Sunday was 27 September and marked the 10th anniversary of the death of my dad, which means he has been with me for most of this day. This is also the year that he would have turned 100.
This date is also the feast day for St Vincent de Paul. My dad was a very generous contributor to the St Vincent de Paul Society both financially and, while able, as part of the local Conference, and it was as if he was called home on this special day.
Most of you would be aware that the St Vincent de Paul Society was founded in Paris in 1833 by a 20-year-old student named Frederic Ozanam. He gathered a group of like-minded individuals who wished to put their faith into action through charitable works. The group adopted the name Society of St Vincent de Paul, after the patron saint of Christian charity. Initially the Society was called the Conference of Charity.
Groups (known as Conferences) sprang up in other French parishes, and then internationally. The first Australian Conference was established in 1854.
We are called as Vincentians, to feed, clothe, house and assist our brothers and sisters who are forced onto the margins of society.
(from the vinnies.org.au website)
During this COVID-19 pandemic, we are certainly facing uncertain times and I sense that those people and organisations who reach out to those in need will be stretched and will need our personal and financial support. I am also conscious that some of you who read this message may, for the first time, need to seek support. I hope you feel part of a community who you can approach, and with whom you can share your story.
I recall the stories that my mum would tell of my dad and his family during the depression years in Maitland. Mum’s family owned the shop opposite Maitland Hospital, serving those men who came to the nearby sale yards, so her family had food but they also worked hard to provide for their family. My dad’s family struggled during these difficult years, and at times were hungry and lacked clothing. These years, and the war years that followed, set the scene for their future lives. Working hard, providing good food for their large family, along with a Catholic education and community involvement were paramount ideals to emerge from this backdrop. These tough years formed them, and in turn, formed us.
While most young people are not present in our worshipping communities, many of them identify with the young Frederic Ozanam’s desire to make a difference to those who are marginalised and for the environment. It is my hope that they are inspired to follow in his footsteps and to join the Society, join other organisations, or to begin a new movement of responding to those in need. Our faith calls us to be missionary disciples and to follow in the steps of Jesus. I long for them to respond because of the gospel imperative to do so.
On Friday, Fr Matthew Muller and I went to the Parish Pastoral Council meeting of Myall Coast parish (Bulahdelah, Tea Gardens and Karuah). The parish is presently discerning how the parish will be led. We talked about the various models of parish leadership that are presently operating across our diocese and what might work for them. I have no doubt that we wish to be a synodal church, a church of collaborative, co-responsible leadership and yet, there is a realisation that this is not easily achieved. It requires many people to give generously of their time, talent and treasure. As I sat in conversation with these wonderful people, they noted the challenge of their age, family commitments and the level of energy that is needed to organise parish life for the community.
Our struggle is realising that the historical model of parish, as we have known and experienced, is no longer. I have no doubt we are all grieving its passing and like all grief, we long for what has past because we cannot imagine a new way. I have no doubt that this is the case for both the ordained and laity. The phrase, “we are all in this together” comes to mind.
I think of Jesus and his time in journeying with the Israelites of his day, who seemed to have lost the real message of the Kingdom of God. During this liturgical year, we have been listening to Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ experiences and teachings. He seemed to turn their world on its head, because he taught and showed people the spirit of the law, as opposed to the letter of the law. Pope Francis seems to be doing the same for many in our church.
And yet the members of the Myall Coast Parish Pastoral Council seem to me to recognise that God continues to call them to give generously, in spite of their frailties and circumstances. This is the case in many parishes were people are stepping outside their comfort zones and giving things a go. They wish to re-imagine, rebuild and renew a life-giving place which people can call home.
I wonder what people see when they see all of the Christian Churches that dot our landscape. Do they just see a building or do they see and experience a community, the Body of Christ? In this time of COVID, how has your faith community impacted on the life of the local community? Do people notice and desire to belong?
Over the past five weeks I have broken open with you the work of the Synod Working Party under the diocesan five foundations:
- Identity and Community
- Worship and Prayer
- Formation and Education
- Mission and Outreach
- Leadership and Structure
And the Plenary Council is asking the question about what it means to be a Christ-centred Church that is:
- Missionary and evangelising
- Inclusive, participatory and synodal
- Prayerful and Eucharistic
- Humble, healing and merciful
- A joyful, hope-filled and servant community
- Open to conversion, renewal and reform
We have much to ponder and to pray about. Let’s keep listening to what the Spirit is saying, while listening, dialoguing and discerning to, and with, each other.
I cannot imagine a world without faith, hope and love.