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Ordinary Catholics must help with reform



There are many reform movements active in the Catholic Church. Most seem to focus on changing the structures and systems of the church, on reshaping doctrinal positions and updating teachings. Organisational reform is necessary and long overdue but there is also need for a complementary movement among ordinary Catholics.

xxxxxIn recent decades, the sense of ownership that people have over their own lives has undergone a significant shift. Personal authenticity and autonomy are the order of the day. More people feel they each have unique ways of being themselves and seek forms of expression that frequently do not fit traditional moulds.

There is a historically unique process of individuation going on. Finding one’s identity and understanding one’s personal experience are core concerns. More often now we understand we have a role in and responsibility for what we are to be. The structures of communities are quite different and more varied and complex.

The relevance of community has not disappeared but it has taken a different shape. In modern Australia, community is often taken for granted and accepted as background, evidenced for instance in social media.

Parishes are important local realisations of the church but there are many Catholics who do not feel comfortable or at home with present structures and ways of operating. I regard myself as a faithful Catholic, steeped in the tradition, theologically and spiritually literate, seeking a relevant, supportive community of like-minded people. However, I do not find the weekend liturgies in our parish churches to be reflective or expressive of my understanding of Christianity; they just do not speak to my world.

In Para.14 of 'The Joy of the Gospel' Pope Francis refers to three settings for evangelisation: ordinary pastoral ministry; the baptised whose lives do not reflect the demands of the Gospel; and those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him

In the first setting, he distinguishes two groups, both of which are regarded as faithful Catholics. Those who 'take part in community worship and gather on the Lord's Day' and those 'who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways, but seldom taking part in worship'.

I find myself identifying with the second group. This reality of many Catholics of good faith who do not attend weekly liturgies needs to be addressed in any serious church renewal or reform.


"There are many Catholics who do not feel comfortable or at home with present structures and ways of operating."


Para. 87 suggests a need for action: Today, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a “mystique” of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage.’

Our core business as Catholics, following the commandment, 'Love God and love your neighbour,' is promoting personal integrity and authenticity in the search for a relationship with the ultimate source of meaning and value and creating communities of respect care, and love—personal and social evangelisation. We influence one another every day through our behaviour, lifestyles, values and expressions.

Reform movements tend to focus on structures, the organisation, how to improve performance in the ways in which the work is done at present. This still leaves the task to the organisation, to the people holding office.

Pope Francis seems to be advocating a broader approach, without devaluing current efforts. ‘All the baptised, whatever their position within the church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelisation, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelisation to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would be passive recipients.

'The new evangelisation calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptised. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelisation.’ (Para. 120)

An alternative additional approach would begin at grass roots, at ground level, like the pioneers of Liberation Theology and Basic Christian Communities. If we do not begin the process of doing the work now the way we want it done, it will not be done at all.

It would involve making connections, forming networks with people in similar circumstances who identify as Catholics but may or may not be regular church-goers. It would encourage the involvement of currently disengaged people.


Kevin Liston recently completed a Master of Theological Studies at ACU after a long career working with refugees and migrants

Topic tags: Kevin Liston. Reform, laity



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Existing comments

I find myself in the "alternative additional approach" and feel connected, challenged in my thinking, disturbed from my comfort and spiritually nurtured and yet the official Church message has been "Shape up or ship out." It is all very sad really.

Narelle | 30 July 2017  

Thank you, Kevin. I have had conversations with many people of deep faith who feel our Sunday liturgies do not speak to them, who feel excluded, alienated by structures and systems and liturgies cast according to a world which we no longer live in. They are finding their own way to nourish their spiritual hunger and their growth in understanding, and many find themselves alone in it, longing for a community engaged in that journey. They do not experience being heard by "the Church". There will be a synod held in Australia. I hope these voices will be at table, not only at the synod, but throughout this time of preparation for it.

Corrie van den Bosch | 30 July 2017  

Thanks for your thoughts here Kevin and for the challenges that flow from the article. I believe any reform must start first with each of us in our own lives especially our spiritual formation. Your third last paragraph is the key to this.At the time of our baptism we were anointed Priest,Prophet & King & later when our baptism was confirmed we were empowered & mandated to live in the world in fellowship with the Holy Spirit who now dwells within us & wants us to abide in him. Let us strive to take ownership of our Baptismal Priesthood and do what we must do to honour the wonderful presence of that Spirit within us. Let us strive to become authentic disciples of Jesus. Let us strive to get on the same page as Jesus so He can use each one of us as His instruments for the reforms He dreams of for His (our) Church. Alleluia ! Cheers & Blessings. Patrick Benefield church

Patrick Benefield | 30 July 2017  

In agreement...we must get the paradigm shifts and the faith formation to unleash the great potential of the laity to exercise coresponsibility for parish reform. Know Brid Liston ? Aengus

Aengus Kavanagh | 30 July 2017  

Hi Kevin, This is long overdue, but maybe better late than never. However keep in mind there are many disillusioned Catholics that want real change, not cosmetic makeovers. The time for makeovers has passed and the spirit is leading the church I believe in a totally new direction to the old one . Regards Wayne

Wayne McMillan | 30 July 2017  

"those 'who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways, but seldom taking part in worship'." The Pope is a nice man. But given the traditional Catholic propensity to disappear post haste after Mass instead of hanging around to chinwag like the fraternal Protestants, I fail to see how someone who feels disassociated from his parish can still not at least turn up to Mass. The sermons might raise your hackles (or maybe the visible maleness of the priest is jarring and offensive) but the Eucharist is the Eucharist, when Jesus especially comes down to feed you. Moses was a nice man, so nice he instituted the concession of divorce in his solicitousness for the 'hard necked'. The Pope is being solicitous and concessionary. To say "I don't like clericalism so I refuse to receive the Body of Christ" is an interesting logic. The same logic would impel you to quit Australia because it doesn’t treat Aborigines well. ‘You can because you can’ isn’t an ethical foundation. ‘You do because you should.’

Roy Chen Yee | 30 July 2017  

Thank you, Kevin; sage words that need to be said out loud. (Just love the illustration by Chris too, BTW!)

Richard | 30 July 2017  

Reform needs to start in the heart of each one. To deepen the knowledge and love of Christ.

Paul Monagle | 30 July 2017  

I think there is a need for intelligent and discriminating engagement of more cradle Catholics with the Church and its local manifestations. These are the core of the Church, although intelligent and theologically literate converts, of the likes of Newman and Manning, add an incredibly valuable leaven. Lump and leaven: not a bad analogy. I remember, years ago, an American Catholic priest, who was himself of Irish-American ancestry described Australian Catholics as 'living in an Irish bog'. There is indeed an authoritarian and anti-intellectual strain within Australian Catholicism which has been there from earliest times. Catholicism in this country can be a bit of a laager. I remember thinking of going to a Bible study organised by our local deanery. When I enquired about it I was told it would be run by 'a facilitator' and based on 'The Little Rock Bible Course'. Looking up the latter I thought I'd pass. We need to take on board the insights of prominent and orthodox Non-catholic biblical scholars of world class like Bishop Tom Wright. We also need to be able to take on board insights from the current Pope and others and express them in contemporary English, not a convoluted theological language. Not having a married clergy with roots in the community we miss out on a lot of the family aspect Anglicans, Orthodox and Eastern Catholics have. That is a change we really need in the Latin (Western) Rite.

Edward Fido | 30 July 2017  

As an Anglican I am in agreement with Kevin's Comments. The need to update and reform structures is only part of the challenge to make the Church relevant and accessible to increasing numbers of people.Real not token participation by the laity is essential and Bishops must be accountable for their actions. The key is healthy relationships in parish communities and listening to the disturbing spirit of God that challenges both prejudice and doctrine that shackles and binds rather than liberates the people of God .

Ray Cleary | 30 July 2017  

Dear Kevin There are few aches worse than loneliness in our liturgies. I suspect it is widespread amongst the faithful. We feel distanced from others, unsure what we can give others at our church or what others could possibly offer us. You can be lonely for who you really believe yourself to be, or who you want to be even in the midst of familiar liturgy. It is normal to want companionship, stimulation, care, affection and interaction with others during our liturgies. Many of us long to feel part of something greater than ourselves. Keep searching, Kevin. We need each other in our liturgies. It may help to share your reflections with your fellow worshippers, on the Sunday Mass readings .

Rhonda | 30 July 2017  

Thank you Kevin, Having completed a Masters in Theology myself some years ago , having some experience as a Parish Pastoral Associate, I believe for many Catholics of my generation (Baby boomers) the Church hierarchy was seen as the authority " running the show". Many of my generation ceased attending Sunday Church in the 1960's and 70's with most not returning , even when their children were attending Catholic Schools. I taught in Catholic Education from the early 80's to the early 2000's . Today, from my vantage point as an Acolyte for over three decades , I look down my Church on Sunday. I see the largest group , my generation there. I see a few younger attendees, mainly women with young children. I also see a huge gap in the younger Generations - "X" and "Y". and teenagers . I see young families attending, but only when their children are receiving First Communion or being Confirmed . That's it - we don't see them again? My last point, which I think has alienated many Catholics, was the retrograde step under Pope Benedict, of the new translation for the Mass and other Liturgies . No wonder young people are not inspired by the current Liturgy .

Gavin | 30 July 2017  

Corrie, I share your hope for the Synod. Aengus, if you are referring to the FCJ Sister in Ireland, I am her brother. Roy, just to clarify, I do not refuse to receive the Body of Christ. Kevin Liston

Kevin Liston | 30 July 2017  

Thank you for this expression of reform. As a poorly attending Catholic I recently developed a serious illness and felt prompted to reconnect. I tried hard but found the simplistic ritual of the mass with multiple mundane songs too distracting from my need to ponder and reflect. As an older person I even felt that an unaccompanied Latin Mass, as of my youth, would be preferable. I admire our PP as devoted and loving and will try reengaging with him. Sincerely PC

peter castaldi | 30 July 2017  

Thank you, Kevin, for your sound suggestions. Leadership is strong in the local parish where children are concerned which augurs well for the Church of the future.

Patricia Cebis | 30 July 2017  

I strongly agree. So many of us ordinary Catholics, the ones who still come to Mass, have actually 'survived' because they are quite comfortable with things the way they are. They are committed followers of Christ, probably more than I am myself, so I'm not criticising their individual spirituality and moral life. But that's what we are - a collection of individuals. The Celebration of Eucharist for most of us is the opportunity for an individual meeting with Jesus. The sense that 'we are the Body of Christ' seems to be dying. As long as I'm personally 'practising' I am largely unaware of how the Barque of Peter is foundering just when the need for it is growing extreme. As long as I'm personally happy with my priest and my parish, I have no problem with the Church. When and how can I learn to say 'we' instead of 'I'?

Joan Seymour | 30 July 2017  

Corrie, I also hope the Synod will embrace a broad vision. Kevin Liston

Kevin Liston | 30 July 2017  

Thanks Kevin, this is a very important article. Although I believe that there needs to be much more synodality in the Church that includes all baptised catholics, and that this is urgent, I also think that Paul`s comment gets to the heart of things.We all need more personal formation and evangelisation to recognise why we need the Mass: to take advantage of the scripture and the Eucharist to get "intimately" close to our Lord: to feel His presence, to touch Him and taste Him. I find this so exciting! Then I can truly approach my world in love. We need to be able to make Sunday Mass the most inspirational time of the week, not dull and boring! Please all read people like Fr Richard Rohr to really get the drift of this new/ancient approach.

Eugene | 30 July 2017  

Roy Chen Yee, I scrolled through the responses hoping someone would mention the Eucharist. Thank you. I'm blessed to be in a community who enjoy a chat and cuppa after Mass and then go out to love and serve the Lord in practical ways: support of refugees, volunteering for Vinnies visits, financially supporting a parish in Malawi, Making and gifting prayer shawls for those wounded in numerous ways, to name a few. Our church is a fine place to gather.

Patricia Taylor | 30 July 2017  

Kevin, your well-expressed understanding of where we find ourselves as a church crystallised some concerns I have with some seeing new evangelisation as a way to bring people back to the pews. Many who express their "deep and sincere faith in different ways, but seldom take part in worship", come the way of Palms. They offer to share their lives overseas standing in solidarity with communities and mentoring individuals who do not have the opportunity of Australians. Palms prepare those who have experienced material over-abundance to live in communion with the poor who have not had the opportunity to have life, or have it to the full. Both flourish. As Pope Francis highlights this can be a powerful process of mutual evangelisation. Seeking to bring these pilgrims back to the pews misses the point. Those who imagine that is what is needed would do better to follow them into mission. At the very least on return they need to be welcomed as prophets who can help us find a new way of being church.

Roger O'Halloran | 30 July 2017  

Profoundly sadly, it may be too late to save the proverbially sinking ship. Most have already abandoned it under the onslaught of nearly half a century of winding back the consultative processes mandated by Vatican II and never authentically implemented.

Dr Michael Furtado | 30 July 2017  

Perhaps, Roy, because everything to do with the way the Eucharist is celebrated reeks of clericalism ?

Ginger Meggs | 31 July 2017  

Unfortunately in our world "reform" seems to mean "change things to what I want"

john frawley | 31 July 2017  

Thanks for the spirit of your article, Kevin. I sense a stirring of response from people who want to make new wineskins for new wine.

Alex Nelson | 31 July 2017  

Why not fix the existing problem? our Hierarchy have a great deal to explain,re.their very poor performance over the past many years.Shielding perverts,destroying little people,for their own gratification.A clean out is necessary in some areas. N.J.K

Neville J Kelly | 31 July 2017  

Kevin, a good article, but I don't agree with all you say. I feel ashamed and humiliated by recent actions and inactions from our clergy and our Church. Yes this is our Catholic Church, or is that only when it suits the hierarchy. Women make up most of the church faithful, however they are not treated equally. I am struggling at present with my commitment to the Catholic Church, but not my faith. I am not attending mass as often as I used to and I think that is sad. There are some wonderful priests who I can connect with and who inspire my spirituality, but I have to travel to hear them. Some orders are much more progressive than others. The Church needs real change to connect with people and to make a fresh start.

Kate | 31 July 2017  

I am pleased to have read this article as it always amazes me that people who don't want to have a conversation about change, especially in the in the light of so much information, will seek the most up to date medical treatment when ill. However, they wouldn't go to a doctor who's knowledge of medicine stopped at the 12th century, so why do they insist that our religious knowledge also stops at the 12th century?

Helen O-L | 31 July 2017  

I think Michael Furtado is right: the Australian Catholic hierarchy, with one or two possible honourable exceptions, has abandoned Vatican Two like the proverbial hot potato. You can see this in the treatment of Bob Maguire, who was a committed follower of that Council, who actually put it into practice in his exceptional pastoral and social care work. Someone mentioned the appalling modern hymns used at Mass. Having been through an Anglican period I can attest that there is indeed something far, far better. I notice at Chavagnes International College - an exceptional English language boys' school in France - they mix the Latin Mass with what are traditional Anglican hymns. The result is awesome. You can watch it on YouTube. There is a sense of Holy Awe there which I hardly ever experienced in the rushed Latin Masses of my youth. We need to bring back this sense of Holy Awe at the Eucharist, which is not about 'me' but about 'us' as a Resurrected Church. This is not something we have 'lost' but something we often don't fully realise. I think the key to the 'togetherness' and 'sense of belonging' many people want is within the Eucharist which the Orthodox term 'The Medicine of Immortality'. Without the realisation of this spiritual dimension any attempt at 'reform' or 'outreach' will fail.

Edward Fido | 31 July 2017  

Kevin, thank you for bringing this topic to the fore. We Catholics, now Xtian agnostics, have been trying to do this since the 2nd Vatican Council. While there are the present hierarchical structures in the Church it does not work. Priests must be educated, fully educated, physically, emotionally, in the full history of their church and monasticism and given the tools of Biblical Criticism. Some of the Rome could be taken out of the Roman. Until there is some real change demanded by the Top of the Tree or they can really learn what listening means The Roots will wither.

Mahdi | 31 July 2017  

In my little parish church last Sunday the recessional hymn was one of Gurrumul Yunupingu's haunting songs. His music is a showpiece of a great God-given talent, a signatory to the beauty of creation that speaks of God's presence amongst us, i.e. sacramental. It lifted the congregation towards God's presence and stemmed the customary rush for the door that most recessional hymns encourage. It was an uplifting hymn of praise, not for Gurrumul, but for God's great gift. The liturgy has been ruined in the "spirit of Vatican II" along with the plethora of tragic loses like Catholic education, reverence and prayer life. Time for all the lay gurus to access the Vatican II documents on their computers and learn what Vatican II actually did say about some of these things. As I did, many will find some big surprises. If there was one great failure of the bishops of the Church it was the failure to inform their flocks of the true spirit to be found in the documents and not leave the laity in ignorance to make up their own rules regarding belief and practice. Fashions tend to produce their own varying truths but truth itself never varies although it seems to have become very unfashionable in the post Vatican II church.. Time to stop ignoring the disasters of Vatican II and embracing its true reforms as documented yet unread by the vast majority of nominal Catholics.

john frawley | 31 July 2017  

Well discerned.

Jennifer Herrick | 31 July 2017  

Dear Fellow Pilgrims, The Greek word for church used in the bible is the ekklesia meaning an assembly or church. I like to think of it as a called out people. Sometimes we miss the point if we place so much emphasis on the personal pronoun instead of the plural. In the Anglican liturgy we say "We are the body of Christ."There is an old cliché that if one is missing from the assembly then it's like a person missing a toe eg. the body is incomplete. My admonition is "get back into the assembly and change it fro within."

David | 01 August 2017  

Great article, Thankyou. Grassroots faith based communities have frequently offered a warm, sustaining and meaningful home for periods of my life. I think you are onto something.

Christina Coombe | 02 August 2017  

“Roy, just to clarify, I do not refuse to receive the Body of Christ. Kevin Liston”. Thanks, Kevin, but one of the reasons why I find it difficult to take what ‘contrarians’ or ‘dissidents’ say at face value is because they don’t seem to say things in a straightforward way. Two illustrations. Ronald Reagan is credited with saying that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him. Some mixed-sex couples have said they support marriage but feel unable to marry unless it is extended to same-sex couples. The question is whether people who have difficulties with the Church should still go to Mass and receive Holy Communion every Sunday, or may they stop doing so because, like Reagan, they should be allowed to reason that their Church has left them, or, like the mixed-sex couple, they may reason that they shouldn’t out of solidarity with those whom they regard the Church as having left. So, “I do not refuse to receive the Body of Christ” could mean that you attend and receive every Sunday or you would if only the Church would stop exiling you or those with whom you are in sympathy.

Roy Chen Yee | 03 August 2017  

I agree we all have a responsibility but a bit too much preaching to the converted! It is the labyrinthine structures of the Catholic Church that really need to forensically examine themselves in an open and honest way. We are longing for a church that realises it needs to change the way it relates to this time, this place. Genevieve

Genevieve O'Reilly | 04 August 2017  

What's stopping people from gathering around the coffee table or dinner table in their own homes and inviting neighbours and friends over to break bread and share wine and 'doing this in memory of (Jesus)?

AURELIUS | 04 August 2017  

The comments of Edward Fido and John Frawley have spoken wisely the great need for renewal in our celebration of Eucharist. Eucharist is the point where culture meets with eternity at a most personal level with emphasis on the recognition that Christ is within each person. Each reception of Eucharist should be like 'seeing for the first time' the profound connection between person and God. This experience changes a person's vision of reality and inspires hope and love on a renewed level. We need bishops who are leaders of mystery and awe rather than keepers of past practices that adhere to monotone, and tuneless hymns in liturgies.

Trish Martin | 05 August 2017  

Genevieve, in the meantime, how do we build a church that relates to this time and place?Aurelius, many people are doing this right now. Trish, thank you for your encouraging and inspiring comments. Roy, you seem to be overthinking my earlier response.

Kevin Liston | 08 August 2017  

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