I have set out below some thoughts that I have about where we find our parishes at present and also where we might go in the future. I stress that these thoughts are completely mine and should not be taken to represent the thinking of all those other parishioners who are currently involved in our leadership groups which are considering how our parishes may look like into the future.
In May 2008, Fr Frank O’Loughlin in an address to one of the parishes in the Archdiocese, spoke about significant changes occurring in the Church. The context was that “it is mostly hard to cope with major changes that occur before we are ready”.
What might the parish of the future look like, how might it function, are we ready to adapt to the changes that will occur, even if we are not really ready for them?
What is the current setting for our parishes?
We currently find our parish is functioning very differently from what we are used to, thanks to COVID-19. Will we be able to go back to what we were used to? I do not think it possible for us to endure what 2020 has thrown at us and to just wind back the clock, change will be upon us. The Archdiocese has made it clear we cannot go back to the past, hence the decision to have our parish join with Camberwell, Balwyn and Deepdene Parishes to form a much larger parish unit. The reality is that we have an ever-declining number of priests available to serve us, but also our number of parishioners has declined over the last decade(s) and the large numbers we used to have are a thing of the past and are not likely to return in the near future.
So change is already underway. Change is always challenging and raises many questions in people’s minds. The creation of a much larger parish raises questions in the near term such as:
- Will our Churches stay open?
- Will we still have Mass in our church and will the times of Mass need to be rationalised across the parishes?
- Will we have a priest who will be designated to largely look after us and with whom we can identify?
- Will we still have some autonomy over governance, finance, liturgy and so on?
You are most likely aware that we have leadership teams working across our parish communities to consider these and other issues for the future parish. These deliberations are proceeding in a collaborative, consultative manner and in a measured time frame. It is hoped that the majority of our parishioners will be open to considering the future of our parish and what role they may play in it.
A recent survey undertaken across the parishes, which was well responded to by parishioners, revealed a picture of what is important to them. Whilst things such as having Mass and the Sacraments available ranked highly, what was probably of greatest importance was the role community played in their lives. Tragically in these difficult times we have not been able to have our communities function as we would like and be there to support each other as we would like. 2020 has been a year none of us will forget in a hurry, it will leave many of our parish communities struggling in various ways. It is not just the inability to meet at our parishes as usual that has impacted us, but there are also so many non-parish things that help ground people’s lives that have not been available either, for example:
- not being able to attend Mass
- not being able to meet with family and friends
- not being able to go to movies and concerts
- not being able to dine out with family and friends
- not being able to go to funerals of people we have loved
- not being able to go to the MCG for football and to attend other sports
- not being able to take the kids to school
And the list goes on.
These disruptions to people’s lives have also come at a time when other major external forces have challenged our belief systems and left us feeling as though we are floundering. We are having one Royal Commission after the other, eg. into sexual abuse, into aged care, into financial services and so on. These all play a part in disrupting our bearings.
In the near term, our parishes, once they are open again, can play a significant role in helping us all get some of our bearings back and to look to the future with hope for a better world, to help us feel better about ourselves. This role for the parish can only happen if we, as parishioners, want to see the parish play this sort of supportive role and also a role into the future that helps make our world a better place. This depends on us; are we willing to support and help develop our parishes for the future?
What of the future beyond the immediate?
What are some of the possibilities for the future once we are functioning with some level of normalcy? We have a great opportunity to mould our parish in partnership with our clergy so that it is something we want to be involved in and help to make happen. Some possibilities for the future to consider could be:
- How do we engage with the groups in our parish? We currently have an ageing demographic. One in which women significantly outnumber males, who in many cases have disengaged with the church. Do we as a parish set out to actively encourage inclusiveness, encouraging groups who may not feel they are at home in the parish and if so, who will lead this process in the future?
- Our priests are not increasing in numbers, we will not be able to rely on “Father” to do everything for us. We most certainly have many in our community who can play various leadership roles. Are you willing to step forward and take shared responsibility for leading the parish of the future, how would you see this shared leadership responsibility working?
- Are there gaps in the apostolic work we have been doing, should we expand our horizons and if so, what might these be? We are bereft of involvement of younger persons, and not just those of school age, having an involvement in our parish life. Do we want to seek to fill this gap and what might we do to encourage this, will you support initiatives with regard to this? Can we do more to support those feeling isolated, those who are poor; there are likely to be more persons in this position post COVID-19; how do we reach out to them and make them feel welcome?
- We are financially in a sound position; we can take initiatives for the future so we do not lack financial resources to do this. The question is will our parishioners step up to undertake and lead initiatives given we have the resourcing available?
- What would we like to see change at parish, region and Archdiocese level for the next two years and then beyond? What do we think our goals should be? Will we be prepared to be participants in defining what we will need to do and then become involved to provide the pastoral leadership alongside our clergy to make these goals become a reality? How might we join with others outside of the immediate parish to help make these goals a reality?
- We are called in Baptism to build the Kingdom of God in our parish and our area. What do we think this means and what are we and our parish called to do, what should our priorities be? Will we be brave in our thinking or would we rather just be comfortable?
There are no firm answers to the above and to other questions at this stage. These and other matters are part of the agenda that the leadership teams will be seeking to place before parishioners for consideration in the coming months. In creating a much larger merged parish, the Archbishop is challenging us to be willing to take some of the responsibilities for our own futures as a parish. Will we take up this challenge? We have a great opportunity to set the pathway for the future for our parish if we work together; it may not all be plain sailing but with goodwill we will get there.
Many of you may say you have heard all this before and what are we doing about it? There is certainly some truth to this but the question also needs to be posed: “what are WE going to do about it?” We need to accept that this has to be a collaborative effort.