” 404).

Lennan goes on to suggest that the practical upshot of this situation is the neat division between the school and the Church expressed in the claim that “our kids are good kids even if they don’t go to Mass.”

While not denying the reality and scandal of abuse, it is important to underline, for one, that such crimes and violations of trust do not represent a fulfilment of the Church’s nature or mission as Christ’s body but the gravest contradiction of it, an utter rejection and betrayal of the Gospel which the Church has been entrusted to proclaim from generation to generation. It should also be recalled that such abuse does not represent the total sum of the Church’s life. The Church has always done and will continue to do good in the Australian community. Many people still meet Christ in our Church’s life and are supported by our parishes and schools, as well as by the Church’s many works of charity, especially in welfare, health and aged care.

Forgetfulness of this ‘bigger picture’ in the midst of the current crisis can lead to Catholic school families and even teachers to turn away from the wider Church and its worshipping life or to remain silent on, or disengage from, its social advocacy on important issues. However, it is precisely the engagement of everyday Catholics ‘from below’ in the liturgy and the active mission of the Church that is needed now more than ever. In the long-term effort to restore credible witness to the house of God, our schools are critical in fostering future generations of Catholic believers who are not only well-informed, intelligent and critical thinkers but also holy men and women, disciples who bring life to faith and faith to life. The Second Vatican Council well describes this potential of the Catholic school:

. . . its proper function is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and humanity is illumined by faith. (Vatican II, Gravissimum Educationis 8).

While some Catholics have not lived this faith well, it does not render the Gospel any less integral to the human flourishing of our young people, the formation of their whole person and, indeed, the building up, through them, of what has been described as “a civilisation of love.”

School communities and teachers are well placed to bring about this new creation for it is they who face, firsthand, the array of issues that impact our social fabric. This includes alarming rates of suicide among young people, brought on by depression, family crises and social isolation, and the cult of a dehumanising materialism in which people have never had more but remain deeply and even dangerously unfulfilled.

communionIn the midst of this fragmentation, which reveals a crisis in the idea of the human itself, Catholic schools stand to manifest before the wider community and before its own eyes the true meaning of the human person and the nature of authentic relationship. Grounded in the life of the Trinity, the divine unity of diverse persons, our schools can stand beside the family as a space of communion, characterised by mutual recognition and self-giving love, nowhere more so than in the primary school where young people are being socialised and grafted into concrete relationships with others, both their peers and the adults whom they trust. The stark reality is that for some of our young people the school community may provide a deeper experience of communion and unconditional love than the home, and these children can indeed be more valued here than in the marketplace where they are often regarded only for their status as consumers.

By educating in and for communion, Catholic schools can also serve as an evangelising centre for entire families who may never darken the door of a church or have any other experience of the Catholic faith beyond the walls of the school grounds. As I have proposed elsewhere, it is especially schools such as those of the Marists, filled with charism, an awareness of God’s Spirit manifest in human history, that can bring together the Church and the world. Marist schools can accomplish this by mediating or serving as a bridge between the traditional, mainstream Church and the lives of students and parents who may not be connected to parish or regular practice. As the theologian David Ranson has observed, religious institutes including the Marists are, in a sense, both ‘Church’ and ‘beyond Church,’ working at the margins with those who may never feel comfortable within the ordinary life and structures of the Church. On this note, a school principal once remarked to me that while some of his school families did not identify strongly as ‘Catholic’ they certainly felt ‘Marist.’ Such a sentiment points to the way in which schools can mediate the meaning of Catholic faith and a sense of belonging to a contemporary culture that remains hungry for a narrative by which to live and a community in which to live it.

The Practice of Evangelisation

While affirming all that our Catholic schools promise and already bring about through their care and nurturance of the young, our theme of evangelisation also presents forward challenges for each and all of us who represent the Church, whether we are conscious of this ecclesial witness or otherwise. The new evangelisation is not a phase or moment but the perennial mission of all the Catholic faithful, a deep and abiding responsibility to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). In terms of its practice, it has been my experience that among the first responses of schools, as it is for parishes and dioceses as well, is to create appropriate structures to support that goal. This is to be commended. The establishment of committees for evangelisation, dedicated personnel as well as practical resources remind us that wanting to evangelise is never enough. We have to be organised to do so and reveal the power of evangelisation as something other than a Platonic dream. The Great Commission given to us by the Gospel, to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 29:18), should shape all of who we are as Catholic communities, including our structures, budgets, professional development, and the organisation and priorities of our time.

StonesHowever, it must also be said that evangelisation should not be approached as yet another task of the school community, squeezed in between existing commitments, for such an approach inevitably leads to a rather bureaucratic response to the Church’s mission of outreach. Boxes are ticked and prayers are said, usually before and after meetings, but the deepest meaning of evangelisation can be missed, as a continuing conversion to the Gospel in all aspects of school and professional life. Of course, it is proper for schools and school systems to set benchmarks, to define goals and measures of evangelising activity, but these of themselves cannot ensure fruit without a conversion of heart on the part of teachers and school leaders.

While recognising the importance of structures in coordinating efforts and marshalling resources, the risk is that ‘evangelisation’ comes to be understood by the school community as the responsibility of one person, one group or one department rather than the entire body of students, teachers and parents that form the school community. The adult educator Jane Regan points out that it may be better to speak of the evangelising school or parish, noting,

When we use the [noun] evangelisation, there is the temptation to set it out as another activity the parish [or school] does – catechesis, liturgy, pastoral care, and evangelisation . . . Using the [verb] evangelising strengthens the commitment that who we are as Church – our mission and identity – is rooted in engaging in all activities through the lens of evangelisation (Jane Regan, Toward an Adult Church, 23-4).

Thus, for the evangelising school, the school sports day is not unconnected to the human flourishing which the Gospel promotes, social justice activities are not simply about good citizenship but involve recognising the dignity of others, and ourselves, made in the one image of God, and that the ‘faith of the school’ does not simply refer us to the school motto or point backwards to its origins but also points forwards to its aspiration, its witness of Gospel values as an ecclesial community, and its future commitment to ongoing conversion. The evangelising school will therefore relate all that it is and does to the evangelion, the Good News of the Gospel, which comes to us not only as a gift but an invitation to renewal, even change.

Conversion for each and for all

19238374Ultimately, all discussion of evangelisation is self-implicating in that it presses us to consider the quality of our own discipleship and the extent to which we manifest the holiness that we seek to awaken in others. As Pope Paul VI points out, “The Church is an evangeliser, but she begins by being evangelised herself” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 15). By this statement, the pontiff recognised that we can only share what we ourselves have received into our life, that our own passion for, or else disinterest in, evangelisation reflects the extent to which we have been convinced by the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God. The fruits that this self-conversion yields for others are manifold, as Paul VI would note, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” It is the quality of our Christian discipleship that is the most powerful form of evangelisation that we can offer students, their families and our colleagues, leaving an imprint in the experience and memories of others that can last a lifetime and shape their own discipleship, experience and perception of the Church.

Of course, conversion is never an easy business and demands of us an unvarnished reflection on any gap between who we profess to be as Catholic teachers, and as school communities, and who we really are. It could be suggested that too many of us are admirers of holiness but not enough of us seek to possess it for ourselves. The startling gift and project of ‘the new evangelisation’ is this – to realise that we are the Church we are waiting for.

In Season Four of the American political drama, the West Wing, a young man, Sam Seaborn, is running for a seat in the United States Congress. He returns backstage after an exuberant political rally organised to garner votes and complains to his campaign manager, “I’m preaching to the choir. You had me out there preaching to the choir. Why?!” The campaign manager replies with calm, “Because that’s how you get them to sing.” So it is for the Church – the first who need to hear the call of the new evangelisation are ourselves, those of us closest to the mission of our Church as it is lived in our parish and school communities. The depth of our listening to this call will express itself in the strength of our commitment to proclaim the Gospel to the young people in our care.

Our Catholic schools bear enormous potential as centres of evangelisation, bridging the gap between the traditional Church and those not embedded in parish or regular practice. The new evangelisation calls us to attend especially to those baptised Catholics among us who have lost a living sense of the beauty, goodness and truth of our faith, who no longer recognise the Gospel as the way of life. While structures and committees are a necessary part of this important work, the task of evangelisation ultimately demands something of each of us, our ongoing conversion and willingness to receive the Gospel as the heart of our identity and mission as Catholic disciples and the heart of our life and calling as Catholic schools.

religious life as narratives of holiness

waterOn the 6th March, 2013, around 150 leaders of Religious Institutes gathered at the Novotel, Parramatta, for the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (NSW) Conference 2013.

The theme of the conference was ‘religious life in the post-modern world’ and I was privileged to address leaders and leadership teams on the purpose and contribution of religious life today.

The conference took in a variety of themes centred on religious life: the Church as sacrament of God’s mission, the multidimensions of evangelisation and the living symbol that religious life remains today in a culture that, while often very secularised, remains sensitive to signs.

Prominent documents to consult on the varieties and purpose of religious life include the 1965 conciliar decree, Perfectae Caritatis, and John Paul II’s 1996 Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata.

These were my remarks at the gathering:

‘Narratives of Holiness’ for the Church and world

candleIn the first instance, religious communities, both apostolic and contemplative, tell a particular story about the way in which God’s Spirit has been manifest in history. Secondly, religious life tells as well a story about the human response to such divine irruption. The many varieties of religious life reveal that Christian discipleship is possible even in this way and recalls for the Church that diversity can be an expression of God’s life too.

By the narratives of holiness it provides, religious life nourishes not only the vocation of those called to live radically the evangelical counsels but nourishes the hope and imagination of the wider Church as to how holiness might be exercised. As bearers of charism and grounded in the original spirit of their founder(s), religious congregations show forth the accessibility and concrete shape of a life centred in God’s gifts; in turn, they invite all members of the Church to envisage what God is asking to be realised and hence what they might live for.

I consider religious life essential to the Church also in the way in which such life stretches beyond but is nevertheless active within the local church, that is, the diocese. Of course, my role as a pastoral planner for a local church has brought into focus the centrality of parishes as the ordinary experience of communion for the vast majority of Catholic people.

However, religious life complements this particular experience of communion with witness to the universal dimension of the church’s life. Religious life, as we know, as a response to the Spirit, cannot be completely merged or contained within traditional diocesan structures. Marked by an intense desire to live the Gospel fully and radically in genuine service to the world, religious life possesses the ability to keep individuals and communities open to the essential universality of the Church and its truly global concerns.

The presence of religious within a diocese, for one, can assist to ensure that local communities do not become inward or self-absorbed, focused on their parish facilities rather than their engagement in God’s mission. In their universal character and tensive ecclesial location in the midst of the local church, religious institutes work against the absolutisation of the parochial and so support the genuine ‘catholicity’ of the Church’s identity and mission.

Religious Life and the New Evangelisation

marymackillopI would further suggest that the apostolic character of many religious congregations will play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the ‘new evangelisation’ which continues to unfold on both a magisterial and local level.

I approach the contemporary situation in this way: since the Second Vatican Council, we are well aware how close to the surface questions of Catholic identity lie. The danger of course is that ‘the new evangelisation’ and its more apologetic tendencies foster a narrow focus on Catholic identity couched primarily in terms of opposition to the world.

This way of being Church – permeated as it is by a certain apocalyptic, dualistic sensibility – can result, unhelpfully, in self-affirming Catholic subcultures which are unable to engage or dialogue with the surrounding culture.

(Note that this danger was on show in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication – while the pope’s resignation unleashed wide ignorance and some anti-Catholic bigotry in the secular media it also produced an ample supply of Catholic triumphalism with little genuine conversation between the two opposed tendencies.)

As an alternative to this narrow politics of identity, religious life is well placed to offer the ‘new evangelisation’ a model of outreach characterised by genuine service to the world without the reactionary and oppositional spirit to which other emerging groups may be vulnerable. In other words, religious life can model a mature evangelism, a truly contextualised faith which engages the surrounding culture while losing nothing of its distinctive Christian identity.

Religious Life and Lay Discipleship

SB054Finally, religious life continues to nourish the discipleship of lay men and women in a variety of ways. In addition to the ‘narratives of holiness’ which religious life offers to the whole Body of Christ, we have also seen the emergence of formal collaborations including the creation of new juridic persons among religious institutes in which laity have assumed governance responsibilities while allowing religious to re-engage more immediate and original expressions of service.

Of course, laity and religious collaborate in many other ways, including through ‘associations’ that give expression to a more inclusive imagination of holiness, and therefore a more inclusive notion of Christian community, recovered by the Second Vatican Council.

Beyond structured initiatives, however, religious life can foster lay discipleship through its work at the margins with those who may never feel comfortable within the structures of the Church. As noted by Australian theologian David Ranson, religious life has shown a profound ability to mediate between a given social context and the wider Catholic community – in the case of schools, hospitals or works of justice, between the lives of students, parents, and families who may not be connected to parish or regular practice and the normal life of the Church which is the bearer of the Word and sacramental encounter. This mediating role of religious life, its carriage of the meaning and experience of Christian faith to contemporary culture, is precisely that work of evangelisation to which the entire Church is called.

Conclusion

By a life that animates the local church but stretches beyond it, religious life bears witness to the essential universality of the Church’s identity and mission. In its proven ability to engage the culture with a mature and discerning spirit, in its continued work with and support of lay men and women through its apostolates and associations, and in its variety of charismatic life, religious life is positioned well to awaken and support the Church in its mission of evangelisation which cannot be exhausted by any single historical form.