Graces in my Diocese – reflections on an Archdiocesan Assembly

By Archbishop Mark Coleridge, photos by Loui Seselja

I have no illusions about the challenges we are facing, but I have high hopes for the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn. Both the challenges and the opportunities were on show last Saturday at the Archdiocesan Assembly attended by over four hundred members of the Archdiocesan community. They came from far and wide, from every corner of this far-flung and very diverse Diocese; and it struck me that in some ways this was the “core leadership” group.

As St Paul said, echoing the prophet Isaiah, how beautiful are the feet that bring the Good News. The people of my Archdiocese have beautiful feet and are bringing the Good News to places like West Wyalong, Boorowa, Taralga, Goulburn; Cooma and Bungendore and Merimbula and Eden. On Saturday I was with with the people in “the orange marquee” (we were all colour-coded into discussion groups); and I was fascinated to listen to the practical yet lateral thinking of the mixed bunch in the marquee.

In putting together topics for discussion at the Assembly, we couldn’t ignore that we are facing a moment in the Church which is difficult, and which requires creativity and imagination. What we mustn’t do is go into auto-pilot, into maintenance mode. This is not time to circle the wagons, however tempting it may be to do that. While we might be seeing diminishing numbers of clergy, a decline in apostolic religious women’s congregations, and less people attending Mass, one thing we don’t have less of is grace. God’s grace is alive and well and emerges unexpectedly in surprising ways. As I said on the weekend, what we need now are structures and strategies which respond not only to the facts of this time but also to the grace of this time. The grace may not be what people of my generation expected; it may not even be the grace we wanted. But it is the grace that is on offer from the Lord who is not less attentive and generous now than in the past. The Church is finished only if grace is finished, and grace is not finished in this Archdiocese. We have only to discern what exactly is the grace of this moment.

We asked questions on the weekend about how many Masses we should have and how to engage young people. We asked about people’s vision for liturgy and for what they expect from their priests and parish leaders; and we asked about a new spirituality of giving in the Church. This was because this is a time when all the voices in the Church need to be heard, even those that are uncomfortable or seem uninformed. In an Abrahamic moment like this, it is not always easy to see the way forward because we have no detailed road-map. That is why we need to work together and listen to each other if we are to find the right path ahead – by which I mean the path that accords with the mind and heart of Christ. As part of that listening process, we also need to listen to the voice of the Church’s doctrine and discipline, some of which is negotiable and some of which is not. Every now and then, the Church puts up a sign saying “Wrong Way. Go Back”; and we’d do well to heed the sign.

One thing that we have been pondering as an Archdiocese is the establishment of a mission model. What is important here is that this mission model should not be seen as a form of pastoral planning that is basically palliative care. We’re not giving up and settling for a quiet and comfy death. At the heart of this new strategy is the attempt to generate new Gospel energy. It’s not just about survival; it’s about a new flourishing in changed circumstances. It’s not just about maintenance; it’s about mission. A mission model would see less parishes forced to simply “survive” with small numbers and burnt-out priests; and would have the vision of more parishes working as teams to provide the core of our worship in the Sunday liturgy, and more possibilities for outreach in the everyday running of the parish, the schools and the sacramental life of the people.The model would see larger units incorporating a number of communities, offering more possibilities for community-building and outreach.

An exciting project that the Australian Bishops are undertaking from Pentecost next year is what we are calling “the Year of Grace”, focusing on the call to “start afresh from Christ”. While we are a Church which can seem to be wandering in the desert, there are buds of new growth which suggest that springtime is on the way – perhaps when we least expect it. In starting a afresh from Christ, we are seeking to bring about a fresh understanding of the infinite love of Jesus for us. When we know Jesus Christ personally and when we encounter him in the Scripture, in the Eucharist and in one another, we cannot help but seek to know him more – and this is what evangelisation is all about.

I had a great lunch with some young people from the Archdiocese recently and came to know some of their hopes and dreams for the future. At one point, I asked them how they saw Jesus. Not bad for a lunch-time question. All of them saw Jesus basically as a great role-model from long ago who they they should try to imitate. I thought to myself, “well, if that all Jesus is, then I’m not sure Christianity is worth the candle”. I suppose in one fairly banal sense, Jesus is a role-model, but much more importantly, Jesus is a presence and a power. He’s here and now or nowhere and never. The crucified and risen Lord stands among to be encountered in the here and now as presence and power: that’s what Christianity is really all about.

Without too much prompting from me last Saturday, the people of the Archdiocese came to much the same conclusion. We need Jesus as Saviour and Lord. In our schools, parishes (and even I’m told at the local skate-park!), we need to lead or introduce Jesus to people young, old and in-between. We need to hear his voice more deeply and to see his face more clearly.

I am deeply grateful to all of the people who assembled last Saturday to make such a rich contribution to the life of the Church in this part of the world. I hope that they feel their time together was a graced moment. The question for me now is, what shall we do with all the good things that emerged at the Assembly? They can’t be allowed simply to evaporate. We’ll sift through everything and then feed it all into the Episcopal Council, the Council of Priests and the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. Then decisions about the future will have to be made.