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Parish renewal - time to take stock

Opinion

In his first major statement, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis spoke bluntly about the challenges facing Catholic parishes: ‘We must admit …  that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.’

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Instead, he held out this goal: ‘Wherever the need for the light and the life of the Risen Christ is greatest, [the parish] will want to be there. To make this missionary impulse ever more focused, generous and fruitful, I encourage each (diocese) to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.’ This was the springboard in Adelaide Archdiocese, for the past six years of parish renewal – oriented around the platform ‘In the footsteps of Jesus – Eight Gospel pathways.’

As we welcome Archbishop Patrick O’Regan to lead our local Church, it is timely to take stock of the progress, or lack of it, that we have made in this undertaking. In Pope Francis’ words, have we discovered ‘new life and an authentic evangelical spirit … to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with Him’?

To answer this summons honestly, I think we need to do three things.

Firstly, the leadership in each parish – the priest, pastoral workers and other lay leaders – need to be invited to reflect on their journey over the past six years. How their communities have responded, where the breakthroughs and new developments have been, when there has been resistance to this call? Because the thrust of the renewal program was directed at parish communities discovering for themselves how they wished to change and grow, we need to get a sense of the tapestry of renewal across the Archdiocese.

Secondly, the diocesan leaders who took it upon themselves or were charged with the task of fostering this grassroots renewal – led so inspiringly and indefatigably by the Vicar General Fr Philip Marshall – need to offer an appraisal of how they saw the Spirit catching hold of parishes to ‘make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented’.

This evaluation needs to acknowledge the five years of work undertaken by the Office for Renewing Parishes. The team expended great effort in encouraging the uptake of the ‘Eight Gospel Pathways’, and they saw firsthand how communities across the city and country responded.

Thirdly, we need to consider both dimensions of evangelisation identified by Pope Francis. On the one hand there is the explicit work of offering the love of Christ to our neighbours and local communities, including the balm of healing broken hearts and lives. On the other, there is the ‘social dimension of evangelisation’ that advocates for the inclusion of the poor, the overcoming of gross inequalities, the seeking of the common good, and the care for our common home.

At the moment, I think we have tended to separate these two dimensions, so that the encyclical Laudato Si’ is seen as addressing the huge challenges of environmental degradation and the disregard for the lives of those in poverty. In fact it can only be when ‘the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in our hearts’ that we will have the courage to share the love we have received from Christ, and to work for the coming of his Kingdom of truthfulness, dignity and peace.

The pandemic has been a stark reminder of the interconnection of all peoples and the dangers from over-exploitation of the Earth’s resources. We have less than 10 years to turn around the collapse of biodiversity and the disruption to climate. The Vatican Dicastery of Integral Human Development is calling on all parishes to embrace The Laudato Si’ Action Plan, to undertake a seven-year journey to become ‘totally sustainable’.

I would like to encourage all of us who are devoted to serving the Church to take the time, as we try to come to terms with how the world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus, to come together to listen deeply to the Spirit speaking in ourselves and each other, in the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor, and see whether we have yet drunk deeply of ‘the missionary impulse’, which enables us to ‘transform everything … for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for (the Church’s) self-preservation’. (Joy of the Gospel)

Peter Laffan is a parishioner of Mary of Galillee Community, Aldinga.

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