By Caroline Smith
The Catholic Church in Australia has many advantages – not least its diverse and multicultural nature – but it can continue to grow by focusing on welcoming people, particularly the young, to worship and engage, three prominent bishops have said recently.
Archbishop of Perth Timothy Costelloe SDB, Bishop of Parramatta Vincent Long and Auxiliary Bishop of the Northern Region of the Archdiocese of Melbourne Terence Curtin took part in a panel discussion as part of the Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF) in Sydney on Friday 8 December.
The discussion – which was one of a series entitled ‘Bishops’ X-Change’ focused on the topic ‘What is the Australian Church?’, with bishops responding to questions and comments from the audience on their own experiences of being Catholic in Australia today.
Bishop Long said the local Church reflected wider society in its multicultural nature, and this could help it grow by learning from different faith traditions.
“In-line with the multicultural nature of our Church in Australia, you’re looking at three bishops here and we’re all different. I was born in Vietnam and I was a refugee coming into this great country,” he said.
“And the fact that the Church says something about the inclusive of the Australian Church and the universal Church too.
“That’s the uniqueness of our Church: we can learn the traditions and learn from the strength of our different migrant communities.”
However, the bishops and attendees agreed that there were challenges to be faced when it came to encouraging people to stay engaged with their faith in the context of a more secular society.
Archbishop Costelloe said there was a particular challenge when it came to young people leaving the Church, adding that parishes themselves needed to look at how they welcomed youth.
“I go round the parishes in my Archdiocese and I sit down with the leaders and I say, ‘what are you doing and what could you be doing in your situation, to make sure that your parish is a young person-friendly parish?’” he said.
“I think to ask that question and get people to think their way into that question is a really important thing to do. Music is obviously an important thing, and it’s groups like this that can feedback to us what you think would make a difference in your local scene and make it a more young person-friendly parish.
“It doesn’t mean that you do something today and then you’ve got 500 young people at Mass next Sunday; we all know it doesn’t work like that. But I think the question is worth asking and worth thinking our way into, so that’s one suggestion.”
But it was not only young people who were feeling disengaged, according to Bishop Curtin, who said that welcoming people to Mass, and encouraging a sense of community could strengthen attendance.
“I had a conversation with someone yesterday, a teacher in a Catholic school, who told me ‘We have pulled out of the parish that we’re in, we go to a neighbouring parish that we’re in, very Pentecostal, great music. When you arrive you are welcomed, they ask your name, they know who you are. Go to the Catholic parish; you come, you go, nobody asks your name,” he said.
“It would seem one of the important questions for me to put to parishes is: are people welcomed here, how do you do it, do you know their names? And out of that how do you hope to share their experience of faith and how it might be celebrated?
“Because otherwise it might be a case of people going to Mass on Sundays, and that’s it.”