It is a truism that we cannot hope to grow by holding the door closed against reality. A renewed future always begins on the basis of the present.
It is in this light that research and demography can be of great assistance to the Church in its evangelising mission. Reflection on both the facts and theology of our Church places us in a better position to shape our approaches to evangelisation in new and faithful ways.
It spares us from making assertions about the Church when there is no evidence and, more positively, when we understand where we are, we can assess our next steps to better serve and enable the living encounter with Christ and the growth of the Kingdom which is our mission.
Our parishes in particular are vital to this encounter called faith and its expression in the wider community. Together with the family, the parish is called to be a school of holiness and understanding where disciples are formed in the Gospel and who enter the world impelled by the Word and Eucharist.
The National Church Life Survey conducted in the Archdiocese – and indeed across many Australian dioceses, including my home diocese of Broken Bay—offers unique and helpful insights into the way in which our people are responding to and participating in the life of our parishes. The survey is only a tool but it is a very helpful and valuable tool in creating common situational awareness, enabling us to “take stock” and then move forwards personally and together in faith.
In one sense the National Church Life Survey represents a very democratic moment in the life of our Church because everyone has the opportunity to have their say about their local community. Through the means of this survey parishioners are able to share their experience of leadership within the parish, how they are growing in faith, what they appreciate of our liturgies and community life, and how they are involved in service and outreach to others. Gathering such views brings us closer to our people and identifies the gifts and gaps in our collective efforts to live the Gospel more fully and share it with others.
In turning to the results for the Archdiocese of Sydney we learn that some 24 per cent of attenders are new arrivals to their parish in the past five years. This tells us that people are intentionally choosing to be a part of your parish. They could be going elsewhere but they have intentionally chosen to gather in the pews of your local community which is a great sign of hope and encouragement.
On a practical note, this residential mobility or turnover in the Archdiocese encourages parishes to constantly communicate the future direction and priorities of their community, to newcomers as well as established parishioners. We cannot take for granted that the people in our pews know the purpose for which our parish exists, where it is headed and how they might contribute to its future. On this note, around 60 per cent of Sydney Mass attenders shared they were not yet committed to or aware of the vision of their local community.
This presents us with an opportunity to call people to living the mission of Jesus through a compelling vision of how the Gospel touches upon and awakens human lives. We can proclaim not merely what we want from people but what we want for them as disciples baptised into mission. While there are no silver bullets for the cultural conversion of our parishes, we do know that clear vision and priorities that reflect that vision can galvanise people to move beyond passivity or maintenance—to dedicate themselves to living discipleship in an active and intentional way.
Further encouraging the casting of vision in our parishes is the news that 72 per cent of survey respondents shared that their community is willing to try something new!
This openness to change is a prerequisite for parishes if they are to grow. Moreover, some 18 per cent of parishioners in the Archdiocese (as in the Diocese of Broken Bay) shared that they want to be more involved in their parish. So even among our existing parishioners, there lies untapped potential that we can work with, in the pursuit of communities marked by ready involvement and innovative outreach. There are gifts and charisms yet to be unleashed in the midst of our parishes for the sake of the world.
In speaking of the situation of “the Church” it can be tempting to level out the diversity and multifaceted nature of our communities. The survey results for the parishes of the Archdiocese of Sydney—on the qualities of leadership, worship, belonging, vision and service that shape them – remind us that every community has the potential to grow in the Gospel, each in its own way according to the creativity of its pastor and people.