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Praying for convergence?

  • 14 September 2022
Many years ago now, I was given a gift by dear friends. It was a hard copy edition of John O’Donohue’s Benedictus: A Book of Blessings. I was at the time unfamiliar with O’Donohue’s profoundly spiritual, Celtic-infused writings, underlined by a deep theological understanding.

Since receiving the book, and acquiring others, I have become a committed O’Donohue-phile. While I was working in the diocesan offices, the book lived in my office. Colleagues looking for some comfort or a reflection for a particular occasion would say, ‘Tracey, can I borrow that book — you know the one I mean?’

In May, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister visited Australia, not for the first time. Sr Joan is 86, and 800 people came out to hear her speak on a cold night in Sydney — at a venue with no parking! I imagine the response was similar in other cities.

This is not, however, a paean to John O’Donohue or Joan Chittister. These are just two examples of a phenomenon I have observed in recent years and which I want to call the ‘parallel Catholic church’. As people seek to engage with their beliefs and live their lives of faith more deeply, many have come to embrace a spirituality which, framed by authentic Catholic tradition, encompasses an expanded array of practices and literatures.

There is no doubt that the institutional Catholic church has lost ground in the last few decades. People in Australia who identify as Catholic dropped from 27 per cent of the population in 1996 to 20 per cent in the most recent census. We all know that traditional observance, notably participation at Mass, is declining. In 1996, the number of people at Mass in Australia on a typical weekend was around 864,000, or 18 per cent of the Catholic population. By 2016 that per cent had dropped by a third. And of course, the Mass-going population is ageing significantly, with a median age in 2016 of 63 years compared with 45–49 years just 20 years earlier.

Even without the Covid effect, any social imperative to attend Mass is long gone, secularisation is relentless and demands on people’s time are legion.

'It seems to me that over time, many previously assiduous Catholics have not so much ‘left the church’ as changed lanes. They haven’t walked too far and they’re keeping an eye on the lane beside them, hoping, perhaps, for convergence.'


But unlike the institutional Catholic church, the parallel