Engaging with young families before they baptise their child, reaching out to disconnected Catholics and empowering lay people to be involved were some of the take-home messages for Carmel White from the Divine Renovation Conference in Halifax, Canada.
Together with 600 delegates from around the globe, Carmel attended the conference in June to hear how the Saint Benedict parish, under the leadership of Fr James Mallon, has embraced renewal and transformed itself into a vibrant community of missionary disciples.
Carmel also visited the Church of the Nativity in Baltimore which is led by Fr Michael White, who describes how he remodelled his community in the book Rebuilt. Carmel was inspired to see how that community is also evangelising and creatively reaching out to disconnected Catholics.
“I was looking for optimism,” the part-time pastoral associate based at Colonel Light Gardens said of her travels to the northern hemisphere.
“In those two communities they’re incredible in the way they think outside the square and the things they are doing we can learn from, for sure.”
As Carmel explained, the clear message she found in both communities was focusing on “who isn’t there, not who is”, and looking at ways of bringing people back to the Church.
A long-time parishioner in the former Kingswood parish, Carmel was closely involved with the formation of the Emmaus parish in 2016 which brought together the Kingswood, Colonel Light Gardens and Goodwood churches. She said viewing the two worship centres on her recent overseas travels, it was heartening to see some commonalities with Emmaus.
“Here we have a volunteer strategy to engage as many people as possible in ministry and that is also one of the targets of St Benedict’s and the Church of the Nativity – where the priests are shepherd leaders who empower others to be involved.
“In Halifax they have a number of different tools for attracting people (back to the Church) and the key one is the Alpha program,” she added. Emmaus has just started the Alpha program and Carmel said she was keen to learn from the Canadian experience.
Another area of interest raised during the conference was the approach of faith “presupposing” the sacraments. To illustrate this, Carmel cited the example of a couple seeking baptism for their baby, but being unconnected to the Church.
“While they would never say no (to a baptism), they would invite them into the community and community life before the sacrament, so they could connect with groups such as Alpha and be drawn into the community and friendship.
“As Fr James Mallon says in his Divine Renovation book, if you have the sacrament immediately upon request then only one to two per cent return to the Church, and that’s not transforming lives.”
Now back in Adelaide and working alongside fellow pastoral associate Sr Jasmine Lawrence CP, Carmel is hoping to put some of what she has learned into action.
Enhancing music in the Mass is definitely high on the list of priorities, but she believes the biggest challenge is moving the mindset to being a Church of “mission and not maintenance”.
“Pope Francis has made that clear in Evangelii Gaudium and that’s what we need to focus on. The temptation is to be engaged in maintenance and that’s a recipe for extinction.
“We need to look much broader. The forces of secularism are so strong but we just have to do the best we can.”
Having studied and practised as a lawyer for many years, taking on the role of pastoral associate was definitely a sea change for Carmel. It followed several years of study in which she attained a Bachelor then Masters of Theology, enabling her to closely examine and understand the strong Catholic faith that was instilled in her as a child growing up in Jamestown and later as a student at Mercedes College.
“I was a cradle Catholic and felt I had the faith of a child and I didn’t feel like it was enough anymore and I wanted to explore it more.
“Afterwards I certainly had a lot more knowledge and capacity to think for myself and work out what to let go of and what to keep.”
After stepping in as pastoral associate when Sr Jasmine was away on leave, Carmel decided this was her calling and was pleased to take up her new role in 2010.
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