The Catholic Church in Adelaide: Road to renewal? Or decline?

The Catholic Church in Adelaide: Road to renewal? Or decline?

Michael Gilchrist

If a profusion of discussion groups, working parties, position papers, listening sessions, small group recommendations, assemblies, etc, indicates spiritual health and renewal, then the Church in Adelaide must be thriving today. Certainly, since the holding of a Diocesan Assembly in 1985, Adelaide has been a hive of activity with much talk of "listening", "empowerment", "participation", "equality", "inclusiveness", "local church" and "community."

Conversely, if Mass attendances, priestly vocations, and knowledge and/or practice of Church teachings are any spiritual yardstick, the statistical decline at the grass roots continues. In Adelaide - as in much of Australia - barely 15% of Catholics attend weekly Mass and the seminary is almost empty.

This situation, far from prompting heart-searching about failed 'renewal' programs, or a changing of the guard, has simply prompted larger and larger doses of the same formula.

The May/June 1996 newsletter of the Adelaide A Time for Listening project reveals that the Adelaide Diocesan Assembly Working Party was commissioned by Archbishop Faulkner at the end of 1994 and met throughout 1995. They "reflected" on the "diocesan vision, Community for the World, the diocesan strategy of Basic Ecclesial Communities and the Pastoral Principles that underpin all this".

Throughout 1995, continued the report, "the Working Party - in conversation with the Diocesan Pastoral Team, the Diocesan Pastoral Council and the Council of Priests - began to develop processes to help parishes and other pastoral units to connect with the wider Catholic community and consult with it. The Diocesan Assembly was developing into a year of consultation."

The Working Party, we are then informed, "consulted and listened to parish priests, ethnic community chaplains, pastoral associates, parish pastoral councils and Catholic school principals". This, in turn, led to the consultative process for the Diocesan Assembly into A Time for Listening, "described as "an invitation to the whole diocese to listen to one another ... to reflect on what it means to us to be Catholic in today's world ... for all in the wider Catholic community to have their say ...".

In August 1996, the Executive Officer of A Time for Listening, Michael Brady, circulated a selection from over 2,000 "reflections" received by his office to the question "Being a Catholic can mean lots of different things for people - what does it mean for you?"

The numerous samples, grouped under six headings, could have been predicted, and one wonders what practical purpose can be served by accumulating them. Among a host of perfectly acceptable observations - "Mass completes my week" or "Eucharist is central, vital in our lives" - we read:

  • "The Church needs to stand up for people and not waste its time defending its hierarchical, patriarchal structure and outmoded traditions...";
  • "The Church has too many assets to say that it stands with the poor";
  • "Young people find the Mass boring and repetitive";
  • "[The] Church needs to move with the times - celibacy, birth control, women priests."

Voluminous listing

Another even more voluminous collection of opinions has emerged under the heading "Diocesan Assembly '96: Small Group Recommendations to the Church at Parish Community Level."

Numbering over 250, the following samples are fairly typical of the whole:

  • New style of leadership which empowers people;
  • We, as people need to consistently be knocking at the door of the hierarchy. To respond to needs of divorced, to give priests an option to marry. To bring back the priests who are married;
  • Work within the system - only a matter of time before the laity emerge as leaders of the Church at the local level;
  • Follow-up, inclusivity, communication, empowerment, outreach, challenge;
  • Opportunities for our pastors to 'refresh' and to change with the times;
  • Seminarians to spend time in those parishes where the priest(s) are really 'on the ball';
  • Educate our people to a new way of thinking;
  • Dispel the myths of an outdated Church;
  • Liturgical education reform;
  • Parish - inclusive nature, reach out non-judgementally;
  • Empower people to own or live their faith - Basic Ecclesial Communities?
  • Writing Eucharistic Prayers in more simple, meaningful language. Balance between 'being-in-touch' language and 'reverent' language;
  • The starting point for all Church gatherings is the stories;
  • To challenge the way we 'demonize' those groups in our Adelaide Catholic Community who are working with those who are alienated with Church (e.g., particularly women). The Sophia Christian Feminist Spirituality Centre is so life-giving for many ... the wider Church needs to hear the stories;
  • Less sacramental Church more social justice.

In October 1996 the Adelaide Diocesan Assembly, consisting of about 400 representatives from parishes, schools and other organisations endorsed the establishment of Basic Ecclesial Communities. The Pastoral Planning Co-ordinator for the Archdiocese, John Haren, said that "the aim of the assembly was to listen to the stories of church members and see what they were wanting from the Church. No one part of the Church has all the answers so we have to listen to each other."

But such wholesale invitations to air opinions and 'listen' to each other can easily become, at best, a pooling of ignorance, and at worst, an encouragement of local separatist tendencies. The clear presumption behind the above "recommendations" is that the "local Church" is free to develop its own structures, liturgies and doctrinal interpretations on independent lines as if it were not an integral part of a universal Church with well-defined parameters. But they are the predictable result of giving free rein to a particular breed of Church activist. It is these people who tend to dominate the 'listening' processes and 'recommendations'.

A far more urgent priority and challenge for the local Church's leadership is to communicate and 'sell' Church teachings - as enshrined in the new Catechism - to the increasing numbers of doubting or ignorant members of the flock. A wiser investment of diocesan resources might be to survey Catholics in various age groups to discover current levels of knowledge and acceptance of particular doctrinal and moral teachings as a prelude to setting up sound programs of remedial catechesis in schools, parishes and seminaries.

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