All is not quiet on Sydney’s Western front. The burgeoning suburbs of the west are teeming with ethnic diversity and life, and everyone, at least if federal politics this week is anything to go by, wants a piece of it.
And why wouldn’t they? Greater Western Sydney is home to 2.02 million people, or around one in 11 Australians, and is projected to grow larger still to 2.96 million by 2036.
One third of the people there are aged 24 years and under and its rate of population growth, at 1.6 per cent, is well above the New South Wales average (1.1).
More significantly for the rest of us perhaps, Western Sydney represents Australia’s likely cultural and demographic future; significant, not only for governments, but also for the Church.
Half of the world’s nations are represented among Western Sydney’s residents; migrants make up a third of the populace; and over 70 different languages are spoken in the Fairfield local government area alone.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard was scheduled to spend five days touring job sites and shopping centres in the area, this week, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wasn’t far behind in promising to visit.
But, as federal politicians do battle over hip pocket and infrastructure issues, the Catholic Church is not clamouring for votes.
It is not even “getting back to basics”, as the politicos’ communications advisers might have it.
The Diocese of Parramatta, at the far eastern corner of Greater Western Sydney, has been asking itself an even more fundamental question: “What are we, the Church, for?”
The diocese’s Pastoral Planning Officer Daniel Ang put his own answer plainly when speaking to The Record late last month: Evangelisation is the Church’s raison d’être.
“I think it was an Anglican archbishop who once said the Church is one of those communities that exists for the sake of its non-members. It is something Pope John Paul II said frequently throughout his pontificate,” Mr Ang said.
“The Church exists for mission … As communities of faith, we cannot simply be about maintaining the status quo.
“If we keep that mission of evangelisation at the heart of what we do in the Church, then everything else becomes a means of fulfilling that mission, rather than an end in itself.”
Parramatta’s Bishop Anthony Fisher OP launched the Faith in Our Future pastoral planning initiative in January 2012.
Reflecting on it last month, Bishop Fisher said that wanting to grow, in itself, was not enough.
“We need to plan to grow and that means thinking about goals, strategies, and resourcing,” Bishop Fisher said to the residents of Parramatta’s Mountains Deanery.
“Our pastoral planning process seeks to shape our future by giving expression to a shared vision of the whole diocesan community and a shared hope to grow in response to that vision.”
Almost immediately, a series of consultations with lay people, clergy and religious began throughout the diocese, all aimed at arriving at that shared vision and a five-year plan (2014-2018) with recommendations as to where the diocese ought to go next.
Participants were asked to provide feedback on five key priority areas: supporting family life; connecting better with the young; building upon ethnic diversity; supporting lay, consecrated and clergy vocations; and the mission of the New Evangelisation.
Some 29 consultations later, with around 2,000 people having had their say, Daniel Ang is compiling and analysing the results along with Fr Paul Marshal, Parramatta’s Episcopal Vicar for Evangelisation and Pastoral Planning.
While the process-to-date has highlighted some real strengths in the diocese, neither Bishop Fisher nor Mr Ang have shied away from the problems and challenges the consultations’ participants have identified.
“We are blessed to be in a growing part of the Church, with more and more Catholics in Western Sydney every year, from every nation on earth, and new parishes, churches and schools on the horizon,” Bishop Fisher said last month.
“While that presents its challenges, I would far rather face these than be planning for decline.
“Our ministries seek to respond to needs and our structures to match our ministries. But I won’t pretend all is rosy.”
An interim report, released last September, on what the pastoral planning consultations were uncovering revealed a range of weaknesses.
They included issues that are by no means peculiar to Parramatta:
- The need to reach out to the 85 per cent of baptised Catholics who don’t practise the Faith;
- Scriptural illiteracy and poor know-ledge of Catholic teachings and belief;
- Weak connections with families after baptism;
- A scarcity of mothers’ groups, especially for mothers of pre-school children;
- A lack of consistency in welcoming newcomers to parishes, as well as migrants and overseas priests more generally;
- Poor faith engagement with parents at Catholic schools; and
- A lack of understanding of ethnic cultures.
Although the final report won’t be completed and released until the end of this year, Mr Ang was happy to share some of his thoughts on the key themes that have so far emerged with The Record.
The one major thing he had learnt since the project began, he said, was the great promise of properly formed and supported lay people to transform the communities and the wider society in which they lived.
“We have to support families better with a more focused effort,” Mr Ang told The Record.
“Families really are the source of the Church’s life in terms of lay men and women, religious vocations, clergy, and Catholic marriages.
“We also need to focus not only on clergy life but lay life … Catholic marriage obviously needs support, especially in a challenging cultural context.”
Faith formation, Mr Ang said, needed to improve for Catholics across all ages, vocations and cultures if the Church was to live the New Evangelisation urged by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
“The important thing to keep in mind when planning is that the call of lay people is to live their Gospel mission in the world.
“We need mature parishes and mature disciples who know their faith, who are articulate, who live their faith through justice and through engagement with the wider community … That is one of our ambitions, to form lay people not only for Church ministry [for liturgical functions and work in diocesan agencies], as important as that is, but also that they become good Catholic parents, good Catholic neighbours; that they transform the workplaces in which they work, whether Catholic or otherwise.
“Evangelisation takes place at all the levels and different strata where human society and culture are formed. That would be our hope.”
Although it might seem counter-intuitive, giving parishes and other Church groups an outward focus will help them regenerate, even where they might be unsure of the faith themselves.
“The energy and inspiration that newcomers have is enormous,” Mr Ang said.
“When we evangelise, we are serving the needs of others with the Gospel mission, those newcomers actually renew the life of the rest of us.
“So I see the momentum between the formation of the people we have and our outreach to the people we don’t as being inseparable, with one providing energy to the other.”
Daniel Ang was once an outsider to the Catholic Faith himself.
The only child of Buddhist and Daoist parents, he discovered Catholicism in his early 20s, eventually going on to edit a magazine for a Catholic religious order for seven years as well as completing a Masters of Divinity at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.
He continues to be enthusiastic about the work of the ressourcement group of theologians whose views largely triumphed over those of the ultra-traditionalists and neo-scholastics at the Second Vatican Council.
They include such Council luminaries as Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou and Yves Congar, men who were, in their younger years, suspected or condemned by certain sections of the Church for heterodoxy but, by the end of their lives, had come to be seen as conservatives by church progressives.
Fifty years after the Council, their ecclesiology or understanding of what the Church is, is coming into its own.
“It is an exciting time to be Church. The rise of the laity, and its reclaiming of the baptismal mission, is going to be one of the central aspects of the New Evangelisation,” Mr Ang said.
“Where once evangelisation was predominantly the work of the religious communities and clergy, today, with the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on baptism as the foundational sacrament of discipleship, we are in a good place for lay people to take the Gospel into their workplaces and families.”
Ecumenical Councils that are pastoral in nature are convened precisely so the Church can formulate and plan for new pastoral realities, but those plans must stay rooted in a sound relationship with, and knowledge of, Christ, he said.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI issued a similar warning in September last year, urging leaders against the ‘bureaucratisation of pastoral care’.
“Evangelisation requires starting from an encounter with the Lord, within a dialogue rooted in prayer,” the now retired Pope said.
An emphasis on seeking efficiency through structures, organisations and programs, the Pope said, risks initiatives becoming ‘self-referential’, existing only for the members of those structures with little intention of, or capacity for, having an impact on the disengaged and unengaged.
It is cautionary wisdom with which Mr Ang is familiar.
“When you are planning for a diocese or for a missionary group, it’s not simply about structure. You can have the best structure in the world but without the conversion of heart, without openness to collaboration, without mature disciples, not much is possible.
“It’s not just a question of structure; it’s about people, their maturity of faith, and their ability to work together.”
Again, the greatest obstacle to renewal, Mr Ang wrote on his Time of the Church blog last month, was “a failure to recognise the mission of evangelisation as the central purpose for which all our communities exist”.
“If your parish or community closed today, would anyone but its members notice?” he asked on his blog.
“We must recognise our existence is not for ourselves and organise our life and our structures accordingly. We exist for mission, for the making of new disciples and promoting growth in all those who follow Jesus.”
Although he is enthusiastic about lay formation, Mr Ang does not see a zero-sum relationship between the dignity of the lay vocation on the one hand, and the priestly vocation on the other. “Collaborative mission”, he said, is key.
“You’ve got ecclesial movements, for example, that are predominantly lay, that have been inspired by the charism of a particular founder [or several founders] and those movements bring laity and clergy together in collaborative mission.”
The Paramatta pastoral planning process has involved and presumes the continued encouragement of parishes, individuals, prayer groups, justice organisations, and everyone in between, he said.
Last month, Bishop Fisher floated the idea of decentralising some ministries, such as social services, adult education and formation, to outlying parishes.
He also spoke about the challenge that declining income poses to future endeavours. Australia’s low levels of giving and philanthropy, and governments’ retreat from education, healthcare and social services, meant Catholics had to think smarter about funding.
“Declining income means either doing more with less or resigning ourselves to doing less,” Bishop Fisher said.
“I’m not a ‘do less’ kind of guy and ‘do less’ thinking makes no sense in the fastest growing part of the Church in Australia.”
Catholics, he said, would simply have to get more creative with their fundraising.
In his blog (timeofthechurch.com) Mr Ang has written extensively about some of the issues surrounding pastoral planning and some of the great challenges facing the Church more generally.
He is frank in his analysis, but his bishop has said in previous public addresses that a truthful and comprehensive understanding of the current state of affairs is essential to devising paths to real and healthy growth.
Mr Ang said he was thankful for the support he had received.
“We need to inspire people to live the Gospel in the breadth of their life. We need to support them in that, just as much as I am being supported in my journey.
“So if there is anything that I hope will come of this pastoral planning it is that my story won’t be unique and that it becomes a story that is available to everyone rather than a few.”
LINK: Pastoral planning – Diocese of Parramatta: www.faithinourfuture.org.au