At the recent Divine Renovation Australasia conference held in Sydney from 10-12 February, Daniel Ang, Director of the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation, shared his learnings from the experience of parish renewal and the development of the Archdiocesan Mission Plan, Go Make Disciples, with priests, religious and lay leaders from across Australia and New Zealand.
In the Catholic Church, every parish is part of a diocese and every diocese can cultivate a culture of mission from which parishes can draw as they raise up and equip disciples for mission. In conversations over the years, I sense some parishes might be tempted to imagine a life without a diocese or prefer it to just “stay out of the way.” I also suspect some dioceses could be tempted to imagine life without some of their parishes!
However, that’s not the spirit and vision of the Church that Christ calls us to live out in this time, especially when common opportunities and challenges confront us as one body. More and more, we are called to develop at every level of the Church a true communion of mind, heart and spirit for the mission of Jesus Christ.
Thankfully, this shared dedication and passion is increasingly present in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. This mission is given to us in the Gospel, with Jesus’s last commandment to be our first priority: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptise … and teach them all I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). It is a fundamental commission repeated in John’s Gospel: “By this my Father is glorified, that you become my disciples and bear much fruit” (John 15:8).
The Risks of Maintenance
Yet today many of our Catholic parishes in Australia and New Zealand are experiencing a decline in attendance and engagement, signs that many are yet to make Jesus Christ the overwhelming centre, meaning and dynamism of their life. Many parishes are working hard just to maintain what they have. There can be much activity, countless groups, and even no lack of Masses on offer, but also a sense of declining engagement, aggravated by the pandemic of past years, fewer volunteers and thinning resources. Despite the potent grace of the sacraments and the numbers seeking them, many parishes in Australia continue to experience a gentle decline year after year, with some perhaps tempted to simply grow older rather than move forwards.
As the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy shares, a culture of maintenance over mission is not without consequence: “[M]ere repetitive action that fails to have an impact upon people’s concrete lives remains a sterile attempt at survival, which is usually welcomed by general indifference. If the parish does not exude that spiritual dynamic of evangelisation, it runs the risk of becoming self-referential and fossilised, offering experiences that are devoid of evangelical flavour and missionary drive, of interest only to small groups”.
This dilemma has sparked growing recognition among parish and diocesan leaders that something needs to change. We can no longer “make do” with merely “sacramentalised” attenders and half-catechised atheists. In the New Testament, we know that not all “the crowd” that surrounded Jesus were yet his disciples; not all those who were fed by Jesus followed with their lives. This is also true of Christ’s body, the Church, today.
As pastoral leaders we are presented with a number of choices. We can choose to be in denial about this situation, which seems to be a popular option in some circumstances. We can choose to content ourselves with overseeing gentle decline, leaving the question of the future of our parishes to someone else. We can choose to succumb to a quiet sense of hopelessness or loud cynicism that “nothing can change.” Each of these are choices—but each also has consequences.
However, another choice we can make in our parishes and dioceses is to develop a new heart for evangelisation, for the making and forming of disciples in the midst of the Church for the sake of the world. Christ in his Gospel is clearly calling our parishes and dioceses to be outposts of his Great Commission, true centres of evangelisation where people encounter the Lord, surrender their lives, and make the decision to follow.
I am convinced that this growing conversation in the Church about “missionary discipleship” is not a mere phase or jargon from which we will eventually move on, but points and challenges us to a deeper “pastoral conversion” of a Catholic culture which we need to embrace, a pastoral conversion that is essentially missionary.
We have learned in Sydney that fruitful discipleship in parish life—and in the life of a diocese—is not just the result of using the right tools or creating a strategic plan. A strategic plan is not enough. There are strategic plans sitting on bookshelves collecting dust all over the world.
Plans flourish within healthy cultures, and healthy cultures are created by leaders, by those who hold a vision for the life that is possible within the Church. When a vision for making and forming disciples rests in the heart of the bishop, and when priests, consecrated men and women, and lay leaders in our parishes begin to step into a missionary posture, that is when we start to see momentum build and parishes renewed. It is vision for the fruit of discipleship that transforms the culture of our parishes.
A Vision and Mission for Sydney
In the Archdiocese of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP cast his vision through Go Make Disciples as follows: “As we look to the future, our Church is called to place the encounter with Jesus Christ anew at the heart of our life, our structures and our ways of doing things. It is from this living encounter with the Lord that all genuine renewal in the Church becomes possible and the mission of evangelisation finds its source and inspiration… Every pastor, every member of the faithful and all our parish communities are called to deep spiritual renewal as disciples, to being better connected with each other, and to reaching out better to others.”
As the Archbishop notes, “our parishes… are not static entities, designed to keep the ‘in-group’ of the committed comfy… Jesus’ promise that the Church will survive is for the whole Church, not for any part. The future of every parish depends on evangelisation.”
So while Go Make Disciples could be approached from various perspectives, the underlying vision it embraces is twofold. It maintains that personal conversion is the foundation of parish renewal and that the future of our parishes depends on the Holy Spirit and those who currently don’t believe.
One of the realisations we can nurture among our people is that there is no future without the lost or unchurched. The story of the Church has always been that of an existing community of faith into which others are grafted. As John O’Shea shares, the passing on of the Christian faith is our deepest tradition as the baptised, for the Church is “hands clasping hands going back through time until they hold the hand of Jesus who holds the hand of God.”
What is more, this focus on evangelisation and those beyond our own pews aligns with Christ who comes not for the righteous but for sinners, who places the needs of the outcast and ailing before his own flock. In the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus walking through Jericho and reaching out to Zacchaeus, a tax collector for the Romans. Jesus steps into Zacchaeus’s house as the guest of a sinner, scandalises the watching crowd, and rejoices in Zacchaeus’s conversion, declaring, “Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of Man has come to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). Jesus did not make himself a comfortable lifestyle, open an office, book appointments and wait for people to come to him. He went out to encounter others. As parishes, we are called to do as Christ did in his mission to and for the world.
There is a call therefore to embrace a “missionary discipleship”, a call to enter into a deeper self-understanding of ourselves as forming the Church from within by our gifts and relationship with the Lord, to be more personally united as parishioners and parishes with Christ’s salvific mission, and extend that divine friendship to others. Parishes grow when leaders are explicit about this missionary call for their community.
Breaking the Silence on Discipleship
Today we can assume nothing and life tells us that what is assumed is often lost. As an example, we can assume marriages and other vocations are okay—until they’re not. For at least seven decades in Australia we have that assumed people are in a living and active personal relationship with God until some of our pews are near empty and few choose to enter into a Christian life. Our parish trends suggest that there is a small group of people who like how we do things and a greater number who don’t. As people who seek to spread the Gospel by our witness and proclamation, this should matter to us.
Our silence about the need to make disciples of Catholics—and others—is not without consequence as we have seen over decades. It is one of the curiosities of our Catholic culture that one of the things we do not often talk about is our relationship with God, except in the confessional or in spiritual direction. If we never talk about discipleship or propose a vision of who we are called to be by Christ, we make it very difficult for others to begin to move in that direction.
Both practically and pastorally, we often end up assuming in our silence that the sacraments will “take care of it,” neglecting our duty and calling to awaken in each person that active and personal faith, that fertile soil, in which the grace of the sacraments can actually take root and bear fruit—fruit that will last. We lose our missionary “edge” when we fail to even reach out to those who actually do go to church but may be finding their experience of faith increasingly irrelevant or uninspired.
In Australia, despite the celebration of around 4,000 Masses in parishes each and every weekend, we continue to see parishes declining because people have not always encountered Christ personally in such a way that their lives are evangelised or overtaken by the light and challenge of the Gospel and His presence in our midst. Unless people come to faith and a relationship with Jesus Christ, the likelihood that the sacraments will bear their intended fruit is severely diminished. Each of us carries the capacity for faith given us by baptism, a capacity that calls for activation by the process of evangelisation. We might, analogously, fuel our cars which provides us with a capacity for movement. However, without turning on the ignition or putting our foot on the accelerator, no progress is made.
Our vision for parishes and dioceses must speak of this urgent need to make and form disciples, focusing not merely on changing behaviour but changing the heart, a deeper conversion that will see people participate and flourish in the sacramental life of our Church for the rest of their lives.
The other reason we need clear vision in our parishes and dioceses is because every single one of them is going somewhere, whether we know it or not. We will all arrive at a destination. The road we are currently on will lead to a destination and we generally don’t drift in good directions. There are physical paths that lead to physical destinations. There are dietary paths that lead to predictable dietary outcomes. There are financial paths that lead to financial outcomes. There are relationship paths that lead to relational outcomes. All of us are on the way to somewhere. Biblically speaking, we will reap what we sow.
In reflecting on the future paths of our parishes it should be noted that having a large parish with lots of people is not a flourishing parish per se. Nor can it be said that a small parish necessarily lacks vitality and viability. Nevertheless, where there has been significant decline in participation in recent decades, and demographic and attendance trends indicate this is likely to continue, parishes become impoverished in their community life and their future can be put at risk.
A parish with declining numbers of regular Mass-goers can experience a significant decline in the quality of community life, because this decline can affect the quality of worship, the ministries that are dependent upon lay leaders and volunteers, and negatively impact the parish’s financial support. Again, Christ’s promise that the Church will prevail is given to the whole Church, not every parish, and the rapid decline of the number of people that form a parish can mean that people will be denied outreach from the Church for generations to come.
So, one of the critical roles of leadership today is to clearly articulate the reality that is being faced, especially in a crisis when our various “resources” for mission are in decline. In developing a mission plan in Sydney, we have discovered that if we do not define the problem, people are not going to want the solution. When we define the problem, it can motivate and shake people up from complacency, to recognise that our parishes cannot be taken for granted. It can create a sense of urgency and responsibility to act. There is a well-known parable in the U.S. about the difficulty we can face in embracing change, with a study noting that when lung cancer patients were given a choice between stopping smoking and dying, many patients chose death over change. Leaders of renewal are called to elicit the desire for change because without that desire not much is possible.
Discerning Pathways for Parish Growth
Once a vision for renewal grounded in personal conversion has been proclaimed, and the pastoral reality of our parishes better understood and communicated, a next task is to examine the ways in which we can assist parishes to progress from where they are to where the Gospel calls us to be, to discern foundations or core strategies for growth.
In the New Testament, we find at least five foundations that are central to Jesus’ life and mission to proclaim the Good News and we sought to build upon that original witness and example. One of the insights that Divine Renovation has shared with parishes globally has been a “systems approach” that names the key areas of priority that can enable parishes to create a culture of missionary discipleship in their communities.
Just as there are a number of systems in our physical bodies essential to our health and growth and which work together to this end, so are there foundations that build up the body of the Church. Each of these works together to support a culture of mission: Evangelisation, Leadership, Community, Formation and Worship. If we have parishes concretely focused on evangelisation, bringing people into relationship with Christ and His Church in faithfulness to His mission; developing leaders who are equipped to move others to embracing Christ’s mission of evangelisation, communities in which faith grows and disciples are sent, formation enabling disciples to live their discipleship more fully and the encounter of worship, a parish becomes, over time, a true centre of evangelisation and mission.
For the ministry of our priests and lay leaders, in particular, we are mindful that when a community has a vision but no foundational areas or priorities in which to achieve it, what happens is that the community tends to simply “add on” new programs and activities to an already busy routine. But sheer addition is not synonymous with increase; “more” is not always tantamount to “fruitfulness.” We are learning on a national, diocesan and parish level that a “spaghetti” approach to Church life, over-programmed with a splattering of disconnected activity, tends to encourage silos rather than unity or strength of mission. This is because events, programs and groups compete for space on the common calendar, rivalling one another for the same pool of finite resources, increasingly busy people and limited attention.
If we had all the people, money and resources in the world, we might not need such priorities or foundations. But we all experience limitations of time, energy and resources. We have to focus on those areas that will have the greatest impact for our goal, rather than spending time and energy in arbitrary or unsustainable ways.
In our Archdiocese of Sydney, our recommendation to parishes is that they focus on one or two of the five foundations we consider essential to genuine parish renewal. Most parishes already have initiatives in these five areas of mission that can be grown, sharpened, or connected to others to support lasting growth in discipleship.
Finally, in raising a culture of evangelisation in parishes and dioceses, we will need to recognise that some of our communities cannot embark on missionary renewal without addressing the resources they have to support that effort. For example, it would seem difficult for a parish to be genuinely missionary if it cannot afford a secretary and is left to survive on an answering machine alone to greet people in their needs. The “new wine” of spiritual renewal cannot flourish if it is contained within “old wineskins” that no longer support our mission.
In the Archdiocese of Sydney, while we want all of our parishes to engage with the vision and ideas that Go Make Disciples makes available, some our parishes cannot do so without addressing their structures. Many dioceses are wrestling with this question of structures and this is not a new challenge for the Church. Like Christians of every generation, we are called to spiritual revitalisation and to new ways of organising ourselves for God’s mission. We have learned that the “new wine” of spiritual renewal and “new wineskins” of structural renewal must work together if we are to see communities capable of calling and forming disciples. This is especially vital for the ministry of our dedicated priests, who can spend an inordinate amount of their time on issues of maintenance and the management of declining resources, producing stress and leaving less time for them to attend to their pastoral duties.
As shared in Go Make Disciples, if we only change the structures of our parishes, without spiritual renewal, the decline of vulnerable communities will continue apace—but on a greater scale. However without revisiting our structures—the way we are organised for God’s mission—some parishes may lack the people and resources for sustainable and effective missionary outreach or, indeed, to be viable in the future.
There have been various approaches to restructuring parishes in dioceses both in Australia and overseas. When asked a few months ago how a diocese could move from say 80 parishes to 40 parishes, I noted there appears to be essentially three ways to go about this that can achieve the same result – do nothing and this reduction in the number of parishes will become necessary over time; act overnight by decree which might appear tempting for the purposes of speed and administrative neatness but can lead to disenfranchisement and disengagement; or prioritise forming people in the essential missionary purpose of parishes so structural change can be an authentic expression of new life, into which people can ‘buy in’ or dedicate themselves, rather than being an exercise in managed decline which will inspire no one. To use an analogy, we do not build healthcare systems around death but a vision of life and health. In the same way, people want to be a part of processes that they can see will foster new life in their parishes, that are not simply the expression of bureaucracy or an attempt to manage decline. It is this third way which we are seeking to embrace in Sydney.
The reality for our Church is that any change tends to be significant because the weight of our culture leans towards maintaining the status quo. While evangelisation is fundamental to our identity as a Church, as underscored by the Gospels, successive popes and many a magisterial document, it still remains somewhat counter cultural to our actual practice.
The work of leading and supporting parishes to move from a culture of maintenance to the mission of evangelisation can undoubtedly raise challenges. When we proclaim that our parish is not about “us” but about the unchurched, some can feel like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This older brother has been loyal, committed and has served his father’s house without question. Yet when he realises the feast is not about him but the one who has been lost, he struggles to rejoice over the one who has not earned his welcome but whom the father nevertheless embraces and lavishes with love.
In contrast, if we do as Christ invites us, seeking out and reaching the lost and unchurched, the life of the “older brother” is also renewed and his family deepened and enlarged. So, it is for our parishes: outward-focused churches will create the healthiest “insiders.”
In this apostolic age we have the opportunity to share with our people that there is no trade-off between growing our own faith and evangelising those who do not yet know God. Our faith grows as disciples through mission, by being sent. Like the first apostles in the Upper Room, we may feel unprepared, unsure or not fully equipped, but in the Spirit of Christ we find the courage to embark on mission like those apostles of the Book of Acts who changed the world and the Church through their faith and conviction in Christ as our way, truth and life (John 14:6).