Being involved with nearly 5000 baptisms and guiding more than 1400 children through the sacramental program has given pastoral associate Deb Ripley a good understanding of ways to support families on their faith journey.
It has also made her acutely aware of the often long periods during that journey where contact with the Church is lost. With this in mind, she was the force behind introducing the GodStart faith development program in the Cathedral parish in 2009.
Created by the Melbourne Archdiocese, the program involves putting families on a register following baptism and remaining in contact with them each year by sending a birthday card to the child, together with resources outlining ways parents can talk to their children about Jesus and God.
“I realised that in some cases we wouldn’t see the families from their child’s baptism until it was time for them to be confirmed – and if they didn’t go to a parish school they might not get confirmed.
“I asked myself, what happens in those seven years? How can we build a relationship with the family?”
Today more than 900 families are registered with the program.
“We have a huge Godstart program and these young parents are very genuine and very authentic and trying to live out their faith in a complex, fast-moving world.
“My experience in the Cathedral parish is that their faith is alive and definitely not dying.”
Deb is one of 24 pastoral associates working in the Archdiocese and like the others, her role is varied but one constant remains is her commitment to helping families.
When she started in the role 24 years ago she participated in the requisite Ministry Formation Program but has gone on to complete other studies – including an Advanced Diploma in Counselling and Family Therapy – to ensure she is equipped with the right “tools” for family ministry.
“When you’re working with the sacraments you’re working in the way Jesus was with people. If you’re talking about forgiveness, being sorry and reconciliation, and you’ve met with all those parents and you know the ones whose marriage has just broken up, who have had conflict and separation in their family, then you need to be with them in a meaningful and appropriate way…and that required skills I needed to develop,” she explained.
“It was one of the best things I’ve done in recent years because I feel more useful.”
As one of the longest serving pastoral associates in the diocese, Deb said she never dreamed this is where her life would take her and admitted she “fell” into the job due to circumstances surrounding her children.
She and husband Leon were raising their young family at Andrews Farm and her oldest child Ryan (she also has daughters Meaghan and Caitlin) was ready to start the sacrament program, but they couldn’t get him into the local Catholic school as it was full. The Josephite Sister at the school suggested Deb could prepare him.
“I’d already done some training with Patricia Brady in children’s liturgy and trained with catechists in Elizabeth and was weaving in the sacramental program, so that’s how I got started.
“Sr Pat Fox was the next pastoral associate there and she asked how I would feel doing an ‘apprenticeship’ and studying some theology through a Ministry Formation Program with some other lay women.
“I said, ‘that sounds really fabulous’… so she handed me the parish directory and said, ‘good luck dear’!”
She described the three-year formation program as a “very special experience”.
“Those women were amazing and they had so many years of experience in so many ways that had never been acknowledged in a formal sense. It was a massive challenge for us.
“Archbishop Faulkner had this dream for lay ecclesial ministers and then Archbishop Wilson came in and formalised the ministry in other ways, with a proper ministry charter, role descriptions, superannuation.”
After completing the program, Deb studied for her Bachelor of Ministry over the next four years. When her children were older she completed a three year Masters in Ministry and later the counselling diploma.
During her 14 years at the Elizabeth parish she said most of her work was with young families.
“We had a fabulous working relationship with four schools – St Mary’s Magdalene, St Thomas More and then St Columba and Catherine McAuley.
“There was a great sacrament team and it was very exciting. Lots of parents came through RCIA as well, so we had big Easters – it was beautiful.”
During the past decade she has been located in the Cathedral parish, again working closely with families in baptisms and the sacramental program, preparing liturgies, and making pastoral visits. She was also the parish liaison person for Christian Brothers’ College for four years.
For Deb, her job as a pastoral associate has evolved over the years, as she has gained more experience and knowledge. She said no two days were ever the same and working with the families was a blessing.
“I definitely lean more towards family ministry and sacramental preparation…I love working with the families.
“I never thought in my wildest imaginings that I would do something like this.”