Conversion, partnerships will drive mission in the new evangelisation, says expert

Priests of the Diocese of Wagga have come together to consider how the Church might go from maintaining a holding pattern onto the front foot as it offers Jesus to the world

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Priests of the Diocese of Wagga gather to discuss ways and means parishes can evangelise at the clergy conference convened by the Diocese on 20 July. 

Now is not a time for settling for the status quo in Church life – it’s a time for priests and parishioners to partner in a new evangelisation, Wagga priests were told as they gathered on 20 July.

Daniel Ang, Director of the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Centre for Evangelisation, led the Wagga diocesan clergy conference at the invitation of Bishop Mark Edwards OMI. Approximately 38 clergy from around the vast Riverina diocese – one of Australia’s largest – attended the gathering.

Mr Ang, the lead author of the Archdiocese’s Go Make Disciples plan for evangelisation, unpacked principles from the document that has been adopted by Sydney as its blueprint for the new evangelisation, the clarion call of popes and Church leaders in recent decades.

Strategies which address growing secularisation

Throughout the day, he discussed the potential for parish renewal in this era of mission, the increasingly secular Australian landscape, and the strategies that might bridge these two realities to bear the fruit of lifelong discipleship. There was time for taking questions from priests and for opening up discussion about what this ‘conversion for mission’ does and can look like.

The latest Covid-19 restrictions and lockdown in Sydney saw Mr Ang forced to deliver his message via Zoom.

Still, said Wagga seminary Vice Rector Fr Sean Byrnes, the message got through.

Be bold, invite others

“Despite the difficulty of the Covid-19 lockdown, Daniel was able to provide an engaging conference which challenged the priests and seminarians of the Wagga Wagga Diocese to think about what changes in parish ministry might be necessary in order to effectively evangelise both the parish and the broader community,” he said.

“Something he said which deeply resonated with a number of the clergy was that both priests and lay faithful are not called to merely maintain the status quo in parishes which is normally represented by an ageing congregation and low attendance numbers. Rather we are called to be bold and invitational, reaching out to the unchurched to facilitate an encounter with Christ.”

Fr Byrnes said he agreed with Mr Ang that the ‘proto-evangelising’ moment for the unchurched is most often not the sacraments but the invitation to attend the home of a Christian, a church event, like a parish meal or men’s or women’s breakfasts and gatherings. With encouragement, Mr Ang noted that 59 per cent of people surveyed said that they would or probably would go to church if invited by a close friend or family member, the principle reason being, “I would attend because it is important to the person who invited me, otherwise they wouldn’t have invited me” (McCrindle Research 2019).

Personal conversion drives mission in the service of the new evangelisation. This was one of the messages given to Wagga priests at the 20 July gathering. Photo: CNS, Hannah McKay, Reuters

Allowing Jesus to break through

“These invitations and introductory events enable people to encounter Christ through human relationships and engages them in a manner which acknowledges and respects their present journey, but also provides the opportunity for growth towards a relationship with Jesus and his Church,” Fr Byrnes said.

Bishop Edwards welcomed Mr Ang’s contribution.

“Daniel explained that Catholic parishes are to bear as fruit a growth in the discipleship of our people,” he said.

“This requires that the very concept of discipleship be explained and that the direction of this growth is demonstrated and explained.”

A whole new panorama

Speaking from Sydney, Mr Ang told clergy that the overall challenges and situation the church faces in its mission of evangelisation are very different to those of the past.

“For pre-moderns, the world and the self were considered porous and open to the transcendent. Life was vulnerable to the incursions of the sacred, and these forces were to be navigated by various rites and means,” he said.

“However, today we experience the challenge of following Jesus and sharing His life in a post-Christian culture. This culture is not a ‘religious year zero’ nor do I think we live in a pre-Christian era.

“In the West, we are still shaped by fundamental Christian ideas in our sense of law, justice, mercy and our preference for the poor. However, now we want this ‘Kingdom’ without the King. Like the crowds in France who watched teary eyed as Notre Dame Cathedral burned, we remain resistant to religion but are still haunted by our Christian origins.

People often find their way back to the Church – or into it – after having been invited by someone they know and trust. Photo: CNS, Chaz Muth

Church still present in a disenchanted world

However, he said, the Church still serves the presence of God in a disenchanted world by offering the encounter with the person of Jesus in word, sacrament and outreach – “Jesus who is at the heart of Christian life, the source of our cultural renewal as a Church, and the deepest presence without which human progress loses its way.

The challenge for parishes is to recognise that it is not a ‘zero sum game’ between the call to discipleship and evangelisation, as if it were a choice between the flock they have and those to whom they are sent,” he said.

“What the Christian tradition tells us time and time again – from the parable of the Prodigal Son to the radical self-surrender of Jesus to the Father’s love – is that we become more ourselves by choosing others and this choice makes us more deeply who we are, rather than diluting our identity.”

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