During the past week, I have visited various locations – Taree, Raymond Terrace, Dungog, Maitland, Belmont, Merriwa and Singleton. These have been blessed moments of sitting with parish leaders and others, speaking with them about some of our shared concerns, while encouraging them to engage in the Plenary Council process, and asking them to encourage people to attend our Diocesan Synod on 23 November.
With great sadness, those who met with me shared the grief of their shrinking, ageing communities and the obvious lack of young people in their churches. Some spoke of the impact of the secularisation of Australian society and their worries about what will happen to our Australian society. It was difficult for some to grasp the importance of our collective participation in the Plenary Council, indicating that things must change but not being able to see how this might eventuate, given we are part of a universal church with many rules and regulations.
As I write this message, I can feel the palpable pain with its associated despair, despondency, grief, sadness and hopelessness, which I encountered through the week and yet I can also feel the faith and belief that God Father, Son and Spirit is with us during this ‘desert’ time. There is a recognition that in our diocese we have been meeting, talking, dreaming, planning and hoping for a better future since the 1992/93 Diocesan Synod. People have been hoping and sharing ideas in all sorts of forums over more than 25 years, without sensing renewal or revitalisation. The energy levels of those who care and are involved appears to be depleted.
While reading some of the articles in the The Swag (the Quarterly magazine of the National Council of Priests of Australia, Volume 21 No. 3/Spring 2019), I came across an article, Does the Plenary Council offer an opportunity? By Angus Kavanagh FSP, which spoke to me.
In recent years there have been many diocesan assemblies and forums across the Catholic church, of the Western world especially. Such events are indicators of a desire to implement the vision of Pope Francis for a more synodal church. In opting for a national Plenary Council, the Australian church has taken the vision implementation to a higher and more formal level. Because of this, Australia is favourably placed to model revitalisation strategies and initiatives more widely in the Catholic world. The collated themes emerging from Phase 1 of the Council’s ‘listening and encounters’ provide a framework and a catalyst to build a church that is more pastoral than dogmatic, more compassionate than judgmental, more invitational than demanding, more empowering than controlling, more reconciling than hurting, more committed than compliant. In short, to build a church that more authentically reflects the face of Jesus the Good Shepherd, the Jesus whose mission the church is called to proclaim.
With this in mind, I had the good fortune on Thursday to participate in the Information Session for the Australian Catholic University (ACU) course that will be offered in our diocese next year – the Graduate Certificate in Mission and Culture (GCMC). This forms part of an integrated formation and professional learning framework which is being offered by the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy. Those who participate in the course will be invited to explore their life experiences and the world around them before other elements of learning are explored, while generating questions. These two statements provide some of the wisdom perspective of the course:
We keep teaching people answers to questions they did not know they have.
We’re Catholic, and because we are, people from all faith traditions and worldviews are warmly welcome to collaborate here.
As I have shared with you previously, humans are spiritual beings who seek to make meaning, not only with their minds, but with their hearts and souls. As humans, we are unable to escape a belief framework, even when that framework proclaims no belief. I hope some of you will consider enrolling in the Graduate Certificate of Mission and Culture which will be offered next year in two one-week face to face opportunities during semester one and two. There are four units in the program, which means that two units will also be offered in 2021.
I then spent Saturday afternoon with about 30 people, many of them young people who are going to attend the Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF) in Perth at the beginning of December. These young people, teenagers and in their twenties, were faith-filled, joy-filled, generous and happy. It was good to be with them and given the reflections shared with me during the week about the absence of this generation and the one above them, it was refreshing and inspiring to share with them. ACYF is one path the Australian Bishops have chosen to form disciples. These disciples are formed via a number of opportunities – music, dance, discussions, praise and worship, prayer, adoration, the sacraments, song, information, Mass, life experience, celebration, connection, story-telling, pilgrimage etc.
Those who shared their previous experiences spoke about:
- having a mountain-top experience,
- sparking something in them,
- providing a space for refection,
- sharing their faith
- living out their call to mission
- experiencing God,
- sharing stories
- the Bishop’s listening post with deep and meaningful dialogue
- a deep encounter with Jesus Christ
- making a difference
- fun-filled faith experience
We had hoped that more from our diocese may have taken up the opportunity to attend, however, I have no doubt that the group who are making this ACYF pilgrimage will return to us as committed young people on mission. We are in good hands and should not despair.
Young people from our schools celebrated well the Catholic Mission Mass at Toronto last week. Once again those who gathered were prayerful and engaged in this beautiful liturgy, which spoke to us all of our need to be understanding of the many situations which face our fellow brothers and sisters beyond our shores. I have no doubt that the messages from Catholic Mission, Caritas, St Vincent de Paul and other charities significantly impact on the consciousness of our young people.
Over the coming month, I invite you to please pray for:
- The Plenary Council process
- Our Diocesan Synod
- The ACYF pilgrims
- The Holy Souls
- The selection process for new Pastoral Ministries staff in the diocese
- Those affected by drought and for rain to water our precious earth
Thanks for taking the time to read and reflect on my weekly messages.