Last week (May 15-21) was National Families Week which annually celebrates the vital role that families play in Australian society. It highlights the important role families’ play as the central building block of our communities and that community wellbeing is enhanced by family wellbeing.
It was in this week that we, as a diocesan community, chose to launch the new diocesan Sacraments of Initiation Policy for Children “Becoming Disciples”. Bishop Bill launched this as part of the Family Faith Forum which was held in the Diocese on Friday and Saturday. These two days were just amazing with many people present who are engaged in Parish-based Sacramental Programs. Of course it would have been wonderful to have had representatives from every parish and every school because the content of the Forum presentations would have served every community, but more importantly, it would have nourished those who serve in this parish/school ministry.
Critical to the presentations were the words of Pope Francis which forms part of this Policy:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ. (Evangelii Gaudium 3)
The ideal within the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is for a family-centred, parish-based and school-supported program which recognises the primary role of parents/guardians in the faith formation of the chid. This faith formation has joyful discipleship as its goal. The community looks forward to welcoming an emerging disciple of Jesus, who seeks to engage in the mission of the Church to evangelise. (Introduction to the Becoming Disciples Diocesan Policy)
Families are the primary educators in faith and the policy outlines the task of parents/guardians as primary educators in faith, in partnership with the parish. What became evident during these two days was that parishes have within them many schools – Catholic, state and independent; who also form part of the partnership with parishes and family in the making of disciples. What a great mission.
In my welcome at the beginning of the forum, I shared Jesus’ words of commission known as the Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
This commission to Go, Make, Baptise and Teach has making disciples at the very heart of our purpose. To be a disciple is to be a committed lifelong learner, a disciple of Jesus Christ.
We pondered the following questions as part of the Family Faith Forum:
- How might parishes implement this new policy?
- How will we bring the principles and ideas of the new policy to life?
- What can we do to make the dream of a family-centred, parish-based and school-supported program a reality?
To explore our response to these questions we were privileged to have a number of parish Sacramental Programs presented to us. These programs operate in some very large parishes/regions with a number of Mass Centres as well as in the ‘normal’ smaller parish settings. Those who presented their story and processes were clearly very committed to the families who bring their children for these sacraments. It was apparent to me that there are many wonderfully generous people in our parishes who are responding to their vocation to be missionary disciples. Our families and their children are in God’s hands with these disciples.
We also were provided with the profile of what families, parishes and schools look like in our diocese in a presentation given by Dr Ruth Powell, the National Church Life Survey (NCLS) Director. She provided us with a depth of information, including that more than half of our catholic children attend State Schools. And in a presentation given by Loretta Heffernan, one of our Children’s Ministry Regional Co-ordinators, we were informed that we are presently attending only about one-third of these schools in our diocese. That means that many of our catholic children are not even hearing about Jesus.
I know God, through us, is calling people to be missionary disciples in our parishes in the areas of Special Religious Education (SRE) and Sacramental Programs, but the response is very poor. The harvest is rich but the labourers are few. (Luke 10:2)
On this Pentecost weekend/week I pray that the Holy Spirit will stir up the hearts of all believers to proclaim the Word to our children and their families. Like the first disciples there is fear and a plea of ‘please don’t ask/choose me’. But in a world in which people seem to becoming increasingly concerned about the ‘lostness’ of the younger people, I implore people to be courageous to take up the challenge of nourishing this deep human searching and yearning. We know faith is caught not taught and it is from credible witnesses that the Word of God is made real.
I finished the weekend by exploring with the participants the imagery of doors. I was conscious of the use of this term over the couple of days and it fitted with an image that had come to me in my breaking open the scriptures with Fr Richard Shortall SJ in the Retreat in Everyday Life last year. And so I thought I would share this with you.
I asked the following questions:
- What sort of door are you?
- What are the doors like in your family?
- What are the doors like in your school?
- What are the doors like in your parish?
And then I shared with then the words of Pope Francis who also seems to like the image of doors when he speaks or writes:
Who are you to shut the door of mercy for someone?
Be merciful, do not close the doors of the heart.
So we ask the Lord that all those who come to the Church find the doors open, find the doors open, open to meet this love of Jesus. We ask this grace.
There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church, everyone can be part of the community; nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason.
Both the opening and closing of the Holy Door take place with formal ceremonies to mark “the period of time set aside for men and women to sanctify their souls". (Jubilee Year of Mercy)
Do not close the doors of the Church from those who seek help.
The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door.
So our baptism calls us to holiness (to become fully human and fully alive) and into community (relationship) so that we are sent out to be missionary disciples.
This happens in the context of our parishes and so these are the places of formation. Those of us who minister/mission with Bishop Bill in the Chancery are there to support parishes. I know we are looking forward to exploring with parishes how the Sacraments of Initiation Policy – Becoming Disciples can be implemented in the local context. I know that becoming a disciple is a life-long journey and one in which we are companioned by other pilgrims. I have been nourished by the disciples who joined us over the two days of this forum. To finish with the words of Bishop Bill and Pope Francis:
Only parents can teach that faith matters, it is they who teach the heart. (Bishop Bill)
Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others. (Evangelii Gaudium, 127)