I have posted some of Barry Kearney’s ideas before. Barry is businessman who is a parishioner at Park Orchards. He is a man with his heart in the right place and ready to think of some ways of doing things in a new way. Here is his latest offering in an open letter which I have decided to post for all to read. Incidentally, many of the suggestions he makes for better parish outreach are employed by my wife’s Lutheran parish. It is a parish that is growing leaps and bounds while surrounding Lutheran parishes are struggling. (Although it should be noted that their greatest growth area is not in new Christians but in reviving the active practive of the faith in lapsed or irregularly practicing Christians–still that also seems to be what Barry is addressing here).
Dear Fellow Catholic,
The Australian Catholic Church has never known how to evangelise
Apart from official statements from some Church leaders, “Evangelism” is a dirty word amongst most Catholics. It’s something “born again” Protestants do, and not at all in the Australian Catholic tradition.
If the Apostles had adopted that attitude, there would be no Christian Church anywhere in the world.
In the 1950’s when I was young, the Catholic Church in Australia was composed of mainly Irish, Italian, Polish, Dutch etc immigrants and their descendants. Churches were full. There were plenty of vocations to the priesthood and to the religious orders. Catholic Children went to mainly Catholic Schools, where they were educated every day in their faith. When Catholics married non-Catholics any children were usually brought up as Catholics. And Catholics had big families. Catholics were taught that it was a commandment of the Church to attend Mass weekly and on Holy Days of Obligation. And most Catholics attended Mass and Confession regularly.
It was too easy. There was no apparent need for evangelising. Even though Catholics were only 25 to 30% of the population, there was no attempt to reach out to the “non-Catholics”. We had a constant stream of Catholics migrating to Australia from “Catholic” countries.
Our mainly Irish Bishops came from a country where almost everyone was a Catholic. No need to evangelise in Ireland.
In an article I wrote in March last year “Blueprint for the Future Church – Strive to Thrive not just Survive” I said:
“About 27% of Australians profess to be Catholic. A seemingly impressive statistic. And yet only about 10% of Australian Catholics actually practice their faith. This means that only 2.7% of Australians are attending Mass regularly, and the other 97.3% do not. A person who does not attend Mass regularly is rejecting the very essence of what it means to be Catholic.
Despite this, and the almost complete lack of vocations, the Catholic Hierachy and Priests, Parish leaders and Parishioners still cannot conceive of making major changes to the status quo to actively evangelise. With 90% of Catholics not attending Mass regularly we can start by evangelising to our own non-attending Church members, but we do not.
People are campaigning for priests to be married, for women priests. These issues must be considered [One point on which I might disagree with you, Barry!] – but they are not the problem [I take it you mean that that would not be the solution, in which case I heartily agree], and they are outside the power of Parishes, Priests and Bishops [and even, with regard to women priests, the Church] to change. Our major problem is not a shortage of priests, it is a shortage of active Catholics [right you are there, Barry].
At the moment we actually have enough priests. But too many Parishes and Mass centres and too many masses ie not enough people attending to make many Parishes viable. In my own Parish 2 years ago we had our own Parish priest, 2 Mass centres and 3 Masses, with about 180 in total attending every week. Now we have 1 Mass centre, 1 Mass and 100 attending. And we share a PP with a neighbouring parish. Our Parish was not viable 2 years ago. It certainly is not viable now, unless we change our attitude. We could have 500 attending one Mass every week, if only we wanted to ie 25% of local Catholics. (Imagine if we had 100% of Catholics = 2,000 every week. Imagine if we then started evangelising to the 8000 non-Catholics). To do this we have to evangelise. We have about 100 families attending our Parish primary school, but only about 8 of those families attend Mass regularly.
So what can we do? Some Church leaders are looking to World Youth Day in 2008 to bring new life in to the Church. It will certainly help, a tiny bit, but will in no way solve the problem.
The 16 to 25 yo age group is almost non existent in Mass attendance. If they do start attending after WYD, what kind of Church will they find? Will they be welcomed? Listened to? Would they keep attending?
I sometimes try to imagine non-Christians attending a Catholic Mass service for the first time because they are interested in finding out what Catholicism is all about. Eg a 21 yo male non Christian goes to the local Parish Mass. He enters the Church. Nobody welcomes him. He sees a mainly female congregation, mostly over 50 yo. He sees only a handful (or none) of people his own age. He does not know when to stand (at one stage he is standing up – he is at the front to see what is happening – he looks around and everyone else is sitting or kneeling), when to kneel, everyone seems to know the responses and prayers, but he has no idea. The singing is bad. Music is taped. Most people arrive just on time or late. When Communion is offered, everyone gets up in his row. He is not sure what to do. In the end he stays seated, confused. Alone.
After Mass he is ignored as he leaves the Church. He looks for the Church office, it is in another building across the car park. No sign telling him where. He finds it. It is closed. Sign says open 10am-4pm week days. He works week days. He feels completely unwanted, alienated.
The following week he attends a Baptist Church. He is welcomed by 2 young attractive 18 yo girls when he arrives. There are young people everywhere. There are not many prayers, but they are clearly shown on the 2 huge screens. The singing is enthusiastic. The band fantastic. He is given a pamphlet with information about the Church and how to join. He is invited to visit the information kiosk in the same building as he leaves. The person next to him starts chatting to him when the service ends. Encourages him to visit the kiosk and volunteers to take him there. As he leaves he sees there is a canteen with tables. People are sitting around ordering coffee. There is an excited buzz. (I attended a local Baptist service – this is an exact description of my experience).
I am not saying that we should emulate the Baptists in every way. But we must change the way we offer the Mass. There is no point evangelising to young people eg WYD, if the Mass is completely unwelcoming. There is no point advertising and running evangelising courses eg Alpha, RCIA, if the Mass experience is a turn off. Every activity of the Church should be based on evangelising.
But my experience shows that almost all the hard work of Priests and lay people is directed at serving the less than 10% of Catholics who attend mass ie it is directed inwards, not outwards. We are supposed to be a light shining in the community. Not a light shining in a closed community. Whilst we should service the very few that attend Mass, our aim should not be to retain, but to gain! To “Strive to Thrive not just Survive”.
Surely that is what Christ told us. When the Holy Spirit came to the Apostles at Pentecost, they went out and evangelised all over the world. They did not stay in their own communities.
To achieve this we cannot tinker at the edges. We need to completely rethink ou
r Parish approach. Every activity should have evangelism as a basis. We need to be radical, at least in the context of Australian Catholic Parish life. We must not be afraid of upsetting the status quo, even feeling unpopular. We must look at the Catholic primary and secondary schools and how we can use them to change attitudes to our Faith.
We must make the Mass more meaningful and welcoming. This does not mean changing the essence of the Mass. No Baptist service can offer anything like Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. We have to examine every part of the Mass and the parish operation, like a movie editor, frame by frame, to ensure that everything from the sign out the front, to the seating, the music, the mass sheets, church office (location and hours of opening), the foyer, how the Eucharist is received, how we greet, meet, seat attendees, how we congregate after Mass, is based on evangelising.
We must invite and welcome all members of our whole community eg using signage, regular letter box drops to every household. We must look at using websites and email to communicate.
The Parish schools are a great strength. Catholics and non-Catholics want to send their children to them. If we based attendance at our Parish Schools as a test of the health of our Church, we would be a huge success. But in a way they are a weakness too. In the old days, every Parish had one or more Parish priests, plus a primary school. So we learnt to think in terms of small local parishes. With most Catholics in those days attending Mass and with strong religious orders to support them, the parishes thrived.
We had multiple Masses all well attended. We even added Saturday evening Masses.
With much smaller numbers of attendees, we are still trying to offer the same number of Mass centres and services. At most Masses Churches are from 10 to 30% full. Yet if Masses are cancelled, or Mass centres closed, there is an outcry.
What can we do? Whatever we do, it must be a radical new approach. It must take us outside our comfort zone. It will probably cause short term upset and resistance with some priests and parishioners.
It must begin by being based on better presenting the Mass, the Eucharist and the Parish as an identity. All of that is evangelizing. But it must then proceed to more focussed outreach.
It needs to look at closing many Mass centres, reducing the number of services until we need more. By having less services, we can provide better services eg better music, choirs, more focussed welcoming, after Mass follow up for visitors, new parishioners. We can have an enquiry desk. It would reduce some costs. Young people attending would be more likely to meet others.
Children’s Liturgy can be provided and be better attended. It is a powerful way of helping primary children enjoy the liturgy, and encouraging their parents to make the sacrifice of getting them and themselves to Mass.
Priests would have less Masses to attend, so there would be a short term solution to the lack of priests. And they would not be under so much pressure every Sunday.
We need our leaders to show strength, courage and real leadership. They need to make the tough decisions, and explain them clearly. This means our Bishops, Priests and Parish Leaders.
There should be a centralised Diocesan body (compromising clergy and laity) monitoring and leading Parish changes eg setting up trials, measuring effectiveness, visiting Parishes to see what help they need, rating them on resources, performance, attendance. There should be a national body meeting at least every 3 months to report and discuss successes and failures.
Our aim should be to evangelise to every Australian. Unless we make that our starting point, we are not following Jesus’ teaching. Unless we do that, vocations will continue to fall.
Or we can just keep doing what we have always done, for an ageing congregation, with even faster ageing priests.
Yours in Christ
5-7 Curry Rd Park Orchards VIC 3114
Tel Bus 03 9761 6346 EXT 5
Tel AH 03 9879 9121
Mobile: 0412 379 253