In last week’s message I explored with you the ‘madness of love’ and what that has looked like for us, particularly with the events of the past few weeks.

And I will attempt today to explore this in the context of some of what I heard at the National Pastoral Planners Network Conference (NPPN), which I attended a week ago.

The opening address at this Conference was given by Bishop Eugene Hurley, Bishop of Darwin. He is a wonderfully pastoral man who is able to link his thoughts to his practice as pastor in the Dioceses of Port Pirie, and now, of Darwin, in which he has worked with, and ministered to, some of the most vulnerable people in Australia. Bishop Eugene has a gentle presence and his talk was on a ‘Vision and Model of Parish’. The title of the Conference was ‘The Spirit of Truth will set us Free’.

He began his talk by asking the question ‘What is a parish like.....what is it meant to be? He went on to say that the way we vision things is reflected in the way we live our lives. How we see or view people, places, events, and tasks will dictate my emotional response to it. He then asked the following questions:

  • How do people see God?
  • What is their vision of God?
  • How do people vision parish?

This imagination or vision will therefore influence how we are as parish. Given that many people are not connecting with parish, it may be correct to observe that very few people now have any vision or idea about parish. It is not part of their life and is not on their radar. At Fr. Jim Saunders’ funeral on Friday, his sister spoke of Fr. Jim’s reflection that his life as priest/Vicar General was to serve the people in our parishes. As we presently understand it, the parish lies at our core of who we are as a people of God. We are not meant to operate as individual units of the Body of Christ, but as members of a community of believers.

Bishop Eugene went on to say that we are not like a government department whose function is to deliver information and to make appointments, or a place where we go to find out what we need to do. The parish is meant to be a place of trust and welcome, in which people feel safe and are accepted. It is a place of hospitality first and foremost, where people are more important than tasks, and they are listened to with respect. Bishop Eugene went on to explore with us the image of parish as family.

If parish is to be seen as family, then it requires involvement and relationships in which people are at the centre. So the model of parish is to be one of family – and of course I am aware there is not one definition of family, but I think we are still able to list the many qualities of family in which people need to grow and develop – acceptance, care, nurturing, safety, food, clothing, shelter, well-being, conversation, welcome, emotional stability, education, growth, joy, pain, grief, love, hope, deep sharing, a place to grow up together, compassion, sincerity, hope, forgiveness, .....

So when you think of your parish, or a parish you once belonged to, how does it measure up? Would you describe it as a functional family?

Bishop Eugene then went on to expand a quote from Pope John Paul II to say: “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live and therefore as goes the parish so goes the church.”

In paragraph 27 of Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) Pope Francis dreams of a missionary option capable of transforming the church. He is inviting the church, that is the people of God, to pastoral conversion, and renewal and a desire to go forth. Paragraph 28 concerns parish:

The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”. This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few. The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach. We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented.

I wonder if we were to ‘evaluate’ our own parishes based on the words of Pope Francis and Bishop Eugene Hurley, how would they rate.

Towards the end of his presentation, Bishop Eugene quoted from the Book of Revelation:

You see this city? Here, God lives among men. He will make his home among them; they shall be his people and he will be their God; his name is God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes.....(Revelation 21:3-4)

He then said the same words replacing the word city with parish:

You see this parish? Here, God lives among the people. God will make his home among them; they shall be his people and he will be their God; his name is God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes...

Certainly the funerals of both Fr. Ron Picken and Fr. Jim Saunders provided those who attended, a great sense of community and family and of God living among his people. Clearly many people knew these men and each other well and were filled with joy and sadness. Both of these men had built relationships with many hundreds of people as they ministered to them and with them around our diocese. They were both loved, and gave love, and since their funerals I have not been able to stop singing their song of farewell:

May the angels welcome you to paradise
May the martyrs greet you on your way,
May you see the face of the Lord this day,
Alleluia, alleluia.

(This Day in the New Jerusalem – James Bessert)

And so to finish this reflection of parish life and our call to be disciples on mission, I ask that you might re-read the second reading from the Acts of the Apostles which was read on the weekend (Acts 9: 26-31). In this reading, we have Saul trying to join the disciples, who of course were afraid of him. In this reading, we have recorded that Saul preached boldly in Damascus in the name of Jesus. I wonder what this looks like in our 21st Century world, especially here in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. Let’s keep on imagining, dreaming and visioning so that it becomes a reality.

Please consider attending the Family Faith Forum on 22nd and 23rd May at Hamilton. Who knows we may even be able to imagine a new way of being parish which will provide us with the missionary option to go forth and proclaim Jesus?

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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