Australia’s fastest growing diocese released its pastoral plan in February after 18 months of consultation with thousands of Catholics – priestly, religious, consecrated and lay.
It includes nearly one hundred recommendations grouped into five major areas of mission: family, youth, ethnic diversity, laity and clergy, and evangelisation.
The Record spoke to the Bishop of Parramatta, Anthony Fisher OP around the time of its release, about the motivation and thinking behind the plan.
How has the pastoral plan been received, to date?
Better than I guessed, but I couldn’t have guessed the thousands of people who wanted to contribute through the public meetings and through the internet.
I hoped that people would get involved, but I just wondered whether a word like planning would excite people.
It turned out that people loved being consulted and had lots and lots of good ideas.
One of the plan’s nearly-100 recommendations is that parishes establish official, trained welcomers, to be present at all weekend Masses. It’s a very simple and obvious idea, but something that doesn’t happen at most parishes. What was the motivation for that recommendation?
To be honest with ourselves. We know that five out of six Catholics aren’t there, and even if we’re doing better in this part of the country than anywhere else in terms of Mass attendance, that’s still pretty awful, if only one in six is regularly there.
We must feel a kind of ache about that and be asking ourselves again and again, well, what could we do to make ourselves a more welcoming place so that people actually want to come.
Of course, that’s not the whole of it. We need major efforts at evangelisation.
We need to face the fact that there are very many distractions, very many competitors for people’s attention, but one thing we can certainly do is do our best to be very welcoming when people do approach us.
How often do we hear, for example, from people who go off to Hillsong: “Oh, they took an interest in me. They knew when I was sick. People came and knocked on my door when I wasn’t there on a particular Sunday. Whereas, in my own parish, no one seemed to notice. It was so anonymous.”
So I do think that while we all want to be welcoming parishes it is a challenge to do some new things out there.
So many of the plan’s recommendations are directed towards the Church doing more for families. Why is that?
One of the strongest things that came through from the consultations was the desire that we do something for families, at the big parish meetings when people were asked what were their priorities, what areas did they want to contribute ideas to, overwhelmingly it was families and family life.
I was very pleased that so many people wanted that to be a focus of this plan.
You might be aware of my own history with the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. It’s a passion of mine.
I think we can do a lot of things to strengthen and support family life and I’m very glad that the plan has got that front and centre.
There are also a number of recommendations to integrate the Catholic traditions of migrants into “mainstream” parishes.
I think that historically our response to non-Anglo/Irish people coming to the Church in Australia was to set up chaplaincies for them, and a chaplain, and a Mass in their language.
That is genuinely helpful, especially for new arrivals, but once they become more integrated into the general life of the community I don’t know that that’s the best way to go.
I think, particularly by the time they have children and grandchildren here, we have to be thinking of ways of mainstreaming the different ethnic groups, of seeing them as part of the normal life of the church, certainly in places like Parramatta where we are so multicultural and trying to build on that in our normal parishes.
We welcome and continue to have chaplaincies, and we have some very vibrant chaplaincies for different ethnic groups, especially the ones that are coming right now, but when you have other groups that came maybe 50 years ago and it’s their children and grandchildren you are dealing with, we want them to be bringing their particular customs, devotions, and ways of being Catholic to the ordinary life of the Church, in its parishes, and churches, and ministry.
This pastoral plan places enormous stress on the idea that the Church exists, not for itself, but for others, asking every parish to ask themselves some frank questions about how much they are trying to reach out. It also places great stress on the idea that existing Catholics need ongoing formation, and gives practical ideas for that to happen. Why the stress on the importance of that intra-Church activity?
Before we have anything to offer to non-Catholics who we want to bring into Catholic life, or non-practising Catholics who haven’t been near us for a very long time, we have to be closer to Christ ourselves.
So first and foremost, there are parts of the plan directed to our own growth in holiness, for instance, that we will have Eucharistic Adoration available in every deanery of our diocese, all the time, somewhere.
We will be opening new chapels, and we’ve opened the first of these in the Parramatta CBD, right in shopping areas so that we can get the Eucharist front and centre in people’s work lives, shopping lives, in the totality of their lives; one way or another, we’re going to be really trying to get home to people that prayer, and the Eucharist, and Confession have to be at the part of our personal renewal before we’ll be able to draw the rest of the community in.
In your introductory message in the document, you say the recommendations in the plan will help Catholics in Parramatta to share their faith “unashamedly”. That seems to be a problem for even the most fervent of Catholics given the idea, dominant in our surrounding culture, that faith is at best, an “add on” to real life.
We have to realise that that is unusual. That is not normal and we shouldn’t accept that that’s the norm.
The norm should be something more like how we felt during World Youth Day, here in Sydney, where people could be quite public about their faith, quite unembarrassed.
It doesn’t mean that they’re shoving it down other people’s necks or imposing themselves on people, but they love their faith and they demonstrate that in all sorts of ways publicly, rather than treating it as if it were a bit embarrassing, something you keep for whispering at home.
That’s a big change of mindset but I think that is something that our young adults, being a big part of the Parramatta diocese, and our ethnic communities are perhaps a bit more comfortable about, going public about their faith, and I want to do whatever I can to encourage that.
These recommendations are not being imposed on parishes but have been put forward for them to discuss and implement according to their needs. Was unity-in-diversity one of the plan’s aims?
I do think that one of the advantages of plans, life this, is that you spend a lot of time together talking and then you eventually offer people a framework and that is unifying.
Of course, there are lots of possibilities and different people will run with different bits of it so it’s not like we’re all going to become like an army marching in the same footsteps, but you do hope that things like this, the process that we went through and now the plan itself, will give us a greater sense of our identity and mission as the Catholic Church in this part of the world.
There are many proposals in the plan that do not revolve around parishes or other long-established organs of the Church. Was the need for flexibility a goal from the outset?
In coming to this diocese, I saw the possibilities because we have these huge growth areas where there’s, almost overnight, new suburbs mushrooming and there’s giant shopping complexes and I thought, we have to consider what models of ministry will work in that environment.
That’s quite different, probably, to the world in which we built most of our parishes and schools and presbyteries in the 19th century or early 20th century where suburbs grew more gradually. These mushrooms do invite us to think differently.
One thing I’m challenging the agencies to do through our pastoral plan is to decentralise a bit, for example, so that people can get to the counselling services; for the people whose marriages are in trouble; or for adult education.
This is just a matter of responding to where people are, the current demography and the way people live, and we hope that’ll mean more people will gain the benefit of the things those agencies offer.