The first of two gathering sessions for the Plenary Council is soon upon us. It is the first such gathering in Australia in 80 years, and distinctive because of the greater participation of lay people. We have asked various community members to share with you their thoughts on the upcoming Plenary Council, and why each of the different themes are such an important consideration for the church at this time.
Teresa McGrath shares her thoughts on structures – how might parishes better become local centres for the formation and animation of missionary disciples?
When reflecting on the structure of the parish and how it can support the formation and animation of missionary disciples, one can’t help but be reminded of Pope Francis’ vision for parishes in The Joy of the Gospel:
“The parish is the presence of the Church in a given territory, an environment for hearing God’s word, for growth in the Christian life, for dialogue, proclamation, charitable outreach, worship and celebration. In all its activities the parish encourages and trains its members to be evangelizers. It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach.” (n.28).
This question on the Plenary Council Agenda will require lateral thinking to push us beyond the comfort of what we know to explore new and fresh ways parishes might become “centres of constant missionary outreach”. What does a parish look like if “in all its activities… it encourages and trains its members to be evangelisers”? What does it feel like? Sound like?
This is an exciting time in the Church where we are being called to be open, creative and adaptive in how we “do” parish (n.28). As humans, “we learn narratively rather than didactically” (Jon Meacham). We learn best when we learn through story.
We can learn a lot from parishes that are having some success in cultivating missionary disciples in our world. This includes St Benedict Parish in Halifax (documented in Divine Renovation by James Mallon) and The Church of the Trinity (featured in Rebuilt by Michael J. White and Tom Corcoran). Our Australian culture also provides a unique context to consider. Our protestant brothers and sisters may also have wisdom to offer us from their own efforts to build faith communities filled with missionary disciples. In order learn from the success of others, we need to be humble enough to acknowledge that we don’t have all of the answers.
Pope Francis doesn’t hold back in his language in The Joy of the Gospel. He calls us all to more as he puts out the challenge: “I invite everyone to be bold and creative in the task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelisation in their respective community” (n.33). In a similar vein, he dreams of “a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything…” (n.27).
Part of my role in the Archdiocese of Brisbane is to support parishes by facilitating a strategic planning process in parishes. At the very heart of this process is the articulation of their mission and it is from this mission that the rest of the strategic plan blooms. Having witnessed this process now in multiple parishes, I’ve experienced first-hand the value of inviting all parishioners to participate in the future plan for their parish and what unleashing the untapped collective potential that exists in our parishes can do.
This is not about adding more structures to an already highly-structured institution. Structures can only be helpful if they have mission at their heart, “constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them” (The Joy of the Gospel, n.26). This is all about renewal.
In 2013, Pope Francis gently challenged us that “the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented” (The Joy of the Gospel, n.28).
Let’s pray that the experience of the Plenary Council will embody Pope Francis’ call to be bold, creative and adaptive as they seek to respond to this question.