This is the second of two articles on the state of the Church in Australia. Fr John Walter is the parish priest of St Joseph's, Riverwood, in the Archdiocese of Sydney.
Priests throughout Australia are struggling with the hard fact that the numbers of practising Catholics continue to drop disastrously.
Recently, while visiting some priest friends in another archdiocese, I stayed a few days with one of them in a parish I had first visited in the late 1970s when a classmate was the local pastor. I made use of the opportunity to visit this same classmate, now in active retirement. He casually remarked, as I shared morning tea with him, that in the late 1970s, when he was pastor, the Sunday Mass attendance was some 2,500. Nowadays the attendance has dropped to barely 450.
Back in the parish the current pastor confirmed the figures and told me the downturn was typical. I sympathised with him and offered for comparison another set of figures I was all too familiar with, citing a similar decline in my own parish.
Some 24 years back, the number of sets of parish planned giving envelopes in use approached 400; now only 185 sets were in use. When I first arrived in the parish there were five well-attended Sunday Masses providing for some 1200; now there are three Masses and regrettably only some 400 plus attend.
My host then referred to the local archdiocesan synod meeting where one of the younger clergy dropped the following clanger: that when the bishop came to confirm the children he was effectively confirming them out of the Church as the majority never turned up at Sunday Mass again.
The tough question that followed - What to do? - was left floating. My friend was agreeably surprised at this particular young priest's concern considering the fact that he was not very interested in other aspects of the Church's teaching and discipline.
Nonetheless, whatever their differences, they were in complete agreement on this point: far too many children educated in Catholic schools today could not be counted on to grow up practising Catholics.
Catholic educationalists have quite often sheeted the blame home squarely on the non-practising families the children come from. But that does not explain the huge leakage from the faith of others whose parents are pillars of the Church and who in earlier times were themselves educated in the same Catholic schools. This is another tough question yet to be resolved.
The factors are many. They include the increasing secularisation of our society with the inroads of a popular secular ethic; the undoubted falling away from the practice of the faith within a materialistic society whose only heaven is the here and now; extremely poor to erroneous catechesis influenced by such false religious education idols as Gabriel Moran and Thomas Groome whose theories of "ongoing revelation" and "hermeneutic of suspicion" have contributed greatly to stunting, if not killing, the seeds of faith.
These are but a few of the factors which undoubtedly contribute to the larger problem.
The ghetto-like shyness of many believing Christians to contest the reigning secular ethic and the pressure to be one of the boys - or girls - have made the Judeo-Christian ethic a common object of ridicule and abuse in comedy sketches on TV and in the clubs. No wonder the secular ethic has all but superseded the Judeo-Christian ethic in our society. Nonetheless, secular humanism is still best combated at the political level.
Again, short-term "relationships" have largely replaced life-long marriages, be they Christian or civil. Within the Church, the truth of Humanae Vitae has for many years either been totally ignored or studiously avoided. There can be only one explanation why bishops and priests have not taught it. It is from a personal disbelief born of human respect.
Yet again, the transcendent perspective of man's calling in this world has all but been shorn off in otherwise laudable social justice programs that are so short-term they conveniently ignore the Gospel truth that the poor are always with us. Yes, we are duty bound to share our goods with the poor but do we genuinely believe former Prime Minister Bob Hawke's claim that we can eradicate poverty?
Finally, as we have seen in my earlier article, among baptised Catholics we now have two flavours of nominalism - the unbelievers and the disbelievers.
The Holy Father has already told us what we can do. We must start again. We must re-evangelise even before we can effectively catechise.
We cannot presume that nominal Catholics who bring their children for Baptism have the slightest clue about what their responsibilities before God are. For so many the Baptism certificate is simply a ticket of entry for their child into a Catholic school which is still seen as something desirable if only for disciplinary or snobbish reasons.
Just how priests should prepare such parents for a proper appreciation of the Sacrament of Baptism goes far beyond psychological sensitivity; uncompromising fidelity to the Gospel is demanded.
Too often poor clergy attitude - be it too harsh or too soft - misses the mark when parents book the baptism or when inadequate instruction is given to parents and godparents in pre-baptismal programs. Priests and parents need to be keenly aware of the spiritual mutuality of their roles in this life-giving moment.
This does not mean that I have somehow miraculously avoided being as stymied as the young priest at the archdiocesan synod. However, in more recent years, I have evolved the practice of requiring parents to nominate their children in writing for the further sacraments of initiation, for First Holy Communion and for Confirmation.
This nomination is to be made on four non-consecutive Sundays early in the year, usually near or during Lent and only through the Sunday Parish Bulletin. I require the completed nominations be handed in immediately after Mass on any of those Sundays. The local Catholic school cooperates by advising parents of the necessary procedure.
Some parents later come to the presbytery door requesting "a form". When I explain this was only available at Mass on those four Sundays now gone by, they appear baffled until I gently enquire if there was some reason they were not at Mass on those four Sundays. When they freely admit that they don't go to Mass here I further enquire where they do go to Mass.
The one or two who come from another parish I refer back to where they regularly attend Mass. A very few might attend migrant language Masses elsewhere; but most of the others will then face the facts and confess they don't go to Mass at all. This is no time for condemnation but for healing, for this moment has proved as much an opportunity of grace as individual confession is in the Sacrament of Penance.
I explain that to celebrate First Communion by bringing the child to Mass only on that day - never before and not again after - is treating First Communion, as all too many treat Baptism, as merely a rite of passage. I point out how unfair this is to the child and how it is certainly not what the Church believes and teaches.
I gently remind the parents that at their child's Baptism they were hailed as the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith and that this necessarily entails our primary duty of worship of God which is an opportunity to give as well as to receive. I remind them that I will be saying more about that at the meeting the local school is organising in the near future for all the parents of First Communicants. I invite them to come along too where they will be most welcome.
In the meantime I suggest that they start bringing the family to Sunday Mass; I give them the Sunday Mass timetable. I also remind them that since the parish will be starting a Sunday school for the First Communicants it would be a good idea for them to attend at that particular Mass time so their child won't miss anything.
The Sunday school generally starts a half hour before Mass and I tell the parents they are welcome to sit in on the lessons. I then plainly state that I will be noting the consistency of their response to this invitation each Sunday to confirm the good will already evident in their conversation with me. Then I will happily add their child to the list of First Communicants.
I back this up by telling the First Communion children, first of all when instructing them as a group in the church, and then individually when making their confession, to insist smilingly that their parents bring them along and on time to the Sunday School and to the Mass. The children are invariably keen and do just that.
The proof is that very often non-Catholic parents, sundered by divorce, respond by turning up every Sunday with their little boy or girl, thus enabling grace to build on nature. Once the ice is broken some even ask if there is anything further they should be doing.
One mother at the First Communicant parents' meeting stood up and publicly admitted she had not been to Mass since her little girl was baptised. She turned and told everyone I had put her on notice and then humbly admitted she had been at fault.
Since it was clearly up to her she would start attending Mass the very next Sunday. Her witness was powerful and her family are now regular parishioners.
Her little girl is about to enter high school and she recently told me how excited her little brother was at the prospect of making his First Communion earlier this year and how happy the whole family now were.
She is one of a group of Year 6 girls who volunteered to help in setting up the church before weekly class Masses and weekly Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
The reader may well ask whether the families all persevere. After all, we can all say no to God and not just once. But, interestingly, my parish's attendance downturn is approximately half that of my priest friend whom I was visiting and he and his pastoral assistant were sufficiently impressed with my policy to intend to implement my suggestions in his parish sacramental program next year.
This article has outlined a possible start, but it is not a complete answer and it may be many years before we reap visible fruits. The Holy Father has pointed the way. Putting such a policy into practice needs more than prayerful thinking.
It also requires more than a modicum of patience, complete trust in God's blessing and more than anything uncompromising fidelity to the Church's belief and teaching.
Just before beginning my holiday I received a call from a young woman seeking me out on behalf of her fiance, a Lebanese-Australian. He was the tragic victim of a collision with a truck which had left him a quadriplegic. Neither were my parishioners. After promising my prayers, I asked why the personal enquiry. She requested me to bring the sacraments to her fiance who was now seven weeks in intensive care in hospital on the other side of Sydney.
She told me he had refused to see his Melchite priest, the Maronite priests who educated him in secondary school and the hospital chaplain. He would only see me, though I had not seen him once in the twelve years that had elapsed since he left primary school. She told me that he had fond memories of serving Mass as my altar boy at class Masses and was wanting to make his confession as he used to when he was at primary school. For that he would have no one but me.
I arranged a suitable time to visit. On the flat of his back and motionless, he greeted me cheerfully, remarking that I was not nearly as tall as he remembered me. I responded, "How many inches ago was that?" Immediately he asked me to hear his confession. Afterwards I called his fiancee in. I anointed him and gave him Holy Communion which he received with deep devotion.
She then asked if she could read a passage from Matthew's Gospel from the Bible at the bedside. It was the one beginning, "Ask and you shall receive ...". He joined in with her, word for word. They had been praying this passage over the seven weeks he had been languishing in intensive care.
Before I left he informed me that just before I arrived he began to feel for the first time the pin pricks probing for some feeling in his toes and fingertips. What is more he now agreed to go to the spinal unit, a proposal he had adamantly refused until after he saw me.
Later I opened the card with the little gift they insisted on giving me. Inside was more than a Thank You. The young lad's fiancee spelt out that for whatever unknown reason I was very important to him.
I now thanked God that the regular instruction I had earlier given him in those most impressionable years had apparently helped fortify his faith for this crisis. This had to be the connection with me, the priest. I was grateful that the Lord in his kindness had fed this information back to me. It was this that inspired me to write this article.
Yes the Holy Father's call to re-evangelisation is the appropriate beginning to rebuilding a lost faith. The Lord will bless every consistent effort we can muster. The labourers are few but the harvest rich.