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Addresses and Statements

Clergy Conference, Le Montage, Lilyfield, 2021 Priorities

23 Mar 2021

Le Montage, Lilyfield

Welcome to our first Clergy Conference of 2021. It’s always a joy to be with you, but after a year of pandemic, lockdown and virtual conferences, it’s all the more so.

Today’s conference will largely focus on our Archdiocesan Mission Plan, Go Make Disciples, which was formally launched late last year, and will be brought to deaneries and parishes throughout this year. It brings to completion the Parish2020 process of consultation, discernment and planning regarding parish renewal and consequential restructuring; and, after a Year of Pandemic and lockdowns, it has become our recovery plan as well. Without being too grandiose about ourselves, I think it opens a new Go Make Disciples chapter for the Archdiocese and it will be good today to think about what that might look like going forward.

I am grateful, therefore, that Daniel Ang and Elizabeth Arblaster will lead our reflections on the foundations of GMD – not to be confused with WMD – including the real challenges and opportunities of parish life today, and early thoughts on applying our spiritual, human, physical and financial resources to bring about this renewal. But before we dive into our main sessions, a few thoughts on priorities for the year ahead.

Go Make Disciples

On the matter of the mission plan, I would like to express my appreciation to all the contributors: the committees chaired by Bishop Terry and Fr Gerry, the pastoral planners Tony Farley and Daniel Ang, the SCE, parish support, chancery, archdiocesan finance and other teams that helped with information and direction. The Councils of Priests and of Deans, the Consultors and Vicars all provided input. Above all, our deaneries and parishes – which means our clergy and people – took part in the consultations that fed the plan and are already providing their feedback. In the end, the success or failure of a mission plan depends largely on whether pastors embrace, unpack and enact it along with their collaborators locally. HQ will continue to provide leadership and support, but in the end parish renewal is a matter for parishes and chaplaincies themselves.

Not everyone will like every aspect of the plan so far or going forward. There are judgment calls here – for example about parish collaborations, twinnings and amalgamations (three very different realities) – and about where, when and how these should occur. Of the many options in the plan some will appeal more than others depending on temperament and experience. Some clergy have already communicated excitement, others curiosity, still others exhaustion or indifference. Some will warm to the mission plan when it kicks some goals for us. For those with questions, today’s a good start.

But be in no doubt that we need such a plan. Our parishes have many strengths but face many challenges. Some are limping, through no fault of the faithful few. Reception of some sacraments is in free-fall – Matrimony and Confession most dramatically – and reception of the others is likely to follow suit after a time-lag. In many places congregations are shrinking and ageing, so is the parish ‘workforce’. Some struggle even to support a priest financially, let alone a second were one available, and to pay the staff needed. Others lack volunteers for ministries they’d like to start or enlarge. Some are demoralised, exhausted, lacking in courage or imagination for new pastoral adventures. Others are parked comfortably in maintenance mode. Along comes the pandemic and trends are accelerated. We all need a shot in the arm, not just of vaccine but of pastoral vitamins – Vitamins C1, C2 and C3, conviction, confidence and creativity, D1 and D2 for discipleship and development, and E for energy.

None of us has all the answers, but we hear the Great Commission and know we have to do something in the face of unremitting secularisation, sporadic hostility, damaged credibility, rival sources of meaning, effects of the pandemic and more. Go Make Disciples offers some ways forward. And I note three big differences with this mission plan: one, its sheer practicality, offering not just motherhood statements about an idealised parish, but facts about each parish and practical strategies. Secondly, the sheer range and depth of practical ideas in this plan has few parallels, and reflects the size, gifts and opportunities that make so much more possible for the Church of Sydney than for many dioceses. Thirdly, this plan does not put all the burden of implementation on the shoulders of priests alone: we have a very able team at the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation focussed wholeheartedly on backing you up and bringing existing and new parishioners on board, and a big range of resources in the plan.

10-Point Plan

If we are to make the most of this, we need to be at our best as men, Christians and pastors. So we continue to roll out our 10-Point Plan for Clergy Wellbeing, and in this respect I’m very pleased about our third session this afternoon. Dr Robbie Lloyd has spent much of the past 30 years working in community mental health. He has a professional but also a very personal, family experience of depression, anxiety, trauma and addiction. He’ll focus today on supporting clergy in caring for their own mental health and wellbeing, so they not only serve God and people best, but actually enjoy it and thrive as men. The Australian Bishops’ latest social justice statement as well as various national reports on mental health, back this up as one of the foci strong in our 10 Point Plan. I’m very much looking forward to Dr Lloyd’s talk!

Plenary Council

Finally, at the end of January I commissioned the Sydney-based delegates to the Plenary Council. Many of them go as of right under church law (bishops, vicars, rectors). Others are appointed by religious institutes, education, health or welfare groups, and are domiciled in Sydney. Some came through our nominations process, in accord with the numbers allowed under Canon Law and dispensation. They’ve already made a day’s retreat together and are digesting the submissions, discernment and writing group papers and Instrumentum Laboris. It’s available online and alongside GMD might generate some fruitful discussion locally. Bishop Terry and Sandy Lynch continue to co-chair our local preparations.

The first session of the Council will be in October by in-person and online modes. Please keep praying with your people that we will truly hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church at this time so that the Plenary Council helps us advance the kingdom of God. But for now: God bless our time together today!

Archbishop’s Closing Comments

Clergy Conference,  Le Montage, Lilyfield

Recently I was delighted to meet Sr Paul Michael (now Judy) Ellis RSJ, my kindergarten teacher at St Terese Lakemba. She reminded me that there were 70 kids in that class, that she was a young nun with as yet no professional training or experience as a teacher, and that the class were almost entirely working class “blue-eyes”. A decade or so later the class would have been largely Vietnamese. A decade or so after that, of Middle Eastern background more than others. It’s a good example of the rapid social change that Daniel spoke about this morning and that is part of the backdrop to our parish renewal.

In an address to the Sydney Catholic Business Network about Catholics after COVID – a subject I’ll address in an upcoming Zoom conference – I explained that amongst the negative impacts of the pandemic and restrictions were a loss of about $15M in parishes and centrally, only partly offset by government support; and the acceleration of some trends of non-participation and non-sacramentalisation. But I also noted some causes for optimism.

At St Mary’s Cathedral we’ve returned to around 50% of customary Mass numbers, which is pretty good considering the 2m2 rule still applies, there are other discouragements (e.g. around singing), and the absence of tourists in the CBD (who are usually good attenders). On the first Sunday of Lent well over 100 catechumens seeking Baptism and many more already-Christians seeking full communion presented themselves for the Rite of Election, determined to become Catholic Christians despite a year of disrupted formation. Many parishes reported higher Ash Wednesday numbers also. And as Daniel mentioned today there was a very high uptake of our Lenten programme.

Studies around the world have concluded that religiosity has risen during the pandemic. The Pew Research Center found far more Australians think their faith has strengthened during the pandemic, than think it has weakened. Social researcher Mark McCrindle and team report that 41% of Australians have been thinking about God more under COVID, 35% praying more and 25% reading the Bible more. A whopping half (47%) have been thinking more about their mortality and the meaning of life. Churchgoers have upped their volunteering and nearly half have invited others to participate in church online. If the pandemic has accelerated pre-existing declines in affiliation and practice, it may also have worked in the opposite direction, magnifying the spiritual hunger of those disenchanted with the promise of happiness through affluence, or suffering family breakdown, poor mental health and/or rising loneliness. All of which suggests Sydney and Australia are ripe for evangelisation!

Go Make Disciples, the 10 Point Plan for Clergy Well-Being and the Plenary Council for Australia are all responses to these challenges and will hopefully point in new directions and release new energies for Church life, especially in family and parish renewal, evangelisation of the culture, and outreach to the needy. I thank you all for your sharing today of what you think are our biggest challenges and potential ways to draw people closer to God. Likewise I thank Daniel, Elizabeth and Team for their contribution today regarding GMD, and especially their thoughts on how we might encourage our lay people in their relationship to Christ, offer them apprenticeship in discipleship, inform them about the current realities of parish life, catalyse greater engagement, ministry and contribution, and make needed structural renewal. It was great to hear from particular priests about how the five foundations of evangelisation, leadership, community, formation and worship have played out in their pastoral realities and steps they’ve successfully taken in their ministry.

We are thankful to Dr Lloyd for addressing chronic sorrow, trauma, escape behaviours, hermit lifestyles and addictions, amongst ourselves, our families and our people, and the importance of seeking help when we need it or referring others to help. He called us to increase our mental health awareness, assistance and advocacy, to revitalise spirituality and community with a sense of mystery and wonder, and to rebuild from a place of vulnerability. This year as part of the roll-out of our 10PP we will seek to formalise our understandings and processes around Psychological Counselling,differentiating counselling from pastoral supervision, spiritual direction and individual mentoring, as well as recognising overlaps, and developing a list of recommended Counsellors.

Our 10PP4CWB focuses not only on psychological counselling, but also continuing formation, spiritual direction, pastoral supervision, periodic appraisal, individual mentoring, physical sabbaticals, intercultural induction, supportive oversight and responsible selfcare. We intend considerable progress in 2021, but for time’s sake I’ll detail those in the Ad clerum rather than here.

  • [To beef up our Continuing Formation, with 3 in-person conferences, 3 Zoom encounters with the Archbishop, 3 Ongoing Formation Zooms, continuing offerings from CIS, our Catholic universities and St Luke’s Institute, preparing for next year’s live-in conference, and developing a transition-to-retirement programme
  • To support Spiritual Direction by clarifying credentialling, assessing current uptake and needs, and maintaining a list of approved SDs
  • To continue the roll-out of Pastoral Supervision by building on our October Clergy Conference, signing more men up for PS, assessing currently unfulfilled need, expanding our supervisors’ list, developing culture specific supervision, maintaining a database of those with faculties, WWCCs and PS in the archdiocese, and further developing our policy on costing
  • To progress our agenda regarding Periodic Appraisal by working with adjoining dioceses on two forms of appraisal going forward: an annual ‘tick and flick’ self-examination and an in-depth process of 360 review, to apply especially at times of transition or renewal of appointment, educating clergy on appraisal and upskilling colleagues to assist
  • To formalise our processes for Individual Mentoring of seminarians in parishes, new clergy, new-to-the-Archdiocese clergy and others, by establishing working definitions, parameters and expectations, and identifying and forming appropriate clergy mentors
  • Likewise to formalise our understandings and processes around Psychological Counselling by recognising overlaps and differentiating counselling from PS, SD and IM and developing a list of Archdiocese-recommended Counsellors
  • To promote Physical Sabbaticals by gathering data and experiences, advertising opportunities and tapping on the shoulder clergy eligible for sabbatical
  • To ensure Intercultural Induction through planning by archdiocesan and interdiocesan working parties and settling a programme for implementation by the end of this year
  • To continue Supportive Oversight through Zoom encounters, catch-up conferences, twilight gatherings, parish visitations, contact with deans, regional bishops and episcopal vicars
  • To promote Responsible Self-Care through personal interest groups, special offers for clergy (re: food, gyms, health checks etc.), regular communication regarding self-care information and courses, and by maintaining and enriching our Sydney Clergy App.]

As an umbrella for these matters, I commend to your attention the Pope’s Letter, Patris Corde, on St Joseph which I have hard copies of for all of you today. Its thoughts on what it is to have a father’s heart are particularly apposite for us clergy. It’s an opportunity to encourage devotion to St Joseph as Patron of the Church, of fathers, and of the unborn, of immigrants, workers, and a happy death, as a model of chastity, a spouse and a family guardian. At a time when our society is concerned about “toxic masculinity” but offers little more than re-education camps on consent, St Joseph might be a good jumping off point for some deeper reflection. As spiritual husbands and fathers, the clergy of Jesus Christ have many challenges today but also some great models, personal gifts, great collaborators and a promise of divine grace. God bless you my brothers!