Daniel Ang is the Director of the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation, charged by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP to bring to completion his Mission Plan for the Archdiocese, Go Make Disciples. In the lead-up to its launch on 12 December, Daniel spoke to The Catholic Weekly about the adventure of being a disciple of Christ.
Watch the whole interview, or read the edited transcipt below:
Why is it important for Catholics to see themselves as personal disciples of Christ?
‘Disciple’ is a biblical word meaning to be a learner, to sit at the feet of Jesus the Master. So ‘Go Make Disciples’ is really about arousing the awareness of this call that Jesus makes to us and committing to live by that in our vocations and everyday lives.
For many Catholics we have already been living our discipleship for decades, and it’s a call to deepen this discipleship which is not only found in the New Testament but continues for us today.
“The secular scheme of salvation has worn thin and the pandemic has shown that people are hungry for meaning and community”
Discipleship is very much a life-long journey. None of us gets to graduate until the next life, and really we’re encouraging everyone to see the adventure of faith with fresh eyes, to see and believe their call from Christ to enter into the fullness of their vocation.
When did you decide to make a commitment to follow Christ?
I came to the Catholic faith a little later in my life at the age of 20 and it was really an encounter with Christ in the liturgy that was a particularly powerful experience for me.
It was at a baptism and hearing the litany of the saints, this roll call of holy names, and to be able to journey in the Church as part of a community of faith and now pass this onto my children that has been a real grace for me.
I’ve really enjoyed the journey in the Church to date and now to serve the Archdiocese and continue to serve the Church more broadly has been a great gift.
What were your influences growing up?
I come from a Chinese-Malaysian family that migrated to Sydney in the 1970s.
My grandparents are Buddhist and Taoist but I did see their devotion and sense of spirituality.
However my own parents didn’t practice any faith, so growing up without a Christian context and coming to the Church through a local parish community was a real eye-opener for me.
They were speaking about things that were transcendent, aspirational and visionary, which was a real drawcard, particularly because at that moment in my life I was pretty lost.
What was your first experience of a Catholic parish?
I was invited to a baptism of a very good friend of mine from high school who was Catholic. That was where I heard the litany of saints and saw the liturgy take place, and I didn’t understand much of what was happening but I sensed that this community was united behind a great vision and to recognise the goodness of the prayers and devotion of the people was a real inspiration.
The parish priest was a very good priest and he invited me countless of times over a year to participate in the life of the parish and that was an invitation I rejected each time.
I’d come in and watch the liturgy take place at the back of the church, and eventually he invited me to be part of the youth ministry and that was really my first toe in the water, meeting people younger than me who had been Catholic for some time and being able to help organise retreats and camps for them.
While not a person of faith, it was still involving me in the community. This hospitality of the parish really struck me.
In so many parts of our society there is not that spirit of hospitality, there can be suspicion or cynicism or aggression but here in this community of faith were people who were inviting me to take a step with them.
No matter where our parishes are, there are people seeking God today. And so we can often talk about the challenges in our parishes and the ways they might not be flourishing but in fact every parish has the potential to connect people looking for God, looking for the Gospel and looking for community.
How do parishes fit with Jesus’ call to make disciples?
One of the things that we have to keep in mind when talking about parish renewal is we’re talking about people, communities of faith gathered around word and sacrament, where faith is fostered into discipleship and enters into the world through their witness.
What we hope to do in Sydney is to support those communities to continue to expand and share that witness with boldness, with resources, and with support.
We all have particular gifts in sharing our faith, some will be by witness, a quiet witness perhaps. Others will be more comfortable with articulating their faith, but the point is just to start where we are and to ask with the Lord, ‘What is the next best step I can take in my faith?’ We might be invited to go beyond where we are comfortable for the sake of the Gospel.
We don’t want people to aim for goals completely out of their own charisms or gifts, just to take the next step for them, and for our parishes to take the next step that’s right for their community.
‘Go Make Disciples’ is a call to openness above all, because it’s God who evangelises but what the Holy Spirit calls from each of us is openness to what he might do in our lives.
And I think if we can create that sense of renewed openness, despite all the challenges in the Church, I think we will see God do amazing things through our people and through our parishes.
How can we best share our faith as individuals?
One of the easiest ways to evangelise is to simply do things that you love with people who don’t believe. That builds friendship and trust with others, and over some time eventually people share of their life.
Those are really the opportunities where we can then share something of the wisdom or learnings that we have gained from the Gospel.
“We can be that bridge of trust between them and the Gospel.”
We can be that bridge of trust between them and the Gospel. Also, part of the joy of being Catholic is that we have access to this rich tradition of customs, practices and wisdom that we can offer, and I think when people become aware of that they then become inspired.
But the first step I think is just to invite people, having confidence that God is already working in them.
Invite them to a parish event, to your own milestone events in the church, whatever it might be because that could be a really important moment for them to recognise their desire and connect their desire with the Lord.
It is God who evangelises, who changes hearts, but we’re there to facilitate that conversation; we can speak a good word, we can console, we can heal, we can encourage, so it’s through our personal actions that other people can come in touch with the Gospel.
Even though the work of evangelisation can seem overwhelming at times we do have a role and so the first thing to remember is that we need to invite God into our hearts, to pray and ask him “What’s the next step that you are calling me to take?”
What does an evangelising parish look like to you?
In Jesus’s mission in the New Testament we see some central foundations to a flourishing Christian community.
He evangelises, reaching out beyond his comfort zone to those who are considered outsiders, he leads people, he equips others for sharing his Word, he forms a community of disciples who live together and share their possessions and share one heart and mind. We see him teaching people, forming them in his way of life, and we also see him worshipping the Father and breaking bread.
So I think in parishes if we can focus on evangelisation, leadership, community, formation and worship they are the foundations on which the Church can grow and disciples can be made.
We all have a role, all of the baptised, and even the unbaptised. I came into the Church through youth ministry and though not baptised played music for some time in the context of a community that I was still coming to know.
That journey encouraged my faith, so sometimes I think we have to use our imagination around how can we make all of our ministries evangelising.
What can parish leaders do today to begin?
Our parishes in Sydney are blessed with dedicated priests, religious and lay people who care about their parish and are looking for the next step. I would encourage all of our people to dream.
If you could have any kind of parish in the world what would it look like?
Often dreaming big allows us to see opportunities we can take up as well as obstacles we need to address. If we can dream big and think about what our parishes can be, that opens up a space for us to work and to live out our hope and take the next best step. But first we need to have a vision of where we want to go.
What opportunities will GMD bring?
In the end, this plan is a proxy and a resource for conversation about faith.
What is most important is that this Archdiocese will be renewed by our people, not by programs or plans.
This plan is at the service of people, encourages them, provides them with the Archbishop’s vision and some practical tools to take that next step.
Following the launch people can expect to see a host of programs, workshops and opportunities to facilitate their conversation, whether they are a parish or migrant community or Eucharistic community and we’re looking forward to opportunities to go out, meet with parish priests and parish teams and to start breaking open what’s there for them.
There’s a lot of versatility and practicality about this plan that I think a lot of parishes will find very attractive. They can pick it up and just try two or three things that suit their local community to make a start and see what God might do with it.
What challenges should we be realistic about?
I think it’s well recognised that the past few years have been difficult for the Catholic Church in Australia. But I know from meeting people in the pews and priests in Sydney that there is also a lot of goodwill and a lot of hope. I also think we are seeing a shift in our culture where people are looking for something more.
The secular scheme of salvation has worn thin and the pandemic has shown that people are hungry for meaning and community. So if we as a Church can bring forward the Gospel and give hope to others I think it could be a springtime for the Church in Sydney.
What can we do if others are discouraged or resistant to change?
Change can be difficult and as things are so uncertain in the world right now it can seem more of a burden than an opportunity, but in fact change is at the heart of conversion.
The ways we evangelise today will look different to the ways it looked in the first century or through the history of the Church. It’s because of our faithfulness to the Gospel that we might need to change the ways we go about sharing it with others, so this actually can cast change as an exciting opportunity instead of a burden.We’re also not inviting people to embrace change without support.
As the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation we want to support people to discern, pray, reflect and act and want them to know that we will support them in that change.