A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert.”

These words come from our First Reading for the Second Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11) which are then repeated in the opening of Mark’s Gospel (1:1-8). They herald the coming of John the Baptist, called, like us, to prepare the way of the Lord. Our wilderness may not be in the desert, and we may not live on locusts and wild honey or wear camel-skin, but we are certainly called.

This brings me to share with you the week that has just passed in which I experienced many aspects of where our diocesan community is presenting God’s mission to the world.

On Thursday we had a Bishop’s Staff Day for the staff of the Diocesan Curia. I hear some of you ask; “What is the Curia?”

The Diocesan Curia consists of those institutions and persons that assist the bishop in governance (c. 469). Additionally in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, the Curia also assists in providing services and pastoral care that parishes are no longer able to provide. Thus, the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle Curia includes:

Diocesan Offices – Bishops Office, Office of Safeguarding, Pastoral Ministries and CEO Office.

Diocesan Agencies – CatholicCare Social Services Hunter-Manning, Catholic Schools Office, St Nicholas Early Education, Hunter Community Housing, Catholic Community Fund, and Diocesan Shared Services.

So, on Thursday, we had over 300 people registered to come together around Bishop Michael Kennedy to reflect upon:

Coming Together Around Our Mission.

Our diocesan vision: To live the joy of the Gospel and share it with the world.

Our diocesan mission: We are committed to serving all in the community so that they may experience life to the fullest.

There are seven areas in our Strategic Direction with associated aspirational statements.

  1. Mission & Culture – Live out God’s mission within our diocese to build the Kingdom of God.
  2. Leadership – Build servant and synodal models of leadership.
  3. Innovation & Sustainability – Embed an adaptable and resilient operating model to support our strategic directions.
  4. Community & Partnerships – Create a community of connected and engaged people where all can thrive.
  5. Formation & Education – Inspire growth and development through education.
  6. Safeguarding & Wellbeing – Uphold the dignity of all people and their right to safety and respect.
  7. Governance – Strive for excellence in all our undertakings.

The staff from the various Offices and Agencies provided a day of information to each other so that there was a growth in our understanding of the different aspects of diocesan life, in fulfilling our vision, mission and aspirations.

The key purposes for Bishop’s Staff Day are:

  • Introduction
  • Information
  • Inspiration

These elements were achieved as people gathered initially for Mass and then in the Southern Cross Hall at mixed table groupings for conversations. You may be surprised to learn that the diocese employs over 5000 staff, with the majority working in our 58 schools. The key role of our all staff is to serve the community. This certainly was the message we heard on Thursday, along with the way in which we attempt to do this collectively. We are God’s eyes, ears, mouth, hands, feet and heart.

Some of you may be pondering what this might have to do with parish life. Well, all our Agencies exist in parishes and therefore serve the parish and wider community while the Offices are there to support our parishes and wider communities.

A good example of this is the Ecumenical and Interfaith Service for Peace which is being held on Tuesday evening 12 December at the Cathedral. The idea for this service had its origins in the Ecumenical and Interfaith Council and this proposal was supported by Bishop Michael. The Pastoral Ministries staff then went to work to ensure the many faith leaders were contacted and involved in the prayer service. Our Communications Team worked with Pastoral Ministries to spread the word and invite the whole community to gather in prayer and in silence, along with a ritual action.

Another powerful event for me during the week was the finishing ritual for those who participated in the Pastoral Placement Program for 2023. Their presentations about their year and their growth in faith were inspirational. One of the participants spoke about the harvest being rich but with few labourers, from Matthew 9:35-38, and there being a “tsunami of need” within our local communities. They spoke of the year as being one of conversion and change, in which they experienced their call to be missionary disciples with an open heart. The beauty of the Pastoral Placement Program is that it is relational, and relies upon the participants forming relationships with each other, with the Pastoral Ministries staff and the communities in which they have experienced ministry. There were many “F’s” mentioned – faith, food, family, friendship, fellowship and fun. They saw the church as a “beacon of hope” in which they have found a calling to commitment and authentic witness, and a place to call home.

I was also privileged to sit with those who have applied for next year’s Pastoral Placement Program. While the numbers who apply are small, they are certainly impressive individuals who are keen to be part of this formation program.

Another aspect of the week in which people are trying to “make straight a highway for our God” was in the Annual General Meeting for the NSW Community Alliance. This relatively new entity is a combination of both the Sydney Alliance and the Hunter Community Alliance. Both alliances consist of a diverse coalition of community organisations, religious organisations and unions in order to:

  1. Increase and strengthen the leadership capacity of their members, their leaders and staff.
  2. Deepen relationships across civil society by strengthening the relationships between partner organisations.
  3. Act for the ‘common good’.

In the Hunter, we have been working towards our Founding which will take place on Wednesday 10 April at the Great Hall at the University of Newcastle. Please save the date. I would love every parish community to have representatives at this important event for the Hunter.

Our key areas of community concern are:

  • Community: regional peak body
  • Housing: For purpose real estate; more affordable and social housing; tenant-led Hamilton South
  • Climate and Transition: NSW Fund for transition; local renewable solutions pitch to feds.

There are about 25 organisations who are members of the Hunter Community Alliance (HCA). Key to our coming together for the common good is the building of trusting relationships across diverse groups to take action on key community concerns. I see this as the gospel in action.

So, while our worshipping communities may seem to be getting smaller, there is much that we as a Catholic Church are engaged in so as to build the Kingdom of God here in the Hunter.

I think these words from Mike Humphrys in the Evangelisation Brisbane Daily Reflections for the Second Sunday of Advent say what many of us may be feeling at the end of 2023:

Plagued by self-doubt and lack of tangible evidence, we can often feel that our efforts to build the kingdom of God are largely ineffective. The daily witness of parents praying for their children, the kind words spoken to cheer up those who are depressed or ill, the ongoing efforts to change unjust structures and laws, the commitment to recycling and cleaning up our environment, generous giving to support charitable causes and speaking up against racism can seem but a drop in the ocean, but, in the plan of God, each of these actions counts. As with the witness of John the Baptist, we are called ‘to act justly, love tenderly and to walk humbly with our God’ (see Micah 6:8).

As we journey towards Christmas, let’s hold onto the hope that God is with us, Emmanuel. And in the words of John the Baptist from the Gospel of Mark, “I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”

This is my last message for this year and so I wish you all a holy, safe, happy, peace-filled, and relational Christmas. Thank you for your support and for the words of encouragement during 2023.

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

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