Media and Communications Office
Visiting the far-flung outposts of the Melbourne Archdiocese brought us to Torquay by the sea, 22 kilometres past Geelong via the Surf Coast Highway, but without much surf in sight. Not because it wasn’t up, but because our focus today was the parish church with its strikingly remodelled centrepiece altar and spectacular overhead sculpture of a crucified but resurrecting Christ soaring above the altar.
The work of the late sculptress Pauline Clayton, it aroused considerable controversy in social media when we posted a photo of it on the day of our visit. It’s always a matter of context, we thought, because on the day, with the soaring and vaulted interior of a spectacularly renovated St Therese’s church, the proportion and the grandeur of the space seemed perfectly to match the transcendent energy of Pauline’s work. It’s all grounded anyway by a stunning and very traditional tabernacle which is strategically placed in a specially created space facing both the main body of the church and the smaller chapel immediately behind.
Father Linh Tran is parish priest here, greeting us on the day with several of the key parish lay people who consult with him and advise on key decisions. Lynette, parish secretary, is described in the introductories as the ‘linchpin’ of the parish. Brian offers the observation that his expertise is his business acumen and if we’re looking for spiritual guidance, we’d better look elsewhere! Veronica, also part of the parish advisory, works at ‘the digital frontier’, as she describes it, creating a website that she dreams of being a powerful tool for evangelising, with children’s pages, family pages, pages for the elderly, all planned. ‘It’s how we’re going to connect and serve’, she says.
Indeed, Veronica asks powerful questions, questions that reflect the mood and tone of all the conversations we are listening to today. ‘How can we be a viable, sustainable church, but in a different way? They’re not coming to Mass! The times change; the Church has to change!’
She puts it succinctly. ‘We are not the Church we all grew up in.’
Lynette agrees, reflecting on the changing demographic, with people having families much later than they used.
‘We lost a generation along the way.’
But Fr Linh is more measured. ‘We are not reckoning our success just by the number of people at Mass on a Sunday,’ he points out gently. ‘We are also living out the Gospel. We see generosity, hospitality, a sense of welcome here that extends to everybody. Without that, people won’t come anyway!’
‘Besides,’ he continues, ‘funerals and baptisms here get standing-room-only congregations. So the question of where they are on a Sunday is a question to go beyond.’
Indeed, going beyond is something Fr Linh has to do almost every day, literally. He ministers not just to Torquay, where summer and Easter Bells Beach crowds easily triple the population. A decent drive up the highway to the outskirts of Geelong, in suburban Grovedale, we find yet another of the churches in which he ministers, the Church of Nazareth.
Meanwhile, nearly 20 kilometres from Torquay in the completely opposite direction, further down the surf coast towards Lorne, is the village of Anglesea, with St Christopher’s also part of his parish ministry.
As Fr Linh, Lynette, Brian and Veronica take turns to tell us about the various challenges surrounding all three churches in the parish, we are slightly gobsmacked at the disparate ministry this humble priest is called upon to provide for, spiritually and materially, but particularly in the field of education.
Brian sets it all out in the video on this page, but the numbers are staggering. In addition to the existing schools (and there are 500 students at Torquay alone), there are already advanced plans for third and fourth schools, heading eventually towards six.
The questions facing the parish priest and his team are indeed monumental. What shape will the parish be in the future, with that burgeoning population? What is the future we are heading towards and how do we steer the ship now to make sure that it reaches that future strongly and powerfully, in one piece?
Brian makes a compelling point, as he observes, not without a wince of regret, that these days secular institutions are doing a lot of what the Church used to do. Clubs and healthcare and aged care organisations have all stepped up. Local government and even private enterprise too are serving the community in new ways. It’s tougher for the Church, in parish communities, to be as she was before. ‘Added regulations, insurance, police checks … all these things are significant hurdles these days,’ rues Brian.
‘Yes,’ says Father Linh. ‘We need to restructure the leadership model. Certainly we need to engage with Catholic education in new ways. We must strengthen and streamline our connectivity and our workload.’
He adds, ‘We can’t be doing in ten or fifteen years what we are doing now. These are all huge structures we are building and growing, and they can’t be led by volunteers!’
‘The new thinking must be professional.’