Is the Catholic Church in Australia stuck in 3rd gear?

I have three children. Two of who are in their early teenage years. They have arrived at the tipping point of “dad, why do we need to go to mass?” Over the past 6 weeks I have taken them to a neighbouring parish hoping for them to gain an experience of an engaging Australian priest who would enliven their desire to go to church. I was very careful to pick from the roster a mass which this priest would attend. But despite my efforts, each time we would attend a priest from overseas presided. They were very friendly priests, but the same result. A foreign priest with a very strong ascent. We would even sit in the front row despite my kids reluctance. On driving home each time my kids would say “dad, what did he just say?” I thought to myself, this mass may well have been in Latin, as it had the same result. Disconnection and miscommunication.

The Catholic Diocese which I have grown up in now has at least 90% of priests from overseas. From countries like Africa, India, and the Philippines. These priests are very good men, but their culture is different from our own. Are we missing something? Why aren’t we selecting and forming leaders from our own Australian communities? We often talk about vocation calling young Catholics to be what God calls them to be. It would seem that my own home Catholic Diocese will only appoint celibate males who are priests. This excludes nearly the entire population. From the outside looking in this looks like a very exclusive club.

At the recent Australian Plenary Council held in October 2021 none of the formal submissions from lay people made it onto the agenda. Despite the Convocations which were well attended by thousands of lay people who wanted to open discussions regarding married men as priests and women as leaders and priests. However, from a broader view, if we look at other Christian churches, such as the Anglican Church or the Uniting Church, they are faced with similar issues. Such as declining numbers. It would seem married priests or women priests may not be the magic wand, but this does not make it less an important issue which Catholics seek. Leaders who can inspire them to more deeply enter the mystery of Christ in their lives. In all its forms. Either celibate , single or married.

If we remain the same, and hold to conservative views that say “we will not change”, are we missing something from our Catholic tradition?

If we look back through history, we can find key events which caused our church to change radically. In the third century, when Christianity became legalised, we took on many of the traditions, symbols and structures of the Roman Empire. Such as the Diocese model and the priestly garb we see at mass. These are Roman. In the 1960s Vatican II brought about changes in liturgy of the mass such as the language becoming the vernacular, the architecture which became more circular and THE music which became more in tune with contemporary Christian composers. But, in the decades which followed in the 1980s up until today the pendulum swung away from these changes to a more conservative form of church. Some conservative groups have grown in number. People have been resisting change.

Whether we like it or not, our society, and world is rapidly changing. The environment is changing. The poor are changing. We are called to listen to the “Signs of the Times” as Pope John XXIII put it. We can no longer sit on the side lines and create a community which is exclusive. Because if we do, we will disconnect from playing a part in the world around us. Our world which is crying out for Christ’s voice to be heard. For the poor. For the environment. For the young. Change is not a threat but an opportunity. We must step into culture, not simply to take on everything which secular culture offers, but rather ask a deeper question. Where is Christ? How is God mysteriously woven in the hidden moments of the day.

When my car gets stuck in third gear, it makes a big loud noise, and you cannot drive properly. Hopefully not crash. We need to change gear. It is not about throwing everything out, but rather, forming deep listening which considers what exists outside of our frame of reference.

Church cannot be what it was. A structure which never changes. But a church that seeks to embrace all gears. We must all work together with the help of flexibility, greater inclusiveness and greater simplicity. These values can help the gears change when it is needed. Church is not just focused on where it has been but rather where it is becoming. That is the people of God.

For my kids. I will try and engage them at church. But at this time church is failing them. Not inspiring them. Not communicating well at a level which they can understand. I think we need to rediscover the notion of what it means to be church. Such as during the lockdown last year my wife started to take my kids to the skate park to learn how to skate board. Here are groups of teenagers. Dealing with issues. Helping each other. Having a laugh. Calling friends. Celebrating birthdays. Strange we don’t call this church or. Or maybe God is intrinsically hidden in the people at the skate park and we don’t know it.

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11 December 2021

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Think Global

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Marist Laity Australia

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