This is what an average Sydney Catholic looks like – a lot like Shelly Barnes.
The Greystanes photographer, wife and mum of three adult sons matches recent data which reveals the average Mass-going Catholic to be: female (63 per cent), born overseas (54 per cent) and better educated than most of her non-Mass going peers.
At 53, she’s only a little shy of the average Mass-going Catholic’s age (56 years).
But that’s where any sense of “averageness” ends, although there are elements that will be familiar to thousands of Catholics across Sydney.
Shelly is a veritable powerhouse for the local Church.
She’s been the official photographer at her parish of St Margaret Mary in Merrylands for the past 27.5 years, documenting the comings and goings of generations of people and buildings.
And with her husband Stephen she has raised three sons – Robert, 33, Christopher, 30, and Peter, 23 – who are committed men of God.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, to parents of South Indian, French, Seychelloise and Mauritian descent, Shelly migrated to Australia with her family when she was 13 years’ old, after her father was transferred to Sydney for work.
She only had one sibling – a sister – but her extended family is the stuff of Biblical proportions, with more than 100 first cousins born to her mother’s 11 siblings and her father’s seven.
As a young woman, Shelly completed a teaching degree and taught for a short time before the birth of her and Stephen’s first son, Robert, and later took up a job at Telstra, where she was made Training Officer.
Shelly said her parents raised her in a committed, believing, but also questioning style of faith, something that was backed up by the pious headmistress – Sr Giovanna Aurelia – at her Nairobi school.
“I had the most gentle Catholic upbringing,” Shelly said.
“I wrote to my headmistress every year until she died at 95 years of age, two years ago. ‘Always ask about religion,’ she would say. ‘God wants you to understand him; never be afraid to ask about God.’
“My parents were the same, and that is the best way to raise anyone. I put God first in my life and then I let him put everything else in the place that he wants it to be.”
But her faith, she intimates, is not just for a sunny day. In 2014 she was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and the going is tough and set to get tougher.
“I’ll tell you honestly, I was very blessed to have my three sons standing with me when I was told I had breast cancer. The first thing I said was, ‘Thank you, God.’ I am picking up this cross, but I am not carrying this cross alone. Jesus is carrying it with me.”
The rest of what the data reveals
Data from the 2016 National Church Life Survey, which sampled 17 Sydney parishes, shows that Catholics are well educated, with 39 per cent holding a university degree (nationally, the number of Australians holding a bachelor’s degree or higher is about 26 per cent) while 24 per cent hold a trade certificate or diploma.
The national trend of an increasingly migrant-based Church is more pronounced in Sydney, with 54 per cent of practising Catholics having been born overseas (43 per cent nationally) and 49 per cent speaking a language other than English at home (33 per cent).
(The figure for overseas born Catholics would likely have been higher had the Eastern Catholic Churches been included in the count.)
The data also reveals Catholic attitudes to key elements of parish life – some of them apparently contradictory.
Some 77 per cent said that they would support new mission initiatives in their parish, whereas 60 per cent said they were happy with their current level of parish involvement.
God was “the most important reality” in the lives of 49 per cent of respondents, and 33 per cent agreed that “God was more important to me than almost anything else.”
Almost half of those surveyed (48 per cent) said that they prayed, read the Bible or meditated every, or most, days, and 50 per cent said they had experienced growth in their faith over the past 12 months.
An overwhelming number of survey participants also reported a strong sense of belonging to their parish (80 per cent), and 77 per cent of respondents said they experienced growth in their understanding of God at parish mass.
Children also featured, albeit in far smaller numbers, filling in 137 child survey forms: 93 per cent agreeing that “God helps me to lead a better life” and 92 per cent agreeing that they knew “that Jesus is very close to me”.
Most Catholics are not regularly involved in groups in the wider community (68 per cent).
But personal generosity is high: 71 per cent donated money in the previous 12 months; 44 per cent had lent money to someone outside their immediate family; and 43 per cent had visited someone in hospital.