Making our parish mission possible: Melbourne clergy conference 2017

Thursday 8 June 2017

Media and Communications Office
‘The parish is not an outdated institution,’ writes Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, ‘precisely because it possesses great flexibility. It can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and community.’ The Melbourne Clergy Conference explored that flexibility with the theme: The Parish—Our Mission. Held at Peppers The Sands Resort in Torquay, the three-day conference started on Tuesday 6 June.

Every church and diocese struggles with its own issues. But the central problem clergy grappled with over the four days was this: How can we move parishes from a routine of maintenance towards embracing the mission of making disciples? And how do we effect that shift?

The week’s presenter was Daniel Ang, Director of the Office for Evangelisation in the Catholic Archdiocese of Broken Bay, NSW. What he learnt was the number of people receiving the sacraments in Mass each week shouldn’t be a primary concern. ‘The attendance of Mass doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has a personal relationship with Jesus’ Ang tells Melbourne Catholic. ‘Our call is to make disciples. Unfortunately today we tend to assume that receiving the sacraments will take care of that. But the church teaches that evangelisation, conversion and faith have to come first.’

The floor-to-ceiling windows of the resort conference room overlooked the golf course fairway, across sand traps to sand dunes to the south. 

During each session, around 120 clergy—with barely a clerical collar in sight—listened to Ang share before scheduled times of discussion and deliberation.
Ang argues that to nurture a culture of personal discipleship in a vibrant parish is all about collaboration: to emphasise the common mission above the insular concerns of our respective group. That means embracing diverse groups and putting people over procedure.
Daniel Ang shared his own story on Tuesday. ‘I came from a Buddhist and Taoist family, with no background in the Catholic faith,’ Ang says. ‘I became a convert at the age of 20.’ He makes a convincing case that for many people, Christian living is becoming more ‘intentional’, and not just a result of a custom or family tradition. ‘For us to be Christians today means we choose to live in a particular way.’ Dealing with Christianity as a choice, not a custom, requires a deliberate attempt to make disciples.  
The life, the focus and the teachings of Pope Francis loomed large over the Wednesday sessions. ‘In the life of the church, Pope Francis emphasises the primacy of mission,’ Ang says, saying the pontiff has swept aside politics, culture wars, divisions between traditions and faith. ‘He doesn’t dismiss diversity, but they don’t become the defining platform of the church living out the gospel.’ The Pope’s aim is clear: to lovingly rally the church around the central mission of making disciples.
For Ang, one need to look no further for a perfect model of evangelisation than St Paul, the premiere evangelist after Jesus. ‘He desires the good of the person he’s speaking to, and uses examples relevant to their life situation. And through patient accompaniment, leads them to a life with Jesus. That gradual approach is what Pope Francis is putting before us as a church,’ Ang says.  
In a warming addition to the proceedings on Wednesday afternoon was the moment the room was upstanding to sing the first verse of Advance Australia Fair to welcome the three clergy members who had just become naturalised citizens.
Throughout the conference, Ang demonstrated an encyclopaedic knowledge of church history. And ultimately a message of hope was held up to the parish, the priests and the church at large. ‘The church has enormous capacity for renewal.’
Each day, clergy have celebrated the Eucharist, presided over by Archbishop Hart, Bishop Mark Edwards, and Bishop Terry Curtin respectively. The conference concludes today with a morning Eucharist, prayer, and a final session on practical steps to nurture renewal and growth in parishes. All to ensure that each—to quote Pope Francis—remained effectively a ‘community of communities, a sanctuary where there the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey.’
All images by Fr Nhan Le. 
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