The Diocese of Armidale in northern New South Wales covers large rural communities and regional centres from Armidale and Tamworth through to the remote towns of Walgett and Tenterfield. Like many communities across the state, its parish communities have been struggling over recent years with dwindling Mass attendances exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.
The diocese recently appointed a new Director of Evangelisation, Chris Da Silva, who had previously worked in the Life, Marriage and Family team in the Archdiocese of Sydney and whose responsibility it is to develop a new mission plan to help the Diocese of Armidale form disciples and evangelise across its schools and parish communities.
Chris has hit the ground running since his appointment last year, visiting parishes across the rural diocese and even setting up a stall in the main mall of Armidale inviting members of the public to Christmas celebrations in parishes of the diocese.
“We need to be modern-day apostles who are prepared to traverse stormy waters…” – Deacon Paul Manvell, St Edward’s South Tamworth
Chris said one of the greatest challenges facing the diocese is not so much in its larger towns, but in smaller resourced parishes in more remote areas.
“Many priests have to look after three small towns around them where we don’t actually have clergy and the Catholics there may only have a Mass on a fortnightly or a monthly basis. In between time, they may be lucky to welcome a Sister to lead them in a communion service”, he explained to The Catholic Weekly.
“We then may look towards other centres for evangelisation, including our Catholic schools. Our school principals, religious education coordinators and assistant principals could, for example, be doing more to build the bridge between Catholic school and parish and that’s an area I’m keen on pursuing further in my role”.
In so doing, Chris said he would be taking some inspiration from the family educator program in the Archdiocese of Sydney and other more recent initiatives in the Mission Plan, Go Make Disciples launched in December 2020.
Last month the Director of the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation, Daniel Ang, delivered a presentation at the Diocese of Armidale’s Clergy Conference in which he reflected upon the mission of the Church in contemporary Australia, including ways in which our parishes can become more missionary, helping us reach new generations of Catholics and those distant from the Gospel.
“While evangelisation is fundamental to our identity as a Church, as underscored by the Gospels, successive popes and many a magisterial document, it remains even today somewhat counter-cultural to our practices and ecclesial culture which can tend to be geared more toward already attending Catholics”, Mr Ang told clergy from across the diocese’s 24 parishes.
He said parishes, even in these challenging times for faith, can become more outwardly focused, ensuring even what they offer now is marked by disciple-making relationships which take the longest time and most investment to develop, but is also the shortest route to creating missionary parishes that are sustainable for future generations.
“In the culture of our parishes, we can be tempted to focus on those already engaged with the church without at the same time making it an explicit priority for ourselves and our parishioners to reaching those outside the church. If we do as Jesus Christ invites us to do and seek out and reach the lost and the unchurched, we create the healthiest ‘insiders’, not ‘demanding consumers’ with preferences and entitlements but see people serving and giving – people on mission.
“…evangelisation is fundamental to our identity as a Church…” – Daniel Ang, Director Sydney Centre for Evangelisation
“If we choose not to make evangelisation a priority, many of our communities will not remain as they are, but will decline. If we make no effort to grow and reach out to non-Catholics and those far from the Gospel or Church, our communities will only become smaller, older and more insular, removed from the wider culture for which the Christian community is called to be a ‘leaven’ or sacrament of Christ”.
Mr Ang’s message resonated well with Deacon Paul Manvell from St Edward King and Confessor’s parish in the large regional centre of Tamworth.
Deacon Paul, who was ordained a decade ago, leads sacramental programs for children preparing for their first Holy Communion and Confirmation and coordinates catechists across the Diocese of Armidale. He believes the Church needs to urgently step out of its comfort zone and Daniel’s message was a timely wake-up call, but one which really goes back to the early days of Christianity.
“I have no doubt that the disciples including Peter, James and John must have found it pretty difficult standing in the public square amongst the Romans and the Greeks, telling them that their gods were false gods”, he said.
“We need to be modern-day apostles who are prepared to traverse stormy waters, to bring the light and the love to Christ to those who need to welcome that light and love into their lives”.
Alongside clergy at the conference were some representatives from the Catholic Schools Office in the Diocese of Armidale, including its Education Officer: Catholic Life, Mission and Learning, Gerard Hore.
He has told The Catholic Weekly, Daniel’s message of outreach to all is an important one if our Church and schools can become true centres for mission now and in the future.
“We can’t retreat into a position where Catholic schools are only staffed by intentional disciple Catholics. If we did that, we’d probably have to close half our Catholic schools by the end of this year.”
“Not alone among Australian dioceses, Armidale sees very many other-than-Catholic students and their families as very welcome, wonderfully contributing members of its schools’ communities and will continue to do so”.
Where Catholic students bring their parents back to church
The Parish Priest of St Francis Xavier’s in the remote town of Narrabri, Fr Sabu Pulimalayil said in an environment in which fewer Catholics are attending regular Mass, Catholic school children are increasingly helping to bring their close relatives back to the faith and that is a powerful statement of evangelisation.
“I often see the parents and grandparents engaging more in parish life because the children have become involved as altar servers or members of the choir and in July, I’m hoping to welcome some of the parents who’ll receive the Sacrament of Baptism whose spouse may be Catholic”.
As the Diocese of Armidale forms its plans for the future, its priests and lay leaders are wrestling with the opportunities and challenges for evangelisation with clear hope and confidence in the Gospel, Christ himself, as the source of authentic renewal.