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Conference fuels passion for evangelisation

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Parishes from all over Sydney as well as other Australian dioceses were represented at the inaugural Parish Renewal Conference held at St Mary’s Cathedral College, Sydney, 19-20 August 2022. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Participants commit to being and making disciples, bringing Christ’s love to all

Catholic parishes aren’t meant to be places of comfort for committed Catholics – they should be places of growth radiating God’s love inside and outside church walls, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP told Catholics from across Sydney as he opened the inaugural Archdiocese of Sydney’s Parish Renewal Conference.

Almost 300 clergy, parish leaders and parishioners from across Sydney and as far afield as Toowoomba and Ballarat gathered at St Mary’s Cathedral College on 19 and 20 August for two days of reflection and practical guidance in their efforts to foster dynamic centres for faith and evangelisation that will bring Christ to a world desperately in need of Him.

The conference was an initiative of the Parish Renewal Team in the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation and its Go Make Disciples mission plan for evangelisation.

The only homily they might ever hear is the kind of friendship you establish with them. Dr Scott Hahn

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Key speakers included US biblical scholar Dr Scott Hahn who addressed the group remotely, Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous and rector of the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Fr Michael de Stoop.

Archbishop Fisher blesses Conference participants during a holy hour of prayer following his speech on evangelisation. Around 290 people joined the conference which commenced on Friday evening 19 August and concluded the following afternoon. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“The fruits of evangelisation are not always immediately obvious and parishes must engage in the ‘inefficiency’ (as this world sees it) of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in search of the single lost one, or the Good Farmer who casts his seed everywhere, hoping that in some place it will take root and sprout and fruit,” said Archbishop Fisher OP in his opening address on 19 August.

“This growth is more subtle but no less intentional: we must be quite deliberate about making our parishes places that radiate the love of God, places where Jesus is encountered not only within church walls but where he is taken to those outside, calling them in to his life-giving love.

“Our parishes, then, are not static entities, designed to keep the ‘in-group’ of the committed comfy. They are more like organisms, with numerous dedicated cells and organs, each working together towards a common goal of nourishment and growth, self-rejuvenation and reproduction. The DNA directing this organism’s mission—its Great Com-mission—comes from the Lord’s last words to us (Mt 28:18-20; Mk 16:14-18), with its four-fold mandate:

“To evangelise—‘go out to all the world, preaching the Gospel’ and ‘making disciples of all nations’; to sacramentalise those disciples—‘baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’; to catechise those disciples— ‘teaching them to obey everything I commanded you’ and: to memorialise His presence with us—‘remembering that I am with you always, to the very end of time’.”

Participants joined the Archbishop in the Crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral in a holy hour of prayer before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, praying for the evangelisation of Australia. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Opening the second day of the conference last Saturday morning, keynote speaker Dr Scott Hahn drew from Scripture, Vatican II and the teachings of the last several popes to address the question of how lay Catholics can contribute to the new evangelisation first called for by St Pope John II.

Our culture is in sore need of the Gospel yet “the Great Commission [to ‘go make disciples’] is sometimes referred to as the great ‘omission’ because many Catholics have failed to develop the skills to share the faith,” Dr Hahn said.

“Pope John Paul II explained the New Evangelisation as re-evangelising the de-Christianised parts of the world, those parts that had lost their faith. And he called us to do it in terms of Jesus Christ who is present in the Eucharist.”

Dr Hahn exhorted lay leaders to bear clear witness to the truth that they have professed all of their lives at each Mass.

A conference participant asks a question following Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s speech on transforming parishes into centres of evangelisation. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“So many people might not darken the door of your parish or mine. The only homily they might ever hear is the kind of friendship you establish with them.”

As developed in Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, joy is the “master key” to evangelising people and cultures today, he added.

Speaking on the role of discernment of parish life, Fr de Stoop explained that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit and a skill that can be developed and honed by prayer and practice.

We have to trust that God is already working in people’s lives. All we have to do is invite them. Tania Rimac

“Being attentive to the activity of the Holy Spirit is essential to authentic discipleship,” Fr de Stoop said. “Not only as individuals but as a parish – without which our local churches might as well be a non-religious charitable or other non-government organisation.”

Participants said they enjoyed gaining insights and practical support from others who truly love and live their Catholic faith. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

True synodality at the parish level is an exercise in mutual listening and discernment that hopefully leads to a consensus but it is important to remember that each pastor is ultimately responsible for his parish, he warned.

“We must remember synodality is not a parliament, nor is it congregationalism…When the parish priest consults his parishioners, they make a decision in result of their consultative discussion.

“The pastor’s responsibility is to take the deliberative decision, which may or may not exactly mirror the parishioners’ advice.”

The Sydney Centre for Evangelisation’s Alpha parish coordinator Tania Rimac said that a culture of welcome is essential to parish life and urged participants to consider a variety of ways to invite people in addition to the Mass.

“Jesus Christ gives us many examples of invitation. He simply said, “Come and see” and “Follow me”. He too was rejected, so we can take comfort in that… we’re called to be faithful, not successful,” she said.

“We have to trust that God is already working in people’s lives. All we have to do is invite them. Don’t assume they won’t be open to the invitation.”

Sydney Centre for Evangelisation director Daniel Ang with SCE team members Sr Anastasia Reeves OP, Elliott Bowen, Tania Rimac, Helen Wagner, Cassandra Chong and Hazel Lim. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Fr Chris Ryan MGL said that authentic Christian community is the experience of being friends in faith, something which is elusive as it has not been prioritised in our Church, but nonetheless essential.

The tribal Catholic identity embraced by many in the past, and a consumerist mentality that reduces faith to a weekly commodity, need to give way to parishes where people are “faith-filled friends” and ultimately this is a work that God does with us and in us, he said.

We cannot keep this treasure to ourselves. Archbishop Julian Porteous

The conference ended with a stirring call from Tasmanian Archbishop Julian Porteous for participants to share the treasure of their faith with others, knowing that Jesus Christ has promised to be with us until the end of time.

“We cannot keep this treasure to ourselves. We have to share it so that others can discover what we’ve discovered.”

“The Catholic faith spread in the early centuries through the witness of ordinary believers,” he said.

Dr Scott Hahn addresses the conference live online on 20 August. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“It’s not necessary for us to become a preacher or an apologist, to study theology or to develop sophisticated answers for tricky questions, it just requires us to be ourselves, as joyful Catholics. In asking us to become missionary disciples, Pope Francis doesn’t want to place it as some kind of demand or burden on us.”

SCE director Daniel Ang said it was a joy to welcome people from parishes and chaplaincies in Sydney as well as parishes from Parramatta, Canberra, Broken Bay, Armidale, Wollongong, Melbourne, Ballarat and Toowoomba.

“The high level of interest in the conference spoke to the love that people hold for their local communities which, as Archbishop Anthony proclaimed, are not to be ‘in groups’ of the ‘committed comfy’ but missionary communities that exude the love of God, a love that enables that new way of being that the Scriptures and our tradition calls ‘discipleship’.

“From the beautiful Holy Hour in the Cathedral crypt on Friday night, Dr Scott Hahn’s address the next morning, and the insight of our other speakers through the day it was a great confirmation of our Catholic faith not only as a gift but also as a mission”

“We cannot undertake this work of parish renewal, nor will we see the fruit of making disciples, by our own power or will.

Ned Barsi, parishioner of St Peter’s Surry Hills, shares what has helped to bring newcomers to his parish, including a regular Sunday BBQ hosted by its young mens’ group. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“If our Church is to be a school of holiness and the mother of saints, not simply in the past but into the future, then a renewed openness to the Holy Spirit, a Spirit who keeps us faithful to Christ in the present, is invited of us.

“Sometimes we can desire that God do something new while we remain the same. A key theme of Go Make Disciples has been the deeper reception by every parish of its own identity in Christ, because it is only from this deepening discipleship that an effective evangelisation of our Church and culture can be realised”

Rita Azar from St Ambrose, Concord West, said she “loved every moment” of the two-day conference which also included a Eucharistic holy hour in St Mary’s Cathedral Crypt and a panel discussion sharing practical ideas in the service of parish renewal.

“It’s been great to see people here really with the joy of the Holy Spirit,” she said.

Richard Sofatzis of St Joseph’s, Enfield, said “I know how much in my own life that experiencing God’s love has given me so much joy and inspiration and I want others to be able to experience all that”.

Gina Fattal from All Saints, Liverpool, said she appreciated hearing the perspectives from other parish leaders who are keen to form a culture of missionary discipleship.

“Hopefully it will inspire more people to be more motivated and excited to get evangelisation happening in their parishes,” she said.

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