An earlier article in 'AD2000' (October 1989) explored aspects of the growing Parish Assembly movement in a number of Australian dioceses. The principle of the Assemblies in themselves of educating lay Catholics into the intricacies of the present major problems of Catholicism at the end of the 20th century is to be supported. If, however, they are designed for use as a means of brainwashing uninformed Catholics into the "new" as distinct from the "old" Catholicism, different criteria apply.
Where Vatican II explicitly confirmed Jesus established a hierarchical Church in which authority came from above, the Parish Assembly - to judge from the following case study - is based on a participatory model where authority is supposed, in theory, to come from below. Of even more concern is the possible use of Parish Assemblies to introduce a new theology emphasising the personal feelings and experiences of participants rather than Scripture and the teachings of the Church.
One might assume that today's bishops and their experts are well aware of major trouble spots in the local Church and keen to address them with the best means available. The priorities would be clear and urgent: falling Mass attendances, empty confessionals, the rapid decline of priestly and religious vocations, defective catechetics courses, a breakdown in family life, little understanding and/or observation of the Church's moral teachings, widespread liturgical abuses and much unorthodox content in seminary, adult education and teachers' college courses.
The Assembly process may be one way to tackle such problems. The Church's teachings and structures are available; the problem is how to activate them in order to revive orthodox belief and practice among Catholics.
However, most currently available Assembly material does not point in such directions. The goals seem radically different.
A preview of what was unfolding in Ballarat came in the form of an "Australian Creed" that was presented to participants at a Ballarat Southern Region Assembly "Prayer Service" in June 1989. Participants were asked to stand and "profess our Baptismal faith" which included belief in Australian "ordinariness and at-homeness ... black aboriginal beauty ... migrant struggles ... search for identity" and further on, belief in "responsibility" regarding "every forest ... harbour ... city ...", etc. It was a secular creed for a man-made "new church".
The more recent material to hand was forwarded last November to all parish clergy by the Secretary of the Ballarat Diocesan Pastoral Planning Committee (DPPC). The material included a report on "our last two pastoral planning events", namely, meetings held in October and November of "all parish representatives" and of "Councils of Priests and Religious, Pastoral Associates representatives, Youth Ministry, Religious Education Centre representatives and Diocesan Pastoral Planning representatives", along with information on the "Parish Assembly Process."
This writer decided, in the interest of clarity, to organise the material under five topic headings such as "What kinds changes are anticipated?" (as a result of the Assembly process) and "How are such changes to be justified?" A copy of these, along with a set of related questions, was sent to the DPPC Secretary on 6 December 1989 with a request for clarification and comment. This was to allow the Assembly organisers to present their case more clearly for the benefit of AD2000 readers. At the time of writing, however, after two months, there has been no reply.
In the Assembly material sent out by the DPPC regarding the first heading: "Why are such Assemblies thought to be needed?" few overt answers are provided. Perhaps these are spelled out in more detail elsewhere. One would like to be enlightened, as there is an element of mystery about the exercise. The only two relevant-looking quotes were "Dissatisfaction with the present situation" and "People are hurting or there is a gap in the parish's extension of the mission of Jesus." No official documents calling for Assemblies were mentioned; this is not to assume that none exist.
The second heading, "What kinds of changes are anticipated", was answered by such phrases as "an alternative future", "an alternative vision", a "more local, grassroots church", "from an authoritative model to a participative", "a new way of being church" and "not to be afraid of what might emerge".
This sounded as if a Church which had a 2000-year-old tradition and which should know its own mind by now was about to plunge into the great unknown.
The vagueness and ambiguity of these declared potential changes prompted an as-yet unanswered question sent to the DPPC Secretary: "Specifically, what kinds of 'changes' do you visualise as likely to emerge at the end of the day, as a result of the Assembly processes?"
A third heading, "How are these changes justified?" attracted from the Assembly materials such expressions as "Vision of Church coming out of Vatican II"; "the direction of the Spirit through the Assembly"; "to enable the voice of the people to be heard and taken seriously" and "our vision."
These expressions prompt the following questions: "Whose interpretation(s) of Vatican II are being used to determine the guiding 'vision'?"; "Which criteria do you have for judging whether the authentic action of the Spirit is present?" and "What basis will you have for determining which recommendations should or should not be implemented in the Diocese?"
Nowhere in the documentation was there any reference to the Pope or Magisterium as final arbiters of what could result from such exhortations as "dream freely without being side-tracked worrying about the practicalities of how such an alternative vision will be achieved." Indeed the word "Catholic" was not mentioned once among the numerous "processes", "changes" and "visions".
The fourth heading "Machinery for initiating the process towards change" drew frequent mentions of the all-important "facilitator". The documents inform us that "at least two facilitators per parish" were to be nominated to attend a "weekend training session" in February 1990.
At this point the writer includes a personal experience which throws considerable light on the bona fides of the current "Assembly" method.
Having been nominated as a potential facilitator by my parish priest, the latter was informed in writing by a DPPC representative: "I have not written to Mr Michael Gilchrist. Perhaps you are not aware of Mr Gilchrist's attitude to Parish Assemblies. It is one which would make it virtually impossible for him to act in the role of Facilitator in an unbiased manner. For your information, I enclose a copy of an article written by Mr Gilchrist. I am sure that it is evidence of my claim and sufficient justification for not inviting him to act as a facilitator."
The other parish nominee was contacted, but required as a prior condition of his acceptance as facilitator, to commit himself to a set of job specifications: "Because of the nature of the task, it will be necessary that those who act as Facilitators are open to the direction which the Church is taking in the [Ballarat] diocese and that they be prepared to accept instruction from the Diocesan Pastoral Planning Committee ...", formed, it was added, "at the request " and "under the auspices of the local Bishop.
A nominee's job specifications included the following: "Someone who is open to the movement in today's church (sic) and the necessity of pastoral planning ... who has the capacity to listen to others without needing to express their (sic) own opinion or give their own interpretation ... let the process of the event happen as smoothly as possible" and "who is not a member of the parish community (to allow for the objectivity of the facilitator)."
One is left guessing as to the specific nature of this "direction" or "movement" which would-be facilitators are supposed to be "open to" - a variety of movements, certainly, but one non-specific "movement". It sounded like a spiritual blank cheque.
It was apparent that despite the democratic rhetoric of "openness" and "pluralism" scrupulous care was being taken to tie up the role of facilitator as a means of ensuring certain predetermined goals; nothing was being left to chance in heading off potential deviance. The danger of 'rebel' parishes with their own 'biased' facilitators had to be averted and all brought into conformity with a non explicit "movement" and an "alternative vision of church".
The final heading: "Obstacles anticipated - how to overcome them", attracted revealing statements from the Assembly material: "How do we free people to leave behind what they may have learned so well?"; "How do you manage change without leaving a residue and a heritage of very strong resentment and anger?"; "Particular concern was voiced re the parishes who as yet have not been involved"; "Identify who or what are the forces likely to resist or oppose the changes" and "Take any resistances or opposition and devise strategies to meet them."
In response to these statements the Secretary was asked, "Why do the organisers anticipate 'very strong resentment and anger', 'pain' and 'resistance or opposition'?" One might have added: "Why is it assumed that people have to leave things behind? What kinds of things?"
If all the Assembly experts had in mind was simply popular support for tackling the Church's crisis of faith and practice, or enhanced outreach to neglected elements in the parishes, and if the Holy Father would obviously underwrite the final result, why was serious opposition expected; why the need for defensive strategies? Why such care in the selection and 're-educating' of would-be facilitators?
Or are Catholics in the pews, like it or not, about to be subjected to the "alternative vision" of Catholicism embodied in Ballarat's "Australian Creed"? Despite the call for grass-roots input the end results seem already mapped-out by the DPPC on the lines of "guided democracy", however vaguely and mysteriously expressed in the documentation."