Media and Communications Office
As part of the Hearing Healing Hope three-day conference in Melbourne last week, one of the most significant challenges Catholic Social Services Victoria (CCSV) wanted to explore was concerned with parishes.
The conference brought together Catholic social service agencies from all over Australia. It focussed on the Church’s delivery of social services, looking at the implications for us as individuals, for our Church organisations and for our Catholic sector, parishes in particular.
Dr Bob Dixon hosted the workshop ‘Love thy neighbour: The challenge for parishes’, which looked at the ways parishes contribute to Catholic social action.
Dr Bob Dixon has recently retired from his position as Pastoral Research Officer of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), having devoted himself to research into such topics as the reasons why Catholics have stopped going to Mass, statistics around Catholic vocations and religious orders, Mass attendance and, significantly, parish life.
Dr Bob reported that outreach in parishes is not particularly well supported. Only one in five, for example, are involved in any kind of parish activity at all, apart from their basic Mass attendance. The ACBC’s Pastoral Research Office, in response, has investigated the characteristics of successful parishes, and come up with eight ‘measures of vitality’, as Dr Bob described them. Along with such qualities as leadership, planning, hospitality, community and more, the most important is outreach.
A number of successful parishes from around Australia were held up as examples of significant and successful outreach.
A project called ‘Mum’s Cottage’ in Launceston was held up as a prime example of a successful initiative to mothers, offering them the support of other mothers and parish support staff in creating a ‘cottage’ for them to come to for assistance and fellowship. Another parish, in Mt Isa, has created ‘Blessing Packs’ to welcome newcomers, and for support in bereavement, first communions, baptisms, separations and family violence.
Parish food banks, bread runs and soup kitchens are operating successfully in many parishes around Australia. Other local community outreach includes a parish in New South Wales that hand delivers a newsletter twice a year to every single house in the parish, Catholic or otherwise.
By contrast, in general discussion among the workshop group of priests, parish associates and other agency officials, it emerged that lack of involvement at parish level was attributed, in part, to the fatigue of an ageing population. As one attendee stated, to general agreement, ‘We love our parishes, but we’re actually tired of helping. We’ve done it all. It’s time for others to step up.’
Another person mirrored the concern, ‘What we do is essential but the fact is that people are now working much longer, many more years, which takes away their free time, and the other reality is that those who do no longer work and who might be available, are looking after their grandchildren every day!’
‘And we’ve also got the issue,’ said another, ‘that those parents leaving primary school are often leaving the parish. We don’t have them for long enough!’
One parish held up as a shining example of successful outreach and activities was the Melbourne parish of Montmorency, whose priest Fr Terry Kean was introduced to the workshop. Fr Terry reported that about 400 people attend Mass at his parish each weekend. Although he acknowledged the problems around ageing in the Catholic parish community, he focused on the positive initiatives flowing from his parish. One of the most successful of those is the Philippines social outreach. To date, at least 13 parish groups from Montmorency have visited the Philippines and donated pigs, goats, electric lighting, water resources, food and medical support.
Over the last eight years a volunteer group from Montmorency has also regularly visited Sacred Heart Mission in St Kilda. The outreach started as a once-a-month visit, but now has over 100 volunteers from the parish who roster themselves on every single Sunday.
The parish’s Asylum Seeker Support Group funnels $300–$400 of food every week through its resource centre and every year they donate coats to the needy in winter.
Fr Terry paid tribute to the parish Social Justice Group, which coordinates these activities. ‘They’re all volunteers,’ he stated. ‘It’s a completely voluntary mission.’
Dr Bob Dixon concluded by introducing to the workshop another guest speaker, Bernadette Dennis from St Joseph’s Outreach Services in South Yarra. A lay person and long-time volunteer, Bernadette spoke of the work being done in what was once St Joseph’s Primary School. The school has been converted into a vital transitional housing centre, providing furnished, self-contained accommodation to people transitioning back into the community from backgrounds of drug abuse, mental health issues, homelessness and unemployment.
Bernadette echoed the workshop’s general concerns around funding, volunteering and marketing, but went on to outline fundraising activities such as film nights, an appeal weekend, an annual high tea as ways of keeping their message (and their needs) in front of their sponsors and benefactors.
One powerful piece of advice Bernadette gave the meeting was the importance on looking beyond short-term solutions. ‘Make sure it’s going to be sustainable, whatever you do,’ she urged.
The consensus of the general discussion was that many parishes serve as healthy models for other parishes seeking greater involvement from their communities. As Denis Fitzgerald, CCSV Executive Director said, ‘There are many cross-connections between parishes, and there is also a magnificent opportunity for parishes to partner with the Church’s agencies. We work closely and are happy to work even more closely with parishes. We continuously strive for vigorous relationships with every parish, building friendships and collaboration. We look to continuously deepen and broaden the work of the Church in reaching out to vulnerable and marginalised members of the community.’