If I could be so humble as to quote Pope Francis to paint a picture of my role as a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Ministries team, I would say that the role encompasses a space “where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the gospel”.

Let me share some of the joy, energy and variety of my role.

Last week I participated in the Bishop’s Staff Day. Some 180 staff from CatholicCare, CSO, St Nicholas Early Education and the Chancery gathered together with representatives from Ministry Hub, a dynamic team led by Paul Skippen accompanied by vocalist/acoustic guitarist Daniel Agius, vocalist/pianist Alyssa Comito and Brisbane’s Mount Carmel ministry co-ordinator Nick.

The focus was on the Year of Mercy. The day began with a spirited presentation from our own Missionary of Mercy, Fr Richard Shortall sj. His authentic and engaging delivery of his encounter with Pope Francis made you feel like you were there. Stories from Ray Collins, Sean Scanlon, Gary Christensen and Fr Kevin Corrigan on various projects ranging from Teachers Helping Teachers, Affordable Housing and CatholicCare’s services through to Fr Kevin’s Help Miyuki project in Cambodia reflected the depth and reach of mercy within our diocese.

The day was a blend of prayer, ritual, music, song and storytelling which reinforced the mercy message of Pope Francis. One moment that particularly interested me was the film clip on people being asked to give their understanding of the word ‘mercy’. Strangely this drew a blank from many of those interviewed. But ‘mercy’ is probably a term that is replaced in our vernacular by words such as compassion, love, understanding and thoughtfulness. Whatever the term, we were reminded that we are privileged to work for the Catholic Church; to gather in order to go out.

An exciting project I am involved in is one that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) agreed on in 2015. This was to include the area of ‘Sport and Health’ within its commission structure under the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life. I was invited to be a part of the initial focus group to consider how the bishops might practically engage in this area as a Commission.

The definition of sport didn’t focus solely on competitive sport but also on recreation such as bushwalking and even rehabilitative exercise after, eg, strokes or knee replacements. It encompasses the very old and the very young.

Progress has been somewhat slow but news this week is that I have been invited to express an interest in being a part of a Working Party over the next 12 months to submit a proposal to the Commission prior to the May 2017 Plenary. The priority areas to be considered are:

  • The place of theological reflection and spirituality in Sport and Health
  • School engagement
  • Community engagement (people with disabilities, migrant, women, Aboriginal people)

I offered to go to the Rio Olympic Games purely for research in these areas but no word from the Bishops as yet!

However, in the interest of conducting findings for the Working Party, particularly in the school engagement area, I was fortunate to attend St Francis Xavier’s College three-day Year 12 retreat at Namaaroo in Lane Cove National Park. What a great experience, to witness the understanding of social justice issues these young people possess!  Whilst their lack of church attendance may be a concern to many, their grasp of contemporary matters and spirituality shines through. The student- prepared liturgies reflected a depth of understanding, solidarity and open hearts to those on the fringes of society. . It also reminded me of the 2016 Young Australians of the Year – Nick Marchesi and Lucas Patchett – who first became passionate about social justice when they were students at St Joseph’s College in Brisbane. Orange Sky Laundry is their way of making a real difference in the lives of homeless Australians.

Whilst I was at Namaroo I experienced the solitude and beauty of bushwalking. A sunrise run in cold temperatures was my prayer of thanks for the energy that I have been blessed with. I later joined my small group on a walk and to hear them marvel at God’s creation filled me with hope that our youth will practise their faith in ways pertinent to their generation.

I am also amazed at the range of faith-filled activities that I come across in my area of work. I’ll share a few of my special moments. First up is the Wednesday group of ladies in MacKillop parish who gather to discuss contemporary church issues. They mostly come from a generation that was ‘seen but not heard’ in the church. For me, to listen to their wisdom and understanding not only garnishes respect but reinforces that it truly is the people who are the church. Last week they discussed confession with reference to a Q & A book about Pope Francis, In the Name of Mercy. This group gets what it’s all about. In ta further display of stewardship, they gather as a craft group and the time and talents they display enable them to sell their wares to support programs within the church. 

As it’s confirmation time in many parishes, it’s also a timely reminder that whilst the family is the first faith educator of the child, the parish community has a role to play in welcoming the children and their families to be full members of the faith community. I’ve attended some great liturgies and whilst some may be critical of the ‘white dress syndrome’, I suggest it reflects the level of respect the kids have for this special moment in their lives and keeps a tradition alive (providing the lid is kept on the cost of the outfit and the true meaning of the occasion is not lost). Quick story: last week I was walking with a Year 4 class to the parish Mass; many of the class members were confirmation candidates. The conversation reflected the excitement they were feeling on receiving the sacraments. I listened intently but then they asked me, “Can you remember your confirmation and what did you wear?” I vividly recall that day. I was at St Laurence’s Church in Broadmeadow and my brother received the sacrament with me. Rick’s sponsor was Les Johns, our cousin and Australian rugby league player.  Naturally Les was a hit with the parishioners but so too was this defining moment in our lifetime’s faith journey. Let’s celebrate new members in our faith community and agree that they are the hope for the church of the future. Let’s meet the families where they ‘are at’ as practising our faith manifests itself in many ways at any time.

Finally (so I don’t exhaust the reader) I attended the ordination to priesthood of Camillus Chinenye Nwahia at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Camillus is a great presence in the schools in the East Lakes region and the students of St Pius X Windale attended this special ceremony in full school uniform to support him in his new ministry. This was a true celebration as parishioners from across the diocese joined with members of the Nigerian community to welcome Camillus to his new life.

Whatever path you take as a contributor to our diocese or whatever activities you undertake on your faith trip, you are never alone. We are all a part of the Circle of Mercy.

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Helene O'Neill Image
Helene O'Neill

Helene O'Neill is the Parish-Family Liaison Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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