Last Thursday evening two parishioners from each of our three parishes and I participated in a meeting facilitated by the Archdiocese of Melbourne, to invite us into a process of rethinking how our parishes might move into the future.
For many years those involved in parishes have been aware of the reality of having fewer priests, the decline in Mass attendance and of the ageing of our congregations. These changing realities need careful, reflective attention as to what they are telling us about our Church and its place in our world. The Archdiocese is asking more and more parishes to consider working in partnership in the hope that by collaborating and sharing resources we may have some hope of reinvigorating our faith communities. These parish partnerships are being imagined as missions. The word mission is a loaded term. In the past mission has been thought of as a ‘sending’ of missionaries to foreign countries in order to convert non-believers to Christianity. That was one historical and contextual meaning of the word. It has its regrets as well as its successes. We surely can’t use it that way today.
Australia has its own history with missions. A Mission was either a Church or government-run reserves to which Aboriginal peoples were often forcibly relocated. That sad history and its consequences for Aboriginal communities and their descendants are in need of ongoing healing and reconciliation.
At a local parish level, many parishioners may have memories of the ‘parish mission’ where a visiting priest would preach and teach over a period of a week or more. While some priests who ran the ‘mission’ were very talented preachers and teachers, often people felt talked at and lectured rather than being drawn more deeply into their own faith life. Over time the parish mission became less and less effective as a means of supporting faith. It now largely seems to be a thing of the past.
So is it possible to retrieve the word mission in any profitable way?
The word mission itself comes from the Latin word mittere, which means ‘to send’. Interestingly the Eucharist finishes with the words Ite missa est, which is translated into English as “Go the Mass is ended.” It could also be translated more literally as “Go, it has been sent.” But that doesn’t sound quite right in English. Surely, we can do better than ‘the Mass is ended’. The sense of the dismissal is that it is a sending of the people of God. It is a commissioning of those who have participated in and been nourished by the Eucharist to go and take Christ with them, out into the world. Should we then finish with, “Go, you have been sent,” the late John Kennedy would add “do something!” And there is a sense of the dismissal that is captured by that phrase. “Go! You have been sent, do something!” The current missal says: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” or “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” Perhaps we need to reflect on those phrases more if we are going to retrieve the word mission.
Pope Francis is keen on a missionary Church. He talks of a Church that is not self-referential or concerned with its own self-preservation. Francis talks about wanting a Church that has broken all the mirrors and stopped looking inwardly, staring at itself. He wants a Church that is outward focused, that goes to the peripheries, that is like a field hospital. His image is more about taking the gospel and the Church to people rather than a focus on getting people back to the Church. He wants to send every Christian and every Catholic out into their worlds with missionary zeal. Is that possible?
Well, that is the challenge that we have before us. We are being asked to come together in partnership and to consider how our parishes, collectively, may be able to create a space where we can form ourselves into a people with a greater outward-looking face. We already have some great starts, don’t we? Our St Vincent de Paul Societies are doing just that. Our Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is constantly receiving enquirers who are seeking to know more about the Gospel. Our teachers and catechists are constantly seeking new ways to share the faith with our young people. Our learning team is always looking for ways to reflect on and develop our faith. Our ministers to the sick who are dedicated to visiting those in aged care and hospitals each week are taking the gospel out with them. So we are not starting from scratch. But if we continue to grow our parishes focus on taking the gospel out, we might find ourselves in new and foreign places. There the gospel may bear new fruits.
The parishes of Camberwell Balwyn Deepdene and Surrey Hills Wattle Park have already done much work in collaborating and sharing resources. We are well-positioned to deepen our ‘missionary’ activity in a new way. In the coming weeks and months, we will explore further how this might take shape.
Fr Brendan Reed